Has Texas Been Bought?

Has Texas been bought?

According to a recent study by East Texas Baptist University Associate Professor Elijah M. Brown and student Taylor Cruse, 81% of all members of the Texas House of Representatives have received financial support from the payday loan industry.

In a recent university class project I worked with students to identify the extent of the payday and auto title loan industry in Texas.  According to the Christian Life Commission, payday and auto title loans are “high cost, small-dollar loans offered to individuals without a credit check and little consideration of their ability to repay.”

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk via Compfight cc

Money Mutual, a somewhat typical payday lender, proclaims, “Get up to $1,000 as soon as tomorrow!” and then in fine print on their homepage note, “the typical representative APR range is somewhere between 261% and 1304% for a 14 day loan.”

In Texas the average payday loan is $475 and effective APR ranges from 250% to 800%.  According to a recent report from the Center for Public Policy Priorities, “Texans paid more in payday and auto title loan fees in 2013 compared to 2012 and remained in debt longer, even though they took out fewer total loans during that same time.”

Payday and auto title loans offer “no meaningful protections for borrowers,” imperil financial viability, restrict financial growth, and trap individuals in cycles of debt.  One student voiced his worry that his parents who had taken out a payday loan in his name and without his consent might jeopardize his credit and future earning potential.

Nationally:

  • There are over 22,000 payday and auto title loan locations in the United States (meaning there are more payday and auto title loan locations in the USA than there are McDonalds);
  • Payday and auto title loans generate an estimated $27 billion in loans each year;
  • The typical borrower ultimately pays $822.50 in principal and interest for a $350 loan;
  • Over 80% of payday borrowers take out more than one loan per year;
  • In Texas, a majority of borrowers are in their 20s and 30s, 59% are women many of whom are single mothers, borrowers include all major ethnic groups though there is a disproportionately high percentage of African American borrowers;
  • The majority of individuals who utilize these loans do so not for one time emergencies but to pay for recurring basic expenses such as utilities, food and housing.

Payday and auto title loans trap borrowers into cycles of debt by charging usurious and exorbitant APR and often refusing partial payments.  The following are actual APR charges self-reported by a variety of payday loan companies on their websites:

How can this be legal?

The Texas Constitution notes that in the absence of other legislation individual borrowers should not be charged more than 10% APR.  In 2005 the payday loan industry reorganized themselves into Credit Service Organizations (CSOs) which were designed in 1987 to help individuals with bad credit receive small loans from third party vendors.  An individual who visits a payday store in Texas will therefore be offered a loan from a third party vendor at less than 10% actual APR thus satisfying the legal requirement of the state.  For procuring this loan the CSO will then leverage a fee and in Texas there are no regulatory caps on these fees.  This causes the effective APR to sharply rise into the hundreds of percentage points.

Payday and auto title loans can quickly propel people into a cyclical debt bondage.  According to the Pew Charitable Trust, 41% of borrowers need a cash infusion from an outside source in order to pay off a payday loan.  In 2012, 35,000 cars or an average of 95 cars per day were repossessed in the state of Texas due to defaults on auto title loans.

Unfortunately, churches and other nonprofits are implicitly at the forefront of subsidizing this industry.  At times individual borrowers pay off their payday loans and then request and receive help from churches and other nonprofits to cover expenses such as food, rent and utility bills.

The challenge, in the words of a timely episode of Last Week Tonight by Jon Oliver, is that regulating this industry is “like playing legislative whack-a-mole.”

This is especially the case in Texas.  The Office of the Consumer Credit Commissioner is tasked with protecting consumers from predatory lending practices.  However, an El Paso Times article observed that the current individual overseeing this state agency is William J. White who is also a Vice President of Cash America, a company hit with sanctions last November for abusive practices.

The situation in Texas is perhaps even far worse than the above indicates.  Working closely with East Texas Baptist University student Taylor Cruse, public campaign donations for every member of the Texas House of Representatives was meticulously considered.  This new research revealed:

  • 81% of all members of the Texas House of Representatives have received financial support from the payday loan industry;
  • 70.9% of all Democrats and 87.4% of all Republicans have received monetary contributions from a lobbyist working on behalf of the payday or auto title loan industry;
  • 56.4% of Democrats and 81.1% of Republicans have received $1,000 or more from this industry; 18.2% of Democrats and 43.2% of Republicans have received more than $5,000 and 1.8% of Democrats and 16.8% of Republicans have received more than $10,000 in cash donations from this industry;
  • The median amount received by Democrats was $1,000 while for Republicans it was $3,250.

This is not a Democratic or Republican issue but a common good and public wellbeing issue begging the questin: has the payday and auto title loan industry bought the Texas legislative assembly?

4 - Chart on Payday ContributionsThe payday and auto title loan industry is a predatory industry running counter to sound financial principles, the common good, and multiple biblical commands.

How can churches, nonprofits and other concerned citizens respond to this situation? Perhaps the following are five beginning points:

  1. Emphasize fair living wages and fair lending practices for all;
  2. Incorporate awareness and education about the duplicity of the payday and auto title loan industry into financial stewardship initiatives;
  3. Help individuals pay off payday and auto title loans;
  4. Contact state and national representatives and, whatever their previous record, ask them from this point forward to refrain from receiving any additional financial contributions from lobbyists working on behalf of the payday and auto title loan industry;
  5. Support the work of the Christian Life Commission and other organizations working to limit the injustices perpetrated by these industries.

EMB

“Let’s Build Something Together”

The physical benefits of sports and exercise are well-documented, but at this time, especially in the state of Texas, it has become increasingly difficult for students to learn any form of moral and affective education in a traditional public school setting. In many ways, standardized testing has crushed the role that many teachers used to hold dear: that of a model of proper behavior in society.

There is simply not enough time in schools to talk about life lessons when the focus is always on “the test” rather than “the life.”

Therefore, the roles of the sports coach (whether in athletics or Physical Education settings) have become even more important, because the coach is now one of the last available sources of moral and affective education in schools (and other workplaces). In no other situation can a young person so readily learn some of life’s most basic lessons in an applied setting: losing well (dealing with life’s failures), winning well (avoiding the pitfalls of pride and complacency), using one’s personal skills to the betterment of the whole, working in close proximity to those with which you do not get along…The applications of sports’ lessons to both personal and occupational realms are infinite and universal, and helping people learn these things through sports is a noble cause for the dedication of one’s life.

Over the course of the semester I will occasionally highlight one of these ways that sports can serve as a “life lab”.

“Let’s Build Something Lego Together”

A few weeks ago I took my younger brother (25), nephews (17 and 10), and son (4) on what I told them was a Super-Secret Adventure. None of them knew where we were going until we arrived, in Dallas, for Lego KidsFest.

Per the link above, there was plenty to do, but one of the things that surprised me the most about the experience is how that all four of them, despite their great differences, used their time upon our arrival.

They spent their first 45+ minutes helping each other find parts to build different vehicles.

Lego - Working Together

Then the oldest three spent nearly a full hour building a tower to place into the Lego Nation exhibit.

Lego - Tall Tower

There is a great satisfaction that comes from working together towards a common set of goals, and when all of that creative energy goes in the same direction, the participants can achieve beyond anything that could be done individually. That’s biblical.

http://pmcdeadline2.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/minecraft__140227211000.jpg

http://pmcdeadline2.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/minecraft__140227211000.jpg

One of the most popular videogames on the planet right now is Minecraft, which relies on the idea that creating things is fun, but working together with friends to create things is even more satisfying. A quick stroll around YouTube will reveal multiple examples of collaboration to create amazing things.

Microsoft understands this and is poised to bid $2 BILLION dollars or more on the company that created the game.

“Let’s (use sports to) Build Something Life Lessons Together”

Most sports scenarios are collaborative as well; even in individual sports like tennis or golf there are potential elements for collaboration towards a team goal and working to “sharpen each other” through practice and intra-team competition.

Those that have worked to “build something together” in an intimate, like-minded physical environment have unique experiences that carry over to many real-world settings, and these experiences cannot be replicated as well in a traditional classroom environment.

Working for a business is this way. In successful companies of any size or type, the most successful results come when there is a combination of working towards a common goal and the existence of a culture that encourages intra-group competition, improvement, and innovation. You may not like everyone on your team, but you still have to cordially coexist and work together. This is exactly what it is like to be on a sports team.

Being in a marriage is this way. You must understand the unique attributes of yourself and your partner/teammate so that you can maximally reach each other’s potentials, without being a detriment to each other. You must build each other’s ego and confidence. You must make and work towards realistic goals. You must sometimes make sacrifices for the betterment of your partner/teammate and vice versa, but you do it because you want to reach those common goals. This is exactly what it is like to be on a sports team.

Raising kids is this way. The goal-setting, strategizing, setbacks, successes…it all fits.

The lessons learned through participation in sports can be applied to these and many more life settings, and so it is vital that sports coaches and Physical Education professionals tailor the experiences that they oversee to best help their students learn how to effectively “build something together”. In sports and in life, there will be successes and failures (more on that in a later blog), but there is a satisfaction that occurs from seeing through a collaboration to the end that cannot be so readily replicated anywhere else than in sports.

Lego - Proud of Hero Factory

OK, maybe Lego, too.

WW

Your MISSION, should you choose to accept it…

MISSION: Marshall

Photo Credit: szeke via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: szeke via Compfight cc

Today in Small Group communication class we were lucky enough to have Mrs. Misty Scott (wife of Glenn Scott – ETBU IT extraordinaire!) from Mission Marshall come to talk with us about some service the groups in class could participate in this semester.

I thought it was AWESOME!

She explained so much about their history and vision that I didn’t know. I’m thinking you might not know it either, so allow me to share!

Mission Marshall Facts:

  • Mission Marshall has only been operational for 2 years.
  • They partner with many other non-profits around the area like the United Churches of Marshall Food Pantry, the Faith Clinic, Habitat for Humanity, and the Red Cross.
  • One of their biblical inspirations comes from Jeremiah 29, Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon, which encourages them to make the most of the land God has sent them to inhabit.

Wow! What an inspiring woman! What an inspiring program!

She explained to us that the city of Marshall has a 25% poverty rate, and though we have many churches/organizations trying to help, there is still a lot to be done.

Mission Marshall seeks to help people along the way, create relationships with them, and show them how to help themselves, all by showing them the love that Christ has for them.

They have seemingly a million different programs, but some of the highlights are their Jobs for Life class, the Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, and a Food Pantry that even provides PRODUCE twice each month!

Photo Credit: cignoh via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: cignoh via Compfight cc

(If you’ve ever found a tomato or peach at the back of your fridge that’s even 1 day too old, you can imagine how difficult it is to collect and distribute such perishable foods!)

So besides offering more services than your average non-profit, what was so captivating about Mrs. Scott’s presentation and Mission Marshall?

Much more than just a food pantry, relationships are their number one priority. (Click to Tweet)

Photo Credit: cignoh via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: cignoh via Compfight cc

Their main purpose is to treat every individual as a person and not just someone who “needs help.” They seek to help people help themselves, and to help them realize God is there to help them too. 

Why is this such a new idea? Helping the whole person and not just their one need –  sounds like an obvious solution!

But how quick are we to zero in on one problem and fix it as fast as possible? We pat ourselves on the back for “serving,” and then just move on to the next project.

But people in this city need our help. (Click to Tweet)

Churches do a great job of feeding the hungry, at least for a time. But there is a greater need.

What about self-fulfillment? What about friendship? What about love? What about God?

Photo Credit: szeke via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: szeke via Compfight cc

What kind of poverty are we really fixing here?

I am so excited to see how the students in Small Group Communication will work to serve this city this semester! There are some great ideas already, and we have only just gotten started.

I know I am motivated to be more involved, and I hope you are too!

Saving our city and our neighbors is really a pretty selfish mission. Don’t you want to live in a nice place, with nice people?

But, thankfully, it’s also God’s mission for us.

And I know we are already making progress. We can make an impact on this mission!

After all, God does not know the word impossible.

AML

Imagio Missions: The First Ethic for Missions?

Missions is at the heart of God. (Click to Tweet)

Where then is the first biblical passage detailing an ethic for missions?

Children Holding Balloon

Photo Credit: rachel_titiriga via Compfight cc

We live in a time of diversifying missions practices, shifting priorities and timeframes, and changing personnel.  Two weeks ago the International Mission Board (IMB) elected Radical pastor David Platt as the new IMB PresidentAt 36, Platt is the youngest individual to serve the IMB in this capacity.

This announcement is in close proximity to key personnel changes at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) where on September 1 Steven Porter was slated to begin as the new Coordinator of Global Missions.  Called a “strategic and innovative former field personnel,” Porter was most recently a lecturer in missions and global Christianity at George W. Truett Theological Seminary and at age 41 is also a relatively young leader.

Though from different backgrounds, transitions at two of the leading Baptist missions organizations in the United States to next generation leadership perhaps signals renewed intentionality to embrace the changing missions dynamics of the twenty-first century.  In an increasingly urban, religiously diverse and migratory world, shifts in missionary leadership do not, however, alter a biblical missional ethic established as early as Genesis 1.

There are approximately 7 billion people living today.  Missiologists consider “unevangelized” any country in which less than 50% of anyone in that country has heard the Gospel.  By this definition, according to the World Christian Database of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, there are currently 4,402 unevangelized people groups representing 1.72 billion individuals or 24.9% of the world’s total population. (Click to Tweet)

This past week students in an ETBU missions class were challenged to ground their understanding of missions into a robust biblical framework beyond well-known passages such as Matthew 28:16-20 or Acts 1:8.  It was suggested that perhaps the first and earliest ethic for missions is found in Genesis 1:27:

So God created mankind in his own image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them (NIV).

Known more often for the theological articulation of the imagio Dei or image of God in all people, this passage has a clear missional implication.  It speaks to God’s global scope and prerogative as it asserts that all individuals are made without exception in the image of God.  To categorically state that God is the sole author of life is to also note that God intends a relationship with each individual who has received his indelible mark.  These individuals cannot be who God intended for them to fully be until they enter into a relationship with God.  To affirm the image of God is to affirm the call to missions. (Click to Tweet)

Moreover, if a Christian claims that another is made in the image of God the only ethical option available to the Christian is to then tell the individual about the God in whose image they are made.  One cannot – in good faith – proclaim to the 1.72 billion individuals living in unevangelized contexts that they are made in God’s image and then not tell them about that God and his desire to enter into a relationship with them.

World Map

Photo Credit: rogiro via Compfight cc

As Genesis 1:27 clearly evidences, even with cultural and ethnic divisions people are after all still fundamentally people.  It is easy to get swept up in the differences – different geographies, different languages, different cultures, different value systems, different skin tones – and yet even within the reality of all of these differences we are all fundamentally and undeniably people equal to each other and equal in the eyes of God.  Missions recognizes that if God created all people in his image then it is possible, indeed it is the calling of Christians to cross over these divisions and to no longer allow them to remain as barriers.

Christ-followers ought to serve in the midst of communities, build relationships in the most difficult of neighborhoods, stand with the most marginalized, vocationally live with intentionality as outposts of the kingdom, and love holistically among the 1.72 billion individuals living in unevangelized contexts for fundamentally and undeniably we believe these are places filled with those made in the image of God.  Even if some of these places are dangerous, difficult, inconvenient, or otherwise labeled as “enemies,” do we not have a responsibility to tell them the Good News about this God in whose image they are made?

It is not enough to simply affirm that all individuals are made in the imagio Dei.  There is a corresponding and compelling theological and missional implication that ought to shape the ordering of our lives.

If we believe that all individuals are made in the image of God, can our mission be anything less than helping all individuals know the God in whose image they are made?

EMB

 

Driver’s Education

Most of the people reading this blog have a driver’s license. However, it didn’t just materialize. You went through some sort of training. Perhaps you took traditional driver’s education classes; I still recall the first time I was ever put behind a wheel in the Avinger High School parking lot.

Maybe some of you might have been effective drivers without that training, but even if you cannot admit that you would have been a disaster as an untrained driver, you can certainly recognize that others would have been.

Can you imagine what roads would be like if when all kids turned 16 we just tossed them the keys, sans training, and said “go for it!”?

http://d3cnx4g7vdwmzl.cloudfront.net/Images/car-crash.jpg

http://d3cnx4g7vdwmzl.cloudfront.net/Images/car-crash.jpg

But that is what we do in Texas with our children and their health; we just “toss them the keys” and hope it works out. (Click to Tweet)

1. In Texas, health courses are not required of high school students and have not been for several years.

That means that many graduates in Texas have not had a health course of any sort since Junior High; in other words, 18-year-olds we turn loose as “adults” were likely 13 or 14 when they last got health information from their coursework, meaning that many (most? all?) health questions were answered by some combination of the internet and/or other teenagers.

2. In Texas, secondary school Physical Education courses are “required”, but not really.

Scroll down to 74.37; that is what is supposed to be done in “Public School Physical Education” in Texas.  However, beginning in 6th grade students may be exempt from regular Physical Education courses in favor of athletics participation, cheer, drill team, and marching band. This is a particular challenge to me, because this means is that the majority of students I am preparing for Texas teaching certification in All-Level (K-12) Physical Education have never actually taken a secondary Physical Education course; for that matter, neither did I! How can I emphasize the importance of teaching Physical Education when no one in the room has actually had the experience?

Now, all of those activities that give secondary Physical Education exemptions have merits, but what they do not do is cover the requirements for “Public School Physical Education” in Texas. (Do not get offended if I pick on your activity; these are examples.)

Football, marching band, and cheerleading are not “lifetime activities”; how rampant are adult tackle football leagues?

Abe Vigoda playing football (Snickers commercial) http://meetthematts.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/abe-vigoda-playing-football.jpg

Abe Vigoda playing football (Snickers commercial)
http://meetthematts.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/abe-vigoda-playing-football.jpg

To wit, every year I ask freshman that have gone back to their respective hometowns for Homecoming games to report back to me about the physical changes they have seen in teammates that aren’t playing college sports. Overwhelmingly, those teammates have gained “bad weight.” This seems to be especially true for people that had played football lineman positions. The cause is that many of those individuals never cultivated a variety of skills, having been only practicing and working out for one sport since 6th or 7th grade.

Practicing all year to be good at only basketball, volleyball, soccer, baseball, or anything does not promote students “choosing among many types of physical activity”. Being really good at one thing is great! However, being able to perform confidently in a variety of physical activity settings is not only a goal of proper Physical Education, but it has been linked to greater amounts of lifetime physical activity and better health.

I LOVE basketball, but when I broke my elbow a few years ago, I still had enough competence in other activities that I could continue to be active and healthy.

None of these possible activity exemptions for 6-12 Physical Education address the required content for “Foundations of Fitness”, which is the state’s only specifically-required high school Physical Education course. In addition to physical activity, that course is supposed to give students the prerequisite knowledge to design personalized rudimentary exercise and nutrition plans. High schoolers with exemptions do not get this information anywhere else.

“Foundations of Fitness” is essentially the high school version of the “Lifetime Fitness” course found at most colleges and universities, including ETBU. Anecdotal evidence from my colleagues that have taught Lifetime Fitness at ETBU reveals a shocking lack of health and physical activity information from the students in those courses, especially among students with high school team sports backgrounds. They simply have never seen the material before.

Now, I am not advocating eliminating high school team sports activities; those were a vital component to my personal growth in a variety of ways, and they continue to serve that same role now for countless others.

Junior Year Basketball

Junior Year Basketball
(The above picture is a reward for those that made it this far into the post.)

That said, high school team sports and other activities are not substitutes for the content that is supposed to be taught in Physical Education. (Click to Tweet)

One of my greatest responsibilities is to ensure that my potential Physical Education teachers understand how important their jobs are; done correctly, real Physical Education can change individuals, families, and entire cultures.

One day, it will be the responsibility of my students to ensure that we don’t just “toss the keys” to a generation of youth in regards to their bodies, turning them loose on the roads of life without knowing how to drive. Damage to a car can often be repaired and even if it is totaled, it can be replaced, but the damage an uneducated person can do to his or her own body can be irreparable.

- WW

The Truth is Out There

2006-08-22 - Road Trip - Day 30 - United States - New Mexico - Roswell - Alien Xing - Sign

www.CGPGrey.com

A few days ago we had an interesting discussion in my Communication Studies Research Methods class (at least I thought it was interesting!)

We were talking about epistemology: what counts as knowledge, how do we know what we know.

Photo Credit: David T Jones via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: David T Jones via Compfight cc

Some people think that observing people counts as knowing; some think that you can’t know something that isn’t measurable; others think that unless you can prove it, it’s not true.

This is a big debate in research methods of all kinds, but especially in Communication Studies. So, naturally, we talked about it in class!

But then I started asking questions of the students.

“How do you know what you know about God?” “Can you believe things have to be proven and still be a Christian?” “If you think observation is knowledge, how can you observe God?”

They had puzzled looks on their faces and took my questions as rhetorical.

The questions continued in my head.

How can I think that each individual experiences each situation uniquely if I know there is only one true God? I think there are multiple truths out there, but I certainly don’t think there are multiple gods. Is it ok if we all read the same verse but come to different understandings? Does that make someone wrong?

I’ve thought these things many times before. Especially in grad school when we were continually pushed to find our place in the Research Methods world.

What do you think counts as knowledge? What do you think counts as truth?

pray

Photo Credit: romana klee via Compfight cc

Before ETBU, I have always been part of secular schools where we DO NOT talk about God. Especially in the classroom. So I never got to really hear anyone else’s take on the issue. And I still have questions.

Is there a Christian way to research? (Click to Tweet)

Is there a satanic way?

My Research Methods students know that I am a qualitative researcher –  I am more interested in individuals’ unique experiences and perspectives than I am in finding the mean and standard deviation of an experience.

Simply put, I’d rather know what something means to you than how you feel about it on a scale of 1-7.

It’s easy to say that I’d like to know your personal faith story – because I would! And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with different ideas about different verses. As long as they’re not too different…

The place where I get stuck is reconciling these two beliefs:

1. I believe in One. True. God. And that His son came to earth to die on the cross for our sins. No question. No perspective. Just truth.

2. I believe everyone socially creates their own reality through communication and that everyone’s experience is their own truth.

Contradictory? Maybe… I don’t think so, but I can’t explain why.

Do any of you struggle with questions like these? Have you come up with any conclusions?

I come back to James 1:5 -

“If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking.”

Thoughts?
AML

Living in the Shadow of the Mosque

What causes a church to die?

One of the more celebrated churches in the book of Revelation is that of Philadelphia, a community of believers commended by Jesus as those who “kept my word and have not denied my name” and who will therefore be kept “from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world” (Rev. 3:8, 10).   Yet little today remains of the ancient church of Philadelphia. 

Church of St. John the Theologian, Philadelphia, Turkey by author

Church of St. John the Theologian, Philadelphia, Turkey by author

In fact the only historical remnants are three pillars from an 11th-century Church of St. John the Theologian and these pillars rest in the shadow of a mosque.  Standing in the ruins of this church it is possible to hear the Muslim call to prayer and observe faithful adherents quickly walking without a glance past the dead ruins of this ancient church in order to participate in a living faith beckoning them to active worship.

What caused a vibrant faith to now lie as little more than a curious tourist attraction in the shadow of a living mosque?

After all at one time the churches in Turkey were part of the leading luminaries of the Christian faith.  Much of Paul’s missionary ministry occurred in Turkey.  All seven of the first great ecumenical councils took place in Turkey.  In the Hagia Sophia and Chora Church, Istanbul is arguably home to one of the world’s greatest church buildings and some of the most spectacular mosaic art.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul by author

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul by author

 

Though rich in an historical Christian culture and ethos, according to Operation World, Turkey, a country of 75 million, is today only 0.21% Christian.

Mosaic in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul by author

Mosaic in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul by author

 

This was nowhere more evident than when I met with a local ministry leader who has only been a Christian for four years and yet is already serving as one of the pastors for his community.  For safety we met in a large and open park where we would be freer to directly discuss the realities of ministry in the shadow of the mosque.

Another believer in a different city hundreds of miles away told how families of believers were harassed by local police officers and the ongoing anxiety, fear and worry that griped some Christians.

How did this happen?

Though primarily referencing churches in North Africa and the Middle East, in his book The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia – and How it Died Philip Jenkins offers several intriguing insights.

He notes that churches in this region slowly died over a number of years in part because of:

  • Preoccupation with internal church maintenance rather than external outreach and welcome
  • Distraction caused by church conflict and division
  • Disconnection between the language utilized and priorities emphasized by the church and the broader culture and actual lived reality of the people in churches’ neighborhoods
  • Slow abandonment as more robust churches in the west became internally-focused and over time simply stopped responding to the needs of brothers and sisters who were increasingly living in the shadow of the mosque.

None of these reasons directly relate to Islam itself.  Certainly some would have chosen Islam out of specific faith rationales.  However, Jenkins rightly argues that churches themselves often bear much of the responsibility for their own decline.

There are many Christians and Muslims around the world who live in healthy contexts of mutuality.  Islam is not an inherently antagonistic religion.  However, at least in Turkey, many Christians face challenges and difficulties as they seek to minister in a land of mosques.

If churches can grow they can also die. (Click to Tweet)

This is a cautionary message worth repeating for these causative factors are all too often also present in other churches where what seems like today’s inevitable cultural strength can fade away altogether.

For the Christians of Turkey, there is far more immediacy.  All too often they continue to remain isolated from and ignored by brother and sister Christians residing elsewhere.  It would be a travesty to celebrate the ancient Christian heritage of Turkey without also considering contemporary realties.  Would you therefore:

  • Support churches in Turkey today
  • Pray for Christian believers in Turkey living in the shadow of the mosque
  • Consider the extent to which the causative factors of church death may be present in your particular community of faith?

Prayercast | Turkey from Prayercast on Vimeo.

- EMB

Themes on Memes

Without going into too technical of a definition here, a meme is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” With the advent of the internet technologies, particularly those that you can hold in your hand, ideas can spread more quickly than at any point in history. The most-recent popular example of a “viral” meme is probably the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. I even saw today that Homer Simpson took it; look for the brief Olaf the Snowman cameo.

This post, however, is not about the Ice Bucket Challenge, so save your love or vitriol for another space.

Another example of an idea or behavior spreading quickly is the Arab Spring. Literally entire sections of the world changed in a matter of days, and while revolutions have always occurred in history, internet-based technologies serve as an accelerant in the spread of ideas.

The meme as a common experience, or the meme as a cultural divider?

“An idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”…by that definition, it seems that a meme should bring a culture together, simply because it makes connections within a culture that can serve as stronger bonds. However, I don’t always find that true. Here is a frivolous example:

Celebrating Baby saying "Went through airport security with insulin pump...no problems"

http://type1diabetesmemes.tumblr.com/post/94324055585

My wife sent me a link to the “Type I Diabetes Memes” Tumblr page a few months ago, and among the numerous pictures, this particular one slays me, not because it is particularly funny, but because it is so amazingly specific. To really “get it”, you have to have been:

  • An English-speaker.
  • A Type I diabetic.
  • An insulin pump wearer.
  • Stopped repeatedly at security checkpoints in an airport due to said pump.
  • AND a person that has seen and understands this particular internet meme “format”.

That picture doesn’t connect people. Yes, this “spread quickly within a culture”, but it really only was an inside joke that only a limited amount of people can really appreciate. The vast majority of you reading this will NOT say to yourselves, “That is SO TRUE!” (as I did).

The concept of rapidly spreading ideas as a separator scales up to other more-serious situations as well. For example, on Facebook I have some friends that are not just Republican/Conservative; they are SUPER Republican/Conservative. This is also true of friends I have that are MEGA Democrats/Liberals. Often, the posts that those individuals make are extreme in one way or another, and sometimes, they simply do not reflect reality. What the internet has done in these cases is created not a stronger, common culture, but two diametrically opposed cultures that cannot realistically co-exist.

There is no room for discussion.

Ask most people about the situation in Ferguson right now; either “innocent, young, unarmed Mike Brown” was gunned down in cold blood by a vicious killer cop working within a 100% corrupt, whites-only police state, or “thuggish, armed robber Mike Brown” was shot by an innocent police officer that was assaulted while simply investigating a reported crime. (Compare the comments posted to Ferguson-related online stories on CNN.com and FoxNews.com for a further examination of this concept.) I have seen very few public voices considering that maybe, just maybe, there are many other complex issues involved and that both viewpoints probably share some degree of merit. Now again, the purpose of this blog is not to debate that issue, but rather, the purpose is to point out that rapidly spreading ideas do NOT always bring people together.

My question to the reader is, how can we foster middle grounds in thought when so-often viewpoints become deeply entrenched before all factors come to light and are thoughtfully considered? A situation as complex as the Mike Brown case cannot be decided-upon in a few minutes and cannot be adequately discussed in 140 characters.

“With great power…”

We have a responsibility as educators, Christians, and human beings living on the Earth to figure out something else about memes: how can we best-harness the concept of memes and spread ideas quickly in a positive and responsible way? That is something that has been discussed at length in my graduate-level sports leadership courses, and I know my colleague Dr. McRee has discussed this in her Sports Management and Marketing courses as well.

All it takes is the right person in the right situation to cause a “Tipping Point,” and then an idea spreads. The notion of a “Cold Water” challenge has been around for some time, so what changed? (The Wikipedia link in the first paragraph examines this question.) Fine Arts is putting on a musical entitled “Urinetown”  that has a significant message, but one that has never spread to the extent of the Ice Bucket Challenge. I have heard Brother Carlton Burris at Immanuel Baptist Church say that the most successful meme in history was probably the initial spread of Christianity in the couple of years after Jesus’ crucifixion. How do we get POSITIVE thoughts and principles to spread throughout our culture?

How do I make students best-understand the importance of Physical Education to children? How does our department best-express the long-term benefits of a healthy lifestyle to ETBU’s students? How does ETBU best-make a Godly-impact on our community, state, and country? These are important questions to ask, because as surely as technology marches forward and the world shrinks, the cultures of America and the world are going to change rapidly over the remainder of our lifetimes.

It is our shared responsibility to ensure that whatever ideas “go viral” leave this place better than when we arrived. (Click to Tweet)

But how?

WW

Small… Large… MEDIUM! I’m the MEDIUM!

“The medium is the message.”

Marshall Mcluhan

Photo Credit: Abode of Chaos via Compfight cc

This quote is one of the most famous phrases in the discipline of Communication Studies, and was originally voiced by Marshal McLuhan, a media scholar from the Toronto school of Communication Theory.

His point is that how you say something is just as important as what you say. (Click to Tweet)

In many cases, it may end up being even more important.

Studying Communication is so important to me, and what I really love, because it allows me (and every Comm scholar) to understand where other people are coming from, and what they are trying to say through the words they choose to convey their message. I get very excited for each new class – a chance to share my passion with a new group of students, and a chance for us to learn together about what Communication Studies can mean together.

I have loved Communication Studies since my first Communication class at Nebraska Wesleyan University in 2005. It was at this small, private university that I first heard McLuhan’s words. They have been repeated throughout my journey to a PhD, but it is only now that I’ve first made a connection between McLuhan’s message and Jesus’s.

That statement may seem shocking and sad, but ETBU is my first school environment where the integration of faith and learning is placed at such a high priority.

It is refreshing, to be honest.

At so many public schools, and even some religious universities, professors (and professors-in-training) are encouraged, pushed, even threatened to take religion out of the classroom so that we don’t offend anyone.

In my first semester at ETBU, I was struggling to bring my religious views into class because I felt as if it had almost been beaten out of me. But now, with the opportunity to reflect on how my discipline relates to faith and Christianity, I am struck by the complete obviousness of it all!

Allow me to show you what I mean…

Jesus was God’s son, sent to earth to deliver God’s message of salvation – to COMMUNICATE it to us! (Click to Tweet)

He lived a perfect life, and focused on sharing God’s mercy with the world – communicating even still. A connection to my discipline if I’ve ever heard one.

But the connection that really hit me over the head when I started thinking about McLuhan’s emphasis on the medium, is that we are the medium that God has chosen to spread his message today. That was the plan all along…remember… the Great Commission…

Bible Study

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“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

To make this idea even more concrete, let me put it another way. I am the medium that is charged with spreading the message of Jesus. You are the medium. All of God’s followers are His chosen medium.

If we return again to McLuhan’s idea that the chosen medium for communicating a message is extremely meaningful, it must be a big deal that God picked us. We are the medium here, after all.

But why? Why us? Studying communication shows us that people who really believe their message, or have experienced something themselves, are often the most effective at passing their passion along to others.

restaurant

Photo Credit: jesuscm via Compfight cc

My former pastor used to use the analogy of restaurants: If you’ve eaten a great meal, and tell others about it, they will want to try out that restaurant too because you are so excited about it!

So, when I consider the importance of God picking US to be his medium, it makes me feel a lot of pressure to step up and do a better job. Also, I need to remember to trust myself, and God, and know that my excitement and passion will easily flow through trough my words.

After all, that’s how communication works.

AML

Refugee. Flight. Displacement.

Photo Credit: Zoriah via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Zoriah via Compfight cc

Refugee.  Flight.  Displacement.

In The Idea of a Christian College Arthur Holmes reminds us that a Christian college, and by implication those vocationally pursuing the study and application of Christian studies, must rigorously pursue the intersection of their faith within the wholeness of the human experience because “we live in a secular society that compartmentalizes religion and treats it as peripheral or even irrelevant to large areas of life and thought” (Holmes, 9).  The biblical worldview however clearly and consistently admonishes believers to positively contribute to a vision of human flourishing.

People of Christian faith are to live out what the New Testament describes as “good news” in the midst of contexts that are all too often divided, conflicted, and trapped in poverty.  As one example, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2014 the number of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people worldwide exceeded 50 million people for the first time since World War II.  As the UNHCR rightly notes, “1 family torn apart by war is too many.”  The following facts from the United Nations are indeed sobering:

  • 43.3 million people worldwide forcible displaced due to conflict and persecution
  • 46% of these individuals are children
  • 15 million of these individuals are uprooted from their home country
  • 27 million remain within their country but are internally displaced due to conflict
  • Many lack the essentials of life such as clean water, food and protection from violence and abuse.

These are real people with real needs. (Click to Tweet)

Moreover, the call to stand alongside displaced individuals is central to the biblical narrative.  In fact, there is an entire book within the Old Testament addressing this subject.  The book of Ruth is in part dedicated to establishing an ethic that asks people of faith to contribute to human flourishing by standing alongside those living in the midst of difficult cross-cultural situations.

Ruth is the story of a young woman who found herself in Israel, a country that differed in culture, religion and background from the one in which she was raised.  And what is more, there was a long history of suspicion, hostility and violent armed conflict between the peoples of Moab and Judah.  Imagine yourself as a young, single woman with the responsibility of providing for an older relative, with only limited access to finances, separated from family and friends, and suspiciously viewed with ethnic hostility in all of your daily interactions.

Ruth was forced to glean the leftover grain that was first missed by harvesters and servants, and it is in this context of difficulty and poverty that that the Biblical story introduces Boaz.  Having compassion, Boaz extended an open hand to Ruth and helped her with financial and material goods.  Over the course of the grain and barley harvests this initial relationship grew.

Ruth is usually told as a story of love and marriage or as a foreshadowed celebration of King David or of Christ himself.  These interpretations may be true.  But what is often lost in these themes is the reality that this is also a story about crossing boundaries, of an immigrant who came from a country that was deemed “suspicious,” and about overcoming prejudices by showing compassion and financial generosity specifically to the displaced within our communities.

The book of Ruth is a reminder that people of faith are called to stand in prayer, friendship and practical support with all those within our community who have been displaced, especially those who have experienced the traumas of violence, war and forced flight.  This is where faith, friendship and vocational discipline intersect. (Click to Tweet)

For many in the United States this reality has taken on new meaning as 50,000 unaccompanied minors have sought asylum over the last twelve months.  As the Baptist World Alliance recently noted, many of these individuals are “victimized by separation from their families, economic exploitation, lack of medical care and education [and] discrimination.”  It is our responsibility to “respond to the need for spiritual support and pastoral services for these children” and to “create welcoming communities.”

Behind the overwhelming numerical statistics are individuals who can be influenced by individuals.  This is the power of one connecting with one.  In a way, after all, the believer in Christ is to see themselves in the words of Hebrews 11:13, “[as] foreigners and strangers on earth.”

People of faith let us be among the first who recognize fellow sojourners and to follow the call of the biblical narrative by welcoming the refugees and displaced within our communities.  This week would you commit to doing one of the following:

  • Praying every day for seven days for the refugees and displaced around the world
  • Seeking greater awareness about the reality of the 50,000 unaccompanied minors who have sought asylum along the southern border of the United States
  • Reaching out and befriending an immigrant or refugee in your context and to help build a community of welcome

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