Why Pursue a PhD? Or, “Why I Need New Eyes”

I read a fantastic piece today on Fuller’s website written by Katherine Lee (a recent Fuller graduate). I found it profoundly moving, in that it encapsulated so much of why I have chosen to continue my education at a doctoral level as well as the tensions that attend such a decision.

Lee’s narrative centers around a Christopher Slatoff’s sculpture “Jesus is Nailed to the Cross”, which sits prominently outside the prayer garden across from the library on Fuller campus.

sculpture

When I visited the campus, I found it impossible to walk by the sculpture without being drawn in. (In many ways, my decision to attend Fuller specifically could be symbolized by the presence of this sculpture and other works of art throughout the campus: it signified an artistic and imaginative ethos absent at other schools.)

Lee writes of watching “outsiders” to the Fuller community walking through campus and interacting with the sculpture. She tells stories of three such outsiders: a culinary student who stopped to consider the sculpture, a woman who knelt to weave flowers around Jesus’ head, and a day laborer who stopped to touch Jesus’ feet.

I encourage you to go here and read the whole thing, and then watch Christopher Min’s short film (only 6 minutes) that was made to tell the story. The film powerfully captures some of the drudgery, isolation, and mental fatigue that can attend the academic enterprise. Given such conditions, it is easy to lose sight of God as a “Thou” and start treating him as an “It”, a subject to be studied rather than a person to be known, loved and worshipped.

In any case, here is Lee’s concluding paragraph.

“Jesus Is Nailed to the Cross” is situated between the lush, tranquil prayer garden and the clean, commanding architecture of the David Allan Hubbard Library. Though it is intentionally placed between worship and scholarship, it is not equidistant to them. It is, as it should be, decidedly closer to the garden. The “outsiders,” and their acts of worship, taught me something about my alma mater. As is often portrayed in biblical narratives, those who are considered least qualified to grasp the gospel often understand before the learned do. It is the Magi, the Syrophoenecian woman, and the Centurion who grasp the meaning of Christ more intuitively than the earnest seminarian. At graduation, I realized that the outsiders knew the primacy of worship, that it takes pausing to cross oneself, to weave flowers in his metal thorns, or to touch his feet in faith, in order to be made whole. Devotion has its many forms, and I came to Fuller because I sensed that scholarship could be one of them. But it was never meant to eclipse praise, wonder, or recognition of need. Like the sculpture, Fuller was my sacred place, my place to offer up my mind and its heartfelt questions for his glory. I came to become an outsider again.

Amen! I fear lest I lose my capacity to be stunned by the immensity of life and the depth of grace. I fear lest the good news about God’s action in Christ becomes too familiar to me. I fear lest I keep doing ministry out of memory rather than imagination. And so my hope in doctoral studies is not so much to become an expert but “to become an outsider again”.

So why am I pursuing a PhD? Because I have need of new eyes.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

-T.S. Eliot

Advertisements

Success (2): Does God Want Us To Be Successful?

So in the last post I explored several common definitions of success, and settled on a road definition that involved “getting the best out of life”, maximizing my potential and getting what I want.

But for me as a Christian, success has to be more than that.  Prior to me getting what I want, I want my desires to be reshaped in accordance to what God wants from me and from the world. (Romans 12.1-2)

So here’s an even more basic question: does God want us to be successful?

There is a large segment of American Christianity that answers an unequivocal yes.  They say that God wants his people to be rich and prosperous.  They say it on television and invite you to call in for special blessings and plant a seed of faith (read: money) in their ministry.  We’ve successfully exported this to the third-world.  It’s called the prosperity gospel.

It seems like the success gospel could be a near cousin.

I think about this teaching.

Then I consider all the saints who have endured and embraced the path of suffering throughout church history.

I consider the fact that the majority of Christians in the 2/3 world still live in relative poverty and pain.

I consider the fact that when God himself came to earth he identified with the poor, was summarily rejected and crucified. (He also rose again, but he was beaten to a pulp and to hung naked on a cross first).

I consider Mother Teresa’s statement about her ministry to the poor and dying in Calcutta: “God did not call me to be successful; he called me to be faithful.”

Taking this into consideration, it seems like God doesn’t want a significant portion of faithful people to be successful – AT LEAST when it comes to how most of us would define success.

It also seems like there is another side to this.   While most people fear failure, there are many good reasons to fear success:

Success means added pressure to keep performing, to literally enhance our performances.  Success can be a merciless master.  It’s the reason why winning one SuperBowl isn’t enough, or why Rocky had to keep proving that he wasn’t a bum through endless sequels.

Success often means distinguishing yourself from others and it’s lonely at the top.

Success can corrupt you.  There are countless examples of this, whether it be athletes who live an entitled lifestyle, musicians who “sold out”, or politicians who used their power oppressively.  We can add the “success” of the Church to the list (study the history of the Popes pre-Reformation).

Bottom line: maybe we should not so quickly rush to join our culture in its zeal to measure our worth or significance by how successful things appear to be.

Does God want us to be successful?  Maybe.

Maybe we have to begin by refining our definition of success.

Question: Does God want us to be successful?  What do you think?

The Paleo Experiment (3.5): A Christian Vision of Food

I had started to write a post on this, but realized that I was almost paraphrasing an essay that I had read by a guy named Douglas Wilson.  He is a much better writer, and so I have simply reproduced an edited version of his essay.  I am mainly posting it to demonstrate how my Christian worldview shapes the way I think of food.  If you’re not interested, pass on by.  There will be an original post in a couple of days.

***

Think for a moment what God could have done with food. He could have designed a universe in which some sort of fuel was necessary, but where the (entirely superfluous) function of taste was missing. He could have provided us with abundant sources of nutrition, but which had the ethos of cold, shapeless oatmeal. No taste anywhere. Bleh.

Or He could have given us food that had slight variations or degrees of refinement, like gasoline. We could have had super premium oatmeal, which was more gruel-like, and then premium, like cream of wheat, and then regular, which would be like oatmeal, with the texture and everything. But still, nothing that had taste. No brown sugar.

What kind of God created taste? Not just the function of taste—because He could have done that and only provided one or two tastes—but the riot of tastes, the pandemonium of tastes, the bedlam of tastes that we actually have. Think for a moment what is actually going on out there. We have, just to take a small sampler, watermelon, orange, cinnamon, bacon, walnut, beans, make that 482 different kinds of beans, grapes, salmon, sharp cheese, honey, butter, and nutmeg. If we were to catalog all the tastes in the world, straight out of nature, we are no doubt surpassing tens of thousands of distinct, identifiable tastes.

And God looked on the creation and said that it was very good, but He then wanted to expand on this good start. So in the creation mandate, He required that sons of Adam and daughters of Eve learn how to cook. This meant that they were to go out into the world, find all those tastes, and then start playing with them. What goes with what? And when you mix this with that, what happens? What happens if you mix a little more of this, but then set the whole thing on fire? Wait, I know. Let’s put it in a pan, melt some butter in the pan, and then put it on the fire.

And by this means, the thousands of tastes became millions of tastes. Recognizable and distinct tastes. But what for?

What kind of God would create a world in which literally millions of very different pleasures can occur in your mouth, and for no apparent functional reason?  This is a God who loves pleasure, and is willing to throw those pleasures around His universe with wild abandon. He insisted on creating beings who are capable of enjoying all these sensations, and, because they have eternity in their hearts, they will pursue tinkering around with a foul tasting bean until they figure out how to get chocolate out of it.

But in order to be a God like this, one who loves pleasure, He has to be a God who loves. More than that, He has to be a God who is love. But in order to be love, He must be triune. Before the world was created, before anything material came to be, God was every bit as prodigal and wasteful as He is now. What kind of God would do this?

For far too long, discussions about the mystery of the Holy Trinity have been assumed to be the province of theologians with fifty-pound heads. But there are two questions that all of us can ask, and we ought to ask them far more frequently—and in the presence of our food. Those questions are, “Who would do this?” and “What must He be like?”

When should we ask these questions? The times will vary, but we ought to remember the questions every time we say grace, because this is why we are saying grace.

When do we recall the questions? Whenever we eat a cookie, and then down a tall glass of cold milk. When the hot gravy goes on the cheese potatoes. When we are sitting on the lawn on a summer evening, spitting watermelon seeds. When the butter melts on the corn on the cob just right. When we pour lemonade and iced tea together, half and half. When the green beans are cooked together with pistachio nuts. Honey butter. Homemade fudge sauce on store bought ice cream.

Who would do this? What must He be like?

***

Question: According to the Christian view, God wants us to enjoy food.  He also wants us to take care of our bodies.  How do we hold these two together?

Church of Crossfit (8): Invisible, Universal, Online

The center of the CrossFit world is invisible, yet it connects CrossFitters and CrossFit churches all over the world.  Today’s post will investigate the Mecca of the CrossFit movement, the CrossFit HQ main site: www.crossfit.com.

The focus of the site is a sort of Daily Office for fitness, the daily WODS (workout of the day).  The WOD is posted every day, along with times/loads of notable CrossFitters and instructional videos showing proper form.  Anyone with the necessary equipment can join in the workout, and then post the results to the comment section.  This allows people who live too far from a CrossFit gym to feel a sense of connectedness to the community.

This was how CrossFit began: Greg Glassman posting his workouts online.  Over ten years later, daily posting continues.  But now there are many other extras on the site.

There is a link to the CrossFit journal, an online Bible of CrossFit wisdom.  There are links to all of the CrossFit “churches” (affiliates) throughout the U.S. and beyond.  There are links to certification courses, through which serious CrossFitters can become ordained CrossFit trainers.  There is even Children’s Ministry (CrossFit Kids)!

One sidebar announces regional events and competitions, the chief of which is the annual CrossFit Games (now sponsored by Reebok!), the annual competition that crowns the “Fittest on Earth.”

CrossFit has enjoyed a warm reception by the Armed Forces, and so there is a strong military presence on the site: WODs named after fallen heroes, pictures of special forces doing CrossFit, and endorsements by servicemen worldwide.

Interestingly, there is also a daily link to something seemingly unrelated to fitness: an article from the Atlantic, a poem by John Milton, a violin Concerto by Brahms.

The fact that a site devoted to “forging elite fitness” has so much to offer beyond traditional fitness suggests that they have redefined “fitness” to include much more holistic concerns.

In other words, CrossFit HQ is forging a habitus, a way of living in this world.  And all over the world, despite geographic separation, thousands of people are logging in to participate in this way of life together.

There is something transcendent about knowing that a guy in India and I both did the same workout this morning. (There is a CrossFit affiliate at an orphanage outside of Haridwar, India.)

In the church world, the value of this kind of connection is inestimable.  The movement of Jesus isn’t about my individual church, but about the larger, worldwide body of Christ.  We have spiritual practices, particular ways of living in the world. These unite us.

There is something transcendent about knowing that a guy in India and I both woke up this morning and prayed to the One who makes us brothers.  There is something about knowing that at this moment, believers in Chicago and Chile are trying to live a life of faith, love and hope – in the face of unfaithfulness, lovelessness and despair.

We participate in His movement locally, but the movement is anything but provincial.

Every tribe, every language, every nation is invited and included.

And Jesus makes us one.

Question: When did you first realize the “bigness” of the Church?

Wednesday: Church of Crossfit (9): CrossFit Cult?

Church of Crossfit (6): “Filtering for Character”

So far I have been arguing that CrossFit functions like a church.  But up until now, I have only focused on the vibrant sense of community that sustains that members.  In this post, I’d like to take it a step further and argue that CrossFit is actually interested in more than just elite fitness.  They are interested in character formation, in forming people who can better navigate and serve the world.

I take this thesis from a quote by none other than Greg Glassman, who founded the first CrossFit gym in 1995.  As the Godfather of the movement, he says: “We’re forging elite fitness, but we’re filtering for character.” In other words, he is hoping that CrossFit produces a certain kind of individual.

The sentiment is echoed and expanded by Lisbeth Darsh, Director of Social Media for CrossFit, Inc.  She quotes Glassman and then applies the quote to would-be CrossFitters:

If you enter and leave your CrossFit affiliate and you don’t say hi or good-bye to anyone, guess what? You might as well go to the globo-gym and zone out. You’re missing half the point here…. It’s not enough to be a character in CrossFit, you need to have character. Integrity, honor, respect: these things matter here. If you don’t have them for yourself and for others, then don’t cross my threshold: I don’t want you. Find your own community that does not require these things. But if you have a good heart and an open mind? Come on in…. You’re one of us.

In another post she writes that the secret to success is realizing that life is not about making the world more useful to you, but making yourself more useful to the world.  CrossFit, she argues, “helps you to be of more use to this world.”

In the minds of Glassman, Darsh and others like them, CrossFit’s purpose does not terminate on cultivating world-class athletes, but world-class people – people who actually have something to offer the world.

This is what I mean when I say that CrossFit provides religious significance:  it offers its adherents a larger purpose and fills ordinary actions with meaning.  Simple exercises like a pull-up or burpee take on added significance when you believe they increase not only your muscle mass, or even your overall health, but your capacity to serve something greater than yourself.

It makes me wonder if people going to churches every Sunday have a similar perspective.   Are they going to put in their time, to put a tip in the offering plate, to have their weekly religious experience?  Are they working on a religious image, helping themselves to feel superior to people who didn’t go to church?  Are they just doing religious bicep curls?

Or are they looking for truth?  Are they hoping to be a part of a group of people who, when they walk together end up experiencing deep character formation?  Are they longing to receive power and hope so that they can actually give something to the world?

Question: I am nearing the end of the series: I have 3 more posts planned.  Any aspect of the CrossFit phenomenon you’d like me to comment on?

Wednesday: Church of Crossfit (7): Heroes and Saints 

 

Church of Crossfit (3): Stop Doing Bicep Curls

One of the first things Scott told me was that we would never do anything like bicep curls, one of the most common workout techniques to give a person big arms.  The reason?  That exercise isn’t functional; you never do an isolated curl in your everyday life or sports.  The only reason why a person does bicep curls is because they want to look good. Emphasis on the word “look”.

This is one of the reasons I am attracted to Crossfit: it’s functional and not expressly image-focused.  Most guys who go to the gym only workout their biceps, chest and abs.  Why?  Because these are the muscles you want to show off when you take off your shirt. (Haven’t we all known people with a massive upper body and chicken legs?)

The truth is, a big upper body can be a decoy.  Having an out-of-proportion upper body won’t really make you that much better at performing everyday tasks and can actually inhibit performance in a lot of sports.

In a society that is so image-focused, it was refreshing to discover a workout philosophy that concentrates on all around fitness first.  “Looking good” is simply a byproduct of good fitness rather than the ultimate goal.  Perhaps it is an indication that people are looking for deep fitness, something beyond the facade.

I tell my students all the time that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look good.  The problem is that for most of us it has become too important – an obsession, an idol.  Culture tells young men that abs and biceps make the man, and so millions of young men go to gyms and stand in front of mirrors, worshipping. This is the way they know who they are, that they know they matter.  Bicep curls.

Our problem is that we take secondary things and make them primary things.  In workout world, looking good is a secondary thing and actually being healthy and fit is primary.  When we take looking good and make it a primary thing, the result is that our fitness is a mirage.

When we do this in the larger world – take secondary things and make them primary -the result is that our identity becomes a mirage as well.   Beyond the surface level, we don’t know who we are or what the heck we’re supposed to be doing. But we keep doing bicep curls.

C.S. Lewis writes that if we let primary things have their place, we get secondary things thrown in.  When we aim for secondary things, we get neither.

Simple lesson: Is looking good the goal, or the byproduct of something else more important?  Apply it to how you dress, how you do your job, how you present yourself in front of people.  What’s the goal?  Image is nothing, and it’s not enough.

For all our fascination with the superficial, somewhere in the soul, humanity craves depth.

Here’s to making primary things primary.

Wednesday: Church of Crossfit (4): The Local Crossfit Church

Question: Any funny stories about people consumed with their image?

Church of Crossfit (2): The Seeker-Sensitive Gym

For the sake of context, I should probably begin by describing my experiences at the big gym that I joined.  XSport fitness is a 24-hour one-stop fitness shop.  Crossfitters call gyms “boxes” and the large gyms “big boxes”, or more disdainfully, “Globo-gym” (after the hilarious depiction of Ben Stiller’s gym in the movie Dodgeball).

As you walk into XSport, you realize that this gym has been designed to anticipate and meet your needs.  Want to pump iron?  We’ve got every kind of machine imaginable.  Want to swim?  We’ve got a salt-water pool.  Want to ball? We’ve got a court with six hoops.  Want to be outdoorsy?  We’ve got a climbing wall where you can self-belay.  Want to just hang out?  We’ve got an Internet cafe that serves “healthy” recovery shakes. Got kids?  We’ve got a daycare.  Need to clean up? We’ve got showers, a sauna and as many towels as you could want.  There’s not even a need to miss your favorite shows: we have 300 televisions, since every treadmill, elliptical, rowing machine and stair-master has a personal flatscreen.

Their marketing slogan: “We’re All About You.”

Upon further examination, however, you begin to wonder if this is actually the case.

The base price to join the gym is low ($35/month), but there are all kinds of extras to add on if you need them (and you need them).  They work hard to get you involved in their programs that increase their sales: personal training, tanning, massage therapy.  They give you a “free fitness evaluation” which is designed to show you how out of shape you are before recommending 20-150 sessions at $50-80 each.  They push hard to get you to buy the PT sessions, buy supplements and an expensive heart rate monitor.

Ironically, they also have promotional days when they bring in a bunch of free junk food, as a gift to all their members.  I asked Scott what this was about, and he said, “These are the days that we try to increase our sales by getting people to eat crap.  If I see you go anywhere near it I will kill you.”

Not wanting to be killed any more than he was already killing me, I didn’t go anywhere near the food.  But it made me think that maybe this gym didn’t care as much about my fitness as my money.  They are less concerned with building my body and more concerned with building their brand.

XSport is like a mega-church for fitness.  It is a gym built with the consumer in mind.  It begins by asking, “what do the people want?” rather than “what do the people need?” There is a huge difference between the two.

In the world of fitness, people wants options: they wants to feel good about working out without paying too much of a physical price.  But what most people need is a program that will actually challenge them and force them to get healthy and fit.  We need truth, discipline, and purpose, not coddling and Krispy Kreme.

In the larger world the same is true.  We want comfortable self-help with lots of options.  We want results without paying the price.

But we need something far more painful.  We actually need to change.

Monday: Church of Crossfit (3): Stop Doing Bicep Curls

Question: Any stories about joining a gym?