The Place of Architecture

Whenever I introduce myself as someone studying architecture, the question that I get asked a lot is: what kind of buildings do you want to design? Even a google search of the word ‘architecture’ suggests that this is the most important question that anyone in the field of architecture must answer. The search results bear buildings that range from the Florence Chapel to slick contemporary buildings of Zaha Hadid: and in case you can’t find the particular ‘architecture’ you were looking for, you can take up the offer of suggested further searches, whether it be ‘traditional’ or ‘minimalist,’ a ‘house’ or ‘skyscraper,’ But regardless of the diversity in these definitions of architecture, one thing remains constant throughout all the images: that there’s a difference between the everyday buildings that we see and a “work of architecture.”

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

Genesis 11:1 -4

One of the earliest examples of architecture in the Bible is the Tower of Babel. The passage in Genesis 11 tells us that the people of the earth artificially made building materials that would have a structural capacity greater than found materials. This new means of building stirred great ambition and collaboration among the people of earth, in the hope and excitement of a new architectural possibility that could stand as a hallmark of mankind. If there was anything for the future generations to remember this generation by, it would be through this monumental building.

Even though the tools and materials of the trade have changed since the biblical times, this desire has always remained the driving force of architectural development. Whether it be pushing for new materials, construction, form, or ideal, each new generation craves and produces a Babel that would embody the forward-moving geist of its time and people. As a result, the focus of architectural discourse has been the large-scale phenomena—of what is happening to the society at large—and its products landmarks that commentate on these broader shifts occurring in the ‘today’ of a present.


superstudio6_905A drawing from Continuous Monument and 12 Ideal Cities (1969-1972)


The landmark can be theoretical, physical, or both. In some cases, the architect writes manifestos on the social, political, or technological issues he or she finds important or problematic and pairs them with an architectural proposal, represented by visual aids such as diagrams, collages, models, etc. At times, the architectural proposal is architecture as an idea but not necessarily a building. Case in point is the works of Superstudio (1966-1978), a collective from Florence, Italy that did not have a single built project but produced a series of collages showing endless gridded structures that dominate the picture frame and engulf entire cityscapes as a critique to the megastructural developments that act “as a metaphor for the ills of globalization and unchecked proliferation of homogeneous modern architecture.”

In other cases, an architect’s landmark contribution is a physical construction as Babel was, offering a reinterpretation or a critique of an existing building type and its function. OMA’s Seattle Public Library is a building that is probably familiar to most architecture students of today, with its significance lying in the fact that the book stacks are not stored on floors but become a spiraling ramp hang like an orange peel, with event or sitting areas labeled as “living rooms” or “mixing chambers” filling up the space in between the ramps. Students are shown architectural works like these as exemplary works and are encouraged to create projects that also dare to be different and provocative, not accepting anything as a norm and challenging them to produce an alternative “solution.”



seattle_diagram  Diagrams and photos of Seattle Public Library by OMA

From these examples—though we do not explicitly say it—it’s clear that the pervading motto of modern architecture is “big ideas and/or big buildings.” With this motto, the greatness of an architectural work is based on its scale, whether it be the scale of its building or the scale of its impact in the discourse; there is little room for the mundane, the common, and the everyday.



Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel


Even though it was painted centuries ago, Pieter Bruegel’s Tower of Babel is a painting representative of this tendency of ours and the impact it has on the existing city and its people. In the painting, the tower dwarfs its neighbors, the two- or three-story buildings with pitched roofs; the size of the new building comparable to the entirety of the existing city surrounding it. What strikes me about this painting is that it lays bare the intention of the building and the designer to create physical and social disparity both within the construction process and in the larger society. The building creates an enclave, a separate city in which its inhabitants can likely live and carry out their daily functions without having to step outside its walls (imagine how many CVS’ and Stop and Shop’s could fit into that thing).

Oftentimes the product of the building takes up so much of our attention that the interpersonal consequences the process brings (both pre- and post- completion) are left out of the picture. Even though what we make is a building, the decisions that lead up to its building is a series of choices on who we work for. The clients we choose to work with influences where we work, what type of building gets designed and built, and who we work with (contractors, consultants) in order to complete the project. As a result, the physical architecture is heavily dependent on the partnerships we choose to develop.

I think one of the biggest mistakes that any student or professional in the field can make is to think that design only occurs in the building, when in reality the design begins much before in the shaping of this social infrastructure: in the moment we choose to shake our hands and work for one person or group rather than another. Architects oftentimes try their hardest to divorce architecture from the socioeconomic and even political implications or role it plays. For instance, Léon Krier published a book on Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, asking the question: “Can a war criminal be a great artist?” Yale School of Architecture’s previous dean, Robert A.M. Stern, who wrote the preface to the book, had been quoted by a classmate to having said that one must be able to appreciate architecture for its architecture (not word for word and don’t know how reliable this is). For both men, the value in an architectural work should not be dismissed by the fact that they had been “tainted” by politics, suggesting that we should be able to look beyond the political associations of an architect’s work and evaluate its architectural accomplishment solely within the built work.

But the reality is, projects such as Albert Speer’s—perhaps especially those such as his—stand in history precisely because of the power of their clients. Because architects do not and cannot fund their own buildings, the capacity of a built project to reach a certain size and achieve a certain quality inevitably depends on this power, whether that power be political or financial. If there was no Hitler, there would have been no Cathedral of Light and other neoclassical works by Speer that would have been left for us posterity to reflect upon. And so architects stand in defense of the “architecture for architecture’s sake” philosophy; architecture must and does live on, and it doesn’t matter which lifeline we choose to support it on. This statement could have been intended as a message of empowerment but I think it actually works in the reverse and exposes it for the frailty that it is. As long as the definition of architecture or “great” architecture remains fixated on grand, interesting, or new forms, architects will always be chained to a client who is able to provide the means of doing so. Ironically, the pursuit of architecture for architecture’s sake becomes inseparable from the pursuit of a powerful client.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:9-11

So “who do we build for?” becomes a question that is just as if not more important than the question of “what do we build?”On one hand, the perspective mentioned above is an acceptance of the fact that architecture is perpetually weak, utterly helpless beneath its mask of grandeur. But what if we understood and sought great architecture as something else? The passage in 2 Corinthians 12 tells us that it is when we are weakest that we are made strong. What if the most powerful architecture happens in not the acceptance but the rejection of the powerful as our partner in the construction of our buildings? This is a scary question for a lot of architects, especially when money is in the picture. After all, architecture firms are private practices that stay afloat mostly through the margin of profit they gain from commissions. The more and expensive the commissions are, the better they are for the financial health of the company. However, at times I wonder whether this model is truly one of health or gluttony, inherently necessary or brought forth due to a firm’s desire to take on projects and to become better known in doing so. I wonder whether firms see themselves as the small houses or the Babelian tower but at the same time sadly know that a lot envision themselves being the latter.

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12: 28-31

I bring up this passage from Mark 12 because it not only reminds me of the importance of asking the question of “who” but also reminds me of the answer that God calls me to give. In the passage, Jesus uses the word ‘neighbor’ rather than the generic word of the ‘other’ to describe those whom we should love and serve. In the past, the passage had a broad, watery application in my life where I understood the word ‘neighbor’ to mean anyone that I encounter in this word and Jesus’ message as a call to “be nice to everyone.” But reading it recently has led me to understand that the word ‘neighbor’ has greater specificity than that. First and foremost, ‘neighbor’ implies a location. Being a neighbor and having a neighbor means that I am a part of a neighborhood in which I am a neighbor to someone and someone is a neighbor to me. It means that there is a physical place that I am a part of, to which I belong and identify with. And even though our modern ways of living has long since transitioned from the communal lifestyle of villages to autonomous dwellings compacted in bigger and taller buildings, I think Jesus calls us to anchor ourselves once more to a place, if not physically at least devotionally.

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

Genesis 12:1

This goes back to even the earliest parts of the Bible, from when God calls Abraham out of his nation to the land of Canaan, with the narrative of the people of Israel inextricably tied to the displacement from and return to this promised land, from a scattered to a collective whole. And so the question that has been lingering in my mind is: where is this land that God is calling me to return to? Who is the people of God that He is calling me back to be a part of or, perhaps even to lead?

Last morning I was talking with my father who had spent decades in the states before he returned to his small hometown in Korea to work with those there and to serve his parents. I asked him, “did you know you’d be going back one day?” to which he answered that he knew he wanted to, but didn’t know until the moment the opportunity came that this prayer would be realized. The years in the states was a time in which God tested and disciplined him, after which he was led back to the land of his forefathers; years in which he had made a name and place for himself there but always knew that he belonged elsewhere. Although some might read his resume and imagine him being someplace else, he knows that there is no other place to be than where he is now with those he is with.

Maybe right now is just the start of my own forty years in the desert, where I wander through trials and tribulations. At times, I might even yearn to go back to my own Egypt, my own Babel, rather than to yearn for a homeland that God calls me to be. But I hope that I despite these times to never give up that yearning for the place where I can finally arrive and remain: to be in and a part of a place where I’ve not only helped to build and fix some of its buildings but where I’ve seen it grow and change over time with its people—where I can testify to God that, indeed, I have found, loved, and remained with my neighbors with all my heart and my soul.



Emotions and following God

For me, and I’m sure many others, being a Christian is often not easy. I am often filled with fears and concerns and I daily struggle to live a life that is fully reliant on God. Personally there are a lot of reasons why following God can be uncomfortable, even though I know that God controls everything, continually provides for me, and answers my prayers. These reasons include, but are not limited to:

  • Loneliness
  • Lack of worldly status
  • Loss of control
  • Lack of financial security
  • Persecution, whether physically or in other ways
  • If you are called to go to a non-English speaking country, not being fluent in the language and stumbling around
  • Looking like a fool in the eyes of the world

In the past week, I’ve been struggling a lot with what it means to live wholly for God. How do I give my life to God in everything I do? I have a long list of worries, fears, and reasons I want to hold back. But as I’ve been thinking about this question of what it would mean to give up my life to God, I have been encouraged in my devotions by all the different stories of Daniel and how God was with him through all the different trials. Being set apart has a cost but God is faithful, whether it was with Daniel and the palace food (Daniel 1) or the lions (Daniel 6). Or if we think about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the fiery furnace (Daniel 3). Yet while being encouraged by the book of Daniel, I also felt very frustrated as I imagined the great faith and courage with which Daniel faced the challenges in his life. I think of passages like Joshua 1:9 (“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”) and I can’t help but feel that I don’t have enough faith and am not strong nor am I courageous in how I follow after God.

Today I saw a video clip depicting Daniel in the lion’s den. In the clip, we see Daniel thrown in the den and initially being overcome with fear as he fully realizes where he is. After standing and trembling in fear for a few moments, we then see Daniel fall to his knees and pray, asking God to save him according to His unfailing love.

As I watched the clip, I was thankful to be reminded that following God does not mean we feel no emotions. So often I imagine the heroes of the Bible following God with such faith and courage, never experiencing disappointment, fatigue, anxiety, fear, pain, hurt, or anguish. But watching the clip today reminded me that trusting in God does not mean that we don’t feel these emotions. Going through Daniel, I did not find many references to Daniel experiencing fear or the emotions I would have myself were I in his circumstances. But I’d like to believe that because he was human, he did experience some fear being in, for example, the lion’s den. Nonetheless, even if not in Daniel, throughout the Bible there are numerous passages about believers who do experience emotions (and often with vivid descriptions), whether that be David in the Psalms or even Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane (“And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” -Luke 22:44). I believe that we are human and thus we do and will experience emotions, but often more important than the initial reactions to the given situation is how we respond following the initial emotions. In the clip, we see Daniel respond to his fear by calling out to God. With Christ, we see that despite his anguish, he still faithfully goes to the cross. In stressful times, do we turn to God and still follow Him with complete faith and obedience despite our fear, disappointment, anger, or frustration? And in our times of joy and happiness and peace, do we look to God and thank Him for how He has provided for us? Do we remember that we have something greater than ourselves to rely on? God protects us, stands by us, gives us hope, provides His peace that surpasses all understanding, and fights for us. At all times when we are overcome by the troubles of this world, we can rely on God who is big enough to handle anything we are facing and is worth following with our whole being. For me, it is also comforting to realize that the emotions I feel are part of being human and that often the more important question is how I respond to the emotions. And so the question remains, given how I am feeling today, do I still faithfully follow God and give my whole life to Him?

not enough…

Hi! My name is Victor and this is my first GWBlog post, in which I will be briefly introducing myself and my interests.

I recently graduated from Princeton as a biology major and am currently in the midst of the medical school application process. Like a young middle-school boy, I easily get distracted by whatever is going on around me and have a wide variety of interests, whether travelling, trying new foods, or spending time outdoors.

For me, seeing the world through the lens of the gospel has meant exploring and considering how the gospel appears in the little things in my life. Maybe it’s because committing to delving too far into a single topic sometimes makes my head hurt, but I like thinking about a wide range of topics relating to my life and examining how the given situation in my life is touched by and changes because of the gospel. I am very interested in trying to find ways that my daily experiences relate to my faith walk.

For example, I truly believe that it was not simply through hard work and luck that I recently finished my medical school secondary applications in a timely manner. For the past three weeks, while being on a mission trip in Taiwan, I was writing tens of essays and consequently got very little sleep on most days. It was definitely through God’s grace that I had so much energy during these two weeks. One of the students I was working with commented that their first impression of me was that I always had so much energy. Maybe the milk tea in Taiwan was extra caffeinated, or the kids were just that fun. But regardless, I believe that it was truly God’s grace that I had the energy that I did given how little I was sleeping.

Recently something that has been pressing on my heart, especially as I tried to explain to medical schools (in my applications) why they would want me as a future student, is that I can never be enough.

I am constantly reminded about how I am not enough. Not smart enough, not good-looking enough, not [fill in any positive adjective] enough… Being on the swim team at Princeton, I was constantly reminded of how I wasn’t fast enough, not strong enough, etc. With friends, I’m not nice enough, not patient enough, not understanding enough. As I worked on my medical school applications, I realized that my grades could be higher, I could have published some papers, I could be a more eloquent writer, I could be more insightful and have a more interesting life. As a Christian I wonder why I still get so nervous and anxious in the face of adversity even though I believe in God. The list goes on…

But I am encouraged that God loves me for who I am and that if my identity is rooted in Christ, I am enough because my identity is rooted in something far greater than me. Christ never changes and thus if my identity is rooted in Him, I have nothing to fear. Of course, this is much easier to have as head knowledge than to actually believe wholeheartedly and live out.

I was recently very encouraged by this verse:

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
-1 Corinthians 1:26-31

Despite our weaknesses, God makes us enough.

On a somewhat related note, I think in our quest to try to be enough, we also try to change ourselves to become something other than what has God has created us to be. We try to conform ourselves to being happier, funnier, more outgoing, smarter, etc. (or maybe we try to adjust our personas in the other direction). But recently I was encouraged as I watched Pixar’s Inside Out (a film about how our emotions work inside our heads… For some brief background, Joy (the yellow colored “emotion” character) and Sadness (the blue colored “emotion” character) are two of the emotions that inhabit the mind of the main character Riley (the middle-school girl in the trailer). I was touched as I watched the film and realized, with Joy, why Sadness was a critical component of the main character Riley’s mind. Sadness was just different, not better or worse than Joy, and I think so often we are tempted to think of ourselves as not enough because we focus on who we are compared to others. But really we’re just different from those around us, not necessarily better or worse. I believe that God has created us to be enough with a very unique, important role in His plan and that we just need to find out what that role is.

I’d really encourage you to dig deep and look at where the foundation of your identity lies. Can you say it’s wholly based in Christ? Ask the hard questions. What’s the worst that can happen because you aren’t enough in this way or that way? Will God still be there with you even if you utterly fail? Like it will be for you I’m sure, I am only slowly understanding what it means to have my identity fully rooted in Christ.

As you can see, my thoughts sometimes wander as I try to incorporate too many different parts of my life into a single post. Thanks for reading. I would love to hear your thoughts!

Thinking about transitions

My name is Jojo and this is my first post to the GWBlog. Here I’d like to introduce myself and my areas of interest.

I am currently in transition right now: I was previously a math student at Princeton and I hope to be a med student in the future. We already have two resident mathematics academicians [1, 2] and three resident medical experts [3, 4, 5] on the blog, so as to not saturate this blog with lower quality content about maths and medicine, for now I will be blogging about transitions.

We usually say we are in transition when we are between two jobs, changing careers, or waiting for our next big “life stage” to begin. We often think of transitioning as the time we spend before the beginning of a state worth existing in. In my limited experience, this mindset tends to shift my life’s narrative from one that is Gospel-centered and driven by the good news to one more concerned about reaching the next milestone. Although all the eschatological hopes of the Old Testament and our personal yearning have been fulfilled in Christ and he is coming back to establish his visible reign, I become consumed with getting to the next destination. I am tempted to reduce life into several big goals, possibly subdividing these goals along the way: get into X college, land Y internship, get Z job. The change in thinking leads to restlessness that I’m not making progress towards the next goal. In college, the flags for this change in mentality were when I realized I was living problem set to problem set, or completing a term and feeling empty that I had arrived. I spent my energies anticipating completion or certain dates, but it failed to satisfy.

When I lose sight of the true destination worth orienting my life around, my sinful tendencies also start to reveal themselves. Slowly, I begin to focus more on the goals themselves and I assume an implicit purpose that my life should be optimized to reach these goals. I’ve noticed that I seem to undergo a type of transformation coined by sociologists P. J. DiMaggio and W. Powell as institutional isomorphism*. These sociologists noticed that there is a collective rationality that similar types of organizations share that makes them converge. They hypothesized that competing organizations tend to converge because they model themselves on more successful rivals, common consultants move between the organizations, and they must compete under the same laws.

Similarly, I tend to imitate successful individuals striving for similar goals, receive advice from the same counselors about these goals, and experience the same formative processes (classes, standardized testing, etc.) more than I imitate Christ, submit myself to his Word, and practice spiritual disciplines. I am trying to be careful not to dichotomize imitating good examples and imitating Christ; I just think we should be wary of normative pressures diminishing the way in which the uniqueness and surprising nature of the Christ-event shapes our lives. My own sinful tendency is to imitate those who aren’t imitating Christ (1 Cor 11:1) and my motivations start to shift towards selfish ambition, comfort, and prestige.

I’d like to briefly argue that life is all about transitioning and that it should be celebrated. Indeed, since the moment of our regeneration, we have become new creations (2 Cor. 5:17), crucified (Gal. 2:20) and raised with Christ (Col. 3:1-3), but at the same time we are not yet perfected to our resurrection bodies:

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep,but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. (1 Cor. 15:51-53)

God saw it fit that we were not immediately transformed at the moment of our conversion. Instead, we are tasked with the job of partnering with the Holy Spirit in our sanctification until that day. This tension is probably familiar to many readers of this blog as the “already, but not yet.” As good as our resurrection bodies may be, God’s plan for humanity is not an instant transformation but a gradual one. Sanctification is in fact the greatest transition we will make in our life and it is worth striving for.

I’d like to point out something I find interesting about New Testament encouragements: we are often spurred on to be more or do more of an ongoing action – be more loving, take up our crosses, persevere – rather than called to accomplish some task or reach a goal, since the greatest “task” has already been accomplished! Life does not begin at the next milestone, it began for us 2000 years ago; let us then press onward toward the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Php. 3:12-16).

Here are some questions maybe worth using for reflection:

  • Am I orienting my life around accomplishing certain goals more than becoming a type of person?
  • What are the tendencies of people who work in my major/profession or those who strive for the same goals? Similarly, how have I changed the more I’ve progressed towards these goals?
  • How do I feel after I reach the big goals or are hindered from achieving them?

*I would like to cite more things for you, but I don’t have access to a nice library right now.

Recovering the ‘Relationship’ in the ‘Physician-Patient Relationship’

It is no longer possible to call the physician-patient relationship a ‘relationship.’ It’s no surprise, given that other forms of human relationships, including those between spouses, employer and employee, and parent and child, have become mere battlegrounds for the assertion of political rights – a grotesque dance in which both parties are more obsessed with protecting oneself or not stepping on the other’s toes, and less on actually creating beautiful movements. Such a dance, in the end, is not a dance at all.

The lack of a substantive conception of the physician-patient relationship in medicine is nowhere more apparent than in the paternalism vs autonomy debate. The dichotomy spawns from a curious and particular narration of medical history, in which medicine ‘in the old days’ is seen as an intrusive, colonial force that has no regard for the moral agency of patients, and in which the ‘new’ medicine moves towards a better model that simultaneously prioritizes patient choice and opinion and restrains physician authority. In this narration (and this is the implication of the dichotomy), the patient at best is a glorified bag of rights, whose interests must be protected from the ever-encroaching violations of medical authority. Physicians, likewise, must ensure they make no mistakes, or at least, err on the side of giving the patients what they ask, lest they get sued or, even worse, score poorly on patient “satisfaction” ratings. Physician and patient are pitted against each other, and the ‘relationship’ is a total misnomer for what has functionally become a battlefield in which the patient must always rise victorious. 

Certainly, this narration was useful, for events in medical history have given us very good reasons to be wary of authority. The Nazis used theirs to justify a perverted and insatiable thirst for scientific knowledge, and conducted unthinkable experiments on millions of Jews. The Americans – the self-proclaimed purveyors of democracy – were not exempt from similar sins. For a period of time, American physicians conducted systematic sterilization of those we considered undesirable, and we used science to justify why they were undesirable, using such vague and euphemistic terms as ‘imbecilic’ or ‘aggressive.’ In the infamous Tuskegee experiments, physicians (who were white) infected poor black farmers with syphilis without their knowledge in order to follow the disease progress, and reinforced a continuing legacy that has left black Americans with a gnawing, subconscious distrust of medical authority. The abuse, and misuse, of authority happens even today – sexual misconduct and discriminatory treatment of the homeless are a few of its faces. Given all of this, it is undeniable that patients need very important protections from their physicians, and laws such as HIPAA (which protects every patient’s privacy) should be lauded as examples of real progress. 

But we cannot stop there. Even if the language of protection and rights was necessary to minimize the possibility of the abuse of power, the medical profession cannot let that language be the sole resource for how we enter into relationships with patients, for this is a very impoverished view of what that relationship may be. If we discount all forms of authority – pointing out where it exists and attempting to expunge all of its vestiges – we will find ourselves living a delusion and practicing a medicine that honors the humanity of neither the patient nor the physician. I believe, rather, that we should interpret medical history differently: the lesson of Nazism, Tuskegee, and other instances of the abuse of medical authority, is not that medical authority is evil and to be shunned, but that authority must be housed in a proper covenant between physician and physician and physician and patient.

For one, asking physicians to totally relinquish their authority is simply impossible; whether we like it or not, physicians are authority figures. 

Take the Flexner Report (1910) and the subsequent birth of modern American medicine. [The Flexner Report is, perhaps, one of the most important documents in the history of modern medicine, and not just in the United States, given its repercussions. Prior to the Report, American medicine was a chaotic melange of quackery and medical science – there was no national standardization of physician training and licensure, medical schools did not collaborate with hospitals, and anybody who took courses at a self-proclaimed ‘medical school’ could feign doctorhood. The Report designated Johns Hopkins Medical School (then one of the very few medical schools that combined scientific research, bedside clinical teaching, and patient care at an affiliated hospital) as the example for all American medical schools to follow, and caused the closure of all schools that failed to conform.] Why did the Carnegie Foundation, the sponsor of the Report and one of the largest American philanthropic organizations, commission a study of the medical profession rather than any other? Interestingly, the Foundation sponsored the report as a response to the seeming declining moral and cultural power of the Christian church in American towns and cities and the speculated rise in such power among physicians. Instead of turning to their churches and clergy, the Foundation believed, Americans would now turn to their physicians for guidance in birth, life, and death. All hail the new priesthood of medical science.

This speculation, it turns out, was spot on, for medicine holds such great sway in the minds and lives of Americans today that it would not be amiss call medicine the new religion. Without a positive conception of the meaningful life oriented around true goods, health, long life, and the prospect of controlling one’s destiny have become the idols at whose feet Americans lay a heavy sacrifice. Medicine can create life when we want and it can destroy it when we want; medicine can better our mood and dampen our sadness; medicine can define (in its own language) what it means to be well and not well, normal and not normal, human and not human. Here, the physician, like the Levites of old, stand as mediators between the emptied soul, scrambling to grasp whatever it can to fill its inner void, and the god that cannot deliver on its grand promises. So we see that, no matter how much physicians would shun the title, they are moral authorities, and giving the patient what they seek is not a “neutral” act, but a morally charged one, establishing a certain view of happiness, of meaning, and of purpose, centered on the unrestrained and untamed desires of the human heart.

Physicians nowadays would largely deny the above (namely that they are moral authorities whether they like it or not), but even then, other forms of authority subsist in medicine. Indeed, they must, for coherent collective action is impossible unless there is an authority structure that ensures, or at least encourages, the alignment of individual action with the collective vision. In the medical profession, the absence of moral dialogue or consensus, stemming from the refusal to engage medicine as a moral practice, simply leads to the establishment of technical expertise as the new basis and language for authority. Since we cannot agree on the ‘why’ questions, we have largely resigned to answering only the ‘how’ questions; medicine has no purpose or limited end, let’s use it for everything, and let’s just focus on how to do those things in the most efficient and most profitable manner. This was Weber’s great insight – the bureaucratizing force that shapes all human institutions in the secular age. The end result is a profound ‘disenchantment,’ in which spiritual concepts such as the birth (or death and killing) of a child, the passing of the elderly, and even human emotions lose their glow of mystery and become mere procedures to be optimized. Technical prowess, optimization, and efficiency is the language of a profession fearful of engaging the moral nature of its own practice.

One can see how, in this impoverished environment, the ‘transaction’ model would emerge as an attractive model for physician-patient interactions. Patients request a particular service, and physicians, like a dispensing machine, simply provide that service, no questions asked. It is, supposedly, the morally ‘neutral’ default that resolves the paternalism/autonomy tension. But if what I’ve said so far is true, this is more like a delusional solution to a false problem. In fact, one might interpret the prevalence of physician burn-out and patient dissatisfaction and mistrust (and malpractice suit rates) as the symptoms of a dehumanizing transactionalism. If so, a more positive vision for relationships is urgently needed – a vision that does not merely fill in the gaps in a rights-based, transactional framework, but one that reimagines entirely what it means for an authority figure to serve, guide, and be present with, those who are suffering from illness. As I’ve suggested before, this might involve recovering the language of covenant in medicine.

The question, then, is how this covenant can be sustained, for the acknowledgement of authority comes with great responsibility to steward that authority and use it for good, not for evil. Already, we see that the task of medical education is enormous, and must rise above simply imparting technical knowledge – it must, no less, produce good physicians. 

The problem of medical education, and how we can impart a vision for the ‘good physician’ to successive generations, I will address in the second part to this post (to come later).

Re-Thinking Bible “Study”: William Rainey Harper’s “Biblical” University

This is the first post in a multi-post series reflecting on the practice of “Bible study” as it is commonly practiced in its diverging forms  among biblical scholars and students at universities.

In 1899, the Old Testament scholar and founding president of the University of Chicago – William Rainey Harper – invited the age’s most famous revivalist and lay evangelist – Dwight L. Moody – to speak on campus, citing that

I do not understand, of course, that you, as a matter of fact, represent any other position than that which is actually maintained here at the University. The differences between us are merely differences of detail. [1]

To those of us more familiar with the very differing directions that the University of Chicago and Moody Bible College have taken since, this is a  statement that requires some unpacking. But for all the differences between William Rainey Harper and Dwight L. Moody, one thing underlay both their visions: the centrality of the Bible.

This might be a bit unexpected for those of us used to hearing narratives of secularization in which the development of research universities went hand in hand with decreasing religiosity. It also certainly doesn’t help that Chicago is now famous for its history-of-religions approach towards the faith that both invented and defined the departments of “Religious Studies” whose historical-critical approaches to the Bible are often alternatively lamented and criticized by evangelical campus ministries. In retrospect, the differences of detail Harper pointed out might have been quite a bit larger than he had anticipated.

More people today, however, are familiar with Moody’s winsome, practical approach to Christianity than Harper’s academic version, but both have had an incalculable impact on our approach towards Scripture today. William Rainey Harper was one of the first Old Testament scholars in the Americas to adopt the historical-critical method and to promote the reading of the Scriptures in the original languages. Much of the contemporary seminary curriculum today was innovated by his reform of Chicago’s affiliated seminary (now the Divinity School) – requiring practical field education, the study of the Bible in its original languages and contexts, a class on the English Bible, and (unfortunately) expecting seminarians to pay their own way through as training in financial management.

Harper’s skill as an administrator and educator were unparalleled. During his days as an Old Testament professor at Yale (the first full time professor of “Semitic Languages and Literature”), he was  running a correspondence Hebrew course that managed to draw tens of thousands of subscribers and simultaneously serving as one of the primary organizers of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Society at Chautauqua Lake, New York which would give birth to the entire idea of “continuing education”. Harper’s experience at Chautauqua would lead him to innovate with the idea of transferrable credits, laying the foundation for the system of institutions we today know as the “community college”. At the University of Chicago, Harper made the individual researcher more respectable than ever before (and also attracted all the best talent) by setting a new standard for professorial salaries that elevated the status of faculty above that of the schoolteacher. Harper’s deep involvement in so many things meant that, at some point, his correspondence alone constituted half of all letters processed at the New Haven post office!

Institutional accomplishments aside, what was perhaps most important about Harper was his singular vision for the birth of Biblical universities that would serve as the linchpin of a new American society grounded on the worldview and world of the Bible. Historian James P. Winds recounts in his book on Harper’s life and accomplishments how Harper’s commitment to building the University of Chicago can be seen as a basic working out of his commitment to the historical-critical method [2]. George Marsden, in his Soul of the American University, characterizes the University of Chicago as essentially the working out of the ideals of a “low-church” university, a Baptist university in all but name [3].

We in the 21st century dwell in the aftermath of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies in which questions of biblical inerrancy have skewed our perspective on how religiously driven and conservative the original rise of Biblical criticism in America was. Early advocates such as Charles A. Briggs saw themselves as continuing the work of the Reformation in letting the tools of Biblical criticism help contemporary Christians recover the words of the Bible itself by clearing away the “dead wood, dry and brittle stubble, and noxious weeds” of “dead orthodoxy, every species of effete ecclesiasticism, all merely formal morality, all those dry and brittle fences that constitute denominationalism, and are the barriers of Church Unity” [4]. “It will ere long become clear to the Christian people,” Briggs would insist,

that the Higher Criticism has rendered an inestimable service to this generation and to the generations to come. What has been destroyed has been the fallacies and conceits of theologians; the obstructions that have barred the way of literary men from the Bible. Higher Criticism has forced its way into the Bible itself and brought us face to face with the holy contents, so that we may see and know whether they are divine or not. Higher Criticism has not contravened any decision of any Christian council, or any creed of any Church, or any statement of Scripture itself. It has rather brought the long-neglected statement of the Westminster Confession into prominence: “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependenth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the word of God.” [5]

Harper would combine this hope for a Biblical renewal of religion with optimism in the new research university ideal (before the advent of research universities, American colleges were more focused on developing “gentlemen”) to come up with a new Biblical vision for American democratic society built upon a new “biblical science.” In the words of James P. Wind, Harper transformed “the Holy Land of Palestine” into “God’s great laboratory, devoted to the solution of a single problem: how to live. In this reading, the Old Testament became a scientific notebook kept by a host of ‘laboratory assistants’ who labored in different periods of experimentation'” [6]. Harper would rejoice in

The elevation of the study of biblical history and literature to a level, scientifically considered, with that of other history and literature. We may frankly acknowledge that the methods employed almost universally twenty-five years ago in connection with the study of the Scriptures – methods still in vogue in many quarters – were unworthy, not only of the subject itself, but of any place in an institution of higher learning. [7]

Harper’s insistence on a “scientific” approach to the Scriptures was part and parcel of his vision for a “democratic” society built around the study of the Old Testament because the civilization of the Hebrews represented the most well-kept resources for understanding the laws of human progression and development:

In the course of their long-continued history they [the Hebrews] passed through nearly every form of life, from that of savages to that of highest civilization, and they lived under nearly every form of government, from the patriarchal, through the tribal, the monarchical, and the hierarchical. The history of no other nation furnishes parallels of so varied or so suggestive a character. [8]

This critical and scientific study of the history and literature of the Hebrew people would serve to improve the state of religious education, which, in lieu of such methods, was of a lesser quality. Harper lamented the bifurcation of minds that accompanied many well educated people of his day:

A teacher in the public schools, trained in all the modern methods of pedagogy, will do work of a most modern and scientific character through five days of the week. That same teacher in a Sunday school will give instruction which is of an infinitely lower grade, and will undertake the religious work with a lack of knowledge of her subject which she would regard as disgraceful in connection with her regular work throughout the week. [9]

Harper was deeply driven by an evolutionary progressive vision of the development of society in which the tools of scientific research and study would lay bare before humanity the laws of human life and civilization. In order for these to triumph, however, humans had a duty to transcend the traditions and superstitions that they continued to inherit and spread. Universities were supposed to serve as the “prophets of democracy” that would take the lead in spreading the forces of enlightenment and education across the land [10].

There was, in other words, an inherent elitism in Harper’s vision for a Biblical science. The importance of critical methods is that they are set over and against “uncritical” and traditional approaches characterized by the current state of religious education. For the ultimate rise and triumph of a scientific civilization, these “unscientific” ways of doing things would have to go.

This elitism manifests itself in a number of various ways, i.e. a reconstruction of the canon into various historical strata based on historical reconstruction of the Biblical texts into various “sources”. Instead of working with traditional demarcations such as the Pentateuch, one ends up with an exilic P source, a Josianic D source, a united monarchy J source, and a northern kingdom E source. Confusing sections in the text which would traditionally lead readers to search for intertextual syntheses are now explained as the product of differing theologies. The binding of Isaac (Gen 22), for instance, has seen interpretations that actually suggest that, at one strata in its history, the sacrifice actually went through and that the final form of the text is actually a composite mash-up of at least two disparate sources [11].

I do not mean to suggest that all critical scholarship is necessarily elitist – indeed, one can say that the emphasis on plurality in the Bible has done a good job pushing back against false syntheses that have been made – but insofar as the enterprise of Biblical scholarship in the U.S. has been heavily shaped by the visions of individuals like Harper, it is important for any attempt to grapple with the question of how Christians ought to study the Bible to be conscious of the ways in which a good number of scholars have indeed been socialized into a particular way of practicing their craft which reflects a particular vision for society (and its variations). Insofar as the University of Chicago has been one of the preeminent influences on departments of Religious Studies throughout the United States – and indeed, more than just that, based on how often the “Chicago Style” of citation is used – an awareness of this history goes a long way to explain current tensions between biblical scholars and Christian laypersons today [12].

One of the biggest challenges confronting any attempt to reform higher education today comes out of addressing the deeply (heterodox) theological roots underlying today’s system of higher education. This history has tended to be obscured due to the kinds of stories that today’s secular universities like to tell about themselves (usually some variation of some slow evolutionary progression of the powers of reason and free inquiry over the forces of religion and dogmatism). And insofar as the project of the Reformation is tied up with the project of scholarship, Christians today who are serious about Bible study are going to need to be serious about the academy and the ways in which it has and continues to shape our understandings of what it means to study the Bible.

I have tried, in this post, to lay out some of the background behind why there might be a kind of “divide” between lay and academic approaches to Bible study in the U.S.: the academic approach to the study of the Scriptures has been heavily shaped by an elitist vision for a scientific society that is grounded in an evolutionary conception of history that sees itself as necessary sublating “tradition” and “superstitions” of the past as part and parcel of a true recovery of a Biblical society. In our next post, we will try to discuss a bit more the conception of study that makes this possible, the conception of scientific “methods” which permit for the isolation and examination of texts in abstraction from one’s one social context, the ideal of scholarly “critical detachment” or “objectivity”.

This allows us then to consider what is probably the most manifest irony in all of this – the ways in which lay bible studies spawned out of a reaction against the elitism of academic Bible studies often share very similar assumptions, but merely flip the values around. If Protestants are to be faithful to their commitment to the Scriptures as the final norm and authority of the church, we are going to have to find ways to transcend the limitations fostered upon us by the modern mindset. Without being able to substantiate my claims here, I want to suggest that the very idea of being “modern” (and thus at a divide from “the ancients”) plays an important role in alienating Christians from approaching the texts of Scripture as living texts, blinding us to the ways in which we continue to be surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses with whom we are still contemporaries.

[1] Quoted in James Gilbert, Perfect Cities: Chicago’s Utopias of 1893 (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1991), 202.

[2] See James P. Wind, The Bible and the University: The Messianic Vision of William Rainey Harper (Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, 1987).

[3] Indeed, the reason Rockefeller had wanted to endow a university was so that the Baptists could have a flagship university of their own comparable to the other mainline denominations of the time. See George Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

[4] Cf. the inaugural address of Charles A. Briggs, “The Authority of Holy Scripture,” upon in-statement as the Edward Robinson Professor of Biblical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in 1891. See Briggs, Charles A. The Authority of Holy Scripture: An Inaugural Address (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1981), 66-67.

[5] ibid., 33-34.

[6] Winds, The Bible and the University, 63-64.

[7] Harper, William Rainey. The Trend In Higher Education (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1905), 56.

[8] Ibid., 12.

[9] Ibid., 61-62.

[10] To expand upon this point would take us far afield, but here are a few quotations to whet one’s appetite. In short, Harper’s ecclesiology replaced the kingdom of God with the kingdom of man in the form of democracy, with the university in place of the church as its privileged torchbearer:

Democracy has been given a mission to the world, and it is of no uncertain character. I wish to show that the university is the prophet of this democracy and, as well, its priest and its philosopher; that, in other words, the university is the Messiah of the democracy, its to-be-expected deliverer. (p. 12)

Is democracy a religion? No. Has democracy a religion? Yes; a religion with its god, its altar, and its temple, with its code of ethics and its creed. Its god is mankind, humanity; its altar, home; its temple, country. The one doctrine of democracy’s creed is the brotherhood, and consequently the equality of man; its system of ethics in a single word, righteousness. …it was Jeremiah of olden time who first preached the idea of individualism, the idea that later became the fundamental thought in the teaching of Jesus Christ, the world’s greatest advocate of democracy; while the supplementary idea of solidarity, the corollary of individualism, was first preached by Ezekiel, and likewise later developed into Christianity. (p.21)

He [the priest] is the mediator between the individual and the ideal, whether abstract or concrete, which constitutes his God. For the god of each individual is that individual’s highest conception of man, his ideal man. The priest of democracy’s religion is therefore a mediator between man and man; for man is the constituent element in democracy, and humanity is the ideal of all its aspirations. (p.22)

Now, let the dream of democracy be likewise of that expected one [i.e. the Messiah]; this time an expected agency which, in union with all others, will usher in the dawn of the day when the universal brotherhood of man will be understood and accepted by all men. Meanwhile… the university spirit which, with every decade, dominates the world more fully, will be doing the work of the prophet, the priest, and the philosopher of democracy, and will continue to do that work until it shall be finished, until a purified and exalted democracy shall have become universal. (p.34)

All excerpts are taken from Harper’s essay “The University and Democracy” in The Trend in Higher Education.

[11] What is even more fascinating is the way in which these interpretations are not all unique to the modern era, many finding precedents in Rabbinic midrash and exegesis, suggesting that there may be a Jewish conception of the study of Scripture at play here. For an example of someone who reads the Abraham story as I have mentioned, read this article: “When Abraham Murdered Isaac”.

[12] This, of course, is not the only way in which Biblical scholarship has been practiced in the U.S. Conservative (and fundamentalist) reactions against the rise of higher criticism has promoted an alternative approach towards the study of the Bible that tends to see Bible study as attempting to discover eternal truths (understood in propositional terms) revealed to man by God’s direct inspiration. Interestingly enough, one can also see the influence of a form of scientism (though one that is more benign) on this conception of science, as the original progenitors of such a view (the Old Princeton school of theology) were trying to come up with a way in which they could conceive of theology as a “science” in a way akin to the various “sciences” of their age. Influenced more by Scottish Common Sense philosophy, which saw truths as mostly static and eternal, their dispute with the new Biblical scholars as much reflects the rise of more progressive and evolutionary approaches to the question of truth in the aftermath of Darwin as a matter of theological dispute.

Some thoughts from 1 Samuel 3 (Part 1)

1 Samuel 3 is one of the chapters in the book that actually does speak about Samuel. (He isn’t even named in many of the chapters – including the 4 chapters immediately preceding his funeral in chapter 25. Although he does briefly reappear as a ghost in chapter 28…and then there’s 2 Samuel, which isn’t about Samuel at all…) As the last three verses indicate (1:19-21), the story is a prophetic calling narrative, showing how all Israel came to recognize him as God’s authorized spokesman.

Short chapter summary: God calls out to young Samuel late in the night, but Samuel misinterprets the voice as Eli’s, yelling to him from the other room. After making this mistake twice, his mentor Eli finally recognizes that Samuel must be hearing from God and advises him to speak directly to God next time. God then gives Samuel an oracle against his mentor Eli and his sons, which he tells Eli in the morning.

I really like this story. Not only is this a story that captures our imagination, but it’s a story with layers of meaning packed into it, if you look closely enough – if you have “eyes to see.” Here are some things that caught my attention:

v. 1: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days, visions were infrequent.”

  1. In the circles I usually run in, “the word of the Lord” is typically understood as codeword for “the Bible” or, perhaps, “the gospel message.” Here, it seems that the phrase is being used differently, in a way that might fit more comfortably in more “charismatic” Christian settings, where people speak more frequently of God directly speaking to them. “I heard God tell me to share the gospel with her, so I did.” “God told me to go to China for missions.” It is often in these settings that visions and dreams are more accepted as legitimate ways that God continues to communicate to us today. Here, the phrase clearly isn’t being used to talk about the extant written scriptures (what would it mean for them to be “rare”?). The rarity of hearing a specific, momentary word from God is being paralleled with the infrequency of visions, which are another form of spiritual encounter with God, intended for communicating specific messages. Another question that arises here: Why was the word of the Lord infrequent? Did it have to do with the lack of spiritual receptivity, so that this introductory phrase is an indictment on Israel for its spiritual deafness and blindness? Perhaps we also need to ask ourselves whether we are open to hearing from God today – perhaps, even, through more “charismatic” ways of communication?
  2. Does anyone besides me notice the mixed metaphor here? The word – the basic unit of verbal, auditory communication – is spoken of in parallel with visions – a visually-experienced, and therefore perhaps more ambiguous, form of communication. Words are heard with our ears. Visions are seen with our eyes. Words can certainly be misheard or misunderstood, but visions often require a mediating interpreter (remember Daniel?). Both forms of communication, though, require discernment and attentiveness in order for the message to be successfully received. You must have keen eyesight to see the vision; you must have good hearing to listen to the word of the Lord.

Coming up in Part 2: thoughts from verse 2. I’ll leave the verse here for you to mull over – maybe you’ll see some of the connections that I’ll be pointing out in my next post. Reading over chapter 1-2 could help as well.

It happened at that time as Eli was lying down in his place (now his eyesight had begun to grow dim and he could not see well).

A prayer to end this post: God, speak to us! We want to hear from you. Use as your spokespeople. And if you already are speaking to us and revealing things to us, but we just aren’t listening or paying attention, unstop our ears and open our eyes, so that we can listen carefully, see clearly, and obey you. Help us to recognize all the ways you speak to us, and to be attentive to your words, so that we can help others to listen to you as well.

May it be to us according to your word,



Forgetting God

I’ve struggled my whole life with pride. Sometimes it manifests itself outwardly in the way I treat others (like that time I decided to mute a conference call, turn on the speakerphone for the benefit of my colleague, and make a few choice remarks on the exquisitely boring qualities of the person leading the call. Pro tip – when the speakerphone turns on, the mute turns off).

But most of the time pride slips its way in through my thought life. I find myself cruising along well-trodden paths of thought, reinforcing narratives about my life that are tailor-made to fend off my greatest insecurities. I  repeat these narratives often to myself, as a rosary of self-defense and self-worship.

Part of what it means to be prideful is to build ourselves false narratives that cut God out of the picture. We try our best to forget God. The old testament is full of stories about the Israelites forgetting God and then sinning as a result (Judges 3:7, Judges 8:34, Hosea 8:14). From a sinful human perspective this makes sense: why think about how you are not in control? Why remind yourself that there will be judgement, and that the true story of our life, not the narrative we’ve created for ourselves, will be told that day?

If it is in our sinful natures to forget God, what can we do to remember? How can I build patterns into my life that require us to dwell on who God is and what he has done?

I think one way to do this is to take yourself out of the race long enough to slow down and remember. To get away from everything, including those things which feed your pride. Doing this forces you to spend time in reflection.

There are many ways to “take yourself out.” John Piper stepped down from his church for 6 months to deal with issues of pride (highly recommend reading that link by the way).

I think another way is through planned times of extended reflection. Our company recently had one of these times, and I’d like to share what it was like.

Going to Big Bear Mountain

I got a taste of what that feels like “take myself out of the loop” earlier this year, when our small team of four squeezed into my suburban and drove up to Big Bear Mountain for our first company retreat. We had been working together for about a year and felt that it was time for some deep reflection and strategemagizing. We were going to be in the mountains for four days, so we brought plenty of beer, food, some more beer, and some extra beer just in case we ran out of the other beer.

Four days is a long time to be out of the loop. Especially when you’re running a business, and especially in the world of startups. Most startups don’t have time for retreats. Or for disconnecting themselves from their email. Which makes sense, since these things are pretty much antithetical to making money.

I can relate to the prevailing urge to “always be moving, reflect later” (which of course never leaves time for reflecting). Taking yourself out of the picture, even for a little while, seems to carry a great cost. But I’d argue the alternative is even more costly and dangerous (more on that below).

So here’s the first great picture:


Yep, that’s us. Deep in serious reflecting mode.

How To Reflect

During the last year, we’ve started forming the beginnings of a process for how we reflect together as a company. Our  process focuses on the creation of a simple document we very creatively call “Lessons Learned.” It’s a list of the most crucial events that have taken place since the last time we reflected (in this case, 6 months). For each event we write down a brief description of the facts, and then a list of the takeaways.

There’s nothing inherently spiritual in this process. But I would argue that there is a distinct spiritual consequence to what we are doing. Ultimately, these documents are a testament to how little of the time we’ve been in control. If we’re honest, the most important things that happened were not initiated by us – the extent of our “control” was our reaction to whatever happened, and even that’s a stretch.

Believing in Your Own Myth

Why is it important to reflect? Well, the temptation for a company is to forget the past as quickly as possible and focus on the future. But something strange happens when you don’t intentionally reflect: you start forming simple cause-effect narratives that help you explain or justify the past” “Oh yeah, we’re where we are now because we did X and it led to Y and then to Z.”

While it helps the business to have a powerful story, I always get the feeling that it’s not quite the truth: you end up taking more credit for things than you deserve. You start to think that you had it planned this way all along, and that you succeeded because of your own merit.

This is especially true if you end up being successful. You begin believe in your own myth. I’m thinking specifically here of Zappo’s founder Tony Hsieh and the truly frightening story of his $350 million project to build a utopian startup city that ended in the suicide of several of the community’s entrepreneurs. The project had it’s roots in the narrative Hsieh had built up about Zappos, and it’s drive to “deliver happiness.” To an outsider the phrase seems a bit cliche, but I imagine for Hsieh, repeating the phrase over and over again during meetings and conference presentations, and watching his company’s valuation skyrocket into the billions, a connection was made and a powerful narrative was formed.

Reflection is hard though. We shy away from honest reflection because it can be incredibly subversive – even dangerous – for the human ego. Reflection makes it difficult to lace our narratives with prideful illusions. It is humbling. For most people, this process of humiliation is unacceptable.

But I often forget that humble reflection can also be filled with hope. We experienced that in our company’s own process of reflection. While we were made painfully aware of our own lack of control, we also uncovered a startling truth: God has definitely been taking care of us through these last six months. When you muster up the courage to let go control, that’s definitely good news.

Being Alone

That leads to another great, concluding picture:

15 - 3

I think Jesus’s repeated decision to withdraw into the wilderness to be alone in part had something to do with reflection. We know that Satan tempted his pride when he was in the wilderness. Perhaps there is something inherent to nature that leads us to face our pride. Maybe it’s that nature has the same humbling effect as reflection: it forces you to face your own lack of control. The world is huge, and we are small and when you look out from a high place, you realize this.

Forgetting God

One of the last things Jesus did before he allowed himself to be handed over and executed was to ask his disciples to remember him, regularly:

“The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

Pride often manifests itself as the intentional forgetting of God, and by extension, forgetting the message of the the Gospel. On the other hand, reflection and remembrance remind us of God, who he is, and what he has done for us.

Remembering gives our souls time to ask God “why?” rather than leaving us scrambling to come up with our ego-centric narratives. Remembering protects us from our pride and forces us to come face-to-face with our own weakness and brokenness, and ultimately it points us to the Cross.

The Human Will: Shackled and Redeemed

We often do not pay much mind to our habits, especially innocuous ones like brushing teeth or checking the weather before deciding what to wear. Habits entail those behaviors that have become relatively automatized, so they can be executed with ease and efficiency. Cognitive resources in turn become freed up and can be devoted to more effortful, deliberate thinking. But here’s a disquieting thought: in reality, a wider swath of our behaviors, which should otherwise be subject to deliberation and possible revision, tends to land on the habitual side of this automatic/controlled spectrum—if we’re honest with ourselves.

Think about the last time you or someone you know started gossiping about others, almost effortlessly. Or, think of someone quickly launching into an unchecked, villifying tirade or tantrum. Indeed, we seem to be too good at falling into habitual patterns of thought and action. Sayings in English reflect some awareness of this fact. When attempting to account for erratic or harmful behavior, we’ll say things like, “S/he just couldn’t help it.”

This comes to a head in the case of more severe addictive and compulsive behaviors. Those who suffer from drug or alcohol dependence, as specified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), will openly acknowledge the destructive effects of their addiction, but also claim it’s incredibly difficult to inhibit their drug-seeking behaviors. In the past decade or so, research in psychology and neuroscience has begun to shed light on the neural bases for these powerful and seemingly inescapable compulsions. The brain’s reward system, which usually promotes healthy and adaptive reward-seeking behaviors (e.g., acquiring food and drink, selecting a mate), effectively gets hijacked when drugs take on affective and motivational value. Then, the perfect storm of sensitization (i.e., a lower threshold of activation when a drug cue is present) and tolerance (i.e., diminished responses to the drug after repeated exposure and intake) occurs, severely compromising one’s ability to resist the impulse to seek out the drug.

In discussing the topic of drug addiction here, I hope to illuminate a wider issue about the will and nature of the human heart. That is, the reality of sin has penetrated even into our neurochemistry, such that our God-given capacity to freely decide between different courses of action becomes constrained and sometimes threatened altogether. Now, a captive will does not mean it is no longer free. But, this dire example screams of the need for an all-encompassing change whereby the human heart is renewed and no longer prone to destructive, compulsive ruts of thought and behavior. Although a very learned man and righteous in the eyes of many, St. Paul saw this need in himself when he was writing to the Roman church: “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). Later in the same letter, he admonishes his audience to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2).

How is this transformation possible, especially given the unshakeable nature of habits and addiction? In Jesus Christ, we are entirely new creatures, with re-fashioned hearts that enable us to freely love God and others. God, speaking through prophet Ezekiel, made the following radical promise that finds its consummation in Christ:

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. You will live in the land that I gave to your forefathers; so you will be My people, and I will be your God (36:26-28).

The human will is indeed fragile and fickle, but the hope of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ freely and willfully chose the brutality of the Cross, so that our wills and capacities could be redeemed and re-purposed in such a way that we can freely respond to the amazing love of God in Christ.


“I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done.” – Psalm 118:17

Khadra al-Kassasbeh presses her forehead against mine. The 90-year-old grandmother is so close I cannot see her eyes. She touches my cheeks and kisses them, hunched over and whispering, “You are his mother too. You are his sister, you understand. God bless his soul and God give you a thousand healths, you understand.”

I don’t understand, really, because I don’t have a grandson. I didn’t raise my son and his sons under olive trees on green hills in Karak. I have never lost a family member in war. I cannot fathom how it would feel to bounce a baby boy in my lap, watch him grow up strong and tall, hear him calling me jidda, grandma, and then watch him burned in a cage on the Internet.

I don’t think I’d believe it was real.
I hardly believe it is real even now.

Jordan is filled with hurt this week. I don’t feel a right to hurt along with the country because I am a foreigner, an outsider, a listener catching snatches of pain at its outskirts. I have tried to understand every event unfolding in this region. I watch all the videos, track all the deaths, think hard about different narratives, political motives, historical contexts and propagandistic purposes. I consider what makes people angry and desperate. I imagine myself or my father in an Iraqi prison, imagine my family members tortured and killed without reason, imagine watching my country torn apart, myself running out of money, more and more burdens heaping on my chest with no breath or hope to keep me upright – in my imagination, radicalization is not so far-fetched. I see why fear and hurt turn into hate. I see how I might pick up my passport, sneak onto a flight and fling myself toward a preacher’s promise of meaning, self-sacrifice and worth.

But this, I can’t understand.

All week long I’ve heard the word shaheed. Muath al-Kassasbeh, the Jordanian pilot who was shot down, captured then killed on video, is shaheed, a martyr, they say. He is shaheed of the nation and of truth, of Jordan and Islam and humanity and goodness, say the newspapers and radio and television and posters all over town. Thousands of people prayed and marched in downtown Amman with posters of his face, calling for death to ISIS and blessing to the martyr’s soul. Hundreds gathered in Karak for three days of mourning, filling a Bedouin tent in the same place where Muath held his wedding six months ago. The king honored his family with a visit as his father spoke to the crowd: “Muath is not just my son. He is our son, the country’s son, martyr for our nation.” Fighter jets roared overhead, coming back from anti-ISIS bombings in Syria. Muath’s neighbors and relatives cried. Young men pushed to the front of the crowd, shouting that they wanted to be shaheed as well. “Let us join the military. We will give ourselves. We will be like him.”

I am an outsider, but I feel the hurt. Karak’s people are kind and hospitable. They open their homes at a second’s notice, begging strangers to stay, stay for ten minutes, stay for three days, drink coffee, have tea, be with us, be together, be filled. Khadra al-Kassasbeh whispers blessings into my cheeks, and I am angry that anyone would want to hurt her. I spend an afternoon with Muath’s wife and sister, hearing their stories, then I go home to write. I am filled with adrenaline from reporting, eager to get the story out, but when I’m finished I still don’t understand. I am sad. I wake up at 5 a.m. and cry.

LORD, I pray. Why would You want Your children to die? Back in the Kassasbeh house, two family friends are trying to comfort Muath’s sister and wife. “For sure he is shaheed now,” they murmur. “For sure he is in paradise, he is happier, he is well.” The holiest people we know have all prayed for him, they say. The imams at al-Aqsa, in Mecca and Medina, thousands in downtown Amman, hundreds of thousands around the world, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, they have prayed! He is shaheed, he is happier, he is well.

The sister and wife say nothing.

I don’t say anything either, because I don’t know what happens to people after they die. I only know that I hate Death. It feels haram, blasphemous, senseless and cruel. The young men rush forward, crying to be made martyrs. I feel their anger but wish they wouldn’t go.

LORD, I pray. I can’t find the words for my questions.

When Jesus Christ died on the cross, I wonder if his disciples called him a martyr. I wonder if they sat in the dark on the floor, staring past each other’s faces, saying, “For sure he is happier now.” How dark it must have felt, how heavy the night, how thick the air pushing against their chests and breaths. I wonder if they were gripped with an urge to destroy something – the computer screen with a grandson shriveling into ashes, the world with its hemorrhage of pain, the cross dripping vinegar and blood, or their own selves, heaving for air and light.

The word shaheed shares Arabic roots with the meaning, “to witness.” Yushahid means “he watches.” Shuhada means “certificate.” A shaheed dies in testimony. But I sit with Muath’s wife and she tells me that he wasn’t sure about the airstrikes. Muath didn’t want to kill innocent people, she tells me, especially other Muslims. He’d wake up early before every strike and pray two extra raka’s at the dawn prayer, she says, asking God to keep him from causing death. The morning he was captured, Muath’s wife says, he’d asked the Lord for foggy skies.

If I’d been a disciple of Christ when He died, I don’t think I’d have understood. “He’s a martyr,” I might have mumbled. “He’s left us for Paradise.” But it would hurt.

I am awake at 5 a.m., turning Death over in my head, asking why God would want martyrs spawning martyrs, death making hate, birthing fear, calling young and strong and beloved children to throw their lives into flames. I am quiet, and then I hear.

The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup,saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

I told you that I’m leaving, Christ said to His disciples. I am going, I am going, I am leaving, I will be gone, He said, but they could not understand where, how or why. Do not fear, take heart, trust in Me, He said. I am going, but I love you. He knelt and scraped the mud off their feet.

It took days before they saw Him again, longer before they understood. I am the good shepherd, Jesus said. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I know my sheep and my sheep know me. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. My sheep listen to my voice: I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.

I find words for my prayers. Ya rabb, thank You for Your witness. Ya rabb, You did not abandon us. Ya rabb, You were shaheed to the truth that You see us and love us, we who are frail, we who are tangled in our hollow boats and empty fishing nets. You are shaheed and yet victorious, the One and only One who caught the senselessness of Death and burst through it with spring and morning. You are the One lifting birds to sketch Glory in the air, the One drawing mountains into swells of indigo praise. You died to prove that You loved us, and then You lived.

Make me a witness too, I pray. There are festering poisons inside me that I beg of You to kill. Fear is gnawing at my spirit, anger stifling its breath. Pride will freeze me into stone and hurt is ticking toward self-destruction.

In the early morning, I ask God to cut these things away. Nail them on a cross. Burn them in a cage. Shear Your sheep that we might die to ourselves, but live in witness to a Shepherd who is alive. Make us humble. Make us meek. We press our cheeks to those around us, whispering: God is still here. God has come that we may have life, and have it to the full. God loves us. God still loves us. God will make us living sacrifices. God will make us shaheed, help us die only to live, help us find a second life.

God is our Shepherd. We shall not be in want. He will help us to love one another.