I think I am a City Mouse

Urban development and sustainable city planning caught my eye recently. And I am only scratching the surface of a very exciting evolution in what could be the most significant solution to climate change and resource scarcity, in both developed and developing countries. I am hoping to use this space to help organize what I am learning and thinking, and to invite discussions on this highly complex topic. (Read: this is to warn you that it might be a fluff piece. My mind is all over the place right now. But I do want to know what you think!)


Right now, about 50 % of the world’s population lives in urban areas. By 2050 this will increase to 80%. What that means is: the number of people residing in cities will increase from 3.5 billion to 7.68 billion in less than 4 decades (assuming that the world population will grow to 9.6 billion in total, according to the UN)! Where are people going to live? Will the healthcare system and transportation network be able to support the needs? Where will cities find the funds for the necessary infrastructure, especially if the cities face the risk of more frequent and intense storm surges and flooding? This subset of questions points to a bigger web of serious challenges – and opportunities for careful planning and investment in the national and international agenda. Urban issues are all encompassing because they are inherently multifaceted, and linkages between the energy, water, transport, air pollution, health, education, housing and you-name-it require cutting-edge analyses, that need to be constantly updated and developed. Am I starting to sound boring? My point is, urban development is important (and interesting!) for the prosperity of the nations and the well-being of the population, given the staggering trend I just mentioned.

Another source of inspiration is a book by Edward Glaeser, an economics professor at Harvard University, who argues that cities make us richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier. That is no small claim! Besides being a delightful read, his book, Triumph of the City, has also captured my attention by highlighting the centrality of human interactions and innovations that is made possible by our proximity to each other in cities. Where do you find the best restaurants, museums and theaters? Cities. Where are the offices of big companies and banks located? Cities. Whether it is the impact of productive peers (you run faster if you are competing with someone, for example), or more effective communication in face-to-face interactions, we cannot deny the value of proximity to other people. What does that mean when we think about policies that incentivize or disincentivize the movement and connection of people?

That same question is addressed by Jan Gehl, a Danish architect, from a design perspective. He spent 40 years studying how modern cities shape human interactions, and how the human needs for inclusion and intimacy should be seriously considered in how cities are built. His work has been used by the New York City Department of Transport to transform streets and public space that most of us remember and notice. One of the key elements of the face-lift is the creation of public spaces, in parallel to the bike lane, in the area between Times Square and Herald Square. Not only did that ease congestion and improve air quality, it has facilitated the interactions between people, and between people and their spaces.


I realized the common thread that runs through things that intrigue and excite me is: people. It’s all about the people and their relationships. As incarnational beings and stewards of this planet, our flourishing is critically determined by cities and spaces, more than we realize at least. Where we live, work, worship and play matters, even with the advancement of technology. (I personally think face-to-face interactions and online communication complement each other, but they don’t substitute for one another. The latter definitely does not replace the former.) What are your thoughts? Do you like the city you live in, and why? Does your faith affect how you see your city, or space, or urban policies?

So You Want to Be a Christian Journalist?

When I first came to Jordan, I didn’t think much about my purpose, vision or values as a journalist. I just thought, I love writing and I’m good at making friends, so inshallah this will work..! I also was desperate for income and thankful just to have my pitches published at all. But recently I’ve been thinking and praying about why I write and who I’m writing for. I’m trying to articulate the mission and values underpinning my decision to write – and in extension, my mission and values in life (whoa).

This is important because a) my discipler Ivy told me to do it when I graduated and I do everything Ivy says, hahah; and b) journalism is a spiritual minefield for competitive types like myself. Journalism fosters a striving mindset, especially among freelancers. Everyone is always scrambling to one-up each other, get the next scoop, pitch a better story and write something that will get you noticed and pay the rent. Hustle is everything. Humility gets you crushed.

How does the Gospel Worldview apply in this context? What does it mean to write not for my self, but for Christ and His Kingdom? Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

1. Don’t be a hater.
“Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” – 1 Peter 2:1

Half the Internet seems to be made up of haters and trolls, ripping each other apart and belittling anyone who disagrees with them as ignorant fools. It’s so common that it seems OK, which makes me sorry and sad.

I pray about this all the time, though, because I am naturally disinclined to be humble and so very quick to judge. When someone says something I find bigoted or mean, my knee-jerk response is equally dismissive mockery. I often want to ridicule the politics and opinions that I disagree with.

In Western media today, slander is not only easy but also lucrative. There are so many liberal outlets that love scathing exposés of “dumb Republicans” and so many right-wing outlets that do nothing but denunciate the left. As a freelancer scraping by from commission to commission, it’s really tempting to join in.

But Christ preaches a message of humility, which means I am not to denounce anyone, even if I disagree with them. Even when criticizing, I must be gentle and gracious, remembering that I don’t know everything. My goal is not to bash the other side to the ground but to ask genuine questions so we can make better polices, tell fuller stories, consider more narratives and seek truth. I want to build, not to break. I am to always remember that I am not infallible. I may very well be wrong.

2. Tell truth that makes peace.
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” – Proverbs 31:8-9

“But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.” – James 3:17-18

Sometimes journalists put on a hero affect, championing investigative work that speaks truth to justice and holds the powerful accountable. I am all for this, but pray also for words and stories that will tell truth in a way that ushers in peace. This means a) humanizing rather than polarizing, and b) rejecting vitriol.

My activist friend Kristian moved me during a trip to Israel/Palestine last August when he said, “I always assume good intentions.” Let us not demonize anyone based on assumptions about their backgrounds or beliefs, he said, but approach them thinking, You are a human like myself. I believe you want people to live and thrive, not to hate or oppress or destroy. This seems like a pretty basic humane mindset, but it’s not at all the standard in much of today’s journalism. We are quick to take sides, tacking good guy-bad guy narratives on everything from healthcare to foreign policy to environmental protection. It’s an easy narrative and one that makes for a good story – the evil man oppressing the small and weak! The rich stepping on the poor! The Man, who must be resisted!

The first problem with this approach is that it makes people shut down. Readers see vitriol and they stop listening. Rather than persuade others, it triggers their self-defenses. The second problem is that it doesn’t sound like Christ.

The Gospel narrative does not sugarcoat injustice. Christ does not brush over Sin and Dark and our screaming, falling world. But He also doesn’t pin blame on the Right or Left or Americans or elites. The Gospel, I think, asks us to humanize. Our tendency is to cry, “The world is broken, look, and IT’S ALL THIS OTHER GUY’S FAULT!” The Gospel says instead, “The world is broken, and the fault is upon all of us, and only Christ can save.”

When I wrote this story last fall, an aid worker I interviewed begged me not to take a simplistic good guy/bad guy approach. My Sudanese refugee friends had been telling me, “The UNHCR and NGOs are racist! They give aid to Syrians but not to us!” I realized that would be the easy story to write: Sudanese are being overlooked. This is discrimination. But the harder and more truthful story was that yes, there is injustice, but not out of malicious intent. Everyone is trying to help, yet it’s not enough. The problem is complex. Unilateral blame is easy. Finding a solution is not. But let’s go for the latter, because that will move us toward actually getting a blanket and food and medicine to our neighbors who need it, whereas the former makes a flashy headline and nothing else.

3.“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” – Philippians 2:3

I bolded and italicized and title-ized the entire verse because this is the mantra I pray and ask for grace to remember every single day.

This verse hit me deeply this year when I started working for a nonprofit that provides legal assistance to refugees, migrants and other marginalized people. Many of our projects are politically sensitive and require discernment in their media coverage – which means, counter to my previous journalistic assumptions, I should not always write everything about every story. In fact, there are some stories I shouldn’t tell at all.

Without Philippians 2:3 in my mind, all I care about is getting big scoops and deep stories with enthralling, juicy conflict. But when the Gospel comes in, my key question changes from What will make the best story? to Is my writing going to help or hurt people? As a self-seeking journalist, my portfolio and career come first. As a Christian, people become ablaze with dignity and importance. They are my brothers and sisters and neighbors, image-bearers of God who mean much more than fodder for my next pitch. Protection of the weak takes priority over my collection of clips. It doesn’t matter if I never get to write a story again.

I know these lessons are basic. But I wrestle with them every day, not only in what stories to write but also what to include in each piece. Paradoxically, writing for my Audience of One means using more discretion and sensitivity than I would if Christ didn’t factor into my work at all. I need prayer, humility, grace and a clear set of principles so that I won’t be lured to pursue gold stars of journalistic success at the cost of others’ suffering.

Actually, I need prayer, humility, grace and a clear set of principles in general. I prayed for discernment on what it means to be a Christian journalist, but ended up with answers on how to follow Christ, journalist or not – funny, yeah? Or divinely planned by a wise and loving God who shows us more of Him in every single thing we do… 🙂 PTL.

Concerning Camels and Needles

“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

– Matthew 19:24 (NIV)

In this familiar quote by Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Mark, a rich man approached Jesus and asked the Son of Man what he should do to inherit eternal life. Jesus replied that he should keep the commandments, and the man stated that he had kept them all. To which Jesus responded, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The young man was sad because he was unwilling to do this, prompting Jesus to speak the above verse to His disciples.

In the last couple of years, this verse has always been one that elicited both guilt and concern in my heart whenever I read it. Here I was, working in an industry known for its high compensation, and here Jesus was, telling us how hard it is for people with great wealth to enter His kingdom.  Fortunately, God set my heart at ease last month when through UChicago’s InterVarsity Fellowship, I attended a Bible study that spent some time digging into this passage.

Note: I’ll go ahead and state the obvious. Clearly I am more likely to interpret this passage in certain ways since I want to enter the kingdom of God (who wouldn’t?). Because of this unavoidable bias, please take my thoughts with all the salt required to melt the snow in Chicago this winter.


First, the perhaps easier way out for someone like me. One way to interpret what Jesus said is to broaden the scope of the passage to that of idols in general, instead of focusing on the particular idol of money. The rich man was someone who claimed to follow the law and hoped to earn his way into heaven. However, Jesus knew that for this particular man (and for everyone else in this world), there was some “idol” that he would not give up for God, so He asked him to give up his riches. If this man idolized something other than money, Jesus would probably have asked him to give that up to follow Him.

Even though there are other idols that can keep us from God, Jesus did specifically mention worldly riches here  and we can’t ignore that. While I can’t claim to know His complete reasoning,  these are two possible points that Jesus may have been trying to address here. First, we turn to the historical context. In Jesus’ time, the disciples expected the great/rich men of the world to glorify the Messiah with their wealth and power (from John Gill’s Exposition); therefore, like many of Jesus’ teachings, this was a counter-cultural statement that demonstrated how radical Christianity was in that society. It is no surprise that the disciples responded in the following verse with “Who then can be saved?”

Second, there is something about worldly riches that makes it easier to corrupt into sin than just about anything else in this world. God is sovereign, but money can give us a false sense of power. God’s will is final and already done, but money can make us feel in control. God calls us to live humbly, but money can breed arrogance and condescension. While having money is not naturally sinful, it’s all too easy for broken human beings to corrupt it into an idol. It’s one of the most dangerous gifts that God can give us that is not inherently broken.


Another interesting question that came up in our study was what it meant to give up our idols for God. In this case, if we idolized our riches, do we really have to sell everything and follow God empty-handed? Isn’t that a little harsh? I think the answer is…maybe. On one hand, God blesses His people with talents, whether it’s spiritual gifts or resources, so that they may glorify Him in this world. On the other hand, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.” (Job 1:21, NIV) If God asks us to give up something for Him, we should be willing to do just that. In my opinion, this latter point is important. It’s not necessarily about taking the gifts that God has blessed you with and getting rid of it all to follow God, it’s about the willingness to give it up without a moment’s notice if that’s what He calls us to do. Now am I saying that I am willing to part with my worldly riches instantly if God told me to do so? Well….

In verse 26, Jesus says, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” We have a God who is willing to help us turn away from whatever our idols may be and toward His salvation. God can move mountains for us, He can make camels go through the eye of a needle, and He can love His people even though they have fallen into sin. There is nothing I am more thankful of, because otherwise, I’ll have to start looking for a very large needle.

Jack Gang is currently working as an algorithmic trader at a proprietary trading firm in Chicago, IL.

Christ at the Checkpoint

What would Jesus do if he were standing at a checkpoint in Israel/Palestine today? Asked that question one year ago, I would have given you a blank stare. Growing up as an evangelical Christian, I thought of Israel only as a Bible-place of God’s chosen people, quaintly holy and surely blessed. Checkpoints, occupation, Palestine – these words meant nothing for most of my 22-year-old life.

Today I write from Bethlehem at the end of “Christ at the Checkpoint,” a Christian conference that asked “WWJD?” in context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I have an answer.

The question is complicated, as is any discussion of Israel and Palestine in America. I studied the Middle East at Princeton and Oxford, where my classes were objective, historical and politically correct. I swallowed timelines and parsed narratives, but never wanted to make a value judgment on the situation. In my eyes, Tigers for Israel and the Princeton Committee on Palestine were akin to College Republicans and Democrats. Both had valid points and interesting arguments, but no one was right or wrong. Both groups also seemed very emotional, and I wasn’t one to get swept away with radical types.

Then I graduated and came to the Middle East. I first visited Israel and Palestine last August, after a summer of Arabic study in Oman and before moving to Jordan. I wanted to see things for myself but kept my eyes narrowed, wary of activists’ exaggerations.

Instead, I found an occupation; a deliberate power imbalance where the weak were daily stepped on by the strong. Israel’s being “chosen by God” somehow exempted it from international law, basic human rights and the command to love our neighbors. My church and state saw innocent people illegally hurt and beamed in approval.

This went against everything I knew about Christ’s teachings. I came expecting to find suffering but not systematic injustice, and never any Wrong in which my country, church and self were complicit. I felt shocked, confused, and used.

My friends in Jordan are always astonished to hear that I went to the best school in America, but never knew that there is ongoing oppression in Palestine. “I thought it was complicated,” I tell them.

Living here, I’ve learned that injustice is only complicated to those who don’t suffer from it. In faraway America, I’d confused myself with semantics and details on who shot what or signed which treaties when and where, and why this or that made occupation reasonable.

But nothing is complicated to my arbitrarily detained friend in solitary confinement, to the mother whose baby cries from tear gas, to the man who has lost three daughters in a second’s bombing, or to the child who is afraid. Nitpicky suspicions fall apart when I face their eyes and stories. I am ashamed that I ever thought violence might be justified in the ostensible name of God.

At the conference, one older British woman told me she was a Christian Zionist.

“It’s wonderful that Jesus said we are to be peacemakers,” the woman said, brushing white hair back with wrinkled hands. “But I’m afraid.” How can we give up land to Arabs who are bloodthirsty terrorists, she asked? There are too many Muslims wanting to destroy the West, she said, in Israel and in Europe, feeding off welfare systems to plot suicide bombings behind closed doors.

“I like this conference but have trouble applying what we hear,” the woman said. She’d lived in an Israeli settlement for 10 years, working for Christian Friends of Israel. “I want to feel for Palestinians as I do for Jews when they are dying or hurt. I want to feel for children, women, civilians…” Suddenly she was crying. “Oh, dear, I’m sorry. I’m not quite there, but I want to be. Do you understand?”

I did. It can’t be easy to stake your life on something and see it flipped inside out, I thought, remembering an Israeli friend who’d changed his thinking after a gap year in Tibet. “The Tibetans live there with their language, religion and culture. It’s all Tibetan,” he’d told me, face wrenched, words slow. “But the people in control are all Chinese. Another race is in charge. I thought that was so wrong. Then I felt upset, because like, you know, it was sort of, it reminded me of what we have here.”

Questioning one’s belief system hurts. An Omani friend once told me that he’d woken up every night at 4 a.m. for two weeks, crying, when he converted to Christianity. “It felt like I was ripping off my own skin,” he said.

“Can we pray together?” I asked the woman, and we did.

Globalization is a gift to my generation. We don’t believe people in other countries are so different that we can treat them as lesser humans. A surfer friend in Tel Aviv once asked me: “What are the Arabs like? Do they drink? Smoke?” I laughed, telling him about my Jordanian friends who Instagram their parties, struggle with their sexual orientations, play flamenco guitar and wish they could just make music instead of being engineers and accountants. We are young, we are the same, we all just want to live. Our generation knows this.

Yet relating to one another is not enough. Before coming to the Middle East, my American millennial privilege had made me globalized but desensitized to suffering. I knew injustices existed but was too busy writing Facebook statuses about my thesis to examine them. I enjoyed feeling like a generally good person and skirted around sensitive questions that might threaten my career or upset my worldview.

Here, I’ve learned that people suffer when the privileged are ignorant or apathetic. Millennials like humanitarianism. We Tweet about Syria, work for nonprofits and glory in social entrepreneurship, all of which I love. But what if we microfinance a rural woman’s handicraft business, and then a drone kills her and her children? Seeking justice must extend beyond doing Good to also checking ourselves for Bad. We must ask harder questions, dig deeper into our state and military’s actions, not to undermine America but because we love her.

Having seen the occupation, I believe it is unjust and must end. I am not against Israel, America, or evangelicals. I just don’t want policies that hurt people in my church and nation’s name without our understanding or consent.

Conservative evangelicals may call me naïve. My response is not argument but invitation. I grew up in Asia, so when Americans ask if Shanghai is a Communist rice field, I laugh and ask them to come look around for themselves. When others say Palestinians are hateful and all Arabs want to push Israel into the sea, I again say, come and see.

As a follower of Christ, I believe that God stands with the oppressed. But oppressors are themselves oppressed by insecurity and fear. I’ve heard many Israeli and American friends speak out of terror: the Communists will get us! The jihadis will bomb us! The non-Western world lives in cultures of hate that will crush us the moment we let them, so we’d better crush them first!

If Jesus were here today, I believe he would pierce these lies in a second. They are so flimsy against the truth that man is man, filled with dignity, and no one is less human or less fiercely loved by our God than another. I believe Christ can and will free the oppressed by freeing their oppressors from fear.

But we must first commit to seek truth, relentlessly and humbly. I speak to Americans, Christians, and especially my generation: friends, political vitriol and religious rhetoric are distractions. Let us choose honesty over comfort. Let us ask questions even if they lead us to give up our privileges. Let us be smart and let us be brave – above all, let us be human.

I originally wrote this piece for +972, an independent online magazine focusing on Israel and Palestine, after I spent last week in Bethlehem at Christ at the Checkpoint. I volunteered on the media team doing FB, Twitter and their blog posts (learned a lot about ignoring Internet haters and trolls, haha). For those who want to learn more about Christian Zionism, I HIGHLY recommend watching this documentary (use code CATC2014 to get it for free this week). I also found this dialogue on replacement theology, between a Wheaton prof and Messianic Jew, really helpful. Also loved Princeton alum Joseph Cumming on Christian response to rise of religious (Islamist and Jewish) states, and Munther Isaac on neighbors.

(Ekuo I’ll also write another normal blog post! But wanted to share this as well.)

The Idea of an American College

One of the most difficult things about trying to think about higher education today is that it’s not immediately clear what it is even all about anymore. I’ve just finished reading Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be and he himself confronts the fact that a lot of confusion about college today comes from the fact that we tend to use the word “college” to designate institutions ranging from community colleges, commuter schools, and research universities even though the differences between them are far from trivial.

These differences are something that I am experiencing first-hand as I spend this year dealing with people who come from all sorts of backgrounds, even if many of them are “college-educated” or “college students”. I’ve run into people who have essentially not made any new friends at school because all they basically do there is take classes, study, and then return home to hang out with church or high-school friends. If they’ve been displaced from their home community, some of them have problems finding a new one because pretty much no one sticks around on campus after classes are over.  This is possible because what they are studying is purely technical, a matter of professional training aimed towards accreditation. This is not even to mention the many who now study online or via distance learning programs.

Delbanco, however, himself has one particular ideal in mind when he uses the word “college”: the vision of a community of learning dedicated to the pursuit of contemplation for its own sake. It is the liberal arts education that Delbanco is concerned with, as well as the uniquely American development of the tradition; whereas the liberal arts has traditionally been the province of the societal elite, it was in the U.S. that the ideal was democratized.  Based on this definition, however, the number of students who are actually getting a “college” education is a lot lower than one would think: maybe fewer than one out of fourteen “college” students would actually be attending “college” as the word originally meant to the Puritan founders of America’s first colleges. This discounts the even larger numbers who don’t attend attain to any form of higher education at all. This, so it seems, serves the role of the call-to-action in Delbanco’s narrative.

But how the heck did we get here in the first place? Delbanco offers a different glance at the situation compared to the jeremiads of religious authors like Alasdair MacIntyre (Catholic) and George Marsden (Reformed), who mourn the fragmentation that has characterized our institutions of higher learning ever since their unifying religious visions were abandoned. The story that Delbanco tells is one of expansion and reaction. Whereas Marsden characterizes the McCosh-Eliot (Princeton v. Harvard) debates over curriculum in the late 19th century as a clash between a losing attempt by McCosh to reserve for religion a special role in education and Eliot’s promotion of the non-sectarian ideal that was to be the “religion of the future”, Delbanco sees both men as trying to deal differently with the new reality confronting every institution at the time: more students than ever before.

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the McCosh-Eliot debates, it was a heated discussion at the turn of the century (1885) over whether or not students should be allowed to “elect” their courses or be forced to take classes that make up a certain “core curriculum”. In other words, it was the moment in which “electives” were born. George Marsden, in The Soul of the American University, suggests that the core issue was whether or not colleges had a right to demand that there were certain things that all young men ought to learn – a question of religious authority. McCosh was the defender of Calvinism, which held to certain revealed tenets about the world and human nature; Eliot was a child of Emersonian Transcendentalism, a product of a Unitarianism which celebrated individual self-reliance and creativity as the means through which the divine unveiled itself. For Marsden, the debate was as much theological as it was practical, the difference a question of whether the Calvinist conception of freedom – submission to God’s order – or a modernist conception – individual self-legislation – would win.

For Delbanco, on the other hand, the question of curriculum was not so much a question of theology as it was of immediate practical concerns. Both could recognize the problems immediately confronting them – growing enrollment numbers – and both formulated strategies to confront it. The disagreement between McCosh and Eliot was not a matter of educational philosophy so much as an anthropological evaluation: Eliot simply believed that Harvard’s admissions process would only admit those self-thinking individuals capable of choosing the course of study best for themselves; McCosh, on the other hand, was a bit more skeptical about the capabilities of young men emerging from their teenage years. For all the rhetoric about freedom in choosing one’s classes, Delbanco merely points to the fact that an elective system makes economic sense when confronted with an increasingly specializing and professionalizing caste of teachers and enlarged enrollment. Increasing class size – exploding upon the push for co-education in the 20th century and search for international students in the 21st – makes it more difficult to maintain a compulsory curriculum as it means having to find more teachers who must both be prepared to teach it as well as willing to take time away from their research to work on it together with other faculty. For Delbanco, it is the democratizing impulse of American higher education, pushing to expand higher education to the masses, not the theological tension between two differing interpretations of the role of tradition in faith, that led to the loss of the core curriculum.

Though Delbanco himself teaches at a university which supports a core-curriculum (Columbia), it is not the actual content of that curriculum that interests him, but the role it serves in preserving what he calls “lateral learning”, the ideal of communal learning which insists that learning is not simply a vertical transfer of information between teacher and student but also a horizontal experience of engagement with one’s peers. For the wealthy colleges that could afford it – Harvard, Yale, and Princeton – the construction of residential colleges that could bring students together into community would preserve the communal ideal central to Delbanco’s conception of college. For those that couldn’t – Chicago and Columbia – core curricula serve a similar function.

Delbanco’s concern for the success of the democratization of higher education causes him to highlight the many ways in which our colleges serve more to perpetuate social hierarchy rather than promote mobility today. He is especially concerned that the rise of “meritocracy” (which, Delbanco wryly notes, was first coined in a dystopian novel of the order of Brave New World) has only served to hide the underlying inequities behind the admissions processes and quash the sense of social responsibility among those who are admitted.  Interestingly enough, he appeals to a recovery of religious concepts of “grace” – the conception that God does not discriminate between persons when bestowing his gifts – as a resource for pushing back against meritocracy.

Delbanco’s book is impressive in its breadth and brevity: it covers a wide vista of important moments in the history of the American college while nevertheless remaining around 200 pages (by comparison, Marsden’s The Soul of the American University is a whopping 480 pages). For those of us planning to participate in the continuing experiment that is American higher education, Delbanco’s emphasis on the importance of lateral learning  having a peer community – and the social responsibility that comes with democracy is one that resonates with religious emphases on the importance of friendship and justice. I suspect that the connection is no accident. The Emersonian tradition from which Delbanco hails is essentially a secularized Christianity which replaces church with the American nation and God with the American people. The realization of “democracy” and the kingdom of God are one and the same. The theological virtues of faith, hope, and love are replaced by secular versions which call for faith, hope, and love in “the system” and “the American people”.

Insofar as the absolute transcendence of God is effaced, Emerson’s Transcendentalism is idolatry. But insofar as it nevertheless affirms some of what is good and right and true, we have found allies in our own attempts to grapple with the meaning and significance of American higher education. He brings attention to various aspects of the religious past that, on his own admission, many of his secular colleagues would be embarrassed by.  He, on the other hand, tries to appropriate these ideas and virtues for his own purposes. There is much to be applauded in Delbanco’s book, but his reading of the McCosh-Eliot debates reveals his commitments: for him, Eliot embraced the pluralistic democratic future ahead of him while McCosh resisted it. We who follow in McCosh’s footsteps in affirming the importance of faith and education might discern a valid concern in McCosh whereas Delbanco sees only stubbornness.

And in the end, what is perhaps most disappointing about Delbanco’s book is the scant attention paid to what ought to be done. For a book with “What It Should Be” in its title, little is said about the historical sources and course content that really ought to be taught in such schools, the canonical texts and decisions which have shaped the tradition of liberal democracy as it has taken shape in America today. As Peter Berkowitz said in his recent article on improving higher education:

“Liberal education is not neutral. When true to itself, it encourages gratitude toward free societies for offering the opportunity to study fundamental ideas and seminal events, and for maintaining—by means of customs, laws, and political institutions—a framework that allows individuals and their communities a wide sphere in which to organize their lives as they think best.”

This is the core curriculum which McCosh defended, though, of course, McCosh might be a bit broader in his choice of texts so as to include that contemporary pariah we call Christian Theology – indeed one of the required classes at McCosh’s Princeton was a class in Christian apologetics. In this sense, Delbanco’s Emersonian celebration of self-discovery and creativity may have blinded itself to the fact that its individualism is not universal but a very particular brand of individualism, one with a history and tradition that by its very nature it tends to ignore, an irony that Princeton professor Jeffrey Stout chronicles in his book Democracy and Tradition. This canon of saints might include figures such as Locke and Rousseau, Emerson and Thoreau, Whitman and Dewey.

But we, too, have a great cloud of witnesses that we would do well to remember, and – even more – insist that others do as well. But Paul and John and Moses and Isaiah have long been relegated to classes which are not so much interested in their continued viability so much as their historical contingency. The study of Augustine and Aquinas, of Calvin and Barth and Luther has been shoved into those cute pre-professional schools we know as “seminaries”. What things might these who have gone before have to say to us today? How might they call us out of ourselves into the responsibilities that God has set before us? These, and other similar questions, are among the casualties of the triumph of Eliot’s ideal.

Andrew Delbanco opens his final chapter with a reflection on what genre of literature his book might best be archived as:

I have tried in this book to tell a story of ideas and institutions while keeping people – students, teachers, academic leaders – at the forefront of the tale. I did not want to stick to any one of the genres to which such a story usually conforms – jeremiad (invoking the past to shame the present), elegy (gone are the greats of yesteryear), call to arms (do this or that and we will be saved) – so the result, no doubt, is a messy mixture of them all. In fact, if there is one form to which most recent writing about college belongs, it is none of the above, but, rather, the funeral dirge.

But we hope in a God who gives life to the dead and calls the things not being into being. Have mercy on us, we pray.

Note: I have majorly over-simplified this book in this presentation. Also, there are other issues that I have not discussed for brevity’s sake. Consider, for instance, that the liberal arts ideal comes from a Greek anthropology that sees detached contemplation as the true end of man. This is a conception that Christians, for whom both work and rest are proper to humanity, might want to push back against. Nicholas Wolterstorff has perhaps the best reflections on this in his essay collection Educating for Shalom, in which he tries to articulate a vision which finds some middle ground between the liberal arts and the technical college.

Also, for some more reflections on why the elective system might not be so bad, I’ve written another blog post elsewhere.

Why doctors (and doctor wanna-be’s) should read

I want to challenge my fellow pre-meds and aspiring physicians to read more. I want to suggest that a passage in Plato’s Dialogues, or a verse in a T. S. Eliot poem, is as important for our future medical careers as a chapter in Biochemistry6th edition. We are human beings before we are physicians, and the community of human beings of ages past demands our attention.

This past weekend, I got a chance to attend the 3rd annual Medicine & Religion Conference, hosted by the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine. Philosophers, theologians, and healthcare professionals huddled to commiserate and pontificate, with the singular goal of pursuing a more harmonious relationship between (duh) medicine and religion. The Conference was mostly smart-talk – distant babble of academics – but I did come away with one conviction: in medicine, science is not enough.

The same phrase, oddly enough, appears in an address given in 1968 at the convocation ceremony of the American College of Surgeons. Then-President Dr. Preston A. Wade is, I like to imagine, speaking before a room full of recently initiated surgical fellows – eager to prove to the world (and their patients) their hard-earned prowess – only to urge them to undo what years of medical training had sculpted into the marble of their souls. He tells them, no less, to abandon their hardline devotion to science and technique.

I will quote at length from his address, because I think his words are worth noting:

“Today’s medical student makes his choice of profession, in a large measure, because of involvement in varying degrees with human suffering and his desire to alleviate it…Somewhere in the course of his medical education, the student becomes indoctrinated in pure science, or hard science philosophy, and tends to change his outlook, at least as he expresses it to his colleagues and his teachers, and adopts a much more hardened attitude toward medicine. It is obvious to him that anyone who continues to talk about studying medicine to alleviate human suffering may not always be popular with his colleagues. It is sometimes considered weak and rather childish to continue this attitude when one is struggling with intricacies of chemistry, biology, and physiology.”

It’s as if Caesar tells his army before a momentous battle that they’ve readied the wrong weapon (or, more accurately, not enough weapons).

The problem with a merely scientific or merely technical view of medicine is that it fails to recognize medicine as a human art, in which realities transcend neatly bounded categories and predictable outcomes. Even the routine prescription of statins for someone with high cholesterol can veer into the chaotic realm of emotions, spirit, and morality. As much as we would like to think, we – physicians or patients – are not merely material bodies.

To believe this is one thing, but to act on it is another. I have heard many medical students say, “I have to study right now – it’s for my future patients,” to justify why they are staying in with their science textbooks, rather than doing something else. Then there’s the system of ‘rotations’ in which the medical student becomes a nomad, jumping from clinic to clinic, field to field, with little time and space to be human themselves. Medical schools have a powerful set of rituals, and those rituals act as a ceramist, shaping his clay in very particular ways. After all, the decline of “empathy” among medical students by their third year of school is a well-documented phenomenon.

In the end, that is what I’m warning myself and others against: not the dedication of students to learning medical science, but the subtle transformation of that dedication into idolatry, a new religion, complete with its own rituals, merciless to its heretics. Refusing to bow to this new religion, perhaps, is no easier task than the holy defiance of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego against King Nebuchadnezzar. For the brave, the fiery furnace awaits, except that fiery furnace is a niggling and pernicious feeling that you aren’t doing enough compared to the others, that you will not make a good doctor.

What, then, does reading have to do with it?

Sherwin Nuland, a surgeon-writer who taught at Yale, famously said “You cannot forget too much science at the bedside.” When patients do not react the way we foresaw, or suddenly begin to cry at being told their diagnoses, or when, despite all of your attempts, they die, physicians will be clawing in the caverns of their souls for resources – for the words to describe what’s really going on, for the words to say back to patients to help them heal. Is a dying patient an impending code blue, or, as poet Dylan Thomas put, a fire, “rag[ing] against that good night”? Physicians must choose their words carefully.

Medicine, as I said, is a human art, and reading is an act of participation in the human community. As human beings, our community is not simply our contemporaries – those with whom we share a common time and space, and, therefore common limitations in perception. God has graced us with History, and the experience of those who have gone before us can color our vague outlines with paints we do not possess.

Every man falls under the cycle of birth, life, sickness, and death. Medicine deals with all of those things, and if we’re not careful to reflect on them and to seek the guidance of others (both present and past) during that reflection, we will very quickly find ourselves helpless to help others. I am not suggesting that reading (and engagement in the arts in general) will negate all of the tendencies in medical education towards disenchantment, jadedness, and science-worship, but it’s a very good place to start.

Daniel Song is attending medical school in the fall, and currently working as an intern at an inner-city primary care center in Chicago.

P.S.: For more details on the 2014 conference mentioned in the post, visit medicineandreligion.com/schedule.html

Shalom in medicine

Hello! My name is Stephanie; I graduated Princeton in 2010 with a WWS degree and am now a fourth-year medical student going into psychiatry residency (i.e. more years of training to become a psychiatrist) starting this July. I recently married my wonderful husband, who is also a fourth-year medical school student.

One (of the many) joys of being in medicine with my husband is that he is able to also think through and provide a different perspective about the field – all of the posts I will be writing on this blog are the product of and/or influenced by conversations I have with him, so I wanted to explicitly acknowledge (and thank!) him from the beginning.


When I went to medical school, it seemed like a fairly straightforward decision because there seemed to be such an explicit link to promoting shalom, which is perhaps just another way of saying “you get to help people.” The book of Revelation makes clear that in heaven there will be no more mourning, crying, or pain, so from my then-cursory understanding of medicine, of course becoming a doctor was a legitimate endeavor.

In medical school, psychiatry in particular captivated my attention because while the body was interesting intellectually, psychiatry deals with the profound mystery of patients’ minds and spirits, the restoration of shalom in situations where ultimate things are at stake. In friends and acquaintances who have struggled with eating disorders, depression, PTSD, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder (to name a few), I have seen how necessary a foundation mental health is for establishing shalom, for “a man’s spirit sustains him in sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?” (Proverbs 18:14).

// as a side note, i feel like there’s a WORLD of redemption that needs to happen in the church’s understanding of psychiatry and mental illness; those who suffer from mental illnesses are unnecessarily shamed and hurt by the church’s ignorance of the realities of mental illness and casual dismissal of those who suffer as “needing to have more faith in God” etc.//

The journey through medical school has been one of the most challenging experiences of my life (academically, personally, spiritually etc) — and having a gospel worldview in medical school itself is probably worth 1000 posts (or rants) — but my journey has given me a glimpse into a more nuanced reality of the gospel worldview when applied to the practice of medicine. My hope is that those who are seeking to be in the medical profession (or even just want to understand it) will find this a useful adjunct to their own journeys.

A few things that come to mind and that I hope to address in future posts (although on some of these I may have more questions than answers):

  • How should a gospel worldview impact the attitude of a physician when treating patients?
  • What is medicine prepared to do, and where are its boundaries? (i.e. what are the expectations we can rightly have of medicine?)
  • How does promoting shalom translate into how a doctor practices? Beyond treating the individual’s disease, this includes (but is not limited to): 
    • addressing systems and policies that prevent patients from receiving proper treatment
    • addressing the patient’s context and community
  • In psychiatry:
    • How can a psychiatrist respond to both the organic and inorganic needs of the mind?
    • How does an understanding of sin and the fall help us conceptualize mental illness?

Not sure where I’ll start, but I’m glad this blog exists, as it encourages me to think a little more systematically through some of these issues (the unexamined life etcetc).

I’m always open for suggestions for topics, so let me know!

Gospel and Government

I’m Karen, and I work in the Singapore government. I’ve done so for about three and a half years now. Right out of school, I returned home to serve a six-year bond to the Government, which graciously paid for my colleague education. I’ve spent two years in the Treasury, and just over one and a half in the Education Department. It’s been a ride, and contrary to expectations of public service, there’s never a dull day. I’ve been part of pre-school reform in Singapore, major shifts in Singapore’s welfare system, setting up a new university, setting up a new division to strengthen the Government’s engagement with our people in policy-making etc. I’ve also been disappointed by systems, people, institutions, and most of all, myself.

I’ll probably get the chance to write more about how the gospel shapes & redeems Government work, but before that, I wanted to share one thing that has stood out most pertinently to me as I dived straight into the working world – where one is introduced to (to a larger extent than ever before), the messy randomness of life.

Isaiah 66:1-2

 Thus says the Lord:
“Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool;
what is the house that you would build for me,
and what is the place of my rest?

 All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be,
declares the Lord.

 But this is the one to whom I will look:
he who is humble and contrite in spirit
and trembles at my word.

Let us not have too high a view of ourselves and what we can do with our lives (for God, or for ourselves). It is the Lord’s work we are participating in, wherever he has placed us. And what is his command to us? To be humble and contrite in spirit. To tremble at His word. To treasure Him above all else and to move towards greater dependence on him, not greater control of our lives.

I believe that the business of Government is steeped in opportunities to seek justice, to speak for the oppressed, to create conditions for human flourishing & strong relationships, and to seek transparency in how institutions relate to individuals (and vice-versa), just to name a few. I have many examples, and I will find a later date to elaborate. But for now, I want to leave you with Isa 66:1-2. I have lots of hopes and dreams for how things should be in the Government, and I will strive to achieve it. All of us have those ideas in our field of specialty.

But I know that attaining these outcomes is not my primary calling. My primary calling is to sit at his feet in humility and contrition and to do all that he lays out before me for the day. From the mundane of clearing things through the huge bureaucracy, to the opportunities to speak to authority, to the quiet moments where I am at my desk, contemplating how to respond to an email from one of my officers. We live for Him in each moment, not just in the big bold things we do. And he died for us, so that we may live for him.

Academics Need Grace Too

“Great is God our Lord, great is His power and there is no end to His wisdom. Praise Him you heavens, glorify Him, sun and moon and you planets. For out of Him and through Him, and in Him are all things….. We know, oh, so little. To Him be the praise, the honor and the glory from eternity
to eternity.”

― Johannes Kepler

“God, what does it look like to be an academic for you?”

A few weeks ago, God gave me a a very real, tangible picture of what the Christian academic life could be. Dr. Francis Su, a professor of mathematics at Harvey Mudd college and president-elect of the Mathematics Association of America, was presented with a distinguished teaching award at one of this nation’s largest mathematical conferences. His acceptance speech, was, as he put it, an attempt ‘to explain the gospel of grace in a language academics could understand’.

He later posted the text of the talk on his blog under a post entitled The Lesson of Grace in Teaching, and shared an audio file of the talk . If you only have time to read one blog post today, I would highly encourage you to read his post. It is truly inspiring. 

I came away from the article refreshed and inspired, filled with great hope in the ability of the gospel to transform the academy. It reminded me of two motivations for my vocation that I had previously theoretically subscribed to, but perhaps dismissed as being unsustainable in the increasingly meritocratic and cutthroat ranks of the academy. They were:

  1. To be an academic for the joy of academia; and
  2. To treat others in the academy with grace because of the immeasurable grace we have been shown.

Much of this blog post will be centered around my reflections on Dr. Francis Su’s speech, and how these principles might play out in my own life.

1. Being an academic for the joy of academia

What does it look like to do research for God? For a long time, I let myself be content with some vague notion of academia as a quest for God’s truth. Academia was that pure and perfect path to a fuller enjoyment of His beautiful creation and to a deeper awe at His unfathomable understanding. The more nebulous and indistinct this picture of academic motivation was, the more I could convince myself that it was the driving force in my academic pursuits.

During the first semester of my Ph.D. there came a point when I finally stopped and admitted that I could almost not remember what it felt like to be God-serving, and not self-serving, in my research. But doing so filled me with a great sense of shame. I became paralyzed by a fear that even seeking God through research was at heart a self-serving act, centered on maximizing my personal experience and enjoyment of God. Everything I did became in protest against the selfishness I saw in myself. I was trying to empty myself of the desires of the flesh without filling myself with the goodness of God. And it was a tiring and futile process.

In his book Culture Making, Andy Crouch describes three prototypical Ivy League students. There are the ‘legacy students’, those born into privilege and entitlement. There are the ‘strivers’, those who grit their teeth and climb the rungs of the meritocratic ladder. And then there are the ‘children of grace’, those who intentionally assume a daily posture of gratitude and grace. I have always been a little uncomfortable with this classification, because there was always a little niggling voice in the back of my head, wondering whether I was truly a daughter of grace, or an imposter, a striver, striving to no longer strive.

The Lesson of Grace in Teaching reminded me once more that grace is precisely something that does not need to be earned or striven for. Indeed, Romans 5 says that ‘Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more’. God’s grace is more than sufficient for all our trespasses and selfish desires. To be fearful of our inability to earn God’s grace, and by extension to implicitly consider it possible to earn God’s grace, is to think too little of it.

But let us go back to the question of whether searching for encounters with God through academic pursuits is ultimately a selfish endeavor. I realized that perhaps I had been approaching the notion of selfishness from the wrong direction. To be selfless is not to be empty of self, but to be filled with someone else. And if I could experience the fullness of God through my research, if I could be consumed by His being and awed at His glory through my academic pursuits, if I could be filled with the joy of the Creator through my intellectual realizations, then what more worthy pursuit could there be for me? As Jesus told Martha when she worried about all the things she needed to do to truly be serving Him, we need only one thing. To sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to what he says.

This is not to say that every time I sit down to think about my research problems, I am consciously seeking God and filled with joy and awe and ‘holy’ thoughts. I will be the first to admit that I am probably stuck in a weekly cycle of trying to prove something worthy of being shown to my advisor. I also do not mean to dismiss the reality that the modern day American academy thrives on meritocracy, on the notion that you can only increase your value in the eyes of society by demonstrating either your perseverance and effort, or your innate ability. But I know that even if my version of the academic life is not perfect, an ideal exists, and God in his immeasurable grace is drawing me closer to it every day.

2. Treating others with grace because of the immeasurable grace that we have been shown

One of my issues with the academic profession is how systemically self-serving it is. It is hard not to feel indignant or wronged when someone we view as less deserving or less capable receives the very thing we had been striving to achieve. At bible study the other week, our pastor, Charlie Drew, challenged us to consider whether we were really seeking God and truth through research, or seeking our own glory. How would we feel if someone else proved the theorem we’d been working so hard to prove? How would we feel if someone else gained the academic recognition that we felt we had either earned or deserved?

This issue is perhaps best encapsulated by the tenure system. Most budding academics have a love-hate relationship with tenure. It promises a lifetime of security and comfort, freedom to live the cushy life and do whatever you want, so to speak. But the road to tenure is long and arduous. You spend five to six years grinding out paper after paper, trying to prove that you are of value to the university, either because you consistently produce good work, or because you are moving towards some great result in the future. But you are not guaranteed to get tenure. There is the very real possibility that after those six years of toil, you will be hovering just on the wrong side of the line, classified as ‘not quite valuable enough’ and dismissed.

In fact, most of higher education is based on the premise that you must earn and be worthy of everything that you get, because there is just not enough recognition to go around for everyone who deserves it. Most people in the higher education system learn this early on, and so spend a lot of time and energy separating their self-worth from their achievements in academic circles. I definitely believed, almost with a perverse pride, that I was able to separate my own identity from my achievements. My mother raised me to believe that my abilities were a gift from God. never praising me for my achievements,or berating me for (what I perceived to be) my failures, but instead always rejoicing with me in God’s continued goodness to me. I was a child of grace. I was grounded in my personal identity as a child of God, given many good gifts in His grace.

But meritocracy was still a fundamental part of my worldview. Although my personal achievements did not heavily influence my self-worth, I started measuring the value of my classmates and peers in terms of what I perceived to be their intelligence and work ethic. That guy who always asked questions during class? They’re usually not very good questions, so he’s probably not the best mathematician in this class. That guy who always makes comments? They’re always insightful and highlight the fundamental structure of the mathematics we’re looking at, so he will probably go far. Almost all of my human interactions in the mathematical sphere reflected these value judgments to some degree.

Contrast this with God’s judgment of our value and worth:

He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young. …

Lift up your eyes on high and see:
who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
calling them all by name,
by the greatness of his might,
and because he is strong in power
not one is missing.

Isaiah 40:11, 26

Reading The Lesson of Grace in Teaching, I realized that I had been so busy learning to accept grace for myself, that I had forgotten to extend it to others. By not giving grace to others, I was helping to perpetuate the view that in the academic system, a person’s value was measured by their academic achievements. I was complicit in enslaving others to the very same measure of self-worth that I fought so hard to free myself from.

The irony is that the world of academia does not need to be self-focused. The university was designed to be a place of collaboration and community, of collective learning and discovery. Professorships have two main components, research and teaching, one of which encourages collaboration within the established academic community, and another which aims to build up the future academic community. But somewhere along the line, man had perverted this system and made it about the self and the individual.

Francis Su demonstrates that we can live out the gospel of grace by treating students as worthy because they are human beings. Students do not need to be the most hard working, the most intelligent, the quickest on the uptake, the most receptive of our material, to be worthy of our time and attention. And for me, maybe I can live out the gospel of grace by treating my classmates and peers as worthy because they are human beings. They do not need to be more hardworking than me, smarter than me, quicker than me, with deeper academic understanding than me, in order to be worthy of my respect and attention.

I am still slowly working through what a gospel of overflowing grace may look like in my day to day life. The Lesson of Grace in Teaching brought home to me that there are many parts of the gospel worldview that I have become good at articulating on an intellectual level, but don’t believe to be fully realizable in our broken world. I hope that you will be able to join with me in further exploring what the gospel looks like in the academic life through this and my future blog posts.

Irene graduated from Princeton in 2013 with an A.B. in mathematics. She is currently in the first year of her Ph.D. in IEOR (equivalent to ORFE) at Columbia University, where she spends her time pondering how to serve God in the academy and pretending that she knows how to be an engineer.