Counterfeit Books on Amazon

liturgy-of-the-ordinary

Did you buy this book from a third-party seller on Amazon? It is very possible you purchased a counterfeit copy, and a rather poor knock-off at that. You also robbed the book’s publisher of revenues and the book’s author of her royalties.

The story about this broke today on Christianity Today. The book is Liturgy of the Ordinary, a book by Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren on encountering God in the ordinary of everyday life–from making beds to peanut butter sandwiches to hunting for lost car keys. It was Christianity Today’s Book of the Year in 2018. The publisher was InterVarsity Press [in the interests of full disclosure, I work for IVP’s parent organization, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA]. The publisher revealed today that they have discovered that at least 15,000 copies of the book were sold on the Amazon site by third-party sellers that were counterfeits. The retail value of these sales would have been $240,000. I do not know the details of the author’s contract, but suspect this represents a loss in the neighborhood of $20,000 in royalties. Only after Christianity Today contacted Amazon in connection with this story were the third-party sellers of Warren’s book removed from the Amazon site.

The New York Times reported on this practice on June 23, 2019. They reported a hands off attitude by Amazon. While Amazon warns against the sale of counterfeit products on their site, they do not screen third-party sellers apart from responding to complaints. A seller that sells enough copies, which appears to be what happened with Warren’s book, becomes the default seller, taking over the “buy” button. When I first read about this in the NYT article, it just confirmed my low estimate of Amazon’s business ethics. I’ve long observed the practices of paid reviews, read reports of treatment of workers in their warehouses, and the pressures they’ve placed on vendors. When it came to print publications and other physical products, I’ve long ago decided to buy only from brick and mortar vendors.

Today it became personal. Amazon allowed my friend to be stolen from, and not just for a few bucks or a few copies of her book. Tish Harrison Warren was a former colleague in campus ministry, and following publication of her book she offered a workshop for some of those I minister with. She is an gifted and thoughtful writer and speaker. Amazon claimed in the NYT article that counterfeiting wasn’t a big problem. I think my friend would beg to differ.

One of the problems with counterfeits is that while you probably saved some money, you not only unknowingly participated in theft from my friend and her publisher, you likely received an inferior product. Warren posted a list of defects found in counterfeits of her book, and separately posted images of these defective copies including differences in the colors on the cover. Here are some of the specific issues she noted:

-Annotation numbers throughout the book being in full size font, not superscript. This is not consistent—the copy I’m looking at has a large 1 on page 18, followed by superscript 2 and 3 later on the page.

-Condensing of words—the best example of this is Greg Jao’s name on the endorsements page. It looks like GregJao without the space. I can also see it on the subtitle at the start of chapter 2 on page 25.

-Incorrect running headers: The left page should always have the chapter title, the right page should always have the chapter subtitle. The copy I’m looking at has the previous chapter’s subtitle on the left page (p. 26)

-Missing character glyphs—the best example of this is on page 74 in the chapter title. The Y in “my” (Fighting with My Husband) is missing the lower part of the letter

-Darker section breaks (the little graphics throughout the chapters) are darker, like nearly black. In one of our copies, they should be a pale gray.

Warren recommends these steps if you are one of those who suspects they purchased a counterfeit:

1. If you believe you have received a counterfeit edition, please return the book to Amazon and ask for full credit.

2. Please note the seller from whom you purchased the counterfeit edition and send that information to AuthenticEditions@ivpress.com. We are attempting to stop the sales of these editions through Amazon’s marketplace re-sellers.

3. Please rate the seller experience low on Amazon. This will help decrease the visibility of the re-sellers who have made counterfeit editions available.

4. If you desire to ensure you are buying authentic editions, visit the following URL: www.ivpress.com/real-liturgy. This will allow you to buy from InterVarsity Press at 40% off plus free shipping for all addresses in the U.S.

5. If Amazon refuses to grant a full refund for the purchase of the counterfeit edition, please email AuthenticEditions@ivpress.com and IVP will be in touch with you on a special price for us to replace the counterfeit editions at the best possible price.

You might look for similar defects and pursue similar remedies with other counterfeits. Good luck! Just another instance where the old axiom caveat emptor comes into play. If you are not buying from Amazon itself, read the ratings, report poor service and counterfeits. Amazon relies on you to “drain the swamp” (do you like the idea of doing Amazon’s work for them?).

I personally love the fact that the publisher is offering the book at such a discount, which is available for anyone who wants to purchase the book. Here is the Bob on Books review, if you want to learn more about the book before you buy, helping the author retrieve lost royalties (don’t use the publisher link in the review).

As I mentioned, I’ve long ago decided to buy books and other physical products from local vendors. Sure, I will shop for good prices like anyone, but I want to sustain the businesses committed to my community, booksellers and others. Can you tell I’m pretty fed up with Amazon? It seems to me that the only thing they respond to is customer behavior and perhaps well-publicized negative publicity, and perhaps not even that. As someone who not only reviews but loves books, appreciates the people who write them (including a number of friends) and the skilled professionals who publish, distribute and sell them through legitimate channels, I am against anyone who undermines the flourishing of the book trade. I’m against those who undermine local commerce. Allowing the unscrupulous to steal from my friends is just about the last straw.

How about you?

The Death of My Hometown Newspaper

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One of the papers I delivered. Image scanned from Pages From History (c)1991, The Vindicator Printing Company.

On Friday of this past week, I saw a post that the daily newspaper from my hometown of Youngstown will cease publication at the end of August. This announcement came on the heels of the newspaper’s 150th birthday. As the publisher and general manager of the paper noted, ” The Vindicator will not have much of a birthday celebration.”

The story is a familiar one, perhaps exacerbated by generations of business losses and corresponding population declines. Circulation fell, and with it, advertising revenues. Attempts were made to modernize, to pare staff, to reduce the size of the paper. Other investors were sought. Eventually, the owners, the fourth generation in the family to own the paper, determined that there was nothing more that could be done to stem the continuing financial losses.

The news came like a body blow. This was a paper that had been the voice of the Mahoning Valley for generations. It stood up to the Klan in the 1920’s when the city had a Klan mayor supported by many of the ministers as well as people of the Valley. It chronicled mob and political corruption. The big news stories of my youth appeared in its headlines: the assassinations of the Kennedys and King, the football championships of the Browns in the Sixties, Vietnam, Woodstock, the moon landing, and Kent State. My picture appeared as valedictorian of my senior class. My wife’s engagement picture was there. For that matter our births were recorded there as were the obituaries of parents and grandparents.

I delivered the paper for over three years. I got up early on Sunday mornings, and delivered it on hot summer days and subzero days in the dead of winter. I often read its news stories before any of my customers. Sure, we complained when our papers were late or we got “shorted,” but it was a great learning experience. On my route, nearly every family took the paper. People noticed if they didn’t get their paper.

We subscribed to the local paper in Toledo and Cleveland. It was obligatory in Toledo, where my wife worked for the paper. We bought the local paper at least on Sundays for a time in Columbus where we now live. Then we stopped. Recycling the papers was a chore. We could watch the news on TV. Then the internet came along and we could often get news coverage for free until papers started putting up paywalls.

Interestingly enough, the Vindicator never used paywalls. I constantly looked up articles for my blog. I didn’t think to subscribe. Turns out I was one of the reasons the paper died. I valued keeping in touch with my hometown. But not enough to pay for it.

The greater loss is to the people who still live there. Local newspapers cover everything from local sports and entertainment events to weddings and deaths. They also cover local civic, business, and political affairs, the things that shape the quality of life of a community. At their best, they can offer far more depth than a 15 second story on TV. Usually, no one else offers the same kind of coverage of these local matters, or the impact of state and national policies on local life. It was said by Tip O’Neill, one time speaker of the House, that “all politics is local.” No other place keeps track of how city council members vote or how political appointees or civil servants do their jobs.

Furthermore, it is the disciplined work of getting the facts straight and writing a succinct and interesting story about a local school board meeting that trained many newspeople of the past to get the facts straight and write stories on issues of national import. Certainly no newspaper is neutral but many could tell the difference between news coverage and the editorial page. I wonder whether modern agenda journalism in part is a product of the lack of experience working under editors committed to those stubborn things called facts.

One of the themes of this blog is the value of the local. We all live someplace. The question is whether it is a good, and beautiful, and distinctive place. Does it have roots, a connection with a particular past? Does it have community institutions that give it character? Is it a rich and varied place, or a desert of big box stores and strip malls? I think part of the grief, the punch to the gut, that so many of the people from Youngstown felt this past weekend, was the loss of one more piece of its distinctive identity, and one more thread that helps knit a community together.

I don’t know what can be done in the case of Youngstown. I hope other media are able to step up and fill some of the gap. Public TV and radio have a particular role to play here. I wish now I had subscribed to the Vindicator, even as part of the Youngstown diaspora. It appears I’m too late for that. But perhaps not for the paper where I now live, that has faced the same pressures and has been forced to some of the same measures as the Vindicator. Today I decided to put my money where my mouth is. I became a subscriber.

Are Universities in the United States Losing Their Edge?

princeton-university-in-new-jersey

Princeton University, Public Domain via GoodFreePhotos

The lead story in this week’s University World News reported that universities in the United States received their worst rankings in the sixteen years the QS World University Rankings have been published. Ben Sowter, director of research at QS, says the United States is seeing an unprecedented rate of decline in these global rankings. While five of the top ten schools are from the United States, only 29 are in the top 100, and 72.6 percent of the schools saw a decline in their rankings.

Why is this happening? Sowter observes:

“This attrition of confidence has been compounded by worsening international student ratios, relative to global peers, and evidence that America’s previously unassailable status as the world’s research leader is under increasing threat.”

Declining federal funding

Courtesy of the National Science Foundation

In the US, federally funded research funding has declined from a peak in 2011 by 13 percent by 2016. Recently, the current US administration proposed another $7.1 billion cut to Department of Education funding. However, it should be noted that funding cuts go back to the previous administration. States have also been cutting research funding during this period. Any increases in funding have come from industry and from universities themselves. Meanwhile, the research output at China’s top ten universities now nearly equals that of the US although the “research impact” of US universities is still twice that of China. China has been making an aggressive investment in research funding during this period.

Concurrent with these funding declines are political attacks on science, striking the use of “evidence based research” in government reports, and publicly questioning finding concerning climate change and the safety and efficacy of vaccines. These factors also color global perceptions.

This is regrettable because an American Academy of Arts and Sciences study shows that the majority of Americans strongly support funding for scientific research (71-72 percent), and view research as beneficial (72 percent). It appears that in perceptions of science as in other matters a smaller but energized base skews perceptions held by a broader swath of the American public.

As an American who is a Christ-follower engaged in ministry in higher education, I have deeply mixed feelings about all this. On one hand, I am a witness to the huge advances in medicine, digital technology, transportation safety, development of renewable energy, and many other aspects of human life that comes out of research labs. Our research output has contributed to vast improvements in human flourishing in many areas. I’m also conscious of the double-edged character of so much of our research, that may both heal and kill, and sadly often is utilized for the latter.

Also, as one whose first allegiance is to the kingdom of God that knows no boundaries of national borders, I do not have a vested interest in the perpetuation of the greatness of American research universities, as much as I love my country. Advances in knowledge are to be celebrated whether they occur at Harvard, or Oxford, or at the National University of Singapore, Tsinghua University in China, the University of Melbourne, or Universidad National Autonama de Mexico (UNAM). I do regret that it appears we will have fewer opportunities to welcome students from other countries.

What troubles me is seeing good resources squandered. I wonder what is not being researched for lack of funding in American universities. I wonder about the quality and focus of research when more of it is tied to industrial or military clients. What questions of basic research are being ignored? What talent is fleeing our borders for countries more favorable to research? As in so many things, research universities may take decades to develop into greatness, but can decline within a few years. Right now, American universities are trying to keep up by increasing their own funding efforts as state and federal funding declines. It can be asked how long this is sustainable as well as what else suffers along the way. Will funding pressures and the loss of international students, who bring tuition dollars into the university, result in universities becoming more selective in admissions, enrolling the elite at the expense of those requiring scholarships and grants?

What is clear is that what we do in the next years will be decisive. If we start now, perhaps in five years the precipitous declines in these rankings, and the corresponding declines in our universities may be stabilized or reversed. If we don’t begin now, things likely will get worse, even as other universities in China, Singapore, Korea, Australia, and other parts of the world get better. The quality and output of our research universities, coupled with the protection of academic freedom in our universities have been one of the marks of American greatness. Both are in jeopardy and it seems the question we must ask is whether we are willing to accept this form of loss of American greatness.

Why I Have Confidence in the Work of Research Scientists

banner-982162_1920The title of this blog post is written carefully. I do not trust individual scientists more or less than any other persons. I have confidence in the work they do because of the rigorous process to which it is submitted. I also particularly specify researchers, people who are testing theories, running experiments, presenting findings at conferences, and submitting papers to journals for publication. I am not speaking of scientific popularizers or those who use the cloak of science to advance ideological agendas. I also speak in the plural. Individual scientists, like any humans may err, but the scientific community has built in processes that sift out the erroneous.

I will be honest, I do not write as a scientist. I write as someone who knows scientists from work in collegiate ministry at a major research university. I write as someone who has watched people work for months setting up lab apparatus for experiments, only to get inconclusive data and start over. I’ve watched people spend hours of effort crafting research proposals for grants that are vetted by fellow researchers in a system where one in four or less are funded. I’ve listened to reports of those who report research findings in conference presentations only to have their work torn apart in question sessions, forcing them to go back and correct mistakes in their research process. I’ve observed the agonizing process of writing articles for academic journals in one’s field–articles that are sometimes rejected, at other times are returned with reviewer critiques that must be addressed before re-submission, and sometimes published only to be challenged by other researchers who cannot reproduce the purported results under the same conditions. The price for deliberate fraud is high. One is basically black-balled.

That’s what research scientists do. They are part of a scientific community relentlessly (and sometimes ruthlessly) committed to attaining ever-closer approximations to understanding the truth about the physical cosmos around us. Scientists don’t always agree on theories or the significance of research findings. Sometimes, a dedicated researcher or group of researchers will persist 40 years (basically their working life) to substantiate a theory, sometimes changing the ways scientists think about some aspect of their field. Often they replace a workable, mostly right theory, with one that works even better. It’s a process without shortcuts that takes time, and a good deal of money. But their work has yielded space shots and smartphones, cancer treatments and eradicated small pox and nearly eradicated polio.

Why do I write about this? I write because the work of these people is under attack. People are fostering the notion that these people are not to be trusted, that their reports on things like the earth’s climate and our contribution to climate conditions are nothing more than a deep state conspiracy. It is one thing to write such things when you are talking about some distant “them” you may never have personally encountered. I have friends who do this work, and they are mystified by this. Many would say they don’t have a political bone in their bodies because their research is so engrossing. There are many who share my faith. There are many others who don’t. At the lab bench and the scientific conference, it doesn’t make a difference. It comes down to how good your research is. My friends are usually among the first to cry out against those who make false claims in the name of science. Truth matters that much to them.

There are those who use science to advance political or ideological agendas. They are usually popularizers who either never wore a lab coat, or have given it up but use their reputation to bolster their claims. One may think here of ethologist Richard Dawkins who cherry picks scientific studies to support his militant atheism. One research study shows that most British scientists believe he misrepresents science. Others cherry pick science to support their particular view of biblical creation. Both approaches use science to answer questions science was not intended to answer. Most research scientists I know, no matter what they believe, want no part in any of this, except to go on the record that this misappropriates science.

It is axiomatic that when a particular group attacks a group of “them,” be they scientists or immigrants or home schoolers, we would be wise to recognize that the attack is primarily designed to garner support for that group, and to use a grain of salt in assessing their attack. I would suggest, in the case of science, that if you really care about truth and don’t want to be “faked” that you go and meet some real scientists at your local college or university. Ask yourself, “do I personally know any scientists?” Most Americans do not, which makes them an easy target.

I don’t absolutely trust science, in the way I do God. Any scientist worth his or her salt wouldn’t want me to. Most often, they present their research in terms of confidence levels or intervals, such as a 95% probability that a predicted result will occur, or results within a certain range will occur. Most of us formally or informally act with confidence even when probabilities are not that high. At what percentage of rain chances will you carry an umbrella or rain gear? At what odds will you place a bet on your favorite team?

So when scientists who have worked through the rigorous process I have described publish results and their work has survived the rigorous winnowing process of peer review, I’m willing to place confidence in the work of this scientific community. That doesn’t mean a better theory might not replace it at some point. Newton’s understanding of gravity still works pretty well in most cases, even though Einstein’s theory offers a better account. All of life is like this. But that’s a far cry from believing scientists are purposefully deceiving us. At the end of the day I’m far more inclined to place confidence in the scientists than the deniers. There is no comparable process to the peer review and criticism process for deniers who often just have to put something on the internet. So in whom are you going to place your confidence?

 

False Prophets

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_-_Jeremia_treurend_over_de_verwoesting_van_Jeruzalem_-_Google_Art_Project

Rembrant, Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem

I’ve been thinking about the question of how, in an era of “fake” news, “alternate facts,” and conflicting discourses, one discerns truth from falsehood. It is actually quite an important question, because few of us want to go down a wrong path or be deceived or deluded.

Warnings abound in the scriptures about false prophets along with instructions about how one may discern them. While many of today’s voices are not claiming to be prophets, they are attempting to convince people to believe a certain narrative, and to respond in certain ways based on that belief. They may not claim the label, but they are functioning in the role, even if they do not invoke religious language.

One passage on which I have particularly reflected is Jeremiah 6: 13-15

13 “From the least to the greatest,
all are greedy for gain;
prophets and priests alike,
all practice deceit.
14 They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say,
when there is no peace.
15 Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct?
No, they have no shame at all;
they do not even know how to blush.

I notice at least several things here that bear on our contemporary concerns:

  1. Do people have a significant financial interest that is tied to their message? In today’s world, this could come in the form of significant followings that garner advertising dollars, or campaign contributions, or donations to a cause, or a business seeking an “inside” or “preferred” track.
  2. The fact that a person is in a religious office or invokes religious language does not mean their message is true. Jesus warns of “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15). Jesus actually describes them as ravenous wolves. Sadly, religious offices and language can be used to exploit people for one’s own purposes or gratification.
  3. Is there a demonstrable pattern of deceit on the part of the speaker, apart from their message? Jeremiah says that they “practice deceit.” In Jeremiah 23:14 (NRSV), Jeremiah describes the false prophets of Jerusalem as “walking in lies.” As children, we may have been taught that when we tell a lie, we make it harder for someone to know if we are telling the truth. If there is a demonstrable pattern of lying in action and deed, we should be even more reluctant to credit a message from such a person as truthful.
  4. They refrain from confronting hard truths that point out flaws, indeed sins, in their hearers lives, or minimize their seriousness. I’ve written elsewhere (and prior to our current administration) that we have dressed the wounds of racism and our treatment of native peoples as though these were not serious national sins. False prophets assure us that there is nothing really wrong with us, that we are all basically good people, and that no serious amendment of our lives is required. Sometimes, such messages are accompanied with the scapegoating of others who are “them,” outsiders in some way on whom we may conveniently place all the blame.
  5. They tell us life will be all right, that we will have peace, even if we are in imminent danger. That’s what we want to hear, after all, isn’t it? In Jeremiah’s day, people were longing for liberation from the yoke of the superpower, Babylon, and the false prophets said it was coming soon. Jeremiah took to wearing a wooden yoke to symbolize this domination. When a false prophet broke the yoke, Jeremiah replied that God would replace that yoke with one of iron (Jeremiah 28).
  6. They are shameless. Dictionary.com offers the following synonyms for shameless: brash, wanton, improper, bold, rude, audacious, flagrant, brazen, outrageous, high-handed, unabashed, immoral, unprincipled, abandoned, arrant, barefaced, brassy, cheeky, depraved, dissolute. While the term “hypocrite” is not on this list, the fact that the moral character of these people is distorted enough that they flaunt what most people are ashamed of means we should not look for truth from this person.

It is noteworthy that Jeremiah, and other true prophets like Elijah, were far outnumbered by false prophets. It’s not popular, and sometimes dangerous, to tell the truth. Indeed, one thing that may distinguish true prophets from the false, is that their message has been personally costly (as opposed to the “gain” of false prophets).

Scripture provides two other important criteria that distinguish false prophets.

  1. A prophet is false if what they prophesy does not come to pass (Deuteronomy 18:21-22). No matter our efforts to defy or deny reality, in the end, we either live by its truth or find ourselves false to our loss. We may say gravity does not exist, but our denial of its reality will be readily and lethally exposed if we step into the air from a tenth story window.
  2. Prophets are false even if what they prophesy comes to pass if they lead us to believe in what is no god (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). For the Christian, if a message invites us to put ultimate allegiance and trust in anyone or anything else than the Triune God of holy love and saving grace through Christ, whether it be ourselves, a political party or figure, a religious teacher, or anything else, that message is false.

I’m not going to point fingers, and I would ask in commenting that you refrain from this as well. Usually, we don’t point fingers at those whose messages we listen to, but rather at the “other guys.” What I might suggest instead is that we use the criteria above to honestly evaluate those to whom we listen. What matters most is that we discern whether those we listen to are telling us the truth. If we are people who teach, or blog, or editorialize, and seek to persuade others, we do well to examine ourselves by these criteria.

At the end of the day, to build our lives, or to build our nation on lies is a perilous undertaking. To speak falsehoods is even more perilous. Jesus warns that on the day of judgment we will give an account for every careless word (Matthew 12:36). He warns that if our words or lives cause a “little one” to stumble, it would be better to have a millstone around our neck and drown ourselves in the ocean than face God’s reckoning (Matthew 18:6).

This is not a game.

Are Humanities Degrees A Dying Breed?

A J Gordon Chapel Gordon College

A. J. Gordon Chapel, Gordon College. Photo: John Phelan [CC BY 3.0] via Wikimedia

Gordon College announced recently that it was eliminating chemistry, French, physics, middle school and secondary education, recreation, sport and wellness, Spanish, and social work as separate majors, and combining philosophy, history and political science into a single department. This will mean the cutting of 36 faculty and staff positions.

Several small liberal arts colleges have faced closure, and one senses that the move on Gordon College’s part is to avoid a similar fate. Between 2012 and 2015, the number of bachelors degrees in the humanities dropped by nearly ten percent.  By contrast, degrees granted in engineering, science and health and medical sciences have increased.

Much of this is attributed to a rise in the number of jobs related to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)-related disciplines. Not only do majors in these fields preclude major in the humanities for all but the most motivated students, but the course loads in these majors are driving the reduction of what we called General Education courses, those that provided the necessary number of student hours in these humanities courses.

In my work in collegiate ministry with graduate students and faculty, most of those I know in the humanities are working as adjunct or contingent faculty, as tenured faculty positions dry up. They are lured to grad school by a love for literature, or history, or philosophy, and the chance to dig more deeply into what they love on fellowships or tuition waivers and stipends for teaching introductory courses with undergrads. They are actually low-cost labor. Then, as they wrap up four to six years of study with a dissertation, they go onto a saturated job market competing with several hundred others for every open tenure track position, often settling for those adjunct or contingent faculty positions. Many times they have to pay their own health benefits out of salaries that place them below the poverty line. Some find other ways to leverage their talents in industry, teaching high school, free-lancing or other jobs related, sometimes tangentially,  to their field. And some are baristas, or food truck vendors.

While it saddens me to see people who do not find jobs in the fields they love, most end up living satisfying and interesting lives. What saddens me more is the message many others are buying into in preparing for work in STEM fields. These are often sold as the training needed to fill the jobs that fuel the American economy. The message seems to imply that the purpose for which the emerging generation exists is to be fuel for our economic machine, or maybe a cog in the machine–until the machine replaces them! I find myself wondering how long people will settle for this before waking up to the fact that they know how to make and do, but have no idea why they are making and doing, what kind of world they are making and doing in, whether their making and doing is something good and worthy to give one’s only life, and how we arrive at this place in time and this kind of society.

A good liberal education helps people explore all these questions, and consider whether the answers of others address the questions of the day. I wonder sometimes whether the effort to eradicate what was once a staple of education is a recognition of the dangerous character of such an education. It fosters the asking of hard questions of oneself and one’s society. Questions people ask. Questions cogs do not ask.

I asked the question of how long it would take for people to wake up to what they’ve missed or lost. I suspect some never do, the amusements and distractions of life precluding such awakenings. Others get twenty years into a career only to discover that they have no clue why they are doing what they do other than that it pays well.

Writing a blog, and curating a Facebook page devoted to book, reading, and ideas, I interact with a diverse community of people for whom ideas and history, literature and art matter. They have discovered that making a life is far more important than making a living. They want to understand not only how to do things, but to make sense of their place in the world and this particular time in its history. Some have always understood this. Others fought to this realization later in life.

It makes me wonder whether at times humanities courses are wasted on the young. I wonder whether one answer to declining humanities enrollments is offer courses for those who later on in life realize what they have missed. Perhaps this accounts for the popularity of things like The Great Courses.

Why do I value the humanities? I could come up with profound answers but the truth is, it comes down to some good teachers who opened up the fascinations of history, the profound questions raised in great works of literature and philosophy and the passages of Augustine and Calvin that made my soul soar. There were also those in the sciences whose larger perspective on life looked beyond how things work to explore why we can understand these things and why they seem so beautiful, why the world is a place of wonder.

I realize as I muse on these things that I have no clue what the answer is to the decline in humanities enrollments and the curtailment of humanities programs. The most that I know to do is to keep affirming the richness and goodness and beauty of the fruits of these disciplines: literature, history, philosophy, political thought, art, music, and more. I don’t know that I can be a good teacher, but I hope I can celebrate those in print who have been good teachers to me and say, “look at this.”

Why Libraries are Worth Our Support

Rose Reading Room

Rose Reading Room, New York Public Library. Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia.

Right now, libraries in many parts of the U.S. are facing cuts to funding. The most visible case of this is the New York Public Library, which while not technically facing a cut is only receiving an increase from $387.7 million to $388.8 million, which given inflation and increased demand for services, amounts to a cut. High profile figures, including Sarah Jessica Parker have joined the fight to increase library funding in the different boroughs of New York City.

I think libraries are one of the best deals out there today for those who pay taxes. I only occasionally borrow books at the library, but even my occasional borrowing, if I consider the retail price of the book, more than offsets the portion of my taxes.

My basic argument for libraries is that they are one of the most powerful weapons we have for sustaining our democracy, particularly given the growing income disparities in our country.

  • They provide online access, computer terminals, and printing facilities for those who cannot afford these.
  • They offer books for children who cannot afford them, fostering literacy at the most critical time of life.
  • They provide resources for job searches, and often basic courses in job-seeking, and computer literacy that is fundamental for many workers.
  • Many offer homework assistance for students and language assistance for immigrants wanting to learn English.
  • Libraries make available expensive manuals and reference materials for those who by necessity are do-it-yourselfers.
  • Many offer help with college admissions tests, helping to offset the advantages that more affluent students have with test prep courses and other assistance, legal or illegal, in getting admitted to colleges.

In addition, libraries offer so much at no cost to patrons simply for personal growth and entertainment–books, recorded music, videos in both physical and e-formats. They offer a range of programs serving every age group from children to seniors for personal enrichment. The demand for all these services continues to rise, often meaning personnel in the libraries are trying to stretch funding to acquire materials, and often the same people are working harder and longer–many of whom hold at least masters degrees in library science.

Librarians also are increasingly have to cope with the social challenges of our age. Librarians may be the first to spot child abuse. In urban centers, librarians often serve patrons who are homeless, chemically dependent, or mentally ill. In some instances, librarians are the first to respond to a drug overdose and many are trained to administer Naloxone.

All this is to say that I am proud to support the library in my community and extremely impressed with all that they accomplish with our tax dollars. I would venture that this is true in most communities. Why not take time to thank a librarian this week? And if there is a tax issue on the ballot, the best way you can say thanks is to vote yes. It not only is a great bargain (often less than your Prime membership, and certainly your cable bill), but it is one of the best investments I can think of in sustaining our democracy.

 

Why I’ll Be in Church This Sunday

Inside_Church_view

Inside Church view at Water Baptism. Photo by Agapeoc [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia

There have been a flurry of reports and articles about the decline in church membership and attendance. The only category that seems to be rising is the “nones,” those who claim no affiliation, even if they would consider themselves “spiritual.” My work takes me into a number of different congregations, and my own sense is that there are more empty seats in recent years, bearing out what these studies are saying.

I could speculate about the causes, and many have, but I have no clue what is happening, to be honest. Maybe you do and can enlighten me. It also strikes me that it would be easy to throw programs and gimmicks at this. I’m not sure this would help. Gathering for worship is probably one of the most voluntary acts in modern life–one that comes more out of reasons of the heart than any effort to compel attendance. I may have to show up for work, or class, or weekly book group, or music rehearsal. Not so for worship in most cases.

So why will I be in church this Sunday?

Some is simply a matter of habit. I’ve been in worship most Sundays since I was probably about five years old. But habits are not necessarily bad. Habits of self care are good for my health and hygiene. I have to admit that I don’t always enjoy exercise. But exercising has become a habit. A habit with good consequences.

Gathering for worship has the good consequence of reminding this person who can all too often consider himself the center of the universe that God is, as well as the wild truth that the God of the universe is crazy about us pea-brained human beings. It is a relief to go to a place where you discover again and again that you are loved “just because….” The readings, the hymns and songs, the prayers, the confession all remind me of these bedrock truths that ground my life.

A statement out of Fleming Rutledge’s Three Hours grabbed me. “There is no other way to be a disciple of Jesus than to be in communion with other disciples of Jesus” I decided, maybe surrendered to relentless pursuit is a better word, to follow Jesus many years ago. Ever since, Jesus has been pulling me out of my propensity to go it alone–self-sufficient and self-protecting. Gathering with people, I would probably no more choose than the family I was born into, pulls me out of myself–to teach a class of giggly elementary school girls and rowdy boys, to pray for someone’s aunt I’ve never met, and to go through all the good and rough seasons of life with people who in time become dear brothers and sisters in Christ, and no longer just that person so different from me. It is odd how showing up with others, and for others over a few decades can change us.

I actually believe, when I recall it, that worship is about God coming and speaking to his people each week. It can come through a hymn or song, or a prayer. Often it comes through a pastor’s message. Maybe we are more blessed than we know to have a pastor who I believe tries to listen to God and what God wants said from the scripture for the week. Often, I discover that there is a sacred sense that is quite different than the common sense I live by.

Incidentally, I think showing up can encourage the pastor. I’ve been on the other side of the lectern and a room full of attentive people encourages one’s heart. Each of us matters. In some ethnic communities, there is a sense that the sermon is as much the congregation’s responsibility as the preacher’s. That’s what “call and response” is all about.

Also, I believe a church is a group of people on a journey together. Sunday isn’t just about listening for some personally inspiring thought. It is also about listening to the One who wants to help us navigate the journey together and knows the road. Church is about listening for what the Guide would say to us. This pulls me out of what I want for this group into what God wants.

In a society that seems to increasingly lodge its hope in political, media, business, or sports heroes, all of whom sooner or later are shown to have clay feet, worship reminds me that there is a kingdom that is not of this world, a perspective that comes from somewhere else, and a time frame of eternity that ought shape our lives.

Finally, gathering with other Christians in a local congregation reminds me of all the places this is happening around the world, and that “love one another” has a much larger scope that transcends national boundaries, and ethnic groups, and social classes. This past Easter Sunday, I arrived at church stunned by the bombing of Sri Lankan churches, and concerned for the safety of two Sri Lankan friends. I was reminded of the global family I was part of who were gathering time zone after time zone across the planet, and in this moment, sharing in the grief of Sri Lankan believers.

That solidarity in our community results in practical partnership with a collection of other local congregations, teaming up to host a community garden, food pantry, medical clinic, and to collect supplies for school children, infants, and even pets in low income households. Together, these churches and other community groups saved a local wetland from developers. Gathering Sunday by Sunday moves us to pray globally and act locally each week.

For these reasons, and perhaps more, I will be in church this Sunday.

 

 

Learning About Your Home Town

vintage youngstown postcard

Vintage postcard of the downtown Youngstown, Ohio skyline

For the past five years I’ve been on a journey of learning about the place where I grew up, Youngstown, Ohio. You can read all about it if you click “On Youngstown,” where all my posts, and readers’ comments may be found. Recently, I’ve talked to several friends who have been inspired by these posts and have begun researching and writing about the towns where they grew up and their own memories of that experience. Based on my own experience, it is something I would highly encourage.

It has brought back a number of good memories of people, places, and experiences that shaped the person I’ve become. It has afforded chances to express gratitude to some who are still living, and chances to honor those who have passed. Remembering has again and again brought a smile to my face, particularly when some long lost memory surfaces. Sure, I have some bad memories as well. I tend not to write about those online, but to understand how these have shaped me as well brings the gift of self-understanding.

I’ve discovered how much I did not know about my home town–and that I’m not alone. It’s odd that with all the things we learn in school, we don’t learn about our home towns, especially when the names of places and the places themselves often have such interesting stories behind them.

Writing about this online has brought me in touch with a whole community of people from my home town from high school classmates to people I’ve never met, but who share the same experiences of people and place. Often, they remind me of things I’ve forgotten about, or in some cases never knew.

And that leads into another reason. Learning about one’s home town is like a real-life detective story. One fact sparks a question, or another memory, and chasing that down usually leads to two or three others. That’s why five years have passed and I’m still coming up with new ideas.

Your memories are history. If nothing else, it is family history, and other relatives may appreciate it. But I’ve found myself consulting oral histories to learn about everything from pizza recipes to working conditions to local traditions. Local history is a collection of personal histories.

I think learning about a place fosters love for it. I think that can be true of the place where we grew up, and if we’ve moved, the place where we now live. Learning about a place and recalling our own memories of that place are what makes it special to us. Sadly, I think it is possible to live in places without caring for them. I don’t like to think of the consequences of that when it is true of most of those living in a place.

How might one start? I’d suggest starting by thinking of all your favorites: foods, activities, music, hangouts and other places, people. It might help to think through the seasons of the year, or different periods of your life: early childhood, elementary school, middle and high school, post secondary school, etc. Probably as you start writing or recording your memories, questions will occur to you: where did that name come from, why are so many things named after this person, how did my town get its start, how did it grow? Or pick one aspect of your home town that interests you, and try to find out all you can about it.

Where do you go to find answers to what you don’t know? It has been fun to build a library of books about my home town and you might look online for what has been written about yours. In some cases, you might even find free works online in the public domain. Google is amazing for searching down online resources. Beyond this, if you really get into the local history, your local historical society (most towns have them) or library can be a trove of resources. Becoming a sleuth chasing down your questions is part of the fun!

If you do this, I’d love to hear from you, and compare notes. I’m sure each of us will think our home town was the best. And we will be right.

 

WWJDO?

 

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Merchants_Chased_from_the_Temple_(Les_vendeurs_chassés_du_Temple)_-_James_Tissot

James Tissot, The Merchants Chased from the Temple. Public Domain via Wikimedia

Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. (Matthew 21:12, NIV)

 

This verse was in the Palm Sunday reading at my church this past Sunday. I should mention that my reflections here may bear scant resemblance to my pastor’s sermon, so this only reflects the workings of my mind, not what my pastor had to say (which I also remember!).

I was thinking about some of the recent “What would Jesus…?” slogans. There was “What Would Jesus Do?” complete with bracelets. Later on, some environmentally oriented Christians started a campaign with the slogan “what would Jesus drive?”. This verse inspired me with a new one: “who would Jesus drive out?”

The context is that Jesus is standing in the temple courts. More precisely, he is standing in the court of the Gentiles–the closest that Gentiles  who are “God-fearers” and want to worship Yahweh are permitted to come. The sellers provided a service for Jews who wanted to offer sacrifices, providing a money exchange (probably at a tidy profit) into the approved temple currency. Then they sold birds and other approved sacrificial animals for those who didn’t want to transport them long distances. There was probably a calculation that this was a convenient location. The Gentiles, if there were any who were interested, were considered unclean. They should be glad they are even allowed here, amid the bargaining and calls and cries of the birds and animals–and all the smells of a barnyard. Not exactly welcoming for a Gentile wanting to worship Yahweh. I suspect a more than a few turned away.

Who did Jesus drive out (WWJDO)? It was those whose presence and actions turned spiritually hungry outsiders away from God. It was those who, by their actions, made God their exclusive preserve. We might be troubled by what seems an act of anger, but the focus here is an act that sets things to right, and communicates God’s displeasure with their exclusionary actions.

Strictly speaking, there is no longer a physical temple or a “court of the Gentiles.” The only temple now is the people of God (1 Peter 2:5). So who would Jesus drive out, today?

It would seem to me that it is any whose actions turn people away from Christ and the people of God. It might be intentional or unintentional. I suspect in suggesting this, you may already be composing a mental list of those Jesus would drive away. I have to admit that this is where my mind went when I heard these ways.

Of course, everyone on my list was someone else. I was notably absent from the list. And I started to wonder about that:

  • I wondered about who it is I’ve welcomed and who I’ve ignored.
  • I wondered about whether there are some groups I’ve written off as unworthy or uninterested in God.
  • I wondered if at times I’ve only planned for or reached out to those “like me.”
  • I wondered if I’ve been content with having people at my dinner table and leadership “table” who are like me.
  • I wonder if there are those who have turned away from considering Christ because of what they have seen of my life.

Would I be among those Jesus would drive out? It seems that Lent, and particularly Passion Week is a time for self-examination rather than finger-pointing. It is a time to ask, are there things that I am blind to that are driving people away from God, and could drive me away as well? From what must I repent? Where have I been justifying myself?

What is clear is that Jesus wanted to include far more than those he drove out (who by no means were permanently excluded). The verse Jesus quotes is Isaiah 56:7, which says, “For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.” Jesus is the one who welcomes those who say, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). He is the one who promises rest to the weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

Who would Jesus drive out?