Five Years Later…

Stats ‹ Bob on Books — WordPress com

I received this little recognition from WordPress, where my blogs are hosted, on Sunday. A day after I registered, I wrote my first post, Writing on Reading, and took the plunge into the world of blogging. That was on August 13, 2013.

It has been, on the whole, a delightful journey. What has made it so special are the interactions with so many who follow the blog, either on WordPress, or via social media. Many of those interactions are online, and often, I feel I am learning as much as I’m sharing. Perhaps some of the most delightful interactions, though, are with people I would call “anonymous followers” who I run into at a conference or other gathering and tell me how much they appreciated a particular post, or the blog more generally. It reminds me that there is a world of readers out there beyond the comments and the likes and the stats.

But if you like stats, here are a few. Currently 1099 people follow the blog. Actually, a month ago this number was more like 3300, but included all my Facebook friends on my personal profile as well as my WordPress followers. Facebook changed their policy recently and would only count and allow posting to those on your Facebook Page. Actually, that’s OK, because the current number is a more honest reflection of those really interested. Over the past five years, I’ve written 1630 posts and, as of writing had 301,787 visitors and 439,774 views on the blog. That’s an average of 240 views a day over five years–which in blogging circles is modest success.  The all-time top post was Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Top 10 (from 2015) that has had 19,966 views to date. Nearly since the beginning, I’ve posted six days a week, taking Sundays off, with a couple of breaks, one for a conference I was directing, another for emergency foot surgery.

Somewhere over the past five years, I went from posting book reviews to becoming a reviewer. The transition was one of simply reviewing whatever I read to developing relationships with various publishers to review newly published books, either in print or e-galley form, sometimes before the books were published. I’ve learned the value of becoming a reliable reviewer, producing clear content related to a book in a timely fashion. The payoff is the chance to review more of that publisher’s books. Sometimes I’ve had the chance to interact with authors as well. I love it when an author reads a review, and whatever I thought of the book, says, “you understood what I was trying to say.” It is gratifying when I learn that I’ve been able to connect an author whose work I deeply appreciate with a reader who will find the work amusing, informative, or even, on occasion, transformative.

Booksellers are another group of my heroes. In the age of online sales, I so appreciate the work of those who curate a selection of books in a way that is responsive to their customers, work hard to build a customer base, host book events, and attempt to pay the bills every month. I appreciate those who have taken the time to let me into their world, even a little.

I mentioned a Youngstown post earlier. This was something I think I fell into by accident. It began with a post where I talked about one of these conversation exercises used at conferences. The question was, “what is something I probably don’t know about you that you should ask me about?” My answer was “what it was like growing up in working class Youngstown.” I wrote a post about that and someone said I should write some more about that. Early on, I wrote a post about food, which exploded when I posted it in some Youngstown Facebook groups. For the past four years I’ve been learning about everything from ethnic foods to city founders, reading more than a few Youngstown books, writing about it, and then learning a ton more from the comments of others. I’ve discovered that to know who you are, you need to know where you’ve come from.

Downsides? There is the struggle of every writer to figure out what you want to say and then making the words on the screen reflect the ideas in your head. Mercifully, I’ve had few “trolls”–perhaps I’m not that interesting. I’ve learned that your website can be wrongly blacklisted, and it can take months to undo. It happens often enough that there are businesses who deal with this stuff. Add this to all the ways people try to defraud you online and offline….

To end on a positive note, I have to give a shout out to the folks at WordPress, who have designed software that is easy to work with and gets you online quickly. Beyond that, I’ve found their support people among the very best to work with whenever I’ve had a question or problem. Most of the time, it all just works so seamlessly that you forget all the people working behind the scenes that make it work. After five years, though, it seems appropriate to say thanks to the folks at WordPress that help my voice be heard, my reviews seen, and all those great Youngstown conversations to happen. Thank you, WordPress!

One of the Problems With Our Politics

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The Ohio 12th Congressional District as of 2013.

This is the congressional district, the Ohio 12th, in which I live. Do you see the problem? Why would you create a district like this?

I live in northwest Franklin County, in the city of Columbus, just below the dotted county line above which is the word “Powell.” Columbus is the focal point of most of our lives–where we work, the teams we root for, the politics we pay attention to, the parks we play in, the libraries and other public services we use. There is a highly populated sliver of this district in northern Franklin County outside I-270 with a tongue reaching down into Clintonville, significantly, all west of I-71, a significant ethnic demarcation line in that part of the city. Why would you carve up the Franklin County portions of the district like this?

Much of the rest of this weirdly shaped district is exurban or rural populations. Delaware County to the north has seen an explosion of affluent home construction by upper middle class individuals. Some contend that Delaware County carried George Bush in his slim election victories in Ohio. In national campaigns, Democrats come to Columbus, and Republicans to Delaware County. Morrow, Richland, Licking and southern Muskingum Counties are heavily rural counties. Why would you draw up a district like this?

The answer, very simply, is to make it a safe Republican seat. Only for eight years in the 1930’s, and two years in the 1980’s has the Ohio 12th been held by a Democrat. Why do I write about all this now?

As I write (a day ahead of posting), we are having a special election in this district. Pat Tiberi, the Republican representative vacated his seat in January. Troy Balderson, a Republican from Zanesville, and Danny O’Conner, a Democrat from the northern part of Columbus, are contesting the seat both now for the remainder of the unexpired term, and again in November for a new two year term. It is the one congressional election between now and November and HUGE amounts of advertising money on both sides have been poured into this race. Polling indicates the two candidates are separated by a mere point, statistically insignificant. Everyone is looking at this race as to whether there will be a “blue wave” in November.

Some of the craziness of this gerrymandered district is reflected in a remark made by the Republican candidate on his last campaign stop in his home town of Zanesville on Monday, August 6. He said:

“My opponent is from Franklin County, and Franklin County has been challenging. We don’t want someone from Franklin County representing us.”

It happens that one-third of the population of the district lives in that sliver of northern Franklin County and the remark seems to suggest that “us” somehow doesn’t include Franklin County, or that if the candidate from Franklin County were elected, he wouldn’t represent the “us” the Republican candidate was speaking to.

That’s the problem with gerrymandering. Political leaders of either party don’t have to think about representing everyone–only the base that gives them an election margin. Draw the district along the right demographic lines and you usually don’t have to worry. Both parties do this, which helps account for our highly polarized political conversation and gridlocked political process. A March 26, 2018 New York Times article states that at that time, only 48 of 435 House seats were considered “up for grabs.”

The sad thing is that representatives end up representing only some of us. If the Republican candidate wins, I wonder if he will represent me because I live in “Franklin County.” If the other wins, I’m sure some will wonder if their voices will be heard. Furthermore, this focuses on how we differ and not on what unites us, as Ohioans, and Americans. It seems to me that one could run focusing on what unites us even in our current gerrymandered district. But failing to hew to current party orthodoxy could be costly. If more districts were competitive, candidates would have to develop positions that reflect the concerns of all the district. And they would have to serve and listen to all the district during intervening years.

I think it a good thing that the race in my district is competitive. But I am concerned that this reflects more a political moment of resistance to a president unpopular in some quarters than the result of a consistently competitive district. Our political process needs to be built on something better than waves of political discontent or balkanized districts of safe seats. We have passed redistricting reforms in Ohio this spring that await the 2020 census. The process won’t be complete until 2023. We’ve yet to see what will result.

What can we do in the meanwhile? One thing as citizens is to identify and focus on the issues that affect all of us and not allow ourselves to be divided by the political parties. All but the super-rich face the issue of the cost of health care. No matter what we think about causes, all of us face the effects of climate change. We may not have it so bad in Ohio right now, but what happens when other parts of our country come seeking our water, or start moving here when other places become unlivable? How are we dealing with opioid use that are turning cities into war zones and rural areas into places of despair and grief.

The other thing is to pay attention and communicate about the things that matter to us–call, write, email, visit, and if we are not being heard, use our free speech rights to write in newspapers, on blogs, and to protest publicly.

We’ve let this happen to our country. We’ve allowed ourselves to be divided into demographic units and played up to on “hot button” issues instead of demanding responsible governance across the board and political leadership that values all of us and calls us together to pursue the best for our country. Today, and in November, we vote in my congressional district. It’s easy to collect my sticker and say I’ve done my duty. But as citizens, it has only begun.

[Written Tuesday, August 7, 2018] Update: Republican Troy Balderson narrowly defeated (a one percent margin) Democrat Danny O’Connor. A Green party candidate accounted for much of the difference in the other two candidates’ vote totals. They run against each other again in the November general election.

“Popularizer” is a Dirty Word.

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C. S. Lewis, Public Domain via Flickr

If you are an academic, one of the worst things you can be called is a “popularizer.” It means you are not a serious scholar, even if you have published serious scholarly work.

This came up in Donna Freitas newly published Consent on Campus. She urges her colleagues to engage students in classes about questions about sexual ethics as it relates to course content. But she observes that academics are their own worst enemies. Faculty who refuse to remain detached but talk about the personal and real-life implications of their scholarship run the risk of criticism from colleagues as “popularizers.”

This is not a new problem. It was one that faced one of the most significant writers and Christian apologists of the twentieth century, C. S. Lewis. Lewis graduated with a triple first and published landmark works on Paradise LostThe Allegory of Love, and The Discarded Image. Yet he never progressed beyond the rank of Fellow and Tutor at Magdalen College, Oxford. Only late in life, in 1954, was he awarded the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge.

Why? He was a popularizer. His radio addresses during World War II made “mere Christianity” understandable to ordinary listeners. He addressed pressing issues that were barriers to Christian belief in clear and carefully argued best-selling books. He wrote creative science fiction. Perhaps his worst offense was writing children’s stories.

A continued source of longing I’ve encountered among thoughtful Christians is for the rise of another C. S. Lewis. What if the real issue is not intellectual brilliance or theological knowledge or spiritual devotion, but a willingness to descend from the ivory tower and risk being called a popularizer and judged as less than a serious scholar? What if the real issue is a willingness to risk career success?

I’m not sure how to distinguish a public intellectual from a popularizer. I suspect these may be positive and negative labels for the same person. It does assume someone whose public work is marked by intellect, serious thought translated into terms any thoughtful person may grasp. Such people are not limited to the academy, but the rigor of their training and credentials, and their regular practice of teaching students do qualify them for this work.

I wonder if it comes down to conviction and courage. For such persons might “popularizer,” “associate professor,” and “not serious” become badges of honor? I suspect it is not right to set out to be the next C.S. Lewis. But I suspect it will not come to pass unless a person accepts these badges.

No Longer a Caged Twitter Bird

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Alfred Gatty, Public Domain via Reusable Art

I found out the other day that bobonbooks.com, which had been blocked on Twitter for about a month, is no longer blocked. I can post links from this blog page and when people click on links, they no longer get scary warning messages that suggest all sorts of nefarious things could happen if they went to my website (even though this never was an actual problem). I never received an explanation from Twitter as to why I was blocked, what I needed to do to get unblocked, nor that I was no longer being blocked. I simply observed that scheduled posts were now posting to Twitter.

My reaction? I was glad, sobered, and educated.

Glad. One of the main things I do on this blog is post reviews of books, particularly recently published books I’ve received from publishers to review. Tweeting my reviews to the publisher is one way of alerting them I have a review up (I often also email a link to publishers’ publicists). Publishers also like to re-tweet reviews they think will help promote the book. None of that was possible and the scary messages were wrongly discrediting my website. I’m glad all this has gone away, hopefully for good.

Sobered. I hadn’t imagined something like this could happen. I am careful to observe the Terms of Service on social media and any admin rules on pages where I post. I’d never had something like this happen before. One day, I simply discovered that although I could post tweets, I could no longer post any links, even in shortened form, from my site to Twitter. I discovered that the likely cause was a “false positive” report on my site that was filed at PhishTank, a blacklisting site used by many institutions to block “phishing” sites. These reports are not verified nor are website owners notified. I discovered that two other blacklisting sites subsequently had me on their unsafe lists, and I learned from some friends that my website came up with warnings or were blocked at their work computers. I don’t know why this happened. I do post material related to my religious beliefs. I wonder if that was the reason. Maybe it was just random. Whatever it was, it was a personal encounter with a dark side of the web.

Perhaps the most sobering experience was how long it took to get “unblocked” by Twitter. To the credit of the blacklisting sites, when I asked them to review my site, it took minutes to a day at most for them to change the status of my site to safe. I submitted a ticket to Twitter as well. It took a month for them to finally unblock the site. As I said above, I have no clue why I was blocked or unblocked. I was surprised and glad that I was able to post links to bobonbooks.com. My son had suggested I just give up, which I about had, because, in his words, “there is no upside for them.”

Educated. Here are some things I learned:

  • Technically, because my site is hosted on WordPress.com, “drive-by” attacks that post malware or phishing links cannot happen because of their security protocols. I doubt whether this is foolproof, but if someone hacks WordPress.com, there are potentially millions of us compromised. However, if an individual user is blacklisted, you are on your own.
  • If you host your own website, or it is hosted elsewhere, you do need to take the security of your site seriously. Make sure your software, virus and anti-malware software is up to date and running, and you have a good firewall. There are also companies that provide website and reputation protection. If you do business on your site, some form of this protection could be a good investment.
  • I now use Sucuri SiteCheck to check my site daily. It scans your site for malware and phishing links and also checks nine of the top blacklisting sites. It may not be foolproof, but it is a good line of defense and helped me discover blacklisting sites where I was blacklisted. Sucuri rates my site “safe” and not listed on any of the nine blacklisting sites it scans.
  • I revisited my own security practices and added dual authentication to my blog site. Anyone else logging on results in a text to my cell phone. I also clear spam comments, moderate commenting, and block spammers. Visitors to the site never see this.
  • While you can take steps to secure your site, it is still possible for your site to be wrongly blacklisted. Blacklisting sites only check your site if you ask them, and once you are blacklisted somewhere, it spreads to all who use those sites to protect their systems or end users. It can seriously affect your web traffic and your site’s reputation. It can happen to you! I’m not a big fish and it happened to me. I’ve learned it has happened to others.
  • Social media sites like Twitter currently can do what they want. They are not regulated. They have no obligation to offer live support. To have real people available for users with a problem that requires immediate attention may, in my son’s words, “have no upside.” If anything, the death of internet neutrality rules may make it worse. From what I can tell, Twitter can block any links or content it wants. Period. They have the final say. If you don’t like it, there is really no court of appeal as far as I can tell, other than public opinion. I honestly didn’t expect to get back on apart from buying a new web domain name. I’m glad something worked.

If you are a blogger or have a website, I hope this doesn’t happen to you. It can. I didn’t even know this could happen. Now I do. It is sad and disturbing that we spend much of our lives online guarding ourselves from those who might harm or defraud or troll us. If you see anything weird going on when you visit my site, let me know. You can be sure it is not intentional. I still love all that you can do and find on the internet. But it’s a far cry from when I first downloaded Mosaic and discovered the wonders of the web. I think those of us who still see this as a place for dialogue and discovery will have to fight to keep it that way. I’ve always said this site is about promoting conversations about the good, the beautiful, and the true. Perhaps what can keep us going against all the weirdness is the belief that somehow, it is the good, the true, and the beautiful that will endure.

Immigration and the Way of the Heart

Ellis Island Immigrants, Public Domain

Ellis Island Immigrants, Public Domain via Wikimedia

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. –Ephesians 2:11-13, NIV

“This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’” Zechariah 7:9-10

When you saw the word “immigration,” did your blood pressure go up? This is one of those issues it is not polite to discuss during social occasions at the risk of tempers flaring. In what follows I don’t want to get into policy or current controversies, and I hope you won’t try to debate them here. Likewise, I should warn that this is a bit of “inside baseball” primarily written for those who share my Christian commitments. I hope others will read to see how at least one Christian might think through such things.

The impetus for this post has been reflection over the last couple weeks on a sermon preached by one of our pastors on Zechariah 7, which includes the second biblical quote above. It made me think particularly about what our heart attitudes are toward the immigrant, and others on the margins of our society. These often are most vulnerable to oppression. They can be exploited, abused, feared, hated, excluded. Instead God commands justice, mercy, and compassion.

My thoughts went to the first passage and others like it, that give a very simple reason why. If in no other way, spiritually, we were once in the same place–strangers and aliens, fatherless, and hopeless; and through the cross of Christ, we have been adopted as God’s children, welcomed into God’s family, and included in God’s people–citizens of the kingdom rather than aliens.

It is hard for me to fathom as I reflect on God’s unfathomable love how our hearts can be gladdened and warmed and filled with joy because of the reality of God’s extravagant welcome; and hardened toward the immigrant and the refugee. It seems to me akin to being extravagantly forgiven and unwilling to forgive. Someone has observed about Jesus teaching about forgiveness that we need to choose which universe we will live in–a forgiveness universe or a judgment universe. I would suggest that likewise, we cannot live in a universe of extravagant welcome and simultaneously a universe of fear, resentment, hate, and exclusion. Choosing the latter in each case robs us of the joy and freedom of being God’s forgiven and included children.

None of this is to say what our immigration policies should be. Clearly they need to change, which is perhaps the only thing both political parties agree upon. What I want to raise is what orientation of the heart, what habits of the heart shape how we approach these discussions. Do we begin with fear or suspicion or even hatred of the other? Or do we begin with compassion, with welcome, and with justice. Many refugees are actually desperate. A number are actually fellow believers. In many cases they would face prison or death in returning to their country. Most people don’t leave home without good reason.

Many would say there are good reasons to be fearful or suspicious because some immigrants, documented or not, have committed crimes in our country.  Sure, but if we were to exclude every class of people in which some member has committed a crime, who of us would be left? Certainly prudence is called for by those who guard our borders. But this doesn’t need to conflict with a generous, welcoming spirit on the part of our people. The real question is what will be our fundamental posture, at least among those of us who say we follow Christ, toward the immigrant and the refugee? Will it be fear and suspicion, or will it be one of generous welcome that flows from how Christ has welcomed us? Might we experience in new ways the joy of welcoming Jesus in welcoming these people, the Jesus who began his earthly life as a refugee, along with Joseph and Mary?

Having it Both Ways

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Photo by kathryn “Eating cake” (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Perhaps it doesn’t puzzle me that we don’t like to talk about this. Remember when you were a kid and someone said, “you can’t eat your cake and have it too.” That almost seemed to be a dare to try to do both. Usually, this ended with you full of cake and wanting more and frustrated that your share is gone. Sometimes you end up filching someone else’s cake. And making yourself sick. And so the spiral goes.

So perhaps I don’t wonder why there isn’t more of a conversation about our highly sexualized and violent culture when we rail against sexual assault, threatening atmospheres, and gun violence. We really like our sex and our violence. Except when we don’t. Except when it hurts us or someone we love.

This is not an argument that those who are victims of these acts ever in the least deserve it. And I applaud those who have had the courage to say #MeToo, to testify against sexual offenders, to press for better work environments, and reasonable measures to keep guns out of the hands of those who would do harm.

But I wonder if we will make real progress as long as we celebrate a culture of “friends with benefits,” casual hookups, marketing that makes both women and men consciously obsessed with the appearance of their bodies? Will we make any progress until we understand how the use of pornography re-wires the brain, and undermines real relationships?

Will we make any progress as long as television and movies give us the vicarious thrill of the kill multiple times in an evening, even if most of us never go beyond that point? And how do violent video games rewire the brain? Nearly all the best selling video games, sold in large measure to young men, major in violence. I won’t make the argument that these videos cause violence, but I can’t help but believe that they are an ingredient in the toxic stew of our violent culture.

I suspect that steamy and casual sex is easier to write than a restrained relationship where love grows and deepens to real intimacy. I imagine that violence rivets the attention much more easily than non-violent means of seeking justice and resolving conflict. It’s faster, easier.

And I can’t help but wonder if it fosters the notion that it may be faster and easier in real life.

It also wouldn’t surprise me that some would label me hopelessly naive or prudish or an anachronism. Fair enough. But I would ask in reply, how do you explain why more young people have died of gun violence than in our overseas conflicts in recent years? How do you explain the pervasiveness of the revelations of sexual misconduct of all forms (yes, some may that more people feel empowered to speak out about it)? Why do universities wring their hands about campus sexual assault, much of it by acquaintances, and struggle to find ways to overcome “the walk of shame”?

There is an old saying that if you sow the wind, you will reap the whirlwind. I’d propose that when it comes to both sexuality and violence, two very potent forces, we cannot sow to the wind and reap a peaceful summer day at the beach. We want to, and often our media in its various forms prospers on our belief that we can have it both ways.

But I find myself wondering if we can…

 

I’m in the PhishTank

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I learned yesterday that Bob on Books is considered a “suspicious” or “malicious” site by Twitter. I can no longer post links to the site there, although I can make other posts.

A chat session with WordPress support (who I’ve always found helpful) indicated that I’ve been listed as a “phishing” site on PhishTank.com. Here is the link to the actual listing. WordPress itself found nothing on the site that is malicious or violates its terms of service and asserts that third parties can’t embed code or links on sites they host. No one who has visited my site has reported an actual problem. Phishing involves attempts to deceive you into providing sensitive information like passwords or credit cards under false pretexts in order to defraud. There is nothing like that on my site.

Apparently, on April 10, someone going by the username “prodigyabuse” listed Bob on Books as a phishing site. This individual has submitted over 11,000 sites. I found out that others “verified” that my site is a “phishing” site even though WordPress has examined the site and found nothing wrong, and it shows up trusted on Microsoft and Chrome browsers. I subsequently learned someone on a university computer couldn’t access my site, which I suspect is not an isolated incident. It’s likely that Twitter has based its “block” of content from Bob on Books on this site.

I’ve submitted “tickets” to both Twitter and PhishTank to rectify the situation. No response so far.

I find this deeply disturbing, because the effect of this is to suppress free speech. Apparently:

  • This can be done by a few individuals, working together or in sympathy.
  • There appears to be no actual verification by PhishTank or those who use their listings of the website. They rely entirely on user reports.
  • Site owners receive no direct notice of this action.
  • I could find no way to talk, even via chat to an actual person either on Twitter or PhishTank.
  • There appears to be no protection against this.

No doubt there are actual phishing sites, but as it stands now, the burden of proof is on site owners that they are not phishing, when they learn this is going on.

If your register as a user at PhishTank and go to my link and click, “something wrong with this submission” and follow the instructions you can submit a report they say they will take “very seriously.” We’ll see, but I’d be glad for the support.

I’m wondering why this happened. There seem to be a few possibilities:

  • One is that some people just don’t like what I’m posting, which is particularly troubling.
  • A second is some spammer I’ve blocked is having his/her revenge. There is a lot of spam commenting, some of which contain links to “phish-y” sites.
  • That leads to something more sinister. It does appear that it is fairly common for hackers to hide files deep inside the WordPress software and files. I found a number of articles like this one describing the problem. Both the software in my version of WordPress’s JetPack and my own virus and malware software do not show anything, and I don’t use plug-ins that are most vulnerable to this. There are expensive services that will clean your site, and more robust security options are available with more expensive WordPress plans. WordPress.com asserts that it is not possible for malicious entities to embed phishing code or links on blogs hosted on their site (which is the case with my blog), but leave it to their end users to deal with false reports. Seems like they would have more clout than I do.
  • Maybe this has to do with the cover photo (see above) I recently posted on my Facebook page, taken at our local aquarium. Maybe my fish tank picture got me in the PhishTank! Probably not but one must maintain some humor with these things.

Needless to say, this is unsettling. I love looking at fish in a tank or aquarium, but am not particularly crazy about being in one.

Stolen Identity

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“I’m a patriot, I will help the President build the Wall, I have an A+ rating with the NRA, I’m pro-life and I am a conservative Christian.” This is a mash-up of language I’ve heard in our most recent primary election and it deeply offends me. I feel like I’m a victim of identity theft.

My real beef is with the very last word of this statement. Why? I am a Christian. And I feel like my identity has been stolen, or at least misappropriated in statements like this.

Sure, while logically you can argue that such a statement doesn’t intend to identify all these positions with Christian orthodoxy, there is the implication that if you are the right kind of Christian, you will believe in these things and vote for this candidate.

Please understand. I do not question the Christianity of those who would affirm these things, or the genuineness of the faith of candidates who use this language. I even agree with them on some things. But I do not like the implication that this version of patriotism, or being pro-gun, or pro-life, or anti-immigrant is what those who are truly Christian will embrace at the ballot box.

Sure, I get it. “Conservative” Christians are perceived as a significant constituency for a particular political party. And for the person wanting to get elected, winning the favor and the votes of this constituency is what it takes.

What troubles me most are not the political positions of the candidates, which they have every right to advance, but the identification of those issues with being a real Christian. The reason I’m so troubled is that I have literally known people who have turned away from exploring the teachings of Jesus because they assume that they will need to embrace these issues along with Jesus. This language may win elections but it loses converts to the Christian faith. I work in ministry with college students and watch kids leaving churches over these things. I work as part of an international fellowship of Christians who often wonder if we love America more than the global kingdom of God.

I’m disturbed by how such language limits both the issues I can care about as a Christian, and how I think about those issues. I don’t like how this rhetoric makes at least a certain group of people captive to a political party. Instead of being able to support on some things and challenge on others, there is a party line that must be adhered to if you are to maintain influence and stay inside the party’s tent, and in some cases, the good graces of one’s congregation.

What do I want instead? I want people to stop using their “faith identification” to get votes. Certainly it is not wrong for voters to know what a person’s faith is, but the identification of Christianity with a set of political issues and positions needs to end. Every time politicians do this, they misappropriate the identity of Christians.

I also believe the church needs to stop allowing itself to be played by politicians. The truth is, we are being used by politicians for the one simple thing politicians care about–getting elected. We’ve allowed leaders inside and outside the church with a political agenda to have greater influence than the whole counsel of scripture from Genesis to Revelation that challenges the positions of every political party and calls us to a far more radical life.

Above all, I want both politicians and leaders in some segments of the church to stop stealing my identity as a Christian for political ends. What it all comes down to is that this is not why Jesus lived, died, and rose. However, the wedding of religion and political power was the major reason why he was killed. Will we continue to sacrifice Christ for political ends?

 

“Friendly Fire” at Your Neighborhood Church

“Please don’t talk to our children anymore.” These were the words to a scientist who believed in creation, the incarnation, the resurrection and the return of Christ. They came from an elder in his church. Why? Because he is a biologist who also believes in evolution and does not see his science and faith in conflict. He and his family never went to a church for more than a few weeks for the next ten years,

It’s a story I heard the other day. It’s a story, variations of which, I’ve heard for years. The professor who is suspect in her department because she is a Christian and suspect in her church because she is an academic. The bright high school student who asks too many hard questions when everyone else wants to talk about sex, and is shut down. The successful woman executive who is not permitted to exercise her leadership and management skills on the church board because only men can lead. Some of you can add your own painful stories. I hear a lot of those stories from students and faculty who have walked away from their churches and, in some cases, their faith.

Why do we do this to each other?

I don’t know but I wonder if we are so accustomed to fighting culture wars, battles for the courts, and fights to take back America that we keep fighting anyone who is different, even in the church. And sometimes we are so used to distorting the truth to achieve good ends that we  distort the Bible to justify our friendly fire.

It’s funny how we sometimes talk about finding a church “home.” Robert Frost had this definition of home: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” It strikes me that in most places, when someone shows up at church, they are looking for home, for some kind of rest. Jesus says, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” He didn’t say, if you do the right things, believe the right things and oppose the wrong ones, I will give you rest. He says this is a place where you can come and lay your burdens down.

I’m not writing this as a rant against my church. Actually, it is a place that lets people be different. Political parties, skin color, what we wear, what we do for recreation, the kinds of songs we like to sing, vegetarians and meatatarians. We do hold some things in common–Jesus, the resurrection, trying to live by the Bible, caring for our neighborhood. Actually, it’s quite simple and unsensationally beautiful at times and we are far from being an exception to the rule.

I simply wish I didn’t have to hear stories like the scientist told. Recently, the CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods said they would stop selling assault rifles. He said they did not want to be part of the story of another school shooting. When will we decide that we don’t want to be part of a story of friendly fire at a church?

 

Is It Time For A New Name?

Factory near Gary, IN. Photo by Robert C. Trube. All rights reserved.

The other day I drove past this scene (actually as a passenger) in Gary, Indiana. Recently I’ve been reading a collection of narratives titled Voices from the Rust Belt. My journey through this region, and listening to these “voices” from Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Cleveland, Detroit and other cities leads me to wonder if it is time to retire that name. Is it time for a new name?

The name arose with the decline of the steel and manufacturing industries that had been the lifeblood of these cities. Thousands lost jobs and the impact rippled through the communities. Those who could moved away to find jobs. Populations declined, factories rusted away until torn down. Rust belt seemed an apt term.

I wonder if it still is. It’s not that many of those places still suffer the effects of those plant closures. But I also know that cities have redefined themselves in a variety of ways. Some, like Pittsburgh, have become hi-tech centers. Others, because of low overhead costs, have been ideal locations for business startups. Some manufacturers have remained, leaner and more competitive.

I’ve thought about alternative terms but they all seem schmaltzy or simplistic. More than that, they don’t capture the stories of each of these cities as they are now. So my proposal? Let’s stop talking about the Rust Belt and begin talking about Youngstown, and Cleveland, and Detroit and all the others on their own terms. Rust Belt is about the past. It’s time to talk about what each of these cities are…or could be.

I’d love to know what you think, and if you have a good name for this region.