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Close the Libraries?

In the July 18th issue of Forbes magazine, Tim Worstall proposed that we “close the libraries and buy everyone an Amazon Kindle Unlimited subscription.” This piggybacked on Amazon’s recently unveiled subscription service that gives you unlimited access to 600,000 titles (although it is worth investigating what those titles include and do not include). He argues that this gives for more access than any library can offer and, based on library budgets in the UK, could be done at a savings, particularly if a special mass subscription price could be negotiated (I can see Jeff Bezos rubbing his hands together now!).

Library Levy sign from November 2013

Library Levy sign from November 2013 (picture taken in our front yard)

While from a simple cost calculation this might be true (and there is a question of what would happen if Amazon were given an even greater monopoly of the book market–for example consider what happens with cable rates) there are some compelling reasons not to go this direction:

1. It gives Amazon (or Google) a greater monopoly on the access to books, and control over what books are available to the reading public. Our current library system, as de-centralized as it is, allows for local control, patron interest, and access through inter-library loan to most of the libraries in the country.

2. Libraries provide services to every class in society without charge. This includes borrowing privileges, internet access, and often loans of tablets and other electronic resources. Will Amazon also provide all users tablets, Wi-Fi at no charge? If not, this is only books for some.

3. Libraries provide trained reference librarians who can help access materials one would never find on Amazon, ranging from public records to a myriad of databases. Replacing this with Amazon at best assumes that heuristics and algorithms will guide you and at worst makes you your own reference librarian.

4. On a related note, online resources, whether from Amazon or others, are uncurated. That is, it is totally up to the user to assess the reliability of the information you obtain. Librarians are not infallible curators, but they devote time and research to assessing what books and other resources to acquire.

5. Amazon will recommend books based on your interests. Librarians will do this as well and also help you explore new interests and connect you with titles Amazon’s algorithms wouldn’t come up with.

6. While one can listen to a computer audio voice “reading” a book, libraries offer to children the wondrous experience of librarian-storytellers skilled at reading books and kindling in children the love of story.

7. Libraries offer a “third place” between home and work, whether for children at Story Hours, or teens after school, or senior citizens. Our local library hosts various community meetings and summer concerts. When a number of us in my community gathered to oppose the development of a local wetland, where did we meet? The library.

8. Libraries represent money invested into a local community that enriches our communal life. An Amazon subscription is not taxed and only draws money out of the community into the expansive vision of Jeff Bezos.

I’m not a Luddite. I have an e-reader and do read some books that way. Actually libraries offer many digital resources for lending at no cost. Given that you don’t “own” your Amazon content because of Digital Rights Management, might it not make sense to borrow through the library that you or others in your community support with your taxes?

The larger issue is what kind of a society we want, one where all our experiences are mediated virtually and digitally, or one where we remember that we are physical and social beings meant for real human contact in real physical places.  I suspect the reality for us in this digital age is that the best answer involves both-and thinking rather than the either-or argument proposed in the Forbes article. Both-and solutions may be more complicated than what seems a simple solution of closing the libraries. But I would contend that like so many aspects of life, simpler means smaller and less qualitatively rich. Do we really want that?

Review: Visions of Vocation

The main thesis of this book is that to live as a called person is to be implicated in what one knows, to have a sense of responsibility that flows out of understanding the world and our place and work in it.

Steven Garber writes this book out of a lifetime experience of helping people discern the calling of God in their everyday lives. He has particularly worked in recent years among young leaders who come to Washington, DC on various internships as the principal of The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture. Much of this book is a weave of thinking about vocation and stories of calling culled from the many people he has walked with on this journey.

He begins with talking about what it means to know the world as it is in all its ugliness and love it. Such a love is sacramental and joins with God in his care for the world. Later on, Garber speaks about how those who know and love most deeply also mourn deeply while yet living in hope. Seeing and knowing for a person living attentively to God’s call must eventuate in doing. Yet as he talks about in his chapter “the landscape of our lives”, we live in the midst of a mind- and soul-numbing glut of information that can leave us indifferent to any and everything. He talks about the sobering example of an Eichmann who could read Goethe, listen to Schubert, and plan the destruction of thousands of Jews and somehow see himself not implicated in their deaths.

Perhaps the only remedy, Garber thinks, is to “come and see” afresh the incarnate Christ, the Word become Flesh. The coming of Jesus tells us that words have to become flesh and have to be lived out in our actions in the physical world. He then gives us narratives of friends who have done this in fields as diverse as cattle ranching to health care in indigent communities. He tells of Kwang Kim, who starts asking as a student “what should the world be like” and “what should I be doing” and has translated that into decades of work in the World Bank shaping development plans that are sustainable for loan recipients and not just profitable for the bank.

The latter part of the book explores the dangers of cynicism and the necessity of realizing that all of our efforts to live out our callings will be proximate rather than perfect. We realize that we live between the already and the not yet of the kingdom and do what we can rather than what we cannot. He concludes with the story of his father whose life brought him joy and was contrasted with the high-roller with whom he was a seatmate on a flight and was stopped in his boastful tracks by the simple question of whether any of this had brought him happiness. We are left to conclude that only the life lived attending to the call of God to love the world for the good of the world can bring a deep sense of joy and satisfaction with one’s life. Garber’s book both leaves us wanting that and points the way.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Canfield Fair Food

Canfield Fair logo accessed at http://canfieldfair.com/

Canfield Fair logo accessed at http://canfieldfair.com/

The Canfield Fair is next weekend!  I thought I would take the next two weeks to talk about Fair memories, focusing on food this week and general fair memories next week. By the way, for those of you not from Youngstown, the Canfield Fair is the county fair for Mahoning County. It is held in Canfield, the original county seat of Mahoning County before Youngstown’s explosive growth under the influence of industry and immigration. It is the largest county fair in Ohio and among the largest in the country. If you want to go to the quintessential county fair, this is the one to go to.

My first food memory of the fair was when my dad bought me a footlong hot dog. I never knew that hotdogs could be so long and I was in hotdog heaven. It was at the fair that I discovered this wonderful thing called Elephant ears, the perfect snack to munch on as you walked along the midway that you could share with your friends. Along with the wonderful tastes, there was the delicious mix of smells as you walked along the aisles of food vendors and smelled the ribs and barbecued chicken, and of course the Italian sausage stands with all the peppers and onions frying alongside.

Our family made an annual pilgrimage to the fair through most of the years my son was growing up, and when he became old enough, it became a father and son ritual to get our DiRusso’s Italian Sausage sandwich slathered with peppers and onions as soon as we could after we got to the fair. To eat a DiRusso’s is in some ways to celebrate the very best of Youngstown. DiRusso’s stands appear all over the country at fairs and their sausage now can be purchased in stores throughout the midwest including stores near our home. DiRusso’s manufacturing plant and offices are located in the heart of Youngstown, not far from a spot once occupied by steel mills. It represents the rich heritage of good Italian food to come out of Youngstown’s Italian community.

Father and son at DiRusso's

Father and son at DiRusso’s

We had a strategy of eating our way through the fair! Usually you had to chase the DiRusso’s (or a gyro in my wife’s case) with a greasy serving of fries sprinkled with malt vinegar. Then you stopped for your first lemon-shakeup, which was so refreshing on those late summer afternoons at the fair. Sure, the kids did rides and you looked at exhibits (more on this next week), but you were always thinking about what you were going to eat next–at least that was true with the crowd I went with. At some time in the day we would stop at the Parker’s Ice Cream stand (I believe that was the name). We had friends who worked there, and it was really good ice cream! Or we would stop at Lord of Life Lutheran’s Apple Dumpling stand. There were several churches that served barbecue chicken dinners and often later in the day we would make for one of these, usually run by an African-American congregation whose name I cannot recall.

By evening you were stuffed but the one nice thing about the fair is that you could walk it off while noshing on some kettle corn, or another lemon shake if you were thirsty. Sometimes we would pick up fudge at one of the fudge stand to take home to parents, when they were still living in Youngstown. As you walked along, you realized that you could come back every day and eat a totally different selection of food. I haven’t even scratched the surface of all you could find–steakburgers and stromboli, egg rolls and dippin dots, cotton candy and funnel cakes. This “Best of Fair” website gives a pretty good idea of the various concessions you will find.

What were/are your favorite fair foods (this goes for any fair, but especially the Canfield Fair)?

Brilliant and Bad

In two different books I’m currently reading, I came across the perplexing challenge of the intellectual brilliance of Nazi era Germany combined with its unspeakable moral badness. How does it happen that a nation has both some of the most renown universities, and concentration camps? How can an Eichmann be both so cultured and so complicit in the death of thousands upon thousands of Jews? How can a country known for the excellence of its science turn to diabolical research on human subjects and scientific efficiency in exterminating a people?

I work in the world of higher education where the spoken or unspoken assumption is that education will make us better, more morally discriminating people. There is an assumption that knowledge invariably leads to progress, meaning improvements that enhance our lives and our societies.  I have friends who are working on cures for cancer, designing more reliable jet engines, safer automobiles, and pursuing more just social relationships. There is an element of truth in these assumptions that is undeniable.

Yet I think a danger in all of this is the denial of something yet more basic: that each and every one of us are capable of unspeakable evil.  We want to believe we are basically good. The danger is when individuals and groups become so convinced of the moral rectitude of their causes that they become blind to the evil of their actions. This can happen in all kinds of settings ranging from families to churches, to universities and even governments. More dangerous yet is when a broad swath of “enlightened” society is so convinced of its cause that it turns a blind eye to evil, perhaps accompanied by clever euphemisms where terms like “removal” are substituted for “extermination” or “purification” for “genocide”.

On the one hand, universities can be highly ethical places because of their research ideals. Institutional Review Boards carefully screen research for the consequences to humans or other live subjects, peer review scrutinizes the quality and repeatability of research, and various university regulations prevent invidious forms of discrimination and harassment. Yet I also am concerned that the very moral rectitude in these processes can blind universities to the potential of participating in unspeakable evil in other ways:

  • in the ethical scrutiny of research a blind eye may be cast toward the known potential uses of such research.
  • in the assumption that there is a technological fix for every technological problem, we turn a blind eye to the fact that this could likely create new problems requiring further fixes.
  • rhetoric may be used to divert attention from the true nature of a discussion. For example an expression of moral conviction may be labeled “bigotry” or “narrow-minded” or “puritanical” if it does not conform to prevailing norms. Categorical ad hominem attacks are made on the character of individuals apart from any considered discussion of their moral contention.
  • equally, the incitement of outrage is used to suppress unpopular views apart from any consideration of the cogency of those views. Examples of this include various commencement and other speakers who are “disinvited” because some view they’ve expressed or position they’ve taken was displeasing to some group within the university.

Most thoughtful people looking at the Holocaust respond by saying, “never again”. Yet I believe that the kind of moral rectitude that is blind to the potential toward evil  in some of these examples suggests that evils like the Holocaust could happen here. Whenever rhetoric and outrage clothed in ethical justification is used as a form of powerful suppression of an “other” with whom we disagree, we practice the same kinds of tactics of power used in Nazi Germany. When we assume that we will always use our science benignly we risk becoming sorcerers apprentices who may come to regret what we have unleashed upon the world.

I can hear some of my church friends saying “yeah baby” at this point. I would say to them (and myself) that we are equally in danger of cloaking in moral rectitude political power and political alliances that abuse others. What is striking to me about Nazi Germany is that most of the churches, along with most in universities went along with Hitler. What I wonder is whether the complicity with Hitler arose from the fact that on a smaller scale, both had basically been playing similar power games that Hitler perfected into a brutal art.

What can save us from being brilliant and bad? I wonder if a beginning is acknowledging that this is in fact the human condition. I’m given to understand that the checks and balances in our system of government arose from this assumption, to protect from any one entity so accumulating power to suppress the other, recognizing the basic human propensity to do so. What checks and balances do we need in our life, whether in the church or the university? One might be that of always being answerable to others. Another might be to refuse turning someone who opposes your ideas into a morally inferior demon to be disposed of in one way or another. Yet a third might be to question whether more technology and an increasingly technologized world can always answer the problems of our finiteness and capacity to do ill. Perhaps above all, we need the grace of God, if we believe a gracious God exists.

Do you think that the danger of being brilliant and bad is a real one for individuals and institutions? What do you think can save us from this danger?

Review: A Shooting Star

shooting starSabrina Castro is the wealthy and attractive wife of a Pasadena physician and also the offspring of a transplanted New England family that found wealth but never a sense of purpose. Life begins to unravel for Sabrina after twelve years of childless marriage as a “trophy” wife when she takes a vacation in Mexico and has an affair with a married man.
Torn between her New England family rectitude and her frustrations, she confesses her affair and yet refuses to utterly break it off, until she sees the other husband for who he is, one who won’t sacrifice his family but wants a bit of something “on the side”. Meanwhile the marriage continues to unravel and with this, Sabrina’s life as she goes on an alcoholic binge, ends up sheltering in the home of a Tahoe dog-boarder, and finally comes home to her mother’s house and the conflicts within her own family.

Underneath it all is the emptiness of Sabrina’s life, rich, and idle, barren (until she discovers she is pregnant by the errant husband) and purposeless. She reconnects with her good friend, Barbara and her husband Leonard, who have worked their way up from poverty to respectable middle-class life in a new suburban community nearby. The book title comes from an evening spent with this family watching a meteor shower and seems a kind of metaphor for the question of her life–will she spectacularly flame out and fade?

The story moves between discovery and despair as she grope to re-establish some kind of relationship with her aging mother separated from her husband early in the marriage, her ambitious brother who would turn the family land into a subdivision of tract homes, and her husband with whom she fails to reconcile. The story reaches a climax on the night Barbara gives birth, Sabrina sits her other children, and Leonard comes home to a drunken and distraught Sabrina. I will leave it to the reader to discover whether Sabrina flames out or survives and what this means for those around her.

The story, set in the late 1950s, explores the discontents of those who have achieved the American dream yet found it wanting. At another level, Stegner as a writer of “place”, explores the changing landscape driven by car culture with its attendant freeways, suburban sprawl, growing pollution, and the destruction of natural habitats to make way for tract homes. While this latter element is in the backdrop, it also reveals the illusions and follies of the American dream and its inability to give us either good purposes or good places.

Be Not Afraid — Seriously?

Our pastor explored something in his sermon on Sunday that I think many of us struggle with and that is the clash between statements like “be anxious for nothing” or “be not afraid” and the worries, anxieties, and fear that dog our steps and often feel hard to shake off. Sometimes the words “be not afraid” sound a bit to us like “don’t think of pink elephants”. Once there, it is just not easy either to shake those visions of pink elephants dancing in our heads or those worries nipping at our heels.

One of the most striking things about most of the “be not afraids” of scripture is that they are spoken by God, or those speaking for God. And this gives me a clue to this thing of dealing with fear that has been of great help to me. “Be not afraid” is not an order to “think positively” or to “make a positive confession” but rather they are God’s invitation to a relationship of trust. God’s invitation is not to try to suppress our worries by our own efforts but to trust them to his care.

I think I first understood this deeply when I was worrying about money a number of years ago. Things were often tight when I was growing up and there was at least once instance where dad was between jobs. I actually think my parents handled this pretty well, but the fear of not having enough carried into my adulthood. Strange then that my chosen profession involved depending on donations of others to pay the salary for the work I do. We were going through a patch where those donations were down and I was facing possible salary reductions, and perhaps worse, not being able to meet our obligations. At least that was what I was afraid of

My strategy for dealing with fear was a combination of worrisome talk that had to be tiring for my wife (who was far more hopeful about things) and “doubling down”, particular in efforts to raise the requisite funds. I even asked God to help me as I met donors and to supply my needs. I did everything except to go to my heavenly Father and say, “Daddy, I’m really scared of not being able to provide for my family and to meet my debts.” I continued coping with these pressures like this until I was doing a Bible study written by Dave Ivaska, a colleague, titled Be Not Afraid. There was a question at one point that asked very simply, “what are you afraid of?” For the first time, I named this fear to God instead of trying to deal with it or even asking God to deal with the stuff that caused me to be afraid.

I can’t say that my fear magically disappeared. But in naming my fear to God and allowing God into that fearful space, the fear began shrinking and lost its hold in my life as I became aware that God didn’t just love me in an abstract sense–God loved me at the place of my fear. Rich talked about this idea that there is no fear in love because perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18).

I’m still on this journey. Other fears about loss are becoming real for the first time. There are the fears of significant loss of physical or mental abilities that come as I notice bodily changes or take longer to remember a name or grope for the right word. There is the kind of loss of recognizing you are far from indispensable and wondering as you hand off to rising leaders whether there is anything left that you can contribute, or what all you did meant when much of it is changed!

Rich talked about how we often experience the love of God that drives out these fears through people in community. I need that! It is still tempting for me to just put on my game face and double down. That strategy never worked very well and I have less energy or time for it now. Perhaps it is in becoming a safe place to name and shed our fears that we become “the beloved community.” That’s the safe place we have with the God who says, “be not afraid.”

This post also appears at my church’s Going Deeper blog.

Blessed Are The Peacemakers — When We Can Find Them

It seems that it is difficult to get away from the tragic events in Ferguson if you are at all on the media. It probably says something about the range of people I call friends that some are posting about the terrible wrong to the young man who died, and some defending the police officer and his actions.  This post will not go there, although I do hope that a full, fair, and transparent investigation considering all the eyewitness testimony will take place to determine what happened at this scene and what charges or other action, if any, are warranted.

In our individualistic culture, it seems very easy to take sides in judging the actions of the individuals involved in these events, and to be sure Michael Brown and Darren Wilson each acted in ways for which they are responsible that led to the tragic outcome of a dead young man on the pavement. It seems to me that this is only the tip of a very tragic iceberg of issues. Phrases like “walking (or driving) while black”, books like The New Jim Crow, and the incongruity of a mostly white police force in a mostly Black community all remind us that race is far from a settled issue in our country and help account for the anger of a community that still sees itself as far from the realization of Dr. King’s dream. So when such a community sees a young, unarmed man dead in the streets shot by a white police officer, you have to be living in la-la land not to think a community will be angry.

I also wrestle with what police are being asked to do in many of our communities. Between liberal gun laws and illegally obtained weapons, our cities are lethal killing zones. As of today, for example, there have been 229 murders in Chicago. In Columbus, a much smaller city, we have had 63 murders. Nearly all of these deaths in both communities are shootings. Many of our communities want police presence to prevent some of these crimes and to get the perpetrators of crimes against people and property off the streets. The reality every police officer lives with is that every call and every traffic stop can place him or her at risk, often in a context where he or she is outgunned. While “militarizing” your police force may create an adversarial atmosphere as it seems to have in Ferguson, you have to be living in la-la land not to think the police would want to do all they could to protect themselves.

Meanwhile we have this media frenzy whipping up emotions among blacks and whites, playing upon the sense of grievance in each community. We have lawless elements looting the businesses in their own community because they have the chance to do so. And if a story in today’s Washington Post is to be believed, you also have militants from other cities who think it is time to get justice and are willing to use violence.

All these things move me to pray for the peace of Ferguson. It seems to me that given the volatile mix in this situation, this is a “not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit” time. Might and power have simply beget more violence. We need to pray for the peacemakers, as well as pray about our own roles in not feeding the inflammatory rhetoric around the death of Michael Brown and the larger tragedy of Ferguson.

They are there, whether they are passing out water and food to protesters, cleaning up after each night’s demonstrations, or going through the streets pleading for restraint and the use of nonviolent means to press for the justice and respect needed in this community. Perhaps it would help if the press helped their voices be heard above the clamor.

But real peace, biblical shalom isn’t simply about restoring and maintaining order. It is about promoting flourishing and justice and mutual respect throughout the Ferguson community.  It is not about containing the anger but rather turning it to the constructive ends of substantive shalom. It might mean white police officials asking for the help of Ferguson community leaders in increasing the pool of black officers, and in developing policing strategies that address the crime concerns of the community, that show respect for residents while recognizing the safety concerns of officers. It might mean community leaders asking for the help of police, judges, and other community resources to develop strategies to keep youth in their community out of trouble and not be saddled with a criminal record–which is a one strike and you are out kind of thing.

Perhaps such efforts have been made. Perhaps they have failed or had limited success. These are hard conversations that are dealing with hard realities. Being able to hear the concerns of the other over the clamor of one’s own grievances is very hard. Laying aside one’s own concerns to hear the grievance of the other is perhaps harder. And moving from grievance to collaboration for a different future is perhaps hardest of all. Perhaps this is why Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers” because it is perhaps some of the hardest work human beings can do with each other, whether it is in Ferguson or Israel/Palestine, or your home town or mine. Perhaps the first step beyond prayer is simply refusing to join those who inflame the rhetoric, to choose to understand rather than react and to choose to want for the other, what we want for ourselves.



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[BTW] : Ben Trube, Writer

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