Jesus Christ

Around this time of year we recount the Christmas story. Usually we speak of Jesus as if there is one story, one coherent person to remember — one history that we hold and retell.

In fact, there are more than six versions of Jesus we can talk about.

The first four versions are the four Gospels — each written by different authors for different audiences for different reasons. Some try to consolidate the four into one narrative, but that doesn’t make sense. While it’s interesting to compare the similarities and differences between the four, they should be read and understood within the books themselves. Distinct spiritual lessons can be drawn from the distinct natures of Jesus the authors portray.

The fifth version of Jesus is from the apostle Paul, who authored half the books in the New Testament. Interestingly, even though Paul wrote his letters before the Gospels were written — thus he lived chronologically closer to the life of Jesus — he writes very little about the actual life or actions of Jesus. He writes about theological takeaways, lived ethics and guidelines for a new Christian church splitting off from Judaism.

The sixth-plus versions are the so-called Gnostic Gospels, the many stories written about Jesus contemporaneously with (or shortly after) the canonical Gospels, but rejected by the powers of the church who decided, in the end, which books would be cemented in the Bible.

From a religious perspective, you can believe that God wanted these four books cemented as “scripture”, and the others banished.

From a historical perspective, the Gnostic Gospels — uncovered by archaeologists in 1945 — hold equal value for understanding who Jesus was and how he was understood by his early followers.

It’s important, also, to remember that the stories of Jesus we read and discuss flowed through the following channels:

  1. Actual life of Jesus
  2. Oral versions of the life of Jesus
  3. Written versions of the life of Jesus
  4. Translations of the written versions of the life of Jesus

Paul wrote his letters one generation after Jesus lived. The Gospels were written 50 – 100 years after Jesus lived.

This all brings us to the reason for the season. Christmas. The birth narratives. The incarnation.

Two of the four Gospels tell the birth story. Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage to Abraham. The flight into Egypt and the wrath of King Herod are clear parallels to the birth story of Moses. Luke traces Jesus’ lineage to Adam and Eve.

Scholars believe that Luke and Matthew were both written after the book of Mark, and both probably used Mark as a source in their writing. So the birth narratives show up late in the storytelling game.

Let’s view the birth stories from two lenses: Historical and Theological.

Some Christians do not separate these two, and what follows will be considered heresy:

Is it possible that a spirit from heaven miraculously impregnated a virgin? Sure.

But it’s a million times more probable that a birth story developed as myth, then later was written to emphasize the theological importance of this person Jesus Christ.

Such is the nature of the Gospels. Jesus performs miracles, and this is taken to be a sign of his divinity, but miracle working was a common literary device used in “fictive biographies” like the Gospels. In the book of Acts, an extension of the Gospel of Luke written by the same author, both Peter and Paul raise people from the dead (Acts 9:36-42; 20:7).

Call me Scrooge, but I don’t think demythologizing the story of Jesus minimizes the spirit of Christmas. In fact, I believe it can reconcile the faith to a 21st Century audience. Most Christians probably understand this cognitively, even if they “believe” in the immaculate conception and recite the Nicene Creed.

The story of the incarnation is powerful. God entering the world, taking human form. Emmanuel. God with us.

My favorite account of the incarnation comes from St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises, where he says to imagine the scene from the eyes of the Trinity.

Along with God, Jesus, and the Spirit, we sit in heaven and look down on the people of Earth: “some white and others black; some in peace and others in war; some weeping and others laughing; some well, others ill; some being born and others dying, etc.”

Here the Trinity looks down and decides, at this moment in history: “Let us work the redemption of the human race.”

And here we wait, the advent of another Christmas, badly in need of redemption.

The rest of the Jesus story unfolds … proclaiming the Kingdom, being misunderstood, being rejected.

Birth. Life. Death. Resurrection.

Repeat.

Always striving closer to a new realm of possibility — the brotherhood of humankind.

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The Collision of Morality and Politics

morality

I think it is helpful and necessary to distinguish between the realms or morality and politics.

Not that these two can never be intertwined. Immigration and refugee policy can blur the distinction between the two. Splitting up families is a moral issue. Whether to have border security is a political issue. How many refugees to accept is a political question that feels like a moral question.

Using fear to scapegoat immigrants and refugees is an immoral means to a political end.

Abortion also blurs the distinction. When life begins is a theological question. Where to draw the line between the right to life and the right to choice is a political question. Why and how people get into the circumstance where they choose abortion is a social science question.

Sexual assault is a moral and legal question. For Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, the statute of limitations is up. He cannot be legally tried for preying on teenage girls when he was in his 30’s, as he is alleged to have done. He cannot be held legally accountable for child molestation.

This a clear cut case of morality. This person should not be a senator. The Republican Party should not be funding this person’s campaign. The President of the United States should not be endorsing his candidacy. Republican leaders should not be neutral on this.

Jeff Flake has said as much. The outgoing Republican senator from Arizona said that, if he were in Alabama, he would run to the polls to vote for a Democrat. He even wrote a check to the Democratic candidate, Doug Jones.

Republican senator from Nebraska Ben Sasse disagreed, beefing with Flake on Twitter, saying, “It’s possible to be against BOTH partial birth abortion AND child molestation. Happily, most Americans are.”

True, Doug Jones is staunchly pro-choice and supports late term abortions in the case of “medical necessity.”

Also true: Reasonable, moral people can come to different conclusions on reproductive issues.

The only reasonable, moral conclusion on Roy Moore is that he should never be a public representative.

Democrats often try to push the moral question onto economic policy, and that’s where they lose me. Questions of tax rates and social welfare are not purely moral questions.

Everyone wishes poverty would just go away and people could live fat and happy.

But I think everyone understands that it would be problematic to, say, print out a million dollars cash to give to every poor person.

Good intentions often backfire. These issues are complicated. We need to objectively analyze what the effects of economic policy will be, in terms of incentives and long-term sustainability.

Sure, maybe some Republicans are beholden to rich donors and just want to cut corporate taxes to stay in power and make their friends more powerful at the expense of the public good.

There may be others who have reached the conclusion that lower tax rates and fewer regulations will spur innovation and growth, benefitting the public good.

Reasonable, moral people can disagree on economic policy.

By all means, let’s fight tooth and nail over whether the tax bill is good policy. Let’s question people’s motivations for voting on the bill. Let’s criticize the methods of getting this bill through, and critically evaluate the claims made about any policy.

But let’s save our moral energy right now for rejecting bigots and sexual predators.

My Educational Philosophy

learning-styles

The following is a reflection I wrote for a professional development class. Figured I might as well hit two birds with one stone and post it on a blog.

On when I knew I wanted to be a teacher

I first knew I might become a teacher when I was working as a teacher assistant in college. Grading papers, getting asked by peers whether I was teacher, it felt cool. When grading papers was my only responsibility, it seemed kind of fun. Now I hate it. Later on, when I started coaching basketball, I got fired up on education and working with young people.

On my early experiences as a teacher

The summer before my first year I was preparing to teach by trying to write out all of my lecture notes. I had no idea what it meant to be a teacher or what it would be like. The first two weeks were a disaster. Vivid memories of bombing a 70 minute class, sweating and nervous. It was overwhelming. It wasn’t until the following year when I really felt comfortable in calling myself a “real” teacher.

On the problem of educational inequity 

I believe educational inequality exists partly because we try to force a one-size-fits-all approach onto the entire system. Students have different needs, different desires and different perspectives on the world. We give everyone in the state the same standardized test and declare half the state “above average” and the other half “below average.”

The differences in educational attainment across society are pretty much lined up to socioeconomic differences. The problem of poverty is multifaceted and has numerous effects. Our education system is unmoved by these differences. The same approach is supposed to work for everyone (and perhaps this is the noble goal of public education).

Problem is that it’s harder to instill “behavior management” in a low-income classroom (behavior management being the necessary vehicle to instill a standardized education). Therefore teachers get frustrated and leave more often. Thus, the students don’t trust their teachers and are less likely to develop bonds, feel safe, take risks, and grow.

Money and resources are problems. But declaring this monolithic thing “education” and forcing it on different types of people…there are always going to be inequalities.

My theory of learning

I think real learning happens when a person finds it personally meaningful. Day after day, students are forced to complete mindless assignments that don’t have any importance on their lives, and probably never will. When I was growing up, I completed all my assignments because I had to, and developed a compulsive need to “get it done.” Most of the time I didn’t think twice about what I was doing. I rushed through to get it done at the last minute and moved on to the next thing. It wasn’t until college that I found something academic I wanted to learn (because it became personally meaningful). So I learned it. Then I taught that subject and learned twice as much about it.

How this affects students in school

Students don’t care about 90% of what they’re told to do in school. As a result, they are going to forget 90% of what they’re supposedly learning in school. They’ll retain some basic skills, no doubt. But really, they are trapped in a coercive system where they must follow the orders of adults and complete a bunch of paperwork to graduate. Best case scenario, someone gets fired up on a certain subject area — maybe it’s math, maybe it’s science, maybe it’s English or an elective — and are inspired to pursue it more on their own. That, and the relationships, are what ends up mattering in our schools. Everything else is just a game played for upward social mobility.

On teaching successfully 

If a student leaves my class inspired to work with the subject matter on their own, I have succeeded, because I have presented or articulated the material in a way that personally connected to the student. In my economics class, I can be successful if a student puts lessons into action in the real world. I just talked to two former students, one has already started a 401k because he learned the power of compound interest, the other one bought a cheap used car instead of a new one, to avoid a car payment. In both of those cases, the lessons made an impact because the material mattered to their lives.

That’s easy with lessons on personal finance taught to seniors in high school. How do you do the same thing with algebra? With reading novels? With chemistry? My own solution is that students should have some control over what they learn. If you force a student to read something they don’t want to read, most of the time they end up copying someone else’s answers. Or failing. You can be as inspirational as you want, you’re not going to find 32 kids in a class who all want to learn the same thing at the same time. Even if you can convince them all to do the work, it won’t matter if they don’t care. Because they won’t retain, or be able to apply, any of the material. For every example of a student who’s saving for retirement at age 19, there’s another one who got an ‘A’ on the personal finance test and then bought an iPhone X on credit.

You can encourage and you can inspire and you can facilitate another person’s learning. You can’t create a pre-packaged “curriculum” and force it into everyone’s head.

My approach to teaching

I suppose the most important thing that a teacher can do is make their subject matter relevant to the lives of the students. That’s my approach. Try to sell it, make it meaningful, and provide opportunities to explore and learn and grow within the subject matter. In history, that’s thinking critically about social events and making arguments. My job is to gather material, prepare activities and provide feedback and encouragement as they develop those skills.

In terms of behavior management I try to create a safe place for people to pursue that learning. You can never force someone to care or put in their full effort — but you can keep them from distracting others and hurting the learning atmosphere of the class.

I believe that this positive approach is, in the grand scheme of things, better than the drill sergeant approach, which may cause more students to answer more multiple choice questions correctly, but which does not promote applied understanding or inspire a love of learning.

A Litany of Thanks

I’m thankful I didn’t grow up in this technological era of smartphones and social media.

I’m thankful for my English teachers in high school, who instilled the foundations of good writing long before I cared about writing.

I’m thankful for my parents always showing me love, especially during the times I’ve felt unworthy of love.

I’m thankful for three square meals a day.

I’m thankful for running water coming out of my faucets.

I’m thankful for the game of basketball, which doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but which has become sort of a symbolic spiritual presence in my life.

I’m thankful for my wife’s incredible family, who have welcomed me as family since the the day I showed up. You should have seen them mobilize with military efficiency to prepare for us a beautiful wedding venue.

I’m thankful for my brothers. We are totally different and yet kinda similar.

I’m thankful for Wendy’s (and now, our) dog Copper, for being awesome.

I’m thankful for my students, who, by not tolerating boring shit, have challenged me to become a better teacher.

I’m thankful for my friends, for supporting me unconditionally when I needed it, and also for being real with me when I needed it.

I’m thankful that, despite the best efforts of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, books are still being published and read.

I’m thankful for cool fall mornings bringing respite from the Arizona heat.

I’m thankful for musicians, artists, writers, athletes, and actors, who make life more enjoyable through their talents.

I’m thankful for libraries.

I’m thankful for the honest, hardworking, respectful men I have known growing up who I’ve been able to look up to as role models.

I’m thankful for the financial freedom I’ve had so far in my life, which has allowed me to travel different places and pursue different interests.

I’m thankful for fall break, winter break, spring break, summer break. The time off lets me live in coffee shops and pretend to be a professional writer. By the time I’m sick of hanging out alone in coffee shops, school’s ready to start. By the time I’m sick of school, another break is on the horizon.

I’m thankful for you, dear reader of this blog.

And finally, I’m thankful for the start of a journey in marriage. Life’s never easy, but with a shared humor and a radical openness to the unknown, I feel #blessed to have her by my side.

Wedding Bells

 

I got married three weeks ago. Many people ask me how the wedding went, and what it’s like being married. There’s really not much to say in small talk other than it was great! And it’s great.

And really, is our relationship different, now, in a metaphysical sense, because of a ceremony and a legal piece of paper?

My students have joked about me being a changed man. A married man, now. More mature, more responsible.

There’s a trope about marriage in the movie Old School. Will Farrell’s character gets married seemingly for no other reason than he has been in a relationship for a while and that’s what you do when you’re an adult and have been in a relationship for a while. He’s at a college party (in the movie, an adult friend buys a house near a college and starts a frat) and some of the kids ask him why he’s not drinking. While the college kids stare dumbfounded, he explains loudly over the din of the party that he has a big day planned tomorrow:

Well, um, actually a pretty nice little Saturday, we’re going to go to Home Depot. Yeah, buy some wallpaper, maybe get some flooring, stuff like that. Maybe Bed, Bath and Beyond, I don’t know. I don’t know if we’ll have enough time.

Old School, which screened in 2003, is an example of millennial distrust of marriage and other forms of commitment. The main characters in the movie end up finding happiness in a totally different place from where they started.

On average, half of our parents’ marriages didn’t work. We’re getting married later and later in life, if we get married at all. We move from state to state, from job to job, from house to house.

Many of us are asking why marriage even matters anymore. Others wonder what’s the point in having kids? Why bring new life into an overpopulated dying planet where everyone hates each other?

New York Times columnist David Brooks writes about the spiritual malaise of the world today in a recent article: “When Politics Becomes Your Idol.”

Brooks sees a society exemplified by the movie Boyhood, where:

What you see is good people desperately trying to connect in an America where bonds are attenuated — without stable families, tight communities, stable careers, ethnic roots or an enveloping moral culture. There’s just a whirl of changing stepfathers, changing homes, changing phone distractions, changing pop-culture references, financial stress and chronic drinking, which make it harder to sink down roots into something, or to even have a spiritual narrative that gives meaning to life.

Due to lack of meaning in the traditional places — marriage and family, neighborhoods, churches, etc. — Brooks thinks that people have latched onto partisan politics for their identities. Donald Trump has espoused a myth, toward which a person can attach their sense of aggrieved righteousness. The left espouse an alternative myth, a moral politics that can solve all of societies ills.

Both are idolatry which, as all idols will eventually do, demand everything from your mind and soul and offer nothing in return. It drains, it doesn’t fulfill.

I disagree with Brooks on this point. I think people are passionate about politics right now because there are extremely important things being worked out.

People are passionate about politics because we have these career politicians meekly accepting outlandish and destructive behavior from our head of state to achieve political victories that aren’t even being achieved because their head of state is so outlandish and incompetent.

People are passionate because the political party which might have stopped this from happening uncritically nominated for president a career politician who no one trusted, because it was her turn.

(Not that being a career politician is necessarily bad, but in the examples above, our leaders seem to be more concerned with their own power than what’s good for the country. And it’s worth noting that Trump’s election was a backlash against the political institution.)

To be moderate right now is, for Brooks, a virtue.

I could make the opposite argument, that if you aren’t pissed off you aren’t really paying attention.

But back to marriage.

The truth is, marriage does feel like a metaphysical change in my relationship. Standing together before family and friends, making vows, celebrating, signing papers, wearing each other’s rings. It does feel different. The experience was powerful. More profound and personal than I can write on a blog.

I’m not saying that everyone needs to get married in order to be fulfilled or to create a sense of community or anything like that. Maybe that’s what people used to think, and maybe that’s why the institution has eroded.

I think people are working out ways to find purpose and community. I think people are healing from the broken facades of the old institutional myths, whether it’s marriage and family life or political identity or career. Rather than accepting what’s been a given, people are experimenting and creating, and making more conscious choices.

Yes, there are casualties in this creating. Some people do hold politics as an idol. Yes, there’s superficial crap that people immerse themselves with. Technology is a double-edged sword. It can enslave our attention and rob us of deep and reflective thinking. But then, I met my wife on Match.com.

Sometimes in relationships or families or teams or communities or democracies, an argument can bring emotional truths to the surface, and a deeper sense of mutual understanding can follow. With a country this may take a long time. It seems like, in the aftermath of the 2016 election, we’re still in the midst of the fight. Denial on both sides.

What matters most sometimes is the manner in which you disagree. Personal attacks, insults, deception, violence — these cause traumas that take longer and longer to heal.

Brooks is right that we need to find something unifying, deeper than our politics, to bring us together.

The effect of that, though, I hope is not less passion but rather more honesty, more respect, and more effort to see the world from other people’s eyes.

Podcast Episode 1: Flake, Trump, and the Future of the Republican Party

This is the first episode of a new podcast, talking politics with my dad, Robert Robb, an editorial columnist for the Arizona Republic. Find the latest podcast episodes here.

Can Republicans walk the tight rope between supporting Trump on policy, and disassociating themselves with Trump’s behavior?

Reflections on the Rat Race

Early morning, and the sun is rising over cars on the freeway. All of us commuters, waiting in traffic. Four lanes of cars, headed to work.

I’m sitting in my car drinking coffee. I look to the right, see a lady peering into the rear-view mirror, carefully applying makeup to her eyes. Look to the left, see a guy glancing up and down from his phone.

News blaring on my radio. They’re talking about nuclear war. They’re talking about global warming.

At work, students stream into my classroom from the hallways. They’re laughing, they’re joking, they’re running around. When the bell rings, they groan. They sit down. Four rows of students, sitting in desks.

Sit up straight. Put your phones away. Quiet.

desks1

Ambition is a virtue in America.

Purpose, less so.

We’re all trying to get somewhere, without being entirely sure why we want to be there.

I remember one time I sat down for a meeting with a boss, it was a performance review at an old job. We talked about my role and about the future. I expressed an interest in taking more of a leadership role.

He said, that’s great. What do you want to lead? In what direction would you have us go?

I had no idea.

Ambition without purpose.

I realize that many commuters on the freeway are perhaps driven neither by “ambition” nor “purpose” but survival. Gotta put food on the table. Gotta pay those bills.

Punching the clock. Caught on the wheel, no escape in sight.

Others have managed to rise above, find a creative balance between work and hobbies and community and relationships. Some people carve a meaningful corner out of life, and live it to the fullest.

You don’t hear much about those people, because our culture celebrates different values.

Distinguished students. Award-winners. Millionaires. Celebrities.

I’m not bashing excellence. Our lives are enriched by the contributions of motivated individuals.

What corrupts the soul is striving to be perceived by others as excellent, rather than excellence being a byproduct of innate passion and goodwill.

Those lines can be blurred, no doubt. It’s hard to parse bundles within the psyche.

Everyone charts their own path. Blind ambition isn’t the only way to lose yourself. And there’s a million ways back to finding yourself anew.

Here’s hoping for courage in the difficult, but always valuable, work of self-reflection.