March 27, 2009

The Hour of (no) Power: Reflections on Electricity

As a city employee, I received an email today from the mayor's office about Honolulu's official participation in Earth Hour 2009 beginning tomorrow night at 8:30 pm local time. In case you haven't heard about it, Earth Hour is an international event organized by the World Wildlife Fund that began 2 years ago in Australia when 2.2 million Sydney residents turned off their lights for an hour to raise awareness of climate change and other environmental issues. Since then, the intentional blackout idea has spread around the globe and this year's affair is set to include at least 2100 cities in 82 countries (there, I just saved you a trip to Wikipedia).

I distinctly remember participating in last year's event because we took great care to ensure our 9-month-old was soundly asleep by 8:30 with enough lead time to allow his customary lullaby CD to run its course. Even though I grew up as a candle-literate missionary kid in countries with frequent blackouts (some scheduled, most not), I can't imagine raising a child without electricity. At least not in this county. How would his food and milk be refrigerated? Where would the energy come from to heat his bath water or wash his clothes and dishes? How many of his favorite toys and activities require a wall outlet or batteries? There would be no digital cameras to take his picture or vacuum cleaners to mitigate his messes. No cell phones to check in with his babysitter or Skype to chat with Grandma online. No electric fans for ambient noise, no air conditioners to keep cool and certainly no bathroom light switches to forget about.

It wasn't always this easy. The overwhelming bulk of world history pre-dates Thomas Edison's invention of the first commercially practical light bulb in 1879. With the exception of the last 130 years, every human civilization has been "in the dark" so to speak. There were no spotlights for the stage performances of ancient Greece or floodlights for the construction of China's Great Wall. The artists and revolutionaries of the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation did their work without any "power." From the ancient Egyptians to 19th-century European colonialism, empires rose and fell without so much as a mouse click. Sure, there were candles, lanterns and flames of varying sizes, but those would also be perfectly acceptable light sources for a measly hour without electricity tomorrow night.

So what exactly will I do with myself for 60 odd minutes of electricity-free darkness? At our house, 8:30 pm is usually when the TV, computer, dishwasher, microwave, DVD player and washing machine are all in use. As any parent knows, the time between your kid's bedtime and your own is very precious; hence the habitual consumption-fest. Earth Hour, for all of its simplicity, will change all of this, if only for one night. Since there will be no blogging, Facebook, YouTube, Amazon, craigslist, fantasy baseball, channel-surfing or microwave popcorn during this sacred hour, I might actually have to unplug my brain and interact with another human being the old-school way. Maybe we'll play cards, drink tea, tell stories or just quietly enjoy the solidarity with other darkened homes.

To the cynics who think this event is pure pageantry and does little to make a difference in reducing carbon emissions, say what you will. Exercise your energy guzzling rights for all I care. For me, Earth Hour is a timely reminder not only of my dependence on electricity and technology, but also the responsibility and stewardship required to use them well. That I'm a middle class American should not entitle me to frivolous energy consumption, even if I do "pay" for it every month. If renowned structures like Sydney's Opera House, Rome's Colosseum, the Empire State Building and even (oh yes) Manila's SM Mall of Asia can shut off their lights for just one Saturday night hour, I don't see why our household shouldn't do the same.

March 14, 2009

Will I regret joining (the) Facebook?

When I first began this blog exactly one year ago today, I reflected on why I wasn't quite ready for Facebook yet. For a variety of reasons, I decided to try blogging first since it seemed better suited to my goals and interests at the time. And while I have no regrets about the growth and enjoyment I've experienced through blogging, I've also been thinking a lot about whether or not to join Facebook, pondering the pros and cons for months on end. If you can't imagine why someone would have cold feet about something as prevalent as Facebook (over 175 million active users worldwide), perhaps I seem needlessly paranoid or at the very least, inconsistent in my approach to risk-taking. After all, if I'm willing to drive on slippery roads at night, eat fast food and use a credit card to shop online, what's so terrifying about Facebook? My thought process usually goes something like this:

1. Gee, it sure would be interesting to find out what some of my friends from high school and college are up to nowadays. It seems pretty clear that Facebook is the best way to accomplish this.

2. But what about the unintended consequences of releasing private information into the nebulous expanse of cyberspace? What if I or someone I know posts something that comes back to haunt me someday? What if it costs me a job opportunity, a friendship or worse? Besides, I've survived just fine without Facebook all these years so why should I join now?

3. Then again, I'm only kidding myself if I'm expecting to stay in touch with people only through e-mails, phone calls and a blog that no one reads. I don't even have the contact info for many of the wonderful people who used to be my closest friends.

4. But what about not-so-wonderful co-workers, classmates, relatives and acquaintances who I don't really want to include? Do I really want to put myself in a position where I have to blatantly ignore/refuse their "friendship" requests? Are the risks of online social networking worth the benefits?

5. I'll bet more people would read my blog if I joined Facebook.

6. Sure, but more people could steal my identity too while they're at it.

7. That's not likely to happen if I take the proper precautions. What it really boils down to is this question: Which would I regret more, joining or not joining? And If I were to join, how much time would it take to "do it right?" Furthermore, do I want to be the kind of person who spends copious amounts of time maintaining a slick online personality?

8. Maybe it would just be better to resist the trendy bandwagon and thereby avoid these lingering questions. This Facebook thing sounds time-consuming in addition to being somewhat risky and possibly very addictive.

9. Okay. So I guess I won't be joining Facebook then.

10. Gee, I wonder what so-and-so is up to these days.

Well guess what? I finally joined Facebook today. Go figure.

March 9, 2009

Book Review: The Future of Faith in American Politics

What comes to mind when you think of the relationship between evangelicals and American politics? Fervent opposition to abortion and gay marriage? The convolution of God and Country? Culture wars and single-issue litmus tests? Whatever the prevailing image, it can probably be characterized more by partisan reaction than carefully nuanced, non-partisan reflection.

Piggybacking on the groundswell of opposition to George W. Bush's policies on issues like torture, climate change and the Iraq War, numerous books in recent years have critiqued the strong ties between evangelical Christianity and the Republican Party. Among the most influential of these bestsellers has been God's Politics by Jim Wallis, which captured this wave of frustration and energized a younger generation of Christians (myself included) to pursue social justice and fight global poverty. Wallis has often proclaimed the decline of hard-line social conservatism with phrases like, "the monologue of the Religious Right is over." But with 74% of evangelicals voting for John McCain in 2008, is American Christianity really shifting from right to left or is something more subtle and less reactionary taking place?

Evangelical scholar David Gushee, Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, argues for the latter in The Future of Faith in American Politics: The Public Witness of the Evangelical Center (Baylor Press, 2008). He begins with a thoughtful and dispassionate survey of the political spectrum within evangelicalism: right, left and center. With surgical precision and refreshingly independent sensitivity, Gushee dissects and examines the strengths, flaws, key figures and organizations comprising each perspective. Based on his analysis of the evangelical right (including James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention among others) and evangelical left (Wallis, and influential author/speakers Tony Campolo and Brian McLaren), Gushee observes that both camps lack the independence to offer a biblically consistent approach to political engagement.

Gushee concludes most evangelicals do not identify with the either partisan extreme. As such, they increasingly seek to think holistically about a broader range of issues, transcending the polarizing dichotomies expressed on cable news and talk radio. While the vast majority of evangelicals still take conservative positions on gay marriage and abortion rights, traditionally "liberal" concerns like reducing poverty, defending human rights, fighting HIV/AIDS, expanding health care access and promoting environmental responsibility have become important factors in the discussion. Pointing to the work of "centrists" like Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, Gary Haugen of International Justice Mission, Rich Stearns of World Vision and Joel Hunter of Northland Church, Gushee makes a strong case that the moderate middle is the most fertile place for biblical reflection, inclusive dialogue and critical thinking to occur in the coming years.

What makes this book stand out from other works of its genre is a steadfast commitment to both political independence and Christian civility. Although Gushee and Wallis voice many of the same critiques of the evangelical right, Gushee is not preoccupied with vilifying Dobson and Pat Robertson or stirring up anti-Republican umbrage. The solution to a conservative imbalance is not a counter flood of liberal talking points, but a fiercely consistent allegiance to a different Kingdom altogether. For those who buy into the caricature that all evangelicals take their political marching orders from right-wing extremists, televangelists and Republican political operatives, the book reveals persuasive evidence to the contrary. Others may dismiss the concept of evangelical balance and moderation as the height of oximoronic naivete, but Gushee contends that loud voices on the extremes have actually deepened the movement toward a more thoughtful and deliberately independent centrism.

If you are hoping to be told (directly or indirectly) who Jesus would vote for, Gushee will disappoint you. If you want partisan ideology cloaked in religious language or political strategies for how to attract evangelical voters, this book is not for you. But if you're looking for tools and principles to biblically grapple with the thorniest public policy issues of our time, The Future of Faith in American Politics is a must-read. Even if you only read the sub-chapter addressing the tangled moral and ethical web created by the debate over gay marriage, those insights alone are worth the cost of the book. Those looking for a sober and reasonable introduction to the world of faith and politics will be inspired by Gushee's Christ-centered passion for justice and truth.

Simply stated, this is the best book I've read on the relationship between evangelical Christianity and American politics; a feast for the mind and heart. Gushee is a master at synthesizing scholarly observation with passionate biblical conviction and reflective humility in a way that is engaging, persuasive and leaves you hungering for a better world. Christians of all stripes: right and left, young and old, hopeful and cynical, engaged and apathetic, have something to learn from this groundbreaking work. Those seeking to understand the full spectrum of evangelical politics, including both the truth and hyperbole behind the stereotypes, will value this insightful and compelling look at the way forward.