28 February 2018

What I Don't Get About Plagiarism

I have an unseemly confession to make. I don't get some of the hype about plagiarism.

I feel slightly less nervous about admitting this now, than I would have during my paper-writing student days. Nevertheless, as far as most of the academic community is concerned, an opinion like this puts me morally on par with someone who kicks puppies or steals candy from small children, so it's with some apprehension that I share it.

Sometime ago I read Stanley Fish's "Plagiarism Is Not a Big Moral Deal", and although part of me is loathe to admit it, it resonated with me. Fish's main point is that copying another's work should be considered a faux pas within the academic community only. From one incidence of plagiarism, we shouldn't extrapolate that someone is a crooked person devoid of conscience. There are many reasons for this: For one thing, the whole idea of intellectual property is a value held in a rather limited sphere; for another thing, the lines separating Plagiarism from Not Plagiarism aren't as cut and dried as some of us would like to think.

I can definitely see the sense in this. For example, the rules in my grad school student handbook defined plagiarism as using, without proper attribution, "three words in sequence" or "similar sounding sentence structure".

Well, "three words in sequence" is pretty dicey if you ask me, and "similar sentence structure", even more so. The syntax of English has very finite limitations. There are only just so many ways you can construct a sentence, and there are only just so many people who are going to be able to lay claim to their particular "three words in sequence" before virtually everything that can be said has been said (in a grammatically correct fashion, anyway). Also, the more arcane and erudite your topic, the more limited your vocabulary will be for describing it.

Then there's the MLA handbook, which exempts "common knowledge" from the citation requirement. But then of course you have to question what constitutes common knowledge -- and that's yet another area in which it seems that each person's view is their own.

The giant elephant in the room that everyone knows but few have the guts to admit is: there aren't really any original ideas! And -- thanks to the proliferation of printed works these days -- we're quickly running out of original wording with which to express those not-exactly-original ideas! No matter how cleverly you think you've phrased something, you're sure to find somebody else who's said the same thing in almost the same way. Even now, nothing I'm saying is brand new. I can guarantee you I haven't intentionally copied it from someone else, but I can't guarantee that someone, somewhere, has never said something similar. In fact, I can almost guarantee the opposite.

My feeling about the whole thing is that there is plagiarizing, and then there is plagiarizing. I just don't feel the same way about three words in sequence or similar syntax as I do about copying an entire paragraph, or turning in a research paper bought online (which, for the record, I do not think is okay, if anyone is wondering). I do believe anyone caught doing this should have to rewrite the assignment, because if they're using that much of someone else's writing, they've failed to demonstrate their own mastery of the concept. However, is "three words in sequence" or "similar sentence structure" evidence of such failure? I personally don't think it's as easy to make a case for that.

It's also hard for me to stand by the idea that if somebody's writing sounds like anybody else's who has ever been printed, their academic career should be over and they should live in infamy for the rest of their days. (See? That phrase -- "live in infamy" -- isn't mine. I think Franklin Roosevelt said it first, but you never know, do you?) I also wouldn't threaten someone with spiritual failure, as in this quote written by one of my college professors in his syllabus:

"You are students at a Bible College and you are expected to maintain the highest degree of integrity. If you do not, you may be caught and suffer consequences from the school. If I discover academic dishonesty, I am required to report it to the Dean of Academic Affairs. Even if you are not caught, however, you will suffer consequences in your life. My deepest concern is for your own personal growth and spiritual well being. I trust you to be honest, do your own work, and pursue excellence -- not for me, but for the Lord..."

So whereas at a secular university, turning in written work that looks just a bit too reminiscent of someone else's may earn you an F or even get you expelled, at Bible college you get that and then some. At Bible college, you also get a mini-sermon about the slow and steady erosion of your soul. "Plagiarism will not be tolerated" was the main point here; I'm not sure why a simple statement to that effect wouldn't have sufficed. If guilt is your motivator, then you've already lost the battle.

And then there are those plagiarism checkers online that you can use before submitting an assignment just in case you've duplicated someone else's work totally unawares. I use a free word counter online to check the word count of some of my blog posts, and no matter what, it always flags me for plagiarism. Every time.

And I'm like, um... what? How do I copy someone else's work that I've never even read, or maybe never even heard of? If this were a case of a teacher checking my work for plagiarism, how would I prove that I've never heard of that other author? And -- what I'm most interested to know -- how would this make me the sneaky, dishonest person who will "suffer consequences in my life", as noted above?

As I said before, I suspect a lot of this issue is simply hype.

It's well known that the modern, Western view of plagiarism has a lot to do with our cultural view of knowledge in general. A great many other cultures see knowledge as a communally shared resource, not something to stake a claim on and defend like prospectors in the California gold rush. I am not saying that all views are equally valid, necessarily. But how might the conversation about "academic honesty" and "integrity" be different in a culture where people don't expect to be personally credited for each particular turn of phrase? Should we simply go ahead and conclude that all those people are okay with dishonesty, while we are not? I wouldn't feel comfortable making that assumption. Is it possible that we've elevated a cultural value to the place of moral absolute? I don't know, but I do think it's a question that deserves to be asked.

The thing that makes me the most uncomfortable with defending intellectual property as a moral issue is: Not a single one of us has anything -- any idea, any phrase, any way of expressing a thought -- that we created out of thin air. The idea that you think is all your very own, you got from somewhere. Ownership of an idea isn't in the least like ownership of a tangible object. I have to wonder if it's our pride and snobbery, not our moral scruples and love of honesty, that lead us to act like it is.

Feel free to quote me on any of this, of course. But don't feel obligated to include a citation. Because, as you know, it's all been said before... somewhere.

27 February 2018

Coffee from China

A couple weeks ago I received a box of goodies all the way from China, compliments of the fabulous Stella. I got to try a lot of snacks I wish the United States had (hello, Numb and Spicy Hot Pot potato chips!) and also some coffee.

The beans came in this cute little blue bag. Isn't everything from China cute? Seriously. Those people are addicted to their cute stuff.

I'm intrigued by the stern-looking lady with the very large eyebrows on the front of the bag. She appears to be standing in some sort of garden. I'm really loving her awesome flower child headband. However, I'm not sure why she has a glove hanging from her left ear. I'd love to know what the story is there.

I'm also curious to know why she doesn't look happy. I mean, if my face was on a coffee bag of all things, you can bet I'd be happy. Well, on second thought, maybe not. I'm not sure I'd want my visage so widely circulated, because then everyone would know what I look like, and that wouldn't be good. They might keep bothering me for my autograph, the way kids in Japan did when I visited there (true story). And I think I would get tired of that. I'm perfectly satisfied with the way I live now, in peaceful obscurity.

This bag comes with a Ziploc closure complete with a little zipper illustration (and the word "zipper" right there in case you miss it). Why don't American coffee bags have this? It's so simple. I mean, we already use Ziploc for other stuff, like shredded cheese.

Too bad I messed it up by making a scissor cut in the bag before I noticed the ever so handy zipper.

The coffee itself has a slightly sour, "fruity" flavor typical of certain African coffees, such as Kenyan. Also typical of African coffees, it appears to be on the higher side for acidity. Actually, though, I'm uncertain as to the origin of this particular coffee. (It may say on the bag where it comes from, but as I'm regrettably illiterate in Chinese, that wouldn't help me much.) It's a light roast, which means more caffeine (no complaints there!). Below is a comparison with some Nicaraguan beans I roasted a couple days ago.

I only learned recently -- thanks to Sprudge -- that China actually does grow some of its own coffee. This came as a complete surprise to me, but I guess it really shouldn't have. I mean, they make literally everything nowadays, from washing machine parts to seafood filets. It just wouldn't be right if coffee was the one thing they weren't dabbling in.

Pairs well with green tea flavored Kit Kat bars, if you can get your hands on some. Not everyone is so lucky. 😉

19 February 2018

Against Black and White Thinking: The Case for Color, Part 2

In my previous post I suggested that learning to break out of black and white thinking is beneficial so that we can develop personal convictions that are neither oversimplified nor overly limiting. Today I want to expand on that idea a little.

A baby who is learning to take his first steps will usually want to do so with his parents close by, preferably with their hands holding his hands to steady him as he walks. Likewise, it's very common for a young, not-yet-mature Christian to desire similar helps as they "take steps" in the walk of faith. When they encounter a situation in which there isn't an obvious right or wrong answer (i.e., a "gray area"), they will tend to weigh their choices in terms of absolutes: "Is this wrong? Am I allowed to do to this? Is this a sin? Just tell me the right answer!" They might assume that something is a sin when it may not be, or else they might assume that if something isn't a sin, it must therefore be perfectly good and harmless.

However, as we mature in our faith, we learn that sometimes making the right choice is not always a question of right vs. wrong but of good vs. better. A more helpful question would be: If I do this (or, if the church or society accepts this belief or course of action), what will be the cost, consequence, or tradeoff?

Figuring this out is sometimes harder than it sounds. Black and white thinking, after all, is relatively lazy: It's always easier, and requires less discernment, to simply embrace or reject an idea wholesale. To brand it with the "Good" stamp or the "Bad" stamp, and then go on our merry way. It's much more difficult to take our time and sit in the presence of uncertainty for awhile (especially if it causes us uncertainty or discomfort) and pick out the good from the bad -- or, in some cases, the "better" from the "good." But it's always worth the effort.

In evaluating the cost or consequence of a particular course of action, it's important to remember a basic truth about life: namely, that saying "yes" to one thing means saying "no" to another. This is the case with even the most mundane, everyday choices. If I say "yes" to wearing the blue dress, I am saying "no" to wearing the black dress. If I order pizza for dinner, I'm saying "no" to tacos or hamburgers. Every "yes" is, by default, a "no" to something else.

So in your decision-making, think what consequences your choice will have, whether positive or negative. If they are negative, ask yourself if whatever you'll gain is worth that cost. Sometimes it is; sometimes it isn't.

For example, ordering pizza for dinner comes with a handful of pros and cons: It's convenient and we love it (positive), and it's also hard on my budget, and not terribly healthy (negative). Most of the time, in my case, the negatives outweigh the positives, so I don't do it very often. But on nights when I'm very tired or busy, it's worth the cost. I will say "no" to eating healthy and saving money, in order to be able to say "yes" to having a stress-free dinner hour.

That said, I realize not many people are going to argue about whether eating pizza is good or bad (though we never know, do we?). So I thought for awhile about what a better, more complex example would be. And it occurred to me that an especially thorny issue, one that people have been arguing about since Jesus left earth (and will likely still be arguing about when He returns to it) is right there in front of us every week: The way we do church.

The "rightness" or "wrongness" of particular service formats, worship styles, or church government structures have provoked so much debate and dissension in the worldwide body of Christians -- in fact, it's why we have so many different denominations. What I have to say here certainly won't fix any of that; instead, these questions are meant to get us thinking: When we choose to "do church" the way we do, what is the cost, consequence, or tradeoff? What kinds of things are our "yeses" causing us to say "no" to?

Well, hopefully we are saying "yes" to lots of good things that are also a "no" to certain other negative things:

Our "yes" to requiring our preachers and teachers to be educated in the Word means we are saying "no" to false teaching.

Our "yes" to serving coffee and refreshments means we are saying "no" to the false idea that only explicitly "spiritual" Sunday morning activities matter.

Our "yes" to meeting in small groups means (in Western churches, at least) we are saying "no" to the North American tendency to live isolated lives, to neglect forming close relationships with people outside of our immediate "friends and family" circle.

Our "yes" to financially supporting missions work, outreaches, and ministries means we are saying "no" to the selfish tendency to hoard our resources for ourselves.

Unfortunately, our churches are oftentimes also saying "yes" to things that are a "no" to something greater. For example:

Our "yes" to having a senior pastor means that we have a visible leader that everyone can look up to, but it may also mean we are saying "no" to giving Christ His true place as the head of the church, "no" to the priesthood of all believers (except as a spiritual concept that we pay lip service to, but don't really practice); "no" to helping those with the spiritual gifts of pastor and teacher to fully develop those gifts (since the church has room for only so many professional clergy members).

Our "yes" to having paid church staff may help the church to run like a well-oiled machine, but it may also mean we are saying "no" to opportunities for regular people to disciple others and be discipled through service because it's easier and less messy just to pay someone to do certain tasks; "no" to confronting sin among prominent church members because we don't want to risk a paycheck (ours or theirs), we don't want to have to find someone to fill a vacant position, or we just don't want to "rock the boat."

Our "yes" to preaching at the congregation to tithe might help bring in the money that we need to pay the bills, but it may also mean we are saying "no" to living by grace as it relates to finances; "no" to relying on the Lord to provide our needs instead of meeting them ourselves through our own scheming.

Our "yes" to a predictable, printed order of service makes things feel streamlined and "organized", but it may also mean we are saying "no" to the spontaneous leading of the Holy Spirit; "no" to the blessings that come with letting Him decide what He wants His church to be about that day.

Our "yes" to money spent on new lighting and sound may mean a more comfortable place to worship, but it may also mean we are saying "no" to using more of our money to help the poor and meet the needs of the saints.

Our "yes" to allowing Sunday morning small groups to define fellowship among believers may be convenient, but it may also mean we are saying "no" to expanding our definition of fellowship to include the real, informal sharing of everyday life.

Our "yes" to segregating Sunday morning small groups by age or marital status may make some members more comfortable, but it may also mean we are saying "no" to some real opportunities for inter-generational edification and encouragement.

Note that I said the above things may mean we are saying no. There may be legitimate reasons for why those things are done, or maybe some of those reasons aren't true of every church. (Remember what I said yesterday about false choices?)

For many of the above scenarios, asking "Is this right or wrong?" won't help, because we just can't answer without making the Bible say something it doesn't say, or forcing it to speak to something it doesn't directly address. We can take away certain guiding principles, of course. But for many issues, there just isn't an easy, obvious answer, like with the church example above: Is it a sin for the church building to have great lighting and sound? Nope. Is it a sin to have Sunday morning small groups for certain ages? Again, nope. But asking "Is it a sin?" isn't the right question anyway. The real key is to ask what the cost is. If we do something (or choose not to do something), will that help us or hinder us from doing a greater thing, something we know God wants us to do? Don't be surprised if you have to puzzle over this type of question for a good, long time -- it's not an easy one.

17 February 2018

Against Black and White Thinking: The Case for Color, Part 1

When we're talking about photography or old movies, black and white is a wonderful thing. Black and white thinking, however, is anything but. It's incredibly short-sighted and limiting.

Some people think in black and white (this is also known as "all or nothing" thinking) because that's all they've ever known. Others believe they have to think in black and white, because if they don't, "shades of gray" is their only other choice. Many of them consider this to be unacceptable. Seeing things in shades of gray, they say, means we lose our sense of morals. The lines between right and wrong become blurred, and we wander into "moral relativism" territory. Of course that's a dangerous place to be, so to avoid this pitfall we must organize everything into tightly defined right and wrong (or black and white) categories. That's the only surefire way to stay safely on the straight and narrow path.

I'm not so sure about that.

What if there was a third option, one that wasn't black, white, or gray? What if we learned to think in color, where not every situation in life is polarized, where there are differing shades (and hues and tints and tones) and it's not a negative thing? Thinking in color gives you more freedom than thinking in black and white, but it doesn't mean that everything is all muddled together like shades of gray. Right and wrong still exist, but it's up to you to know how they apply to different people, contexts, and situations.

This is not always easy to do. In fact, most of the time it's much more difficult! And it won't always give you a tidy solution to every problem. But if you learn to appreciate the complexities of color, you'll be a better person for it. At the very least, you'll find yourself less often at the mercy of irrational thinking patterns (your own or other people's).

How do you do it? I will give you some tips and tricks that have worked for me.

The first step is: Don't take anything for granted. Get in the habit of questioning everything you hear -- not for the sake of arguing or debating, but to know for yourself what is really right. As Roger Olson says, "Take everything you're told and put a big question mark next to it." This is especially important for anything that provokes an emotional response or knee-jerk reaction. Learn to put these aside long enough to really think through a matter.

You'll find this comes in especially handy at those times when someone tells you, "The Bible says..." or "God wants you to..." (If you're a churchgoer, you'll get this opportunity at least once a week!) A lot of conscientious Christians will simply accept a statement that begins with these words. After all, who wants to be guilty of arguing with God or disobeying Scripture? Keep in mind, though, that the message is being mediated to you through a fallible human, so you are accepting it at your own risk. It's always possible that the person might be sincere, but mistaken. Or they may be confusing their own personal conviction with a moral absolute (this is a very, very common occurrence).

This practice is also helpful when evaluating "false choice" statements, wherein the key to a given situation is supposedly either A or B: for example, "You're either an optimist or a pessimist", or "If you don't donate to this homeless ministry, you don't care about the poor." Challenge claims like these. (You can do this internally; no need to have a confrontation -- unless you want to!) What evidence are they using to support their assertion? Is there any reason why the answer couldn't be both A and B? Or neither A nor B?

A big one that you will hear in Christian circles is: God's will for everyone is to do X, and this applies at all times, in all places. There are untold numbers of pastors, seminar speakers, and Christian book authors who make a very comfortable living dishing out advice along these lines. However, you don't have to take their word for it! Here's a helpful hint: When evaluating the validity of a moral statement, take it to its logical conclusion. Imagine what would happen if everyone put the advice in question into practice, and play that scenario out to its likely finish. What is the result?

Case in point: There's a common philosophy in ultra-conservative evangelical circles that, unfortunately, has been elevated to the status of doctrine. It says: God's highest calling for women is to be married and raise godly children; everything else in life pales in comparison to this. Also, women should not work outside the home -- the man is to be the sole provider, the only one in salaried employment. Please note the following excerpt from a sermon by John MacArthur, on behalf of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW):

Many of the same women who in their twenties pursued career, didn't want children intruding in their life, now find themselves in their thirties and forties with an emptiness and a terrible dissatisfaction, a hollowness, a sense of unfulfillment. And the reality that they missed the whole purpose of life and they can't ever get it back." (source)
"I was created to be a helpmeet, that was the stated purpose in Genesis 2:18 when God gave woman to man, to rid man of his loneliness and to be a helper to him. Just as I most perfectly fulfill my purpose as a human when I am glorifying and enjoying God, when I am being a helpmeet I am most perfectly fulfilling my purpose as a woman... God's standard is for the wife and mother to work inside the home and not outside... a woman's only opportunity to fulfill God's plan for her role as wife and mother is in the home." (source)

Gee whiz. Well, let's give this one the logical conclusion test, and see how it fares.

First of all, if every woman was absent from the workforce, certain industries such as education and nursing that are statistically populated with higher numbers of women would be severely handicapped. Not good. Even those areas that aren't dominated by women would be worse off without their contribution. Society suffers when over half of its population is prevented from contributing in direct, tangible ways.

What about a woman who has no choice but to work because her husband is disabled? Or how about families who simply can't sustain themselves on one income? This is the case in a great many developing countries, where all able-bodied family members must work and earn money to put bread on the table: if they don't, they won't survive. (Bonus tip: if your theology requires a certain level of income in order to work, you may want to rethink it!)

Most importantly, on what grounds do we say that raising children is "the whole purpose of life"? (And where does this leave couples who experience infertility?) If we're going to stand by this statement, then what's our answer to the question of what future those children have when they grow up? except to have their own children, and then those children will have children... but to what end, ultimately? That's where this philosophy really falls apart: It's circular, because it can't identify a goal or purpose outside of itself. (And, I remind you, this is only the logic test. We don't even need to get into all the ways this view fails theologically -- though we certainly could do that as well!)

Obviously, there's no shame in being married and having children. And it's true that for some people -- women in particular -- marriage and parenting are the only vocational callings they sense on their lives. Imagine, though, if this was the case for everyone on the planet, as John MacArthur and CBMW idealize? What a mess!

Now on the other hand, there are all kinds of other moral statements that do pass the logical conclusion test with flying colors, such as: You should treat others the way you want to be treated. You should work hard and excel at whatever job you have. If you have children, you should teach them truth about God so that they will come to know Him better. To the question, "What will happen if everyone does this?" we can confidently answer: Only good things.

All of the above comes with one caveat, which I already mentioned: You are questioning, evaluating, and looking at things in new ways so that you can know, first and foremost, what is right. Personal convictions are just that -- personal. Whether or not anyone else is moved to adopt those same convictions is between the Holy Spirit and themselves. Though others may benefit from your point of view, they may not share it for a number of reasons, including but not limited to:

(A.) You could be wrong. (Never rule that one out completely!)
(B.) They're at a different place in their life and haven't yet come to the same realizations you have about certain things.
(C.) God is calling them to something different from what He has called you to.

In the New Testament, "thinking in color" goes by another name: It's called living by grace. And it requires humility, flexibility, and healthy doses of patience.

10 February 2018

Traditions That Need to Go Out of Style: "Mr. and Mrs."

....Specifically, teaching children to call their elders "Mr." and "Mrs./Miss."

I suppose it's a nice gesture. Truth be told, I probably would encourage my own kids to do it. Not because I'm personally sold on its importance, but to avoid offending that one cantankerous person who will surely get bent out of shape if addressed by their first name. (I'm not necessarily a conflict avoider, but I do choose my battles.)

Really, though, the whole idea behind this is lost on me. Who freakin' cares if a kid calls you by your first name? It's your name. It's not an epithet. When I was a kid, this made no sense to me, and now that I'm an adult it makes even less sense.

Actually, I was always told it was a way for children to "show respect", but I'm firmly in the camp that believes respect is best conveyed through attitude, not titles. You don't deserve titles unless you're royalty. Even then, it's debatable. (I also believe that respect must be earned. It's not something you should just age into, like Social Security benefits. And yes, I'm aware that this is a minority view on Planet Earth.)

Along the same lines: Parents in the southern United States teaching their children to call adults (even their mother and father!) "Ma'am" and "Sir." You need to cease and desist with this one, southern people. Please. Please do your part to end Social Awkwardness in America and just stop. It's your patriotic duty. If you're at a loss for what else your children should call you, may I suggest "Mom" or "Dad" as suitable alternatives. I hear those terms have worked well everywhere else.

Trust me, it's not worth whoever might think -- for one brief, fleeting moment -- about what nice, well-mannered progeny you have. This is especially true in other areas of the country. In the Northeast, for example, if you call someone "Ma'am" or "Sir" outside of a business/customer service context, they're likely to think you're making fun of them. Or at least they'll feel sorry for you, because you're weird.

If you must, an agreeable compromise is to have children call adults Mr. [First Name] or Miss/Mrs. [First Name]. I've never minded being "Miss Sharon", though if I had to choose, just plain old Sharon fits me best. (And yes, I may be plain, but I'm not old. Not yet!)

08 February 2018

Stop Hating on Girls

Misogyny is a popular accusation leveled against the mainstream evangelical church these days. It's not entirely without grounds, in my opinion. Many sects of the church today are full of thinly (and sometimes not-so-thinly) veiled animosity toward the female sex, for what oftentimes seems like no reason at all.

Here'a case in point (ironically, from a book called 25 Days to a Happier Home):

"Raising four girls and two boys has taught me that girls naturally have a problem with their tongues. We girls love to talk and chat. Unfortunately, many of us enjoy gossiping and nagging as well. We have to fight those temptations to "tell it like it is" or "speak our minds."

"It's so easy to compare ourselves with each other. We all have been guilty of this evil, unforgiving comparison game. It's my observation that women are the very worst at this unfair game! You don't believe me? How many times have you had these thoughts run through your mind? "She's prettier than me." "She's skinnier than me." "She's more talented than me." "She cooks circles around me." These are only a few of the thoughts that can float around in our self-centered, female minds."

The author linked to her blog from the e-book, so I went there and had a look around. Sure enough, there was more of the same:

"Girls can just be plain mean. I’m talking about ruthless, vindictive, green-eyed monster mean. Having four daughters at home, I have seen mean girls of all ages and I am trying to help my daughters deal with mean girls in the best way possible. Moms, I guess we should totally fess up. Our gender is made up of some catty backstabbers, isn’t it?"

...Wow. (This lady actually proves her own point pretty well!)

I am picking on only one person's writing, but really, it typifies so much of this kind of attitude among Christian bloggers and book authors (and even those who don't share their opinions on an official platform). It also highlights one of the biggest ironies about complementarianism: So much time is spent talking about the vast and enormous differences between men and women, but when it comes to discussions about women as a group (or men as a group), suddenly, everyone is the same: Women are naggers. Women are snarky. Women are catty. Women talk too much. And on and on it goes. So much hasty generalization that's offensive, one-sided, or just plain inaccurate.

Most of us probably know deep down that generalizing is bad, but if you need some reasons, here they are. (By the way, these can also apply to unfair generalizations about men and boys as well.)

First of all, these types of generalizations are unfair, unkind, and unnecessary. Unfair, because they aren't backed by solid proof or evidence of any sort. Unkind, because they're insulting to the woman as an individual capable of proving herself on her own merits if given the chance. Unnecessary, because how does your prejudgment help her? For that matter, how does it help you?

Worse yet, declaring negative traits to be inherently and exclusively "female" suggests that we believe God created women and girls this way. It's a terrible insult to God, if you think about it. Or, perhaps we wouldn't go that far, but we have no problem saying that women and girls are predisposed to certain sins. Thus we tend to accept that envy and gossip are "female sins" while anger and lust (for example) are "male sins".

The problem with that is, there's no Scriptural or historical evidence to make that case. It is true that these ideas sound reasonable to us because we've been socialized to accept certain cultural stereotypes of men and women, but this is a pretty flimsy reason for believing in them as fact. No matter where you look -- past or present -- examples abound of women and men who sin with their words, their anger, their failure to love their neighbors; their desire to have what they are not entitled to. Nobody has the market cornered on particular flaws!

There's another reason to avoid jumping to conclusions about women: If you're going to generalize about 50% of the human race, you had better be prepared with hard evidence. Most of us aren't, and here's why:

In the absence of a properly conducted, valid research study, it's pretty difficult to make a fair generalization about a group of people. You must have (among other things) a sufficiently large body of information from which to form a true and accurate conclusion. This is known as a representative sample.

Obviously, the larger the group you're generalizing about, the larger the sample size you'll need. For a very narrow subset of the human population -- say, Harvard graduates who majored in business, or Eastern European immigrants in the American Midwest -- a smaller sample size is acceptable.

However! When you are generalizing about one half of the entire human race, guess how large of a sample size you should have!? A very, very big one! Not only that, but then you have to ensure that your informants are diverse enough -- in age, ethnicity, location, occupation, religion, educational background, income level, and more -- to fairly and accurately represent the population being studied.

Needless to say, most people who go around painting entire categories of humanity with broad strokes haven't actually done any research. They're just calling it the way they see it through their own prejudices, preconceived notions, and biases (one of which is confirmation bias, the tendency to see only the answers that line up with what we already believe to be true, while ignoring or glossing over other information).

The next time you hear someone make a blanket statement about the way all women or men act, ask to see their research. I can virtually guarantee you they won't have any, because they're just talking out of their you-know-where. This is okay to some degree: It's a free country, and there's no law against having an opinion, even if it's a wrong one. What's not okay is that these opinions are being presented (and accepted) as absolute truth by adults with fully formed consciences and intellects who, quite frankly, ought to know better.

Finally, and not least of all, unfair generalizations are bad because people, especially children, tend to live up to your bad expectations of them -- whether they realize it or not. The opposite is also true. Think of those individuals whom we hold up as a great inspiration to the rest of humanity: Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa... They didn't become so by their negativity. They did it by looking for the good in people (even when at times there was precious little good to be found), and then affirming it and encouraging it -- fanning those small sparks into a mighty flame.

As for the author I cited above, I pity her children -- especially her daughters. They have to live with the knowledge that their mother expects the worst of them in certain areas simply because they are female. What a terrible burden for a child to carry! Even as an adult, knowing that someone close to you is always and evermore assuming the worst about you is wearying and demoralizing -- so much so, that after awhile, you'll probably give up trying to prove them wrong. The upshot of this is that the pessimist tends to get exactly what they expect, while not realizing that they're perpetuating the very behavior they condemn.

However, the good news is, it's within each person's power to break that cycle (or, at the very least, to ensure that we are not participants in helping it to go on). It's pretty simple, really: Refuse to make hasty generalizations, and don't agree with them when you hear them being made. Take a good look at each individual who crosses your path in life, and be willing to put aside your initial assumptions while you get to know them for who they actually are.

As a side benefit, if you're looking to have a happier home, I'll just bet this way will work a whole lot better.

06 February 2018

Things People Say: Christianese Edition

Christianese: a dialect in its own right, spoken by an entire subset of English language users. Like the wind, you don't see where it comes from, but you see what it does (mostly, makes us look silly).

First up, we have money-related Christianese.

This really is a thing, you know. We have almost as many euphemisms for giving money as we do for death, which is really telling of what makes us uncomfortable when you think about it. Nevertheless, a whole host of "Christian" activities -- ministry funding, missions support raising, sermons on tithing, and so forth -- depend on asking people for money. It's a job that just has to be done, it seems. However, we're aware that saying "Please give us money" sounds bad. So we've come up with all sorts of other ways to say it without actually saying it, including but not limited to:

1. Partner with us. This one is a particular favorite of parachurch organizations. But don't get any ideas that this will be like a business partnership, where you'll hold an equal share of the benefits, or any decision-making authority. No, in the simplest possible terms, it just means: hand over the cash. (So then I wonder: If you get robbed at gunpoint and have to give the thief your money, are you "partnering" with him in his life of crime? I do think a case can be made for this.)

2. Worship through giving. Note that when you see this on the order of service in a church bulletin, the key word is "give." The "worship" part is there to make you feel obligated, more or less. After all, when Jesus talked about worshiping God "in spirit and in truth", you didn't think He meant you could do it for free, did you?

3. Fellowship with... Back when I only knew "fellowship" as "coffee and donuts after the service", this one really confused me. Especially the first time I heard someone announce during the church financial meeting: "This month we had the opportunity to fellowship with missionaries Ron and Debbie Smith who are serving in Bulgaria..." I thought, Wait, they were here recently? How'd I miss that? And then I learned. "Fellowship" = cash. Dollars. Dough. Moola. Et cetera... So, I went home and told my parents to consider increasing their "fellowship" with me -- i.e., I want a bigger allowance, please. (It didn't work.)

4. Sow a seed. This one was a trick question. "Sow a seed" isn't so much evangelical Christianese as it is televangelist flimflammery. If you hear this one, make sure you know where your wallet is, and then make a speedy exit.

We also have a well-stocked arsenal of prayer-related Christianese terms:

1. Prayerfully consider. There's an episode of Adventures in Odyssey in which Brandon Teller proposes to Katrina Shanks by asking her to "prayerfully consider" becoming his wife. It's an awkward moment, not only because of Katrina's budding relationship with Eugene, but because anyone who will drop a phrase like "prayerfully consider" into a marriage proposal has got some serious social anxiety.

I don't hear prayer used as an adverb much anymore, but when I do it always makes me laugh a little. And for reasons unknown it almost always collocates with "consider." We can't tell you why. The Lord works in mysterious ways, and so does our terminology.

2. We covet your prayers. This one always gets me. Coveting is a sin, so associating it with prayer seems like a very wrong and unnatural alliance. I have to agree with the person who said it's like saying "We lust after your prayers." It just doesn't fit.

3. Bathe this matter in prayer. Oh, what a visual this one is! I'm picturing someone dunking a piece of paper with a prayer request written on it in a bathtub full of water. How do you "bathe" something in prayer, anyhow -- as opposed to, say, sprinkling, or affusion? (It kind of sounds like we're talking about baptism now.)

Speaking of which, it's even weirder if you say you'll bathe a person in prayer. On Facebook recently one of my friends posted that she was going through a hard time and somebody commented: "Just wanted you to know I'm bathing you in prayer today."

I'm not sure how I would respond if someone informed me of their intention to administer a prayer bath on my behalf. Thank you, but my general health and mobility levels still allow me to bathe myself without difficulty. I do appreciate the thought, however.

4. Season of prayer. A season is approximately 90 days from solstice to equinox. But my backside gets numb after about 90 minutes of sitting, so an entire season of prayer is probably out of the question. (The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.)

5. Popcorn prayer. For short, one or two-sentence prayers in a group setting, I prefer the term "conversational prayer." It's really not a good idea to mention popcorn, or snacks of any kind, because then some of us can't pray without thinking about food.

Of course, beyond money and prayer, Christianese covers a broad range of miscellany, such as:

1. Blessed. Be not like the uncircumcised Philistines of this world, who call themselves "lucky" or "fortunate" or who wish you a "good" day on your way out of the store. No, thou that wouldst behave as one of the called and chosen, must substitute the sanctified "blessed" in all thine interactions. It matters not that all these terms have the same intended meaning in casual conversation, or that overusing a powerful word like blessed cheapens it faster than a government subsidy. It's simply what you must do; yours is not to reason why.

2. Hedge of protection. If someone you love is facing many dangers, toils, and snares, the best thing you can do for them is to erect that holy shrubbery known as the Hedge of Protection around them. And don't be fooled by the name. Satan may be perfectly capable of passing through walls, locked doors, and other barriers impenetrable to humans, but he's no match for that Hedge, that Hedge of Protection.

3. Travel mercies. "Mercies" come in different varieties, apparently, so if someone is on a road trip or taking a flight, remember to invoke the special travel mercies on their behalf. They're different from regular mercies. How? Well... we don't ask that. Mostly because we're not sure.

02 February 2018

Thoughts from the Beaufort Goodwill Store

How I feel when I find clothes that fit me.

Spring is coming soon.

It comes about three months earlier in the South than it does everywhere else. In fact, they skip past fall and winter, and each summer transitions directly into the next year's spring. It's really quite amazing. It was summer just a few short weeks ago, and it will be summer again in another few short weeks.

Even though there aren't dramatic seasonal shifts here, I still like to pretend there are. And occasionally, I still like to pretend I'm shopping for a new seasonal wardrobe. However, my budget won't let me pretend I'm rich (sad face); hence, my shopping sprees find me at... my local Goodwill.

As secondhand clothing stores go, Beaufort's is so-so. I've seen better and I've seen worse. The quality of the store mostly depends on your area, though not always: My hometown in Connecticut had a Salvation Army whose inventory resembled material my frugal mother would have tried to salvage for cleaning rags. But just a few doors down the street was a Goodwill that was trying very hard to be a boutique and sell only the nicest clothes for nearly full retail. Both stores seemed to do an equal amount of business, so I guess everybody was happy.

But, generally, the more affluent the area, the better you will fare on your thrift store missions. Rich people's discards are the best. They can't be old rich people, though, which is why I don't like the Goodwill on Hilton Head Island nearly as much. Too many aging Baby Boomers whose style is just old enough to be tacky, but not old enough to be classic. Southern California's Goodwills and such are where you really hit the jackpot, because people there are rich and young and trendy. Some of my nicest earthly possessions came from the Saver's in La Mirada -- brand new, name brand clothes and jewelry that I could never have afforded otherwise.

In any case, I'm a very inefficient shopper and I only go to Goodwill when I have 2-3 hours to spend. This is partially because I'm tall and weirdly shaped and it takes me a long time to find anything that fits properly from all angles. When I go to the mall, I don't need nearly as much time. I can head straight to the section that has whatever I'm looking for that day, and quickly find whatever they have in Tall or Long sizes. But at Goodwill, the tradeoff for being able to spend less money is that I have to spend much more time sifting through all the flotsam. I'm usually not willing to do this -- to me, time is money. But not today. Today, I have time, and not so much money.

As I look around, I can't help but wonder about some of the merchandise, and who thought it was worth the space it takes up in the store. I mean, nothing is in there by accident. Everything that comes in via donation is looked over and given a thumbs up by a store employee. Which means that somebody, at some point, looked at that stained muumuu or that broken crockery or that notebook with writing on every page and decided, Yeah, we can definitely sell this! In fact, some of the stuff -- like avocado green Tupperware and plaid bell bottoms -- would really be better off in a museum. An ancient history museum.

I pick out a few things and go to try them on. The dressing rooms are all locked, of course. You have to ask a store associate to open one for you. When I was a kid, I would just crawl in through the space under the door. But now that I'm a five-foot-ten adult who would probably get arrested for shoplifting or at least for Acting Very Suspiciously in Public, I ask nicely to be let in.

Why do they lock the dressing rooms, anyway? I get why big box retail stores do it. They don't want people stealing, because (obviously) the store would lose money. However, Goodwill gets everything donated to them, and whatever price they sell it for is pure profit. It's not like they have anything to lose; they never paid for it to begin with.

I start to feel yucky after being in Goodwill for too long. It's my cue to move on to something else, I guess. As usual, most of what I try on looks more flattering on the hanger than it does on me.

On a whim I went and browsed the men's section for Hawaiian shirts (Wesley loves them). I found one in a deep ocean shade of blue, that was fun-looking but not too crazy, and said "Caribbean Joe" on the tag. Well, it was practically made for him, I decided. It looked to be about his size. I'm never a hundred percent sure how things will fit somebody when I don't have that particular somebody with me, but for $1.99, I decided to take the risk.

Wesley tried the shirt on when he got home from work. It looked fabulous, and it fit perfectly. He was quite tickled to hear that I got it for almost nothing. "You know some old golfer guy paid $49 for this when it was new," he remarked, turning around to see his reflection in the mirror. He's blessed with that perfect hair and skin tone that makes any color -- any color at all -- look fantastic. He doesn't know what a rare and wonderful blessing this is, and he doesn't seem to believe me when I tell him.

Also, how is it that he gets more out of a three hour trip to Goodwill than I do, without ever having to set foot in the place?

Next time, I think I'm going to the mall.