The National Pastors Convention ended at noon yesterday. I’ve been to many conferences over the years, and I must say this was one of the most enjoyable. Beeson Divinity school professor/author/painter Calvin Miller touched on why this was true for me. In his session on Celtic Christianity, he described how different events attract different audiences. I was at home with this audience. Not only that, but the organizers were wonderful hosts to us journalists. I’m sitting right now at a dining room table covered with books, some of which the publishers would, no doubt, like me to mention. This brings me back to my first post from the convention. In it, I mentioned the fact that a session moderator had asked the audience not to blog about it. At least three others have now done so. Specifically, he asked us not to blog “provocative one-liners” and then he or someone else jokingly stated: “What happens in the Critical Concerns Courses stays in the Critical Concerns Courses.”

When I was at the Better Watchdogs Workshop back in September, we had a discussion about when groups that actively seek publicity suddenly bar the press from reporting on a public or semi-public meeting. There was not clear consensus on what to do in such situations. I said that I would comply with such a request, but vocally protest it and take it into account in future reporting, which is what I have done here. Let me add another thought: If authors and their publishers don’t want the press to report provocative one-liners, perhaps the authors should refrain from spewing them. It seems to me they do so to get a reaction. Both audiences and we in the press might also do well not to take the bait. Better to ignore declines in discourse than to advertise them.

Speaking of Calvin Miller’s session “Praying as a Creature to the Creator: Finding God in the Thin Places of the World He has Made for You,” this was the only talk I attended for personal edification. I have appreciated Miller’s writing and looked forward to hearing the sage speak in person. For the life of me, I can’t tell you what he said. Partly this was fatigue, partly it was his speaking style. He was like a whirling dervish, flinging out poems and jokes and sturdy bits of wisdom with some sense of structure, but a structure I couldn’t follow. I suspect I might be like him as a speaker, struggling to express something coherent—only I don’t like chaos. I’d also skip the fat American jokes, as any regular reader of this blog can attest. (I’m sure the attractive, ample woman beside me didn’t appreciate them either.) And I would skip the multiple reminders to buy my new book, though I think he can be forgiven since he mentioned that his previously held eschatology had fooled him into not planning for his golden years until he was in his fifties. I had already bought The Path of Celtic Prayer at any rate, and don’t regret it.

I only wish I had gone to hear Jim Wallis talk about his new book, The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America, instead. I had heard Wallis on Thursday evening in a short interview with Efrem Smith. Even Smith was skeptical of Wallis’ protestations that he is not advocating a Religious Left to counter the Religious Right. Wallis said he is preaching spiritual revival, for without it, neither party will effect real change.

Krista Tippett‘s interview with Bishops Rucyahana and Wright was impressive. She picked up on some of the themes I spoke with Bishop Rucyahana about regarding the Anglican splintering. (Wright corrected my reference to it as a “split” in my interview with him.) I encourage anyone who cares about our world to check the Speaking of Faith website for the air date. Currently, an interview with the late John O’ Donahue is being featured. I’d never heard of O’Donahue until bloggers began reporting his death earlier this year, and then a dear Irishman who is not a churchgoer told me his “relations,” as he calls them, were friends with O’Donahue. I’ll be acquainting myself (and my friend) with him shortly.

Long after the convention site had cleared, I spent 30 minutes with N.T. Wright, bishop of Durham, England. Wright gives fully-orbed answers to interview questions and I had a lot of them to pack into a short span of time. They centered on two themes: his thoughts on the Anglican “splintering” and his thoughts on what Phyllis Tickle calls “The Great Emergence.” I’ll not share what Wright said about the Anglican situation, except to say this: He rejects the critique of Dr. Vinay Samuel in The Anglican Mainstream that his position on the Global Anglican Future Conference is essentially racist. I intend to explore this theme elsewhere.

As to his views on the emergents, he spent time with some of them at Soularize in the Bahamas last year and thinks there are some serious Christian thinkers among them. He hadn’t heard of Peter Rollins, who has been described to me as the premiere “emerging” philosopher, and was unfamiliar with Rollins’ more questionable ideas. He thinks the emerging church is a reasonable response to the modernist mega-church construct. A couple times Wright had said post-modernism “preaches the Fall” to arrogant modernism. I asked him if he didn’t think post-modernism communicates an arrogance of its own. He agreed, which may be why he is stressing “post-post modernism,” an idea he defined for Tippett. My notes are unclear on this point, but he said something about the church leading the way forward as society is fumbling about between modernism and post-modernism.

Here’s what struck me about Bishop Wright:

That he is a brilliant scholar and orator is obvious. I have now heard him talk passionately about the importance of prophetic voices several times. (I couldn’t agree more.) In this context, at the closing communion service, he gave an erudite description of courage as the culmination of countless small decisions over time that lead those who have it to make incredible sacrifices when it counts. So I asked him, “Who are our prophets?” He was a bit startled and said he had been speaking theoretically. After a minute or two, he named the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. For example, he said Williams had effectively argued against euthanasia before the House of Lords. I threw out a couple American names. He affirmed Jim Wallis, even if he disagrees with Wallis in bits.

Here’s the thing: In the preface to Wright’s new book Surprised by Hope, he confesses to potential critics that he has not really known grief. He has not known grief. Sit with that thought a moment. He talks about courage and prophecy as theory. Well articulated ideas are vital to life and society. I am grateful for them. As a journalist, I sometimes feel inadequate in the face of them, but I have been intimately acquainted with grief and have known something of courage. Such experiences change everything about how one views the world. My enthusiasm for Wright is a bit chastened by this revelation.

In the Intro to Philosophy class I attended when I was interviewing Dallas Willard, he mentioned three kinds of knowledge: reason, experience and authority. I can lay claim to the first 2/3 of the equation. As a journalist, 2/3 of a whole may be enough to find the gems amidst the bunk. There were a lot of gems at NPC.

[photos and text © cas, San Diego, CA, 2008]

Day 2-3: NPC

I missed Dan Kimball‘s session on Tuesday. Driving down the 5 freeway, through the rugged section of coast that is Camp Pendleton, traffic stopped short—something that poses a particular challenge for someone driving a stick shift with a cup of coffee in her hand. Two border patrol cars flew past me in the left shoulder, a couple helicopters seemed to be circling, then came the ambulances. The crawl was on.

I arrived in time for lunch, an hour or so before my interview with Kimball, or so I thought. Wandering over to the food court at the outdoor mall adjacent to the hotel, I saw a former colleague who I really didn’t want to see. I did what any upstanding Christian would do. I avoided him at all costs and had lunch with a nice Presbyterian pastor on the far side of the food court. The pastor’s son just became a Baptist. We’re all a-mingling now, aren’t we?

As I was lingering in conversation, Leslie Speyers, a gracious publicist from Zondervan, was looking for me because I was supposed to be, not lunching with a Presbyterian, but interviewing Kimball. Fortunately, the snafu worked to his benefit and we got together later in the afternoon. I took the extra time to dig a little deeper into his book, They Like Jesus, but Not the Church. As I was reading, I was wondering what could possibly be controversial about this guy. He calls himself a fundamentalist I believe (I gave the book away so I can’t double-check right now), and appropriately defines the term. I’m realizing more and more that sometimes new labels are stuck on incremental changes in that which is normative.

Dan is a pastor rather than a pontificator. I’ve heard some pontification this week; not much, but a bit of it. He is a man in the trenches, and seems like he can’t be bothered with the controversies that distract others. Problem is, the distractors find him. He mentioned a random encounter with a local “brother” who told him he and his church are praying for Dan’s ministry to fail. Sigh.

After my interview with Dan, I caught the tail end of a workshop called “Redefining Power: Finding Our Place in a Global Church.” Very interesting discussion about how to make cross-cultural partnerships healthier and more effective. An African named D. Zac Niringiye wasted no time telling us Americans to repent of our greed. He thinks it is very difficult to be an American and a Christian, and said a lot of so-called partnerships are really sponsorships in which both parties manipulate each other. The solution is confession of sin.

Novel idea.

Niringiye wasn’t ranting against American imperialism, just speaking the truth in love to an American audience. A Philippine speaker named Athena Gorospe likewise advised US missionaries to repent of their manifest destiny paradigm, which she says communicates the message that the Anglo-Saxon race is superior.

Essentially, I heard that we Americans need to get off our high horse and humbly partner with the global church. At the end of the session, the moderator, Mark Labberton, especially thanked a Zondervan vice president, saying that without his support the session would not have happened. What does that tell you?

One speaker I especially wanted to hear was Rwandan bishop John Rucyahana. I have done so twice now and interviewed him yesterday. I wanted to know what the suffering church has to teach us; what critique it offers. Rucyahana gave a rousing sermon and personal testimony Tuesday night. He talked about wrestling with the why questions of the Rwandan genocide when he was living in a Ugandan refugee camp. God, Why did you let this happen? Why do I have no nation? etc.

His ministry in Uganda was so effective that the government there granted him and his family citizenship. It was immediately afterwards that God called him to go back to Rwanda and help heal his nation. He fairly exploded in praise talking about it Tuesday night, shouting, “Jesus is there!” In both sessions I attended, he told remarkable stories of reconciliation. Repentance and forgiveness are the soil in which it grows. He noted reconciliation is not “magic,” but an ongoing process with people in different stages of repentance, forgiveness, unrepetentance and unforgiveness.

As an example of the ongoing process, he talked about when a person who has been wronged avoids their offender, turning away when they see the person in the street. I thought back to my former colleague who, like a number of us, had quit his job at my former church in disgust, but then went back to work there for pragmatic reasons. When he did, I told him he was no longer a “safe” person with whom I could have a casual relationship (which is true). And now the reconciler was telling me I’m wrong to avoid him.

In our interview, I had pressed the bishop a bit by applying his principles to the Anglican split. He didn’t see it the same way, saying one can love and pray for the other side to repent, but that one cannot be reconciled to heresy. Hmmm. Maybe I’m off the hook … but only if orthopraxy matters as much as orthodoxy.

Next, I caught a couple minutes of Shane Claiborne talking about his new book Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals. How could any casual observer not like this guy? My newlywed years were spent in the Philadelphia suburbs, so I have an especially soft heart toward his work there.

I snuck out of the session to see a screening of Ben Stein’s new documentary Expelled about the evolution/intelligent design debate. One would have thought it was put out by conservative evangelicals. Stein interviews premiere players in the debate, and poignantly reveals a motivating force. He is a Jew and takes viewers to a German extermination camp for the infirm. Listening to the “museum” guide’s perspective on what the Nazis did there was chilling, both for him and, one would hope, for viewers.

Zondervan hosted a lovely media reception at dusk. I was schmoozing with a senior executive of the company and didn’t even know it until he formally introduced himself to us. He recommended a movie called Once that Dave Zimmerman mentions in his latest post. (Dave, by the way, is at the New Conspirators conference promoting the book of the same name that he edited, and I assisted on.) I also had a nice chat with a producer and online editor for Krista Tippett’s NPR show, Speaking of Faith, and was gratified to know that Tippett had made similar interview choices to my own. This afternoon she will do a broadcast interview with Bishop Rucyahana and N.T. Wright, with whom I will meet tomorrow afternoon to close out the convention.

Today, I’m getting a late start down to San Diego. This afternoon, I have a meeting with an editor about a book idea. This evening Jim Wallis speaks. (There’s a disturbing must-read article about the disposal of 9/11 victims’ remains in the February issue of his magazine, Sojourners.) I may stay overnight with friends again tonight, but this time will have to refrain from staying up into the wee hours of the morning talking. I’m running on E. Empty that is.

Others are blogging the convention. Some of them are indexed here.

Correction: The speaker on evening 4 was N.T. Wright, not Jim Wallis. Wallis was interviewed before Wright spoke.

Correction #2: I checked Dan Kimball’s book; in it he says he sometimes “jokingly” refers to himself as a fundamentalist. He actually described himself to me as a mainstream evangelical. I agree.

Day 1: NPC

Day 1 of the National Pastors Convention was delightful, both because the volunteers manning the information both were so kind and helpful throughout the day, and also because my interview with prolific author Phyllis Tickle was so much fun. We talked mostly about her upcoming book, The Great Emergence. I’ll detail our conversation in a separate post.

Scot McKnight and Phyllis were together when I arrived for the interview and Scot greeted me so warmly, I felt like we were old friends—which we are in the warp speed of cyber-space. Scot and Phyllis were part of a panel discussion last night along with Andy Crouch and Tony Jones called “Emerging Critical Issues Facing the Church: Religious Pluralism, the Role of Scripture, Homosexuality and Political Involvement.” Only half the topics were covered: the Bible and political involvement; the other two will be addressed this morning. The discussion on the role of Scripture was interesting; the other one less so. I confess I went mostly to hear Andy Crouch interact with the other authors. He was a favorite columnist of mine for CT and I suspected his would be a voice with which I would agree. I really can’t say much about this session because in a funny bit of irony for the emerging crowd, we were asked not to blog about it. I’ll keep my opinion to myself on this one.

This morning I’ll be attending the second half of Dan Kimball’s talk on why young people love Jesus, but not the church. I have an interview scheduled with Dan this afternoon … an interview that was confirmed only yesterday.

I’m going to give myself away here as a newbie Anglican by saying that other than Kimball, the authors with whom I’ve requested interviews are all prominent Anglicans.

Well, that’s all I have time for this morning, except to say that spring is blooming here in SoCal. The bursts of color lining the highway mid-winter are one of the things that sells a person on this place … and then, after living here a while, you realize that more foliage will eventually mean more brush to burn when the winter rains are long gone. I’m sure I could find a metaphor in there, but I’ll pass on it. The blooms are beautiful while they last. The dry brush is too in its own way.

PTSD/PTG: Two Sides of a Coin

Last week, in my Religious Considerations and Democratic Pluralism post, I failed to note a scholar who spoke at the Politics, Pyschology and Ethics seminar that I mentioned at the end of the post. Her name is Cheryl Koopman and she is a professor of psychiatric research at Standford University. Koopman talked about her research into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Here are some basic facts that I gleaned:

Koopman’s research findings were centered around the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks, after which the incidence of PTSD increased dramatically in the United States, particularly in the New York metropolitan area.

PTSD is not just a disorder experienced by war veterans. It is now acknowledged that cancer victims and other trauma survivors can experience PTSD symptoms. Koopman said the nature of traumatic memory is for it to become disorganized. Often either too much or too little is recalled. It differs from narrative memory in that the past becomes indistinguishable from the present. Traumatic memory is not rational and categorical, but sensual. It consists of bodily memories. It is dissociative.

For example, watching footage of witnesses to the terrorist attacks, one can clearly see that they are in shock. PTSD victims get stuck in the shock. It is made worse by continually reliving the horror. Those who watched a lot of news coverage after 9/11 suffered more than those who didn’t. Here was the problem for our community in late 2001. TV or no TV, there was no escaping the reality for a good long time.

Three elements need to be present for someone to be diagnosed with PTSD:

  1. persistent intrusive symptoms
  2. persistent avoidance of reminders
  3. persistent increased arousal

Sleep problems are common and avoidance doesn’t work in the long run. Another finding is that earlier traumas can act as a vaccine against PTSD unless the previous traumas were also severe. For instance, both a rape victim who has been previously assaulted and one who has led a sheltered life will fare worse than a rape victim who has lived through a moderate trauma.

The bad news is that PTSD not only impacts mental and emotional health, it damages physical health. The good news is that, unlike some mental health problems, people recover from PTSD. Koopman suggested these avenues of healing:

  1. Social networks—being with people.
  2. Talking and/or writing about the trauma
  3. Symptom management: meditation, meaningful faith rituals, controlling thoughts volitionally, imagery/hypnosis

More good news is that in addition to PTSD, researchers have observed Post Traumatic Growth. Koopman noted that after 9/11, altruism increased markedly. NY Times columnist David Brooks has talked and written about this in regard to the presidential campaign. He sees 9/11 as the catalyst for our collective longing for unity and self-sacrifice.

PTSD and PTG can exist together. A person can really wish the trauma had not occured and yet be grateful for its lessons.

A Party for the Brain

I took the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) this morning. I don’t think it’s a test designed for middle-aged, moderately traumatized women living in 1000 sq. ft. with three demanding men. But life waits for no woman. I did okay—good on verbal, mediocre on math, and, hopeful to have wowed ’em on the analytic writing test. Thus, it’s been quiet here in my little corner of the b’sphere while I’ve been studying, except for those disappearing posts, which are not gone, just gone private. (Regular readers must be accustomed to this annoying habit of mine by now!)

If there’s a post you’d like to read again, email me at and I’ll give you a password. I’ve been sending my resume´out beyond a certain subculture and thought it wise to return my personal life to where it belongs—in private. I’ve read predictions in Wired magazine and elsewhere that I’m not alone in this impulse. Culturally, we’re apparently trending away from our penchant for living out loud on the internet. Nonetheless …

I liked studying for the GRE. I love both words and the elegance of math. Studying was like attending a party for my brain. The Kaplan study guide suggests this attitude alone may have helped me do well.

Simplifying equations reminds me of editing the dross from a written work or organizing the clutter in my kitchen cabinets. I enjoyed reviewing long-forgotten formulas and dismantling analogies, not to mention analyzing data and showing off, to myself alone, my ability to pick up on subtlety and nuance. Whether any of this work will help me get into grad school is anyone’s guess. Should the right job come along, I may abandon the plan altogether, but (for any potential employers/admissions officers reading here) I’m sure I could handle both if multiple ventures were to coalesce coincide.

It would have been nice if life had stopped while I was having this party for my brain, but it didn’t. Not even close!

On Monday I attended the latest lecture put on by UCI’s Psychiatry and Spirituality Forum: “Principles of a Contemplative Science of the Mind.” I was pleasantly surprised that it included a lengthy historical discussion of the themes I reported on from the annual meeting of AAR. I’ll post a report tomorrow. Fascinating topic. Insightful lecture. Good questions from the audience.

I have two other lunch lectures on my schedule this week and will report on them as well. One is called “Corporations and the Management of Conflict” and the other is about the role of religion in public discourse. Both are at UC Irvine.

I was hoping to attend the opening of “The African American Avant Gardes” at the Getty Center tonight, but I’m pooped, as is my husband after teaching his introductory class on the book of James last night at church.

Like all good parties, even a brain party ends with a let-down. Still, I’m glad to have attended.