Problems with the Genderbread Person

A few years ago Sam Killermann (author of The Social Justice Advocate’s Handbook: A Guide to Gender) came out with his “Genderbread Person,” an edugraphic aimed at providing us with the complex “truth” about human sexuality, as he explains here.  The graphic went viral and has spawned much discussion and critique.  Consequently, Killermann has revised the graphic several times, and it is currently at version 3.3.  Here is one of the more recent versions.

Interestingly, very little critique of the Genderbread Person graphic on the Internet has come from traditionalists.  Since there are significant problems with the graphic that aren’t well represented on the Internet, I thought I would briefly point out some of these.  Some have to do with its substantive claims or implications, while other problems pertain to subtle, yet important, aspects of the way the concepts are presented.

First, I’m always wary when someone says things like “everyone thinks they understand X, but they don’t” and then they proceed to give you the correct analysis.  With his Genderbread Person graphic Sam Killermann does this.  In earlier versions the various factors (identity, expression, biological sex) were each presented along a continuum such that there was an inverse relationship between male/masculine and female/feminine.  In more recent versions (the multiplicity of which is itself telling), such as the current v3.3, these have been supplanted with spectra which keep these things independent.  Well, how do we know, in each case, that they really are independent variables?  Depending on the factor, there are some potentially compelling reasons to think that they are not (e.g., in terms of biological sex, the more “male” one’s genitalia, the less “female” they tend to be).

Second, the way it is laid out, biological sex appears no more significant than any of the other factors for determining “gender.”  This is more of a point of presentation, but it surely has a psychological effect on the reader regarding the relative importance of the various factors.  The old dictum “the medium is the message” is applicable here in certain ways.

Third, it could be argued that the graphic assumes an overly individualistic/atomistic humanist perspective on gender, as the factors that are presumably definitive of the concept are almost entirely inherent to a particular person, including his/her own thinking and behavior.  What about a separate social factor?  A cultural factor?  A theological factor?  Are none of these significantly relevant to our thinking about gender?  And, of course, we could go many directions in light of each of those questions.  (The Oxford Dictionary definition of “gender” actually prioritizes socio-cultural considerations to the exclusion of Killermann’s non-biological individualistic factors.  Many other lexicographical accounts do the same.)

Finally, there are numerous other questions to be posed about the graphic.  Does Killermann propose to report current usage/understanding of the term “gender” or to refine or reconceptualize current usage/understanding?  If the former, then that’s problematic because the graphic is at odds with so many lexicographic (dictionary) definitions of the term.  But if the latter, on what basis does he propose such a reconceptualization?  What research and studies?  And why trust that research or those studies?  I don’t see any empirical basis or reference to such on any of the Genderbread Person graphics.  Looking over his website, I don’t see any references to relevant studies, with the exception of a link to the Alfred Kinsey Wikipedia page. (And I trust we all know how notoriously flawed the Kinsey research was.)

Now someone could reply, “Hey, this is just a graphic—a handy heuristic device for prompting dialogue.  Of course, its imperfect.”  But hopefully you’ll agree that even such simple graphics ought not to be exempt from critical scrutiny, especially when they are ones that go viral (as this has) and can have a deep and profound effect on how people think and talk about crucial issues.


U2′s Songs of Innocence: A Review

When U2 dropped their new album, Songs of Innocence, on half a billion people two weeks ago, it was greeted with a range of responses, from jubilation (“At last, the new U2 record is here!”) to annoyance (“What?!  I didn’t ask for this musical spam on my phone!).  I suppose I felt something of both of these emotions.  I was happy to have the album, but I was put off by the annoyingly clever marketing maneuver, which enabled them to simultaneously appear generous (Here, have a free album!) while pocketing a ton of cash (upwards of 100 million dollars, by some estimates—thank you, Apple).

U2’s conscious commitment to remaining as popular as possible is evident in their new production team—Danger Mouse (Black Keys, Norah Jones), Paul Epworth (Coldplay, Adele) and Ryan Tedder (Adele, Beyonce, Maroon 5).  Since these guys have all presided over massively popular recent pop albums, one would Article Lead - narrow6136128010f7g9image.related.articleLeadNarrow.353x0.10j6o0.png1411107347492.jpg-300x0-1expect the gamble will pay off and this album will be extremely popular.  Given that it was instantly placed in the hands and ears of 500 million people, it sure doesn’t need any more promotion.  But not so fast.  The backlash prompted by the intrusiveness of the automatic download has negatively impacted public perception of the album, and this is evident in some otherwise inexplicable album reviews.

So the band’s preoccupation with popularity and profit might have backfired.  But I can’t help but wonder why these mega-millionaires are still being so careful to maximize their profits?  I thought they were liberal-progressives, not hard-core capitalists.  Consequently, I did not want to like this album.  I wanted it to be an aesthetic failure to match what I, like so many others, regard as a pragmatic flop.  And yet, as I listened and listened some more, I was thoroughly disappointed.  Yep, I must admit, it’s actually a really good album.  Dang.

Some people are put off by the production, which is more disciplined and clean than ever, making every song radio ready.  Some complain that they long for the raw energy of their older sound.  But U2 hasn’t sounded like that in more than twenty years, so why expect it now?  Anyway, I say don’t begrudge a band’s willingness to explore, even when that exploration takes them in musical directions you don’t like, such as toward a more polished, popular sound.  As annoying as their preoccupation with “staying relevant” might be, if the result is actually better music, then the quality of the music shouldn’t be denied, which is what I think a lot of listeners are doing—allowing the controversy around the music to prevent them from giving the music a fair hearing.

Nowhere is the more disciplined production approach more apparent than in Bono’s vocals, which sound as strong as they have since the 1980s.  Lyrically, too, Songs of Innocence works as well as any of their records, excepting The Joshua Tree.  The inspiration of most of the tracks is drawn from experiences in their youth (hence the album title), and many of the topics are intensely personal.  There are songs about Bono’s wife (“Song for Someone”), Bono’s mother who died when he was a teenager (“Iris”), the street where he grew up (“Cedarwood Road”), and an Irish paramilitary bombing in Ireland that impacted the lives of some of the band’s friends (“Raised by Wolves”).

There is a lot of longing and introspection on this album—deep emotions that defy the slick production.  In “Every Breaking Wave,” which has a Killers flavor to it, Bono sings, “Every sailor knows that the sea is a friend made enemy, and every shipwrecked soul knows what it is to live without intimacy.  I thought I heard the captain’s voice, but it’s hard to listen while you preach.   Like every broken wave on the shore, this is far as I could reach.”  And in “California,” which suggests an Arcade Fire influence with its rumbling drum section and string textures, Bono declares, “Everyone’s a star in our town.  It’s just your light gets dimmer if you have to stay.”

And the song “This is Where You Can Reach Me Now” is a tribute to the Clash, whom Bono has called “the greatest band ever.”  Bono explains: “After we saw the Clash, it was a sort of blueprint for U2.  We knew we couldn’t possibly hope to be as cool, and that’s proven to be true, but we did think we could get behind a sort of social justice agenda.”  And so Bono sings, “Soldier, soldier, we signed our lives away.  Complete surrender, the only weapon we know.  Soldier, soldier, we knew the world would never be the same.  Soldier, this is where you can reach me now.”  It’s a fitting tribute to the Clash, with Bono’s creative use of military images for their musical mission.  The only weapon they know?  Music.  And as career rock and roll social activists, U2 certainly did sign their lives away—to their art, their social causes and, yes, a whole lot of money.

The album concludes with “The Troubles,” which features additional vocals by Swedish indie singer Lykke Li.  The song makes for a haunting closer with its dreamy string section and ominous lyric: “Somebody stepped inside your soul.  Somebody stepped inside your soul.  Little by little they robbed and stole till someone else was in control.”  This might seem like an unexpected choice to close an album about innocence, unless it is supposed to be portentous.  Indeed it might be, if Bono’s intimations about an imminent follow-up themed “Songs of Experience” (with a nod to William Blake) is to be taken seriously.  Whether the next album comes sooner or later, time will tell.  But I think we can be confident of one thing—they won’t force it on us next time.


Three Great Books on Intellectual Virtue

This semester I have the honor of working as a Templeton Fellow at the Biola University Center for Christian Thought.  Each year the CCT focuses on a different topic, and the theme this year is intellectual virtue and civil discourse.  My research topic, which fits naturally within this theme, is one that I’ve been working on the last few years—open-mindedness.  What does it mean to be open-minded?  Why is it a virtue?  When is it not virtuous to be open-minded?  And is it possible to be simultaneously open-minded and religiously devout?  For some of my thoughts about these questions, look here.

In the course of my research, I’ve read some really good stuff on intellectual virtue.  So I thought I’d provide a brief introduction to, at least in my assessment, three of the best books on the topic.

9780521578264Linda Zagzebski, Virtues of the Mind (Cambridge, 1996) — This book is considered by many to be a contemporary classic in the field of virtue epistemology, and for good reason.  Zagzebski not only develops a plausible theory of intellectual virtue, but also offers rich discussions of related and sub-issues along the way, including practical wisdom, understanding, and a critical assessment of Alvin Plantinga’s epistemology.  She conceives knowledge as “cognitive contact with reality arising out of acts of intellectual virtue.”  Although her account overreaches at times, it is nonetheless insightful at nearly every turn.  And, as is the case with all landmark works of philosophy, even her mistakes are instructive.

9780199283675_140Robert Roberts and Jay Wood, Intellectual Virtues (Oxford, 2007) — Rather than defending a particular theory of virtue epistemology, Roberts and Wood offer what they call a “regulative epistemology” which aims instead to “generate guidance for epistemic practice.”  For those who are more interested in the practical implications and applications of virtue epistemology, this is a book to check out, which is chock full of insights about the moral life.  After clarifying a number of key concepts, including just what a virtue is, they explore the meaning and practical dimensions of a number of particular intellectual virtues, including intellectual courage, intellectual humility, intellectual autonomy, intellectual generosity, and practical wisdom.

9780199604074_140Jason Baehr, The Inquiring Mind (Oxford, 2011) — In a work that is a bit more theoretical and advanced than the previous two works, Baehr (who is also a CCT fellow this semester) develops and defends what he calls a “personal worth” conception of intellectual virtue.  Along the way he argues for the relevance of considerations of intellectual virtue, whatever one’s view, whether one holds to a reliabilist or evidentialist epistemological theory.  After making his cases for these theoretical points, he explores in-depth two important intellectual virtues:  intellectual courage and open-mindedness.  Baehr’s discussion of the latter of these is especially interesting to me, of course.

These are rigorous, enriching texts which provide theoretical and practical insights—improving our understanding regarding both the nature of knowledge and how we ought to live.  In word, they make us wiser.  Philosophy doesn’t get any richer than this.


The Black Keys’ Turn Blue: A Review

Some of the great albums in music history have been borne out of divorce.  From Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love to Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger to Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, it seems the devastation of the end of a marriage brings out the best in songwriters.  The latest confirmation of this sad psycho-aesthetic fact is the Black Keys’ most recent effort, Turn Blue.  Release of the album was apparently delayed by singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach’s divorce proceedings, which were particularly dark and full of disturbing allegations.

Black_Keys_Turn_Blue_album_coverThe songs on Turn Blue reflect what must have been some rough years for Auerbach, beginning with the haunting and patient opener “Weight of Love,” featuring some extended, anguished guitar solos that reinforce Auerbach’s grim declarations:  “Used to think, darlin’, you never did nothing.  But you were always up to something.  Always had a run in, yeah.  I got to think those days are coming to get ya.  Now no body want to protect ya.  They only want to forget ya.”

A few songs later, Auerbach’s grudge has turned to dismissive contempt:  “You wanted to love but you didn’t know how. That’s okay, it’s up to you now.  Its got so bad to where I wouldn’t allow, but no more.  It’s up to you now. (I’ll) let you go, so you can grow old.”  (“It’s up to You Now”).  Elsewhere, things get even more gloomy when he declares that even death would be preferable to his current situation: “Bullet in the brain I prefer than to remain the same” (“Bullet in the Brain”).  And in the title track, there are more ominous lines:  “I really don’t think you know there could be hell below, below.”

Vengeance, contempt, condemnation, suicidal thoughts.  Yep, that’s the psychological landscape of the death of a marriage, as anyone who has been through divorce will testify.

But what is interesting about this record is that it isn’t a dark or brooding album from a musical standpoint.  Much like their 2010 album Brothers, there is an early 70s era Motown vibe to many of the songs (especially “In Time,” “Waiting on Words” and “10 Lovers”).  Also, several tracks are upbeat, and the album is full of melodic hooks.  These are hardly qualities of a depressing album.  This probably explains why most reviewers of the album haven’t properly attended to the heaviness of the lyrics.

Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney set out to make an album unlike their previous release, El Camino, which was loaded with radio-ready track.  This one, they resolved, would be devoid of pop songs.  In spite of themselves, the album does contain some catchy pop-rock tunes, including “Fever,” with its addictive keyboard line, as well as the insta-classic closer “Gotta Get Away.”  Even more so than the rest of the album the music of “Gotta Get Away” defies its lyrics.  The chord progression and triumphant guitar solo feel like liberation and triumph.  But what Auerbach tells us is that he’s just glad to have escaped, even if there is no hope of finding love again:  “I went from San Berdoo to Kalamazoo just to get away from you.  I searched far and wide, hoping I was wrong, but maybe all the good women are gone.

And so the album ends, perhaps appropriately, on a pessimistic note.  Maybe Auerbach will find love again, as his newly remarried bandmate Patrick Carney apparently has.  Fortunately, all the good women are not gone.  So although he’s turned blue for now, he doesn’t need to stay that way.


A Caution to Church Haters

In Amy’s last post she highlighted the hypocrisy implicit in the way some Christians preach grace towards certain people outside the church but withhold grace to their fellow Christians within the church.  I see this attitude as part of a larger, disturbing trend, as it has become rather fashionable of late for Christians to be critical of the church.  This is evident in such recent books as David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me, Wayne Jacobsen and Dave Coleman’s So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore, and Kelly Bean’s just released How to be a Christian Without Going to Church.  I would like to offer a word of caution to those who so freely criticize the church and even, as in Bean’s case, recommend that Christians spurn church attendance and formal membership altogether.

First, we need to keep in mind that “the Church” is not an abstract entity but is composed of real people, fellow followers of Christ who aim, albeit imperfectly and sometimes very awkwardly, to worship and serve God together in local communities.  So to reject “the church” is to reject particular people.  And to hold a grudge against “the church” is to refuse to forgive or withhold grace from particular people.  When reading the accounts of some who have followed this path, its hard not to interpret their attitude toward the church as genuine hatred.  And that’s what’s scary, because from hatred of “the church” it is just a short step to hatred of Christians.  And hatred of Christians is tantamount to hatred of Christ.

Consider the experience of the Pharisee Saul on the road to Damascus, leading to his conversion and eventual apostleship.  Here is the account as recorded by Luke in Acts 9:

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.  He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.  As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.  He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

Notice Jesus’ choice of words here.  Twice he clarifies to Saul whom he really is persecuting with all of his “murderous threats,” namely Jesus himself.  Those who follow Christ—“the Lord’s disciples”—constitute the church, which is the “body of Christ” as the Apostle Paul would later declare (1 Cor. 12:27; Eph. 3:6; Col. 1:24).  For all of our foibles, failures, and petty preoccupations, the followers of Christ—yes, even in formally organized ecclesial structures—are somehow, mysteriously united to, and the most tangible expression of, our Lord.  So any condemnation of the church is impudent, to say the least.

Am I saying that no critical commentary or assessment of the global church, a local church or particular Christians is ever appropriate?  Not at all.  In fact, this is crucial for the life of the church when done properly.  Genuinely constructive critical engagement is often powerfully redemptive, as it has been at so many junctures of church history.  But wholesale rejection, condemnation, or abandonment of the church, as is increasingly being encouraged these days, is neither constructive nor redemptive.  In fact, its more like, well, persecution.

So we should take this as a caution against vitriolic pronouncements about, let alone endorsements to divorce oneself from, “the church.”  Instead, let’s go for ethical, theological, and socio-cultural critique, whether of particular churches, denominations or individual Christians.  This can be done pointedly but with love.  (Successfully or not, that’s what I’m going for in this very post.)  Like Amy, I would hope we can show at least as much grace to our own as we show to those outside the Christian community.


Shame on You

There will be no clever intro. No easing into the subject with a gentle and mildly amusing anecdote. I will get straight to the point: If I have to read one more “Down with the Church” Facebook post by someone calling him/herself a Christian, I am going to beat myself to death with a hymnal. I refuse to read another hypercritical expose on how discussions of modesty are wrong or how those who hold a traditional view of homosexuality are evil. I don’t want to read another story about the “angry modesty police who escort the scantily clad from church buildings waving pitch forks and New King James Bibles.” No more “If you believe you should love the sinner but hate the sin, you are a homophobic bigot who should be burned at the stake.” Perhaps I exaggerate but seriously, people, enough already.

Now before you spit out your no-fat, fair trade latte in disgust, screaming about the need for reform and open-mindedness, I am not talking about genuine critique, based on love and concern for the future of the Body. To use a bit of the language I often hear thrown about in these Facebook firebombs against Christians, the Church is made up of broken individuals; flawed sinners. There is always going to be a need for correctives and those criticisms should be heard and if necessary, adhered to. What I am talking about is Christians throwing fellow Christians under the bus. Which seems a bit ironic, given that those doing the throwing are supposedly all about tolerance and hope for the lost.

So here’s my criticism: if the Church is for the lost, why don’t you love the lost after they are found? Say I come to church fleeing a life of drugs and prostitution. And you welcome me with open arms. Yay for you. That’s what Jesus would do, right? Sure. But let’s say it’s ten years down the road. Drugs and prostitution have been kicked and my tramp stamp tattoo is now concealed by modest capris and a kid on each hip. I volunteer in the nursery and sing in the praise band. Am I suddenly the enemy? Isn’t the Church about being engrafted into the body of believers? I am still a sinner. Still in need of grace and acceptance. What if I never left the fold in the first place? What if I have been a good girl all my life? That doesn’t make me better than anyone else but I am pretty sure it doesn’t make me worse either.

The church is supposed to be a place of love and acceptance. But in some cases, to love is not to accept. To love is to challenge and rebuke, with respect and kindness but nonetheless, love doesn’t sit on it’s behind while people destroy their lives, poison their minds and neglect the life of obedience we are called to. What kind of sins should we be rebuking within the church? All kinds. Greed, self-righteousness, and unkindness. But also lust, immodesty and vulgarity.

I am sure there are many Christians and non-believers who have experienced harsh and demeaning treatment at the hands of people in the church. But don’t those harsh and demeaning people deserve forgiveness and grace as well? It’s as if the only ones deserving of God’s mercy are those outside of the church. How did we come to the place in the American evangelical church where the only time it is “appropriate” to shame people is when they are part of the church? And where are all the stories celebrating the experiences of healing and comfort brought about by the church?

We as a church have been judgmental and self-righteous in the past, but what do you expect from a bunch of sinners? The failures of the church to live up to Christ’s standard don’t condemn her as hypocritical but rather confirm some of her core doctrines and beliefs. The errors of our past (and present) should bring us shame, but that shame should bring repentance and that repentance should bring us to the Cross. If Jesus will accept the church as His bride then I guess she ought to be good enough for the rest of us—warts, failures, tramp stamps and all. If you can’t accept her with her flaws, when then that’s a real shame.


Faithful Learning in Philosophy

Back in the mid-1980s when I was cutting my teeth as a student of philosophy, it was common to hear Christians worry aloud about the wisdom of studying in that area.  Why expose yourself to so many godless thinkers and dangerous ideas?  And isn’t philosophy about relying entirely on your own ability to reason rather than on the wisdom of God?  I recall how as a college student I would sometimes struggle to defend what I was doing, though it seemed clear to me at the time that I was essentially following a divine call into the field.  Now, three decades hence, it is gratifying to see the impact that Christians have had in the field of academic philosophy since my college days.  In my latest book, Philosophy: Faithful Learning (P&R Publishing), I discuss just this.
In the book—which is actually so short as to be more like a lengthy pamphlet—I review several of the major contributions that Christian philosophers (such as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Marilyn McCord Adams, William Alston, Linda Zagzebski, Robert Roberts, and William Lane Craig, to name just a few) have made to the field.  These thinkers have profoundly impacted contemporary philosophy, not just in philosophy of religion but also in epistemology, ethics and other sub-fields of the discipline.  Their work also powerfully demonstrates how real wisdom can be gleaned from careful, Christ-centered philosophical exploration into ultimate questions.  So if you’ve never done much reading in philosophy or are curious about what it means to do “Christian philosophy,” I invite you to check it out.  Just please don’t ask me why the publisher put Karl Marx on the cover.  Some questions are beyond my pay grade even as an academic philosopher.


Getting High with Strippers

Normally summer is my time to kick back with the kids and be the happy-go-lucky mom we all wish I could be year around. We pay less attention to bed times, brush fewer teeth and let the laundry pile up. We spend our days at the “lake,” the kids swimming and me trying not to look too anti-social while catching up on my pleasure reading. We sit through and participate in a lot of ball games, eat too many meals out of plastic wrap and general fun ourselves into oblivion.

But not this summer. This summer, when not developing a permanently flat behind at the ballpark, I have been getting high in our garage. That’s right, getting high…with strippers no less. No, I have not taken up pole dancing and G-strings. I have been tackling furniture restoration. We are remodeling our kitchen this summer and like fools said to ourselves, “Who wants to go and buy some cheap piece of poorly constructed particle board when we can restore pieces that are original to the house?” Not us. Why would we want to take the easy way out when doing things the hard way is so much, well, harder?

About halfway through the month of June I would have gladly pulled something out of the neighbor’s trash if it meant we could take off those horrible rubber gloves and breathe clean air for a while. But since I didn’t spy any dumpster diving pieces on our block, I kept going. I learned a lot in the process. Maybe it was all those fumes, but as I worked I found a lot of parallels between the work of restoring furniture and the work of restoring my soul. Here are a few things I picked up along the way:

  • Getting the first layer off is always the easiest. There are few things more satisfying than brushing on a fat coat of paint stripper and watching 70’s era, olive green disaster buckle and crack. It scrapes off like a dream and you start thinking “This is going to be a piece of cake.” Right—cake that will take hours of your life and several layers of your skin. The outside is easy but it’s what lies underneath which requires the most work to get rid of. That second layer takes patience and lots of elbow grease. Sometimes you even need to take a break. Let you and your furniture rest a bit before you go back at it. It’s the same with sanctifying our souls. Those outward bad habits are much easier to leave behind than the ones that lie hidden and close to the heart. Those are the ones that take perseverance.
  • Things generally get worse before they get better. I would spend several days stripping a piece of furniture only to realize that I had just make it look ten times worse than it looked before I started. Doesn’t that also seem true of working on ourselves? You dedicate more time to Bible reading only to realize through that reading that your plight is even worse than you thought. Or you begin praying for help in overcoming a particular bad habit only to experience failure in that area even more than usual. But you have to trust the process. You have to believe that it will work and keep going. I reached a point in several projects over the last few weeks when I really didn’t think I could do it. But the only thing that appealed to me less than going forward was giving up. And that was usually the point where suddenly I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. In our spiritual lives, the darkness does not want us to succeed and thus tempts us to despair. But I also think God wants to strengthen us for even greater work and lets us struggle, never more than we can bear, but struggle nonetheless.
  • Perfection isn’t without its scars. Even when “finished” I can see the bits of paint I couldn’t get off or the scratches that refused to be sanded away. It would be easy to obsess over those imperfections and to feel as though I failed to get the job done. But that’s part of the beauty of restoring something old. You can read its story in those bits of paint and scratches. Just like you can read my story in the scars I carry, inside and out. Someday, my story on earth will be finished. God will be finished working on me here. I will be made perfect, all the old and ugly taken away and made new and beautiful. But I don’t think that means I will be without scars. After all, the hands that greet me will be scarred as well. And they will be beautiful indeed.

Thoughts on Fasting

Recently I completed a three-day fast, so I thought it might be a good idea to share a few thoughts about fasting, which I hope may be helpful both to those who are novices and those who are veterans at the practice.

Fasting is one of the “spiritual disciplines” historically practiced by Christians (and persons of other faiths as well).  In his classic work on the topic, Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard defines the “spiritual disciplines” as “activities of mind and body purposefully undertaken to bring … our total being into effective cooperation with the divine order.”  There are many spiritual disciplines, and they are sometimes distinguished in terms of those involving abstinence of some sort (e.g., solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, and sacrifice) and those involving certain kinds of engagement (e.g., study, worship, celebration, service, meditation, prayer, fellowship, confession, and submission).

All of these disciplines are rooted in scripture and effective for spiritual growth, but some are more important than others.  The discipline of fasting is especially powerful for building self-control.  It was regularly practiced by numerous biblical figures (e.g., Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Paul, and, of course, Jesus and his disciples), important Christian leaders and theologians since biblical times (e.g., Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and Charles Finney), and many other religious leaders and philosophers (e.g., Zoroaster, Confucius, Hippocrates, the Buddha, Mohammed, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle).  However, fasting is not a popular discipline among Christians in our culture today.  This is unfortunate, given the benefits of fasting, particularly in building the strength to withstand the various temptations of indulgence that are so prevalent in our times.

So what exactly is fasting?  Fasting involves intentional abstinence from food, and possibly drink, for the sake of spiritual growth.  It can be extended to other contexts (e.g., technology, recreation, etc.) and can be applied to particular foods (e.g., meat, coffee, sweets, etc.).  As for the benefits of fasting, they include the following:

  • Fasting builds moral strength through the practice of self-control.  Like any other virtue (or “fruit of the Spirit”), self-control is a moral skill that one develops through practice.  Fasting is one of the more effective ways to nurture this virtue.
  • Fasting trains us to maintain our spiritual focus through suffering.  Denying oneself food is uncomfortable, perhaps even extremely so depending on how long and thorough the fast.  Training the mind to focus on God through such discomfort is a tremendous preparation for doing so when facing other (i.e., non-voluntary) forms of suffering.
  • Fasting makes a statement of our moral-spiritual earnestness.  Whenever I fast, I ask God to receive my practice of abstinence from physical nourishment as a declaration of my need for spiritual nourishment and strengthening.  Thus, when accompanied with prayer, fasting is makes this plea especially emphatic, which I believe God honors in special ways.
  • Fasting is humbling.  My wife once observed that, ultimately, fasting is not so much about food as it is about pride.  I’ve been practicing this discipline for about fifteen years, and it never stops being difficult, which of course shows me how weak, dependent and desperately needy I am.  That’s a blow to pride.  And that’s always good medicine for the soul.
  • Fasting reminds us that our bodily comforts are not what is most important.  And in our materialistic, self-indulgent society, that’s a reminder we all constantly need.

These are just some of the benefits of fasting.  When you fast, you will no doubt discover other benefits as well.

So what are some good occasions for fasting?  Fasting doesn’t call for any special occasions since, like prayer and Bible study, it can be incorporated into the normal rhythm of one’s spiritual life (e.g., weekly or monthly).  But in scripture we find certain occasions where fasting seems to be especially appropriate:

  • Seeking God’s forgiveness – Lev. 23:27 (Day of Atonement); 1 Sam. 7:2-6 (Israel’s repentance of idol worship); Jonah 3 (the repentance of Ninevah); Acts 9:1-9 (the apostle Paul’s repentance)
  • Seeking God’s counsel or blessing – Acts 13:2-3 (the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas); Acts 14:21-23 (Paul and Barnabas’ commissioning of elders at the churches of Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch)
  • Seeking God’s strength – Matt. 4:1-2 (Jesus fasted when “he was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil”); Matt. 17:20 & Mark 9:29 (in some manuscripts Jesus says “this kind can come out only by prayer and fasting”)

When discussing fasting, some people express concern about certain abuses.  For example, what about those who have eating disorders?  And what about the temptation to legalism?  In response, I note that the distortion of a good thing does not justify our throwing it out.  Sex, prayer, worship, and even religion itself are constantly abused, but we don’t properly reject those things.

But regarding those with eating disorders, they may be advised to avoid fasting for a while, to do so only with accountability, or to practice only selective fasting (e.g. refraining from sweets, meats, or other particular foods).

Lastly, if you are just starting out, I recommend doing a few short fasts—one or two meals—several times before going on to longer fasts.  And, as for further reading, check out Richard Foster’s chapter on Fasting in Celebration of Discipline.  This classic work is chock full of practical wisdom about all of the spiritual disciplines, but the chapter on fasting is especially good.


Hodgepodge

Here are a few articles I’ve found interesting lately:

1. Does pornography use case brain damage?  Or, in any case, is there a correlation between porn usage and abnormally low brain activity?  Take a look at this.  Not that we needed any more motivation to avoid porn.

2. “Tradition is an absolutely essential part of the Christian faith.  It is one of the highest authorities we have as a community of Jesus followers.”  That’s what Brandon Peterson says in his recent piece “Why We Cannot Give Up Tradition” which serves as a welcome counter to the anti-traditionalism so prevalent in evangelical circles.

3. What is Father’s Day like for boy raised by lesbians?  Robert Oscar Lopez knows the experience very well, since this is the situation in which he grew up.  Check out his fascinating and insightful reflections about it here.

4. What makes something funny?  That’s a timeless and even serious question.  Leading theories explain why certain things are funny but can’t explain why other things are not funny.  So Peter McGraw, founder of the Humor Research Lab, offers the “benign violation” theory to explain this and provide a unified account of humor.  Check it out in this Slate article.