Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Teaching sociology: The difficulty and amount of class material

I have a theory about how much class work to assign. Distinguishing between quantity (who much) and difficulty (how hard), I would posit the following functional relationships between class material and amount of learning.

Difficulty of work. I believe that there is curvilinear relationship between how difficult class material is and how much students learn. Something like this:

Why? If the material is too easy, students don’t take it seriously. If it is too hard, they (at least many of them) throw up their hands in frustration and don’t think they can do it. The ideal—challenging but doable.

Amount of work. How much work, on the other hand, has a positive relationship with learning that asymptotically approaches some level that represents the most students feel they should do for any one class:

Why? Assigning “too much” material gets students frustrated, but they don’t learn less than they would with less material. Instead, they just stop learning more.

Positioning my classes. As such, my goal is to assign lots of medium-difficulty material and assignments. Graphing difficulty by amount, this is where I try to position my classes as follows (with some of my undergraduate classes as illustrations of each cell):

For additional essays on teaching sociology:

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

How to adminster a church survey

My pastor, Ben Dubow, has asked me to work up a church survey. Now, he probably meant something like figure out how many people attend the church, but I'm getting into this. (Warning: strong likelihood of overdoing it!) Right now, I'm thinking of a church census, where once a year we administer a survey to everyone in the church. (Should we make them travel back to their home towns to take it?) I'll post more about the contents of the survey in the future, but for now, I would like to ask advice on two issues.

1) Other church surveys? Do you know of other church surveys? I'm trying to collect examples so as to learn from them. I've posted what I've collected so far on my website.

2) Mode of administration. Ben has indicated that it wouldn't work to give the full survey during a church service (I guess "survey" doesn't equal "sacrament"). He's okay with a short survey, though. So, here's what I was thinking.

During the service, pass out a one-page survey with demographic & church attendance type questions. At the bottom, have a detachable sheet asking if they would be willing to take a longer survey. If "yes", they have the option of doing it on-line (e.g., survey monkey) or by snail-mail.

This approach would offer several advantages.
- The one page survey would be filled out by just about everyone there, so it would give an accurate snapshot of who attends on Sundays.
- We could compare those who are willing to take the longer survey with those who are not, allowing us to detect for bias.
- Doing this annually would allow us to chart trends over time in who attends services
- This mode would give us information about how many people prefer web-stuff versus snail mail
- Especially the web survey could also be given to known attendees who weren't there that Sunday... allowing for a greater "n".

Thoughts? Improvements? Warnings to Ben?

Monday, January 29, 2007

Social networks in the New Testament

It's either really cool or social statistics run amok (or both), but here is a social network map of the relationships in the New Testament. It's done by the folks at the English Standard Version Bible, who use a new data imaging site called Many Eyes.

Obviously the New Testament is not a sociometric survey, so what we learn here is the Bible's description of relationships. So, for all we know Luke and Titus were drinking buddies. Still, it's a useful description of this aspect of the New Testament.
I was surprised by Peter's circle being bigger and more central than Paul's--speaks to Peter's role in early church leadership.

Other observations?

A remarkable blog

I've started reading Ann Althouse's blog. (She's a law professor at UWisconsin.) It's remarkable! She posts many times a day, and they are real posts, not just sharing links. My friend David is convinced that she actually is a pseudonym for network of five or ten busy bloggers. She also has lots of variety in the posts--from political and cultural commentary to everyday descriptions of getting coffee on a snowy day.

I don't know if I want to put *that* much time into blogging, but she certainly points the way to doing blogs right.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Emotions in church--hell yes!

I would like to pose some questions about emotions in church. What should be the emotions expressed from the pew? From the pulpit? How might the church's emotion-rules hurt it's people and hinder its mission?

Here are my thoughts:

The week before thanksgiving I noticed that my early class was rather sluggish, and I asked them if they were looking forward to Thanksgiving. Most the students nodded their heads and murmured affirmations, but one student shouted "hell yes!" We all laughed and then went on with the class material, but I spent the rest of the day appreciating her emotional candor and wishing that I experienced it more often.

In most churches there are clearly defined implicit rules about which few emotions are appropriate to express.

For the church goer, the modal expression should be polite interest, and the face should show either a neutral expression or, even better, a smile. It's okay to sometimes laugh or look troubled when prompted to from the person leading the service. Attending a church service in the U.S. often proves to be a cognitively-rich but emotionally-passive experience, and I wonder if these services would hold more appeal, and have a greater impact, if the congregation was more emotionally involved in the service. Black churches, with typically more active participation from the pew in all parts of the service, seem to get this more right than white churches.

For the pastor, the rules of emotion are even more strict. Before and after the service itself, when greeting people or talking with them, pastors are limited to showing friendliness and interest... sort of like what stewardesses are supposed to do. During the service they can remain in this mode, though at appropriate times can show emotions such as distress (when talking about someone having a difficult time), enthusiasm (when exhorting the church), maybe light forms of anger (when righteously based).

Compare this with the emotions expressed by Jesus in his ministry. He laughed, he raged, he wept--one could not accuse him of being emotionally stunted.
This very-limited, narrowly defined range of emotions for pastors causes various problems.

1) A unchurched visitor, not used to these emotional rules, might experience the emotional environment as "fake" and have a correspondingly low opinion of the church itself.

2) The emotional-restraints placed on a pastor can easily carry on over into other parts of their lives such that any time the pastor is in public (and maybe even in public) they have to be quite limited in the emotions they display, which would seem to be harmful to them at various levels.

3) These emotional limits could easily cultivate an inauthentic church environment. If we're not expressing what we really feel, then we should probably not say what we're really thinking and so one such the church, and its people, become less authentic.
For additional essays on church life:

Friday, January 26, 2007

Teaching sociology: Documentaries for criminology

As a follow-up to a comment in yesterday's post, here are some of the documentaries that I use in my criminology class. I either rent them from or buy them from (which is surprisingly cheap). I show about 30-45 minutes of these & have students write essays analyzing them from various theoretical perspectives. I pick films that illustrate crime in different social contexts.

Brother's Keeper. The story of four brothers in a rural setting, and one may have killed another. I use to illustrate the ambiguity associated with crime & different definitions of crime.

Bus 174. An engaging documentary about a failed bus hijack in Brazil. I use it to get the students thinking about crime outside the U.S.. It would also serve well regarding issues of poverty and crime.

Capturing the Friedmans. A remarkably disturbing story of alleged child-molesters in a wealthy Long Island suburb. Gets at the social construction of crime & how different ways of measuring crime (official, self-report, victim) would give very different results in some situations.

Devil's Playground. One my favorite films. Amish kids, when 16, often step away from the church to live life on their own, before deciding whether to rejoin. During this time some of them get into various crime and deviance. I have students analyze it from a social control perspective.

Lost Children of Rockdale. The story of teens in rich Atlanta-area who go crazy with sex and drugs. Nice illustration of social learning theory.

Murder on a Sunday Morning. Amazing story of a wrongful arrest of an African-American kid for a murder. I have students analyze it for the question of whether the criminal justice system is racist.

Stevie. A heartbreaking story of a poor kid growing up in Indiana with lots of various emotional problems, and he ends up in jail. Filmed by the guy who made hoop-dreams. Wonderful illustration of psychological theories of crime.

Streetwise. A documentary about street kids in Seattle in the early 1980s. It's about their day-t0-day lives, which include lots of crime--prostitution, robbery, drugs. I use to get at social disorganization theory.

The Iceman. An extended interview with Richard Kuklinski, a quiet family man who was also a ruthless hitman. Great illustration of rational choice theory.

The Smartest Guys in the Room. The story of Enron. Nice counter intuitive illustration of strain theory--why did these guys, who have everything, do it?

Weather Underground. The story of the 1960s & 70s student left. Makes for a good example of conflict theory, and my students are always amazed at how radical college students were back then.

For other essays on teaching sociology:

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Teaching sociology: The use of documentaries

If I were a botanist, we would spend a lot of time in class looking at plants. If I were an art historian, we would view paintings. If I were a chemist, we would play with chemicals. Instead, I am a sociologist, so I want to spend class time analyzing people interact. Unfortunately, it’s not always practical to bring real people and their life situations into class. ("Excuse me, could we have the Crips on that side of the room and the Bloods over there"). Fortunately there are movie makers who go around and film people and their social situations.

When I teach a once-a-week class (for 2.5 hours), the typical class goes like this. 1) Present and discuss a theory. 2) Present and discuss a substantive issue. 3) Show a documentary that illustrates the theory, issue, or both, and then have the students analyze the film. Before the film, I give the students a question that requires them to analyze the film from the perspective of the theory (or in regards to the issue). After the film, the students write an essay based on the question.

This assignment reflects my goal to have students “do” sociology in class, not just hear about other people who have done sociology. This helps students learn to think like sociologists, and it increases their understanding of the theories and issues covered in class.

The best way to learn sociology is to practice doing it.

For other essays on teaching sociology:

Why I am no longer talking to my brother...

I am no longer talking to my brother John because I can not talk--I have choked on jealousy. Above is a picture of him with his brand-spanking-new Falcon 195 hang glider.

If you happen to see him, tell him that maybe I'm really happy for him!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

What should every university student know? II

A continuation of yesterday's post...

#5. Travel or die

One of the most educational activities possible is one that the university doesn't actually require: traveling. You learn things overseas about yourself and your world that are just not possible here at home.

Consider a study abroad program--they range from several weeks to many months. Consider a quick, low-fare jaunt to someplace cool. However you do it, get going.

#4. What should be the role of religion?

Stephen Carter, in the book "Culture of Disbelief," argues that public institutions such politics, the law, and academia trivialize religion by pressuring its adherents to keep quiet about their personal views. Essentially, religion is okay as long as you keep it at home--sort of like a slightly-embarrassing hobby.

This raises the question: "What should be the role of religion in public life?" The issue here is not separation of church as state, which should be affirmed for the protection of both, but rather how should people of faith live bring it to public life. I do not offer an answer other than to point out the significance of the question.

#3. Take a year or two off after college
Most college students have been students their whole lives (at least since age 5). As such, they don't have the chance to the lessons that come with living in the "real" world. In addition, recent college graduates usually have relatively few obligations that would keep them at home. As such, taking a year or two off after college is usually a really good idea.

Go live someplace cool. Volunteer for a charitable organization. Travel. Become a ski instructor, a beach bum, a wine taster. This is a time to do things that you'll probably never have another chance to do. Need specific ideas? Go to

#2. Be less docile
An implicit norm for students at large universities is one of quiet conformity--show up to class, sit quietly, take tests, and then leave at the end of the semester. Students would learn much more, in addition to having more fun, if they were a little more aggressive in challenging the ideas and material presented in class. Do you think that something is a load of crap? Then say so! (Though you may have to use a different term, depending on the professor).
At some point you'll need to think for yourself. Now is a good time to start.

#1. Take your time to find a job you love

Do you think that college lasted a long time? That was only 4 or 5 years. Your career will last that many decades! You should therefore find something that you love to do, a job that you'll enjoy going to most every single day.

There is no hurry, either, in finding this job. If you don't figure things out till you're thirty years old (gasp, hard to believe that you'll ever get there), you'll still work for about 40 years till retirement age. Getting this one right is fundamental.

What else should be on this list?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

What should every university student know?

Part of the fun of teaching is getting off topic. In that spirit, here are ten things that I think that every college student should know or at least think about once. I'll present five today, five later.

What else would you add to this list?

#10. Read the book "What Should I Do with My Life?"
In his late twenties, Po Bronson had a career crisis--having been successful in the financial world and in writing. He asked himself what he should do with his life, and he answered the question like a sociologist--he did a study. He interviewed about 100 people who had answered the question successfully, and he identified common themes across the interviews.

This book helps undergraduates figure out how to go about figuring out what to do with their lives. The various stories that Bronson recounts also serve to lower expectations... very few people figure things out right out of college. It's available used at for a few bucks.

#9. Keep your wheels straight when waiting to turn left
Okay, this may sound silly, but this little driving tip probably saved my son's life once when we were in an accident. If you're stopped at an intersection, waiting to turn left, keep your front wheels pointed forward until you start making the turn. If not, somebody who bumps into you from behind will knock you into oncoming traffic, and you might have a much more serious, head-on collision.

#8. Don't get into credit card debt as a college student
As a marketplace of ideas, the university should have its doors open to all sorts of people. One group, however, should be run off campus--the people who sign up students for credit cards. Let's see--a future compromised by debt for a free t-shirt? Sounds good to me!

I've met more than a few students who had to park their lives in neutral after graduation in order to work to pay off credit card bills. The few years after college are golden in terms of personal freedom--to lose this due to debt is a waste.

#7. The importance of writing

Students have relatively few requirements for formal writing. Classes are larger and use standardized tests, and much of written in day-to-day communication uses short-hand English (e.g., instant messaging).

Ironically, the fewer people that can write well, the more valuable this skill becomes. Most good jobs require frequent writing, and the ability to excel in this will make a difference. If nothing else, Norah Vincent, in her book "Self-Made Man," makes a compelling case that writing well will dramatically improve your love life!

#6. A liberal education

Most professors are somewhere between liberal and very liberal in their personal politics. I've seen estimates for sociology that place the ratio at 20 democrats for every 1 republican sociologist, and even in less "liberal" fields than sociology, professors predominately lean left.
This world view, as with any, can not help but come through when professors teach, and so, in this sense, students are truly getting a "liberal" education.

Whether this good or bad I'll leave for others to debate (I'm not very political--being uncomfortable with both Republican and Democratic approaches). I do, however, want students to understand the perspective from which probably most of their classes are taught.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Review of Jay Bakker, One Punk, Under God (#5)

This episode focuses on Tammy Faye's illness and Jay's response to it, in the context of moving to New York for wife Amanda's education. An emotional episode. (For Dan Myers' review of this episode)

First a son. In watching Jay interact with his sick mother, which he does very lovingly, I was struck by the irrelevance of his other identities. He's not a punk, he's not a preacher, he's not the child of televangelists--he's just a son who wants to take care of his sick mother and wants her to know that he loves her and appreciates her. There is something elemental about tragedies that makes us act in a similar way.

Tammy Faye's life. During one visit, we watch somebody interviewing Tammy Faye for a book. He asked various questions about her life, how she started, what she wanted, for she has followed a most unpredictable trajectory--born in a small town in Minnesota to where she is now. That makes me wonder what she would do differently, if she could.

This episode, more than any others, portrayed Tammy Faye as someone other than a media creation.

Seat-of-the-pants church plant. As far as I can tell, Jay is planting a new church in New York City with little more planning than a general sense of where NYC is located. I'm sure that he'll be successful, but this seat-of-the-pants approach exemplifies a concern that I've expressed in previous posts about Jay's place in an organization. Without a more developed organization (think 5-year plans, organizational charts, all that yucky stuff), it's hard to see how Jay's NYC church will grow beyond the number of people that Jay can take care of personally. With the wrong organization, however, Revolution will lose its "punk" voice that makes it so interesting and effective.

It will be interesting to see how Revolution-Atlanta & Revolution-NYC change over time. I would guess that they will become rather different in just a few years.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Tagged: Five things about me

I've been tagged by Michael Kruse to give five odd facts about myself that most people would not know. My first reaction to this was to be pleased... Michael Kruse writes one of my favorite blogs--full of social science & faith. It also has a hilarious "about me" section.

My second reaction was one of concern. Obscure facts about myself? That's why I started a blog, and, frankly, I used up all the interesting ones in my first three days. With that in mind, here goes:

5) Cluelessness. I sometimes display breathtaking levels of cluelessness. I chose a college, University of California at Davis, because it was on the coast, and I wanted to be near the ocean. Turns out that its in the middle of the state, and I didn't' find out till my Dad drove me up the first day. (Thankfully he knew where it was!)

4) Hair. I recognize people that I don' know that well by their hairstyle. I'm sufficiently observant about this (and very little else) that I can look at a class of 100 students and know instantly who has gotten their hair cut since the last time I saw them. I actually have trouble learning the names of guys who have short hair and wear ballcaps.

3) Ice cream. Until about 2 years ago, I honestly thought that Ben and Jerry pints were single serving sized. As in: I'm getting a Ben and Jerry's, do you want one? (They are actually four servings, and some people--I've heard--don't eat them all at one time).

2) Malaria. I had malaria in college (from a trip to Kenya), and it ended up being a pivotal point in my understanding of Christianity.

1) Pilot. Sociology was my second choice for a career. The first? I joined the Navy flight program, and ended up getting out due to a slight problem with eyesight.

Let's see, who is next? I'll tag Corey Colyer, Jay Livingston, and Jimi Adams.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

A new contest! Jumping the shark

It's time for a new contest!

One of my favorite slang expressions is "jumping the shark." It comes from the old television show "Happy Days". In one scene, the character of Fonzie was water skiing and he jumped over a pen with a shark in it. When watching this scene, an astute viewer realized that Happy Days was no longer worth watching. For a video clip of this scene. (This phrase now has its own website).

Let's define "jumping the shark" to mean a moment that signifies a irreversible drop in quality of some social occurrence.

This contest will reward the best use of this phrase in a sentence. While the phrase was developed in reference to television shows, let's apply it to any aspect of life. The one condition is that it has to have really happened (i.e., no making up funny situations).

Here's my entry. I knew that class one afternoon had jumped the shark when I tried to imitate Michael Jackson moonwalking, complete with a Jackson-esque yelp.

In my last contest, Dan Myers won a quart of maple syrup for his caption of a sumo wrestling picture. This time the prize will be a UConn t-shirt.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Teaching sociology: The pedagogical value of deceit

This semester I started my criminology class by introducing myself as Richard Bruce Cheney and the class as English 153: Victorian Poetry. I then went on to mention some of the high Victorian poets that we would cover, including Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, the other Browning, and Nigel Tufnel. At this point a number of the students had a rather stricken look on their face, and some were ready to head for the exits. Last semester I actually had a student make it 50 feet down the hallway before a TA could catch them. (BTW, Richard Bruce Cheney is also known as Dick, and Nigel Tufnel is a member of Spinal Tap).

Likewise, in my methods course, I present a bogus statistic to my students (e.g., that 1/3 of UConn students are African-American, when the real number is around 8%), test them on it, and then refuse to give credit when they give back to me my wrong answer. (I eventually relent and drop the question).

Character issues aside, why would I lie to my students? It’s my impression that big universities, such as UConn, implicitly train students to be sheep-like in the classroom. "Show up, sit down, take the tests, and leave at the end of the semester" seems to be the subtext of much of what we do. Furthermore, professors have the unfortunate tendency of presenting themselves as the all-knowing experts not to be questioned and certainly never to be challenged. As a result, the successful student strategy for most classes is one of quiet conformity.

I use deceit, and the inevitable discussion about it afterwards, to raise these issues. Our job as professors is to train students to critically evaluate what they hear and read and who readily challenge other people’s ideas. In short, we are to “de-sheepify” them.


For additional essays on teaching sociology:

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Review of Jay Bakker, One Punk, Under God (#4)

This episode focuses on Jay’s relationship with Jim, his father, as Jay and Jim reconcile on air during Jim’s television show. Also, Amanda got accepted to her pre-med program in New York City, and so Jay announced his departure to Revolution.

Who’s reading this post?
First off, Stu Damron, one of the main characters in this series, and current pastor of Revolution in Atlanta, posted a kind comment on my last review. This means that he & others involved in the series might read my reviews, so, let me start off by saying that everyone in episode 4 looked particularly attractive and in good shape.

Life on television. During Jay’s appearance on Jim’s show, Jim said such nice, reconciliatory things, such as what an “awesome man of God” Jay is, and “I love you”, and that Jay is doing better than him. These are the things Jay sought from his father, and somehow Jim was able to express on television what he seemed to have trouble doing earlier in person. Somehow the anonymous audience of television allows parts of Jim to come to life, maybe like telling one’s secrets to a stranger on the bus. The scene was heartwarming, but it also wrapped up one of the driving themes of the show.

High price of grace. At one point, Jim commented that from his own experience, he expected Jay to pay a high price for preaching grace. Unfortunately Jim did not elaborate, but somehow this feels like a very biblical, albeit ironic, principle—paying a price for grace. This certainly happened in the life of Jesus. This makes me wonder, though, why? Any thoughts?

Haphazard Jay
. An on-going theme in the series, at least for me, is that of Jay’s role with the church, both Revolution and the broader church in the U.S. Is he a local pastor or a national figure? Obviously some people are both, such as Rick Warren, but they often become known because of their success with their local church.

As such, I found it informative when one of the Revolution members spoke appreciatively of Jay’s haphazard humanity. In just the little time this series has covered his life, he has launched himself into a new direction theologically (regarding the gay issue), and he is now moving to a new city. Jay’s willingness to try new experiences and interact with new people makes him interesting to watch and easy to learn from, but I don’t know that it fits with the job requirements of being a pastor—at least a head pastor. Likewise, Stu and one of the staff people seemed to have a much better sense than Jay of the organizational details of Revolution.

At some point, I would expect Revolution to have to redefine Jay’s role. From what little I’ve seen in these four episodes, he doesn’t seem to have the administration gifts typically required of a lead pastor, and yet he embodies the spirit of Revolution, and he’s probably their most important resource right now. Maybe a teaching pastor? Maybe a pastor-at-large?

Reticent Jay.
I got a laugh out of the discussion between Jay and Stu about the need to raise money. Stu suggested that, with the loss of their major donor, that Jay start teaching about the importance of giving money. Jay responded that he was uncomfortable doing that (though he seemed to think it was a good idea). Here’s Jay, who will, out of conviction, take up any theological topic, no matter how controversial, with anyone being almost shy about talking with money. This is the opposite of many pastors, and it shows the money-related trauma he witnessed in his parents’ ministry.

Safe fish. A touching scene had Jay and Stu trout fishing together, and as I watched Jay smoking a cigar, asking Stu how to cast, I kept thinking that those are some very safe fish in that river.


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Mercedes or peace?

On the way home from teaching tonight, I noticed something. My fun-hippie artist neighbor has a peace sign made of holiday lights prominently displayed in her front window.

The only problem is that she forgot the bottom middle leg, so it's really the Mercedes emblem. This poses a bit of a moral dilemma for me--do I tell her? She might want to know, but my having a quiet chuckle on the way home is nice.

All I'm saying is give the Mercedes SL550 a chance.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Frequent-reviewer points

I spent part of this afternoon going through a pile of old papers that I have reviewed for journals. (Most academic journals are peer-reviewed, so they send submitted papers to others in the area to be evaluated). I was struck by how many papers I've reviewed in the past several years (and I know that others review many more).

This leads me to a simple proposal. We should get frequent-reviewer points for every paper we review, and then we can use those points for various goodies in the field.

For example, if 1 paper = 1 point, then perhaps:
- 2 points earn a snazzy ASA (American Sociological Association) water bottle
- 5 points earn a guaranteed presentation at a conference
- 12 points earn an accepted paper at a second-tier journal
- 20 points earn an accepted paper at a first-tier journal

Other things we should be able to use these points for?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The relative risk of hang gliding vs. paragliding

Given the winter weather here in New England, I have to pursue my interest in hang gliding vicariously through my SoCal brother, John.

The other day he called me while going down the freeway in his new sports car having just successfully flown his second solo (from 2,200 feet). Not only that, he got his hang-2 rating, which, as you might guess, is better than my hang-1 rating. Okay, mixed with the happiness for him is more than a little envy!

This leads me to an interesting risk assessment that his hang gliding teacher told us when I was out there in November. John asked him to compare hang and paragliding, and he answered by comparing the hypothetical experiences of a hang gliding and a paragliding pilot. If both were to jump 450 times, the paraglider would have a softer, easier landing 449 times--sort of like sitting down on a sofa. The 450th time, however, was a wildcard, and anything could happen, including plummeting from a high altitude and needing to deploy the emergency parachute.

For both John and me, this compelling evidence for hang gliding, but there are probably as many people who would see things the other way.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Review of Jay Bakker, One Punk, Under God (#3)

For Dan Myer's post

This episode continues the two main storylines of this series: Jay's relationship with his father and his affirmation of gay relationships.

Jay as public figure. The episode starts with Jay explaining that he is not only a pastor but also a nationwide speaker. This highlights a tension in his career--is he primarily a pastor to a group of people in Revolution Church or is he primarily a public figure in Christianity, with his focus being people nationwide. Of course one can be both, but there is the issue of primacy. As far as I can tell, Jay's father, Jim Bakker, was mostly a national figure, and though Jay has started out as a pastor of a local church, I wonder if over time he'll emphasize speaking to a broader, nationwide audience, as did his father. As different as Jay might want to be than his father, he seems to be increasingly more like him in this regard.

Jay preaching the gay gospel. An early scene has Jay preaching to an African-American church, and all is going well, with plenty of loud amens and affirmations, until Jay explains that he supports gay marriage. He then somewhat scolds the congregation for having been a people who had been persecuted and excluded themselves but not offering acceptance to another excluded group. Wow, did things quiet down in a hurry in that church. While I appreciated Jay's courage in expressing his convictions, this wasn't one of his better moments. It's not clear to me that endorsing the civil rights movement implies a particular theological perspective on the gay issue; furthermore, Jay seems to becoming intolerant of people who have a different interpretation of scripture than he does on this issue.

Jay and Jim. Jay drives to Branson, Missouri to visit with this father, and visit, to be continued next episode, is both touching and revealing. As Jim's assistant explains, Jim is better at books and theology than he is at relationships. Jay, in contrast, is adept and thoughtful at relationships, and the culture clash between them is both funny and horrifying. After Jay's arrival, Jim drives him around town talking about the sites ("here's the new Branson") while Jay clearly wants to immediately connect at a deep level. Jay finally blurts out, "does it bother you that Mom is sick?" Jim, not being able to handle this, soon professes to needing to get back to work.

Eventually the two have a sit-down for a half hour, off camera, to talk about their differences, and they emerge frustrated at having opened more issues than they have resolved. Jim nicely summarized that they needed to talk for several months more. I hope that they find this time, but I'm not optimistic. Think of this as "Field of Dreams" with tele-evangelism rather than baseball.

Amanda, Jay's wife, applies for a pre-medicine program, and she waits till the last moment to mail her application--just catching the FedEx truck in the parking lot. She's ready for grad school if she can procrastinate this well!

Stu Damron, a supervisor of Revolution, is impressive. Clearly he has conservative political and theological views, but he's trying to understand and support Jay.


Friday, January 12, 2007

Hey, I have a personality!

I usually don't like to take personality tests because, well, they usually come back negative. While the psychologists assure me that somewhere down there exists a personality, they can't find it. So, imagine my pleasure when I found a personality test that found something!

Here's the site:

It labeled me as a considerate inventor.

* Your imagination, self-reliance, openness to new things, and appreciation for utility combine to make you an INVENTOR.

* You trust others, care about them, and are slow to judge them, making you CONSIDERATE.

Now I suppose that the test only hands out positive evaluations, but, as far as these things go, I think that it pegged two of my few positive attributes. It even made recommendations for me that I found thought provoking.

The test also uses some interesting measurement tools.

What are you?

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Review of One Punk, Under God (#2)

In the second episode of One Punk, Under God, Jay Bakker visits his ailing mother, the well-known Tammy Faye. He also spends time with members of a gay church, listening to their stories and watching a lesbian civil union ceremony. From this he reassesses his beliefs about whether Christians should support being gay.

Likeable Tammy. What I know about Tammy Faye Messner (nee Bakker) is mostly negative, and so I was surprised by how she presented herself in this episode. Here is a woman who has been through some extraordinarily difficult times, is constantly mocked, and is dying of cancer—if ever someone had the “right” to be bitter and angry. Instead, she is full of dignity and grace. When Jay talked to her about his troubles with his father, I expected her to blast away at her ex-husband. Instead, she was supportive and understanding of both Jay and Jim—a mother to the end. As a side note, most the people on this show are a little nervous in front of the camera, but not Tammy Faye. With her background in television, she had some serious presence.

The film makers' focus. What we see in this show, like any media, reflects both the person being portrayed and the film-makers’ decisions about what to portray. As such, I find it interesting the first episode was about hypocrisy in the church and this episode (and I believe the next episode) is about division regarding the gay issue. Certainly both issues merit examination, but their centrality in this series probably tells us more about the film makers, and their interests and beliefs, than anything else. Put differently, and somewhat cynically, a series about a pastor’s everyday life of serving, loving, preaching and praising probably wouldn’t make it to the Sundance Channel.

Jay and gays. Our introduction to Jay’s involvement with the gay community comes as he preaches to a gay-Christian group. His words are wonderful—it’s all about love. I suppose that love is a good thing for pastors to communicate in any sermon but all the more so with a group that routinely feels so unloved by the church. From his experiences with this group, Jay reevaluates his beliefs and decides that he should endorse a gay lifestyle as consistent with the Bible or at least not opposed by it. He announces this to his church, and the trailers for the next episode suggest that this stance proves costly in lost resources and people.

Whether a gay lifestyle fits with the teachings of scripture is an involved issue, and smart, loving, and sincere people have different opinions on it. (For a helpful discussion). I have nothing to contribute to this central question, but in this post and others I would to discuss aspects of the gay controversy in the Church.

Out of proportion? Jay is clearly sincere in his convictions about gays, even in the face of the potential loss of ministry support. Bravo--that we should all be willing to sacrifice for our beliefs. Nonetheless, I found myself wondering he was investing so much time, effort, and social capital on this particular issue. Suppose we were to draw up a mission statement for Jay’s Revolution church based on the first episode and then planned out how to enact it. It’s not clear that what is shown in this second episode would be the logical next step. Should Jay have done it? Beats me. I scarcely know that God is calling me to do, let alone others. I’m just observing that in this particular context, and perhaps in the American church as a whole, this issue seems out of proportion.

True evil. In a moving scene, Jay talks with several transgendered women about their experiences in the Christian church. One women told of her experiences going to church in which no one would sit next to her, and when she left, the pastor thanked her for coming but asked her not to come again. If indeed it happened as she described, the pastor’s response represents pure evil. Popular perceptions of pastoral scandals, including that of Jay’s father, involve money, sex, or drugs, but these pale in comparison to deliberately keeping someone from learning about the Kingdom of God. Jesus counted tax collectors and prostitutes among his friends, but he took a whip to those who blocked access to the temple.

Dan Myer’s post on this episode.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Dan Myers' comments

As part of a blogalogue, Dan Myers and I are commenting on each other's posts about One Punk, Under God. Here is his response to my first post.
Great inventory of some critical issues in Episode one!

I'm intrigued in particular by two of your observations. One is the rumspringa and it makes me wonder about what are the typical kinds of teenage rebellion evangelicals and preachers' kids engage in. I knew a lot of PKs growing up, of course, and there was a general sense that PKs were either angelic or devil spawn, with not much in between. Plenty of rebellion going on, but pretty different types depending on which of these groups you were in. I always considered myself "normal" and in the middle with my non-PK friends--I did some stupid things, but wasn't exactly shooting up behind the school during lunch hour.

Second, that radio scene must have been discouraging for Jay. I don't think the interviewer really intended to get off on that track, but she did, maybe for two reasons. One was just the impact that the Bakker scandal had on America (as Jay notes at some other point in the episode). It was not a small deal as evidenced by the reaction people are still having to it 20 years later. The second was that Jay refuses to disavow his parents ministry. I'm sure some epople, including this interviewer, have a hard time giving him legitimacy if he won't blast away on that enterprise some. On the other hand, he cannot really do that because it is part of the identity integration task he is involved with for himself and for defining his own ministry. (The main subject of my post on episode one).

Review of One Punk, Under God (episode 1)

Frankly, I wouldn’t make much of a film/television critic, for my reaction to most shows is usually: “It could have used more ninja/samurai” or “wasn’t she beautiful!” (My ideal show would star Jet Li and Penelope Cruz.) In writing about One Punk, Under God—a documentary series about Jay Bakker, son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker—I don’t try to gauge its general quality as a television show or documentary; instead, I’ll write about issues raised and lessons learned regarding Christianity. Having said that, I have enjoyed watching it and find it reasonably well done (though, of course, a few ninja wouldn’t hurt).

Likable Jay. The first episode of One Punk, Under God introduces us to Jay Bakker, his church, and his background. My first impression is how overwhelmingly likable Jay is. He just wants to love the people in his church and be loved by them. He honors his father and mother and is trying to reconcile with his estranged father. Maybe because this episode emphasized his family background, but I viewed him more as a little boy, who gets excited seeing where he used the play with his Star Wars action figures, than as a tough punk—though he is covered with tattoos, body piercings, and ragged clothes.

Evangelical rumspringa. The show’s hook is that Jay grew up in conservative Christianity, left it to go wild with drugs and the punk lifestyle, and returned to it retaining his “punk” identity. This religious trajectory reminds me of the Amish rumspringa. The Amish raise their children in the church until age 16 when the children have to make their own decision to join. At this time, many of the kids get a little crazy, doing things from going to the mall (apparently the first thing to do) and driving cars to partying and doing drugs. (For a great portrayal of this, see the documentary The Devil’s Playground). After months-to-years of “Amish gone wild”, the majority of them rejoin the church. Maybe what Jay Bakker did represents an “evangelical rumspringa,” in that he, like the Amish kids, had to get away from his strict upbringing to return to faith on his own terms. I believe that Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, went through a similar time of rebellion.

Hypocrites! The most groaning, eye-rolling scene of the first episode was Jay Bakker’s interview on Air America—the liberal radio network. Jay makes no secret of his liberal politics, so he probably thought he was among friends when he went onto this show. Wrong! In the two-minute interview, the Air America interviewer, in discussing Jay’s ministry and parents, used the words “hypocrite”, “baggage”, “exploitation”, “corruption” (twice), “scandal”, “fraud” (twice), and “fall” (twice). Poor Jay—he wanted to get word out about what he is doing, and this interviewer turned it into another Christian slam-fest.

The “where” of Christianity. Christians think a lot about the “who” of ministry—who should be doing what, what our gifts are, and so forth. We think less of “where” we should we be doing it. The American church has fallen into the bad habit of hosting most of its faith events in special clean buildings usually located away from most peoples’ daily activities. In contrast, Revolution (the name of Jay Bakker’s church) was meeting in a bar, with some of the crowd drinking and smoking. In fact, Jay Bakker encouraged his church-attendees to order something from the bar and to tip the bartender. Revolution also held bible studies in coffee shops. Another branch of Revolution (there are three, I think) meets in a candy store (kid’s outreach?). This is breathtakingly cool. It is also biblical. Jesus spent time in funky places which with sketchy people, and so the typical spatial isolation of modern-day Christianity may miss the mark.

It’s still a bureaucracy. My fear for the future of Jay’s ministry was illustrated in a short scene between him and one of the church elders. The elder, a business person, started drawing a organizational flow-chart showing with lines of authority and communication within Revolution. Jay looked horrified and stammered a dismissal of this formal, hierarchical approach—saying that it’s not what revolution is about. For Jay it’s about love and relationships. Here’s the problem: Any church needs proper organizational structure to grow and sustain itself; without it Revolution will have trouble getting beyond a short-term, rather small endeavor. Can Revolution keep its spirit amidst conventional organizational structure? (This tension that bedevils all churches.) Ironically, Jim Bakker’s (Jay’s father) ministry collapsed for want of proper organizational structure and oversight. Here’s hoping that Jay avoids this.

I’m looking forward to the next episode, and, who knows, maybe it will feature Jet Li!

This post is part of a blogalogue with Dan Myers. To read his post. We welcome all comments.

Saturday, January 06, 2007


My brother John did his first hang gliding solo last week. That means he jumped off a mountain and fifteen minutes later landed about 2200 feet below. Wow! Way to go John. For a humorous account of it.

Sociologists have difficulty predicting future social outcomes (we do much better in "explaining" the past). So, I am proud of this one. After the Lord of the Rings movies, which I loved, I predicted that there would/should be a chicken-wings shop named "Lord of the Wings". Well, I was close.

Over Christmas I took six family members for a several hour walk in the woods. Now, I know the trails around here pretty well (we start at our front door), but I asked if anyone had a cell phone in case someone twisted an ankle or otherwise got hurt. Turns out we had three cell phones and two GPS units along for the walk. Ah... roughing it.

Guess which businesses are harmed by warm winter weather? Ski areas & snow plowing services, obviously. Also, auto body shops, who get a lot of business from fender-benders, and roofers, who fix roofs that leak when heavy snow packs on them. (From a story in the Hartford Courant).

Friday, January 05, 2007

Why do pastors give sermons?

Sometimes simple questions help us to see things in a new way, and so I would like to ask: why do pastors give sermons?

I base this question on an observation. In American Christianity, there is a strong norm that the pastor in a local church should do almost all of that church's Sunday preaching. Pastors can delegate just about every other aspect of church life---worship, evangelism, fundraising, administration, hospitality, etc.., but they should do the Sunday teaching every week (with a few weeks off for good behavior).

Let's call this the pastors-should-preach norm, and it leads us to ask why.

Well, we can probably rule out the most obvious explanation--that pastors are always the best teacher available for Sunday mornings. Many congregations have gifted teachers who could be part of a teaching team. Furthermore, with so many sermons available on-line and DVD, a church could easily have guest spots by some of the best preachers in the country: Bill Hybels, Andy Stanley, T.D. Jakes, Franklin Graham, and Nigel Tufnel. (Okay, the last one is the guitar player for Spinal Tap--just seeing if you were paying attention).

I can think of several social reasons for this norm.

1) Tradition. Organizational habits are very powerful, and for as long as anyone can remember, that's what pastors do.

2) Justifies job. Pastoring is a very important job that doesn't always have tangible outcomes. Comforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable, sharing the good news, feeding the poor, and just running a church are pastoral activities that don't lend themselves to easy quantification or even public notice. As such, congregation members might ask what does the pastor do, and a public talk each week is a vivid demonstration of "doing something".

The irony here is that some pastors aren't particularly good teachers, and so the preaching norm plays to their weaknesses and takes them away from other, more fruitful activities.

3) Demonstrates expertise. Teaching is a great way to show that you know something. You get to pick the material, get to prepare it ahead of time, and present it without challenge (usually). This is the fundamental attribution error--when teachers present information, we think they are smart instead of just having had time to prepare. (It's also the Alex-Trebek syndrome--but that's a rant for another day). Part of doing any job well is having other people think that you know what you are doing, and so demonstrating expertise is a valuable exercise.

Now, I'm not against pastors preaching, but these social influences might lead it to be a bigger part of a pastor's job than would be otherwise.
For additional posts on church life:

One punk, under God

Dan Myers, a fellow sociologist and blogger, has suggested that he and I do a series of posts on the t.v. show: One Punk Under God: The Prodigal Son of Jim and Tammy Faye.

Dan has a nice intro to this series, and we'll start the series on Monday. In it, we'll post our own commentaries + comment on each other's commentaries plus those of anyone else who posts. Basically, we are trying to get a (hopefully informed) discussion going.

What should we call this type of blog discussion?

A "diablog" (Dan's suggestion, my spelling)?

A "blogalouge"?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Why pastors should plagiarize

This semester I've been slogging my way through The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard. Okay, I have a Ph.D., but I think that I got the wrong one because there's a whole lot in this book that I don't understand. This is frustrating because from all accounts this is a modern-day classic (oxymoron?), and I really like what little of the book I do understand. Willard has some great things to say, I just need some help in "getting" them.

This leads me to wonder why pastors do not more frequently base their sermons on the work of others. Presumably pastors know the best books about Christian faith & practice, and, with their theological training, pastors are in a better place to understand & explain the ideas of others. For example, I would love to hear a sermon series on the work of Dallas Willard, Scot McKnight, or any number of authors.

There seems to be a norm among pastors that all sermons have to be original in idea and expression. The problem is that this is very hard to do, so a lot of sermons aren't really that good. That's why the few pastors, such as Mark Driscoll and Ben Dubow, who excel at this form of expression have their sermons downloaded by so many people.

Let me come at this from a different angle. In two weeks I'll be teaching a course on criminology. If I had to present *only* my own ideas, the class would be equal parts useless and boring. Instead, I use the work of many scholars (with proper citation, of course) to help my students to understand how to think about crime. Yes, I give my own ideas and analyses (and probably more than I need), but the the core of my material is the work of others.

Pastors almost seem to feel guilty about using the ideas of others--as if somehow they are avoiding their pastoral responsibility.

To be clear, whenever we use others' ideas or words, we need to clearly indicate the source; otherwise it is plagiarism. (Okay, the title of this post isn't quite accurate, but it's catchy, no?). So, I'm advocating using others' ideas with full acknowledgement.

In short, I propose that many pastors would preach more effectively if they sometimes simply summarize and illustrate the ideas of others.
For additional essays on church life:

Monday, January 01, 2007

Mice, pianos, sociology, and Christianity

Here is one of my favorite modern-day parables--it illustrates how we might think of bringing together sociological analysis and Christian faith.

A family of mice lived in a grand piano. They enjoyed listening to the music that came from the great player who they never saw, but who they believed in, because they enjoyed the music that came from the piano.

One day one of the little mice got especially brave. He climbed deep into the bowels of the piano. He made an astonishing discovery. The music did not come from a great player; rather, the music came from wires that reverberated back and forth. The little mouse returned to his family tremendously excited. He informed his family that there was no great player who made the piano music; rather, there were these little wires that reverberated back and forth. The family of mice abandoned their belief in a great piano player. Instead they had a totally mechanistic view.

One day another one of the little mice got especially brave. He climbed even further up into the bowels of the piano. To his amazement he found that indeed the music did not come from reverberating wires, but rather from little hammers that struck the wires. It was those hammers that really made the music. He returned to his family with a new description of the source of the music. The family of mice rejoiced that they were so educated that they understood that there was no great piano player but that the music came from little hammers that struck the wires. The family of mice did not believe that there was a player playing the piano. Instead they believed that their mechanistic understanding of the universe explained all of reality.

But the fact is that the player continued to play his music.

The Kingdom of God may operate, in part, through social mechanisms. For example, the New Testament specifies certain types of religious communities, and this type of community life may produce change in individuals that is consistent with the fruit of the Spirit.

As such, sociology may be helpful in identifying some social aspects of how Christianity does and should work. Identifying these social mechanisms, however, does not rule out the existence of divine creator.


(I first read this parable in 1984, and I have seen it credited to The London Observer)