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I am a 'Downton Abbey' adorer. And judging by my social-media feeds, its fan base has exploded since its recent second-season PBS premiere. Everyone, it seems, loves to follow the Edwardian-era lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants as they together inhabit a magnificent manor home.
So what is the allure of 'Downton,' anyway?
True confession: for me, the pretty clothes and men with dashing accents do have something to do with it. The elegant cinematography also helps. And who can resist a script that allows actress Maggie Smith hilariously brusque zingers. (I'm determined to talk broadly to keep this piece spoiler-free, but you can safely watch a Maggie Smith dialogue snippet online.)
Screenwriter Julian Fellows (of "Gosford Park" fame) is in top form, steering a polished, original, wise and genre-defying series.
I suppose that of all I adore in the series I most adore the plot. As the story unfolds it bitingly exposes the timeless, cross-cultural notion of human adoration. Every episode asks: What do these characters worship? What do they want? And how do they going about getting it?
It's helpful, here, to parse out the customs and expectations prized by the separate societies - the 'upstairs' and 'downstairs' characters, as fans and critics call them.
Much is revealed by the very way those upstairs prepare to enter a room. The Crawley family adores being adorned. In shot after shot, servants carefully apply necklaces, hairpieces and hats to Countess Crawley and her three twentysomething daughters. Earl Crawley has cufflinks to suit every occasion. After all, they all must fit the rooms they're walking into, where intricate wall tapestries grace walls and diamonds decorate every plate.
Upstairs, propriety is power and beauty is etiquette.
Downstairs, servants thrum about at a frenetic pace - bustling about with dustbins and high tea trays and ornate napkins. Scene after scene they stop just before ascending the stairs or entering a dining room to talk over the duties ahead, to remind each other to attend to their masters and mistresses with grace and calm.
These are men and women questing for dignity, forced by class into near servitude who long for their talents to be recognized and rewarded.
This situation could be tiresomely moralistic and simplistic, with those upstairs drawing contempt from the viewer for their snobbish, materialistic ways and those downstairs ennobled and admired for their service.
Thankfully, however, those below the great halls and ballrooms don't get the posture of humble adoration right all of the time. They, too, have misplaced and selfish desires. They are felled by pride-driven decisions similar to those made by their masters.
And similar gestures of generosity and compassion redeem those on either level. The upstairs tenants are not so spoiled that they are without their moments of sacrifice and selflessness, especially when acting in the interest of a family member's happiness.
Even a broad sweep of the story lines reveals the symmetry of vice and virtue in the manor's inhabitants. I think of Mary, the eldest Crawley daughter, whose longing for approval threatens her chance at true, life-giving and other-serving love. I think of lady maid O'Brien, who acts as a cantankerous crow to those under her authority but who is loyal - even tender - to Countess Grantham. These are dimensional characters, both spiteful and kind.
All of the characters suffer when they forget that the "etiquette" of true adoration is not elevation or even elegance - it is descent. A readiness to stoop for love. A recognition that, as T.S. Eliot said, 'the way up is the way down.'
I see in 'Downton' the struggle to live as Isaiah 57:15 would have us live: 'in the high and holy places, but also with the low-spirited, the spirit-crushed.' This struggle does more than allure us, but allows so many of us to relate. Its best scenes explore the subtle incarnations of this low-high tension in simple gestures between master and servant, from the buttoning of a jacket to a laugh shared. And with the second season starting off just as World War I begins, it's plain the whole household will have new and painful lessons to learn about honor, sacrifice and descent.
While I watch 'Downton Abbey' for pleasure and entertainment, I am grateful for its call to humble oneself for the sake of others. It reminds me that we serve a God who became a servant for us, who was both mocked and praised, powerful and meek. And who is without question worthy of our absolute, faithful adoration.
Adele Konyndyk is a freelance writer based in Hamilton, Ontario. You can e-mail her at AdeleKonyndyk@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter.
(Photo courtesy of PBS.)
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By now you've heard about yesterday's blackout. Some of the biggest websites on the Internet blacked themselves out (to varying degrees) to raise awareness about the SOPA and PIPA bills being debated in Congress. These bills seem, at face value, to protect intellectual property by granting the government sweeping powers to block sites that benefit from pirated or stolen material. However, as is so often the case, the devil is in the details.
The problem is that the bills were written by some combination of lawmakers (who don't have the technical knowledge to frame the problem correctly) and entertainment company lobbyists (who have a particular incentive to make the law as sweeping as possible). The resulting material clashes with other laws, demands a threshold of compliance so high that no social media company can reasonably attain it and perhaps even violates constitutional free speech principles.
Of course, we shouldn't kid ourselves into believing the blackout signifies corporate America (even the Silicon Valley version) taking a stand against Big Brother. They are simply avoiding any danger and liability that might come back to bite them should anyone use their sites to host pirated material. Free speech is just one small plank in the platform that companies like Google, Wikipedia and Reddit are standing on.
For the Christian, then, we are presented with an interesting dilemma. We desire justice, and this bill seems to promote justice by punishing those who would steal. Yet we also desire freedom and oppose giving unreasonable levels of control to the government, and this bill seems to take freedom away. We desire a healthy business environment for Internet companies, and opposing the bill seems to help in protecting that. Yet we also desire a fair business environment for artists and writers in the entertainment industry, and opposing the bill can seem to challenge that.
Situations like these highlight two things Christians claim to hold dearly, but too often forget. First, they highlight the need for ethics. Though the Bible teaches excellent standards of right and wrong, our modern-day situations are complex enough to sometimes enter gray and uncertain territory. In those moments, the ability to be clear and prepared in choosing right from wrong is essential. Life will not always present easy choices. Instead, many of the choices we face are gray area vs. gray area, so when we do find a moment of clarity our ethics had better be at the ready.
Second, they display our need for wisdom. Consider the story of Solomon and the two mothers. When he suggested cutting the baby in half, it was more than a clever trick. His deep knowledge of human tendencies allowed him to expose the charlatan and name the true mother. His pursuit of truth, coupled with his understanding of right and wrong, allowed him to make the right choice in his role as king.
You and I will face many, many complicated issues in our lives. As citizens, part of our calling on this earth is to participate in upholding good and helpful laws, laws undergirded by a healthy ethical system and wise knowledge of truth. My hope is that in carrying out that calling, our good judgment and desire for truth will help point the world back to Christ, around whom ethics are centered. When you decide which side of an issue like SOPA/PIPA to stand on with all the wisdom you can muster, remember that it is one small act of worship to your true King.
Ben Bartlett lives in Louisville, Ky., with his wife and two terrific kids. His degree is in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy from Michigan State University; he also had a bunch of education in a bunch of other places with nothing official to show for it. E-mail him at email@example.com.
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I have my problems with Steven Spielberg's "War Horse" (the first third in particular, which has way too much inspirational plowing). Yet in its consideration of the brutalities of war and the scars left on home-bound soldiers, the movie is of vital, timely importance - for the United States as a whole and Gospel-following Christians in particular.
The story is told mostly through the eyes of Joey, a horse that is drafted into the English cavalry in World War I and spends that conflict passing through the hands of various owners, eventually ending up in the hellish trenches of France. In the way it views humanity's folly through the eyes of an animal, "War Horse" recounts one of the great films of all time: "Au Hasard Balthazar." Yet it's also very much of today. Released in the same month that the last American soldiers left Iraq, "War Horse" is about the life-defining experience of leaving young innocence behind to engage in senseless violence, to survive out of sheer luck and then come home again - alive, but deeply changed.
We usually don't like to talk about such experiences. Indeed, when Think Christian ran an article last month by a former armed forces chaplain about the ways churches should receive returning soldiers, the story had far-below-average page views and not a single comment. This, along with America's history of ignoring (if not villifying) returning soldiers, left me dispirited. Jesus welcomed the weary and burdened; shouldn't we count returning soldiers among them?
Perhaps a major movie being sniffed by Oscar will help to force this conversation. Which brings me back to what I do appreciate about "War Horse." The picture is at its most artful in its darkest moments: a military execution, partly obscured by the mercifully sweeping arm of a windmill; a cavalry of horses jerking their heads up in unison at the sound of a single, lethal shot; a climactic reunion in silhouette, in which the ostentatiously red sunset isn't there to warm our hearts, but to remind us that this has been a tale of both balm and blood.
In other words, "War Horse" is honest, not sentimental, about the cost of armed conflict. As honest, in fact, as was another veteran of World War I's trenches, C.S. Lewis. In a letter, Lewis wrote this about his war experience:
My memories of the last war haunted my dreams for years. Military service, to be plain, includes the threat of every temporal evil; pain and death, which is what we fear from sickness; isolation from those we love, which is what we fear from exile; toil under arbitrary masters, which is what we fear from slavery: hunger, thirst, and exposure which is what we fear from poverty. I'm not a pacifist. If it's got to be it's got to be. But the flesh is weak and selfish, and I think death would be much better than to live through another war.
Even worse? Living through one, coming home and not having your weariness and burdens shared by Christians who care.
I'll admit all the hubbub didn't draw my interest. After all, the video's title tells pretty much the whole story, as do the titles of the countless responses to the video and the responses to the responses. It's been a veritable social network version of the Reformation and the Counter Reformation in miniature.
Besides, the Christian's first obligation in responding to the works of others - whether sermons, songs, novels, paintings, videos or blog posts - is charitableness. And a charitable interpretation of the video, while perhaps acknowledging an unclear or incorrect definition of 'religion,' can't take much issue with the spirit of the video's message, which is a heartfelt rejection of Pharisaical, legalistic institutionalism in favor of a living, vibrant relationship with Christ.
But then my young friend approached me, seeking my opinion on the matter.
Lately there's been a lot of discussion about whether Christianity is a religion or not. I want to be able to have an intelligible conversation if someone asks me about it, so what do you think about the issue? Would you agree with me that Christianity is, in fact, a religion, and that making it sound nicer doesn't change what it actually is?
The e-mail included a link to the video. Now, like it or not, I needed to give the matter some thought. I responded:
Yes, Levi, Christianity is a religion.
The problem is that many people don't know how to express the idea that Christianity is the one true religion or that it is more than a religion, so they express it in this simple way. They also feel like they should be ashamed or embarrassed about Christianity being a religion so they distance themselves from it. That's like distancing yourself from your whole family because you have an uncle who's a little strange sometimes. That is not only silly, but wrong.
My concern is not with the video, but rather with the larger issue of religion's poor reputation these days. Let's face it: religion has a bad rap. With all the god-is-not-great and delusion talk of the so-called New Atheists and the jihadists blowing things up and the political incorrectness of Western civilization in general, let's just say religion - including Christianity - probably does need to powder her nose.
Even the framing of my friend Levi's question - isn't Christianity a religion and stating otherwise merely 'making it sound nicer?' - presupposes that religion is a negative concept. Indeed, those of us who grew up in the anti-traditionalism of contemporary evangelicalism were indoctrinated with the mantra, 'It's not a religion; it's a relationship.'
And it is a relationship. But to claim Christ yet deny that Christianity is my religion is to keep the baby while throwing out the baptismal waters.
For in one moment, the 'Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus' debate was something I just wanted to ignore. But quick as an e-mail, it became something I needed to attend to because someone - my friend's son, my student's brother, a fellow sojourner in my religious faith, my brother in Christ - needed me to pay attention.
And this is the point of religion, a word whose root means to bind together. The notion that Christianity is just about 'me and Jesus' is insufficient. Because while the church is the body, religion is the family. And a body is given life and lives most abundantly within the traditions, practices and relationships that set one family apart from another family, that make my family my family. Funny uncle and all.
Karen Swallow Prior is Associate Professor of English and Chair of the Department of English and Modern Languages at Liberty University. A member of the Redbud Writers Guild, she also blogs regularly at Her.meneutics.
(Photo courtesy of Cikproductions.)
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A pediatric hospital in my home state of Georgia has been running an advertising campaign about childhood obesity which has ignited some controversy.
This NPR story summarizes both arguments: the ad producers point out that Georgia has the second-highest rate of childhood obesity and argue that the harsh tone is necessary for parents who are in denial about their kids' weight and its potential health effects. Others believe the tone of the ads might hurt kids who are already stigmatized for their weight. I've written before about what I make of the health-communication research about scare tactics in these types of ads. This controversy raises that and other issues, many of which are important for Christians.
Of course Christians should be concerned about what experts have called a health crisis. When Paul wrote, 'Don't you know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit?' he wasn't addressing obesity, but it seems to apply. We should care for our bodies because they are given to us by God. We should be concerned with helping others to stay healthy as well.
We must also be careful, though, to not make people who are already alienated by society feel worse. We should also avoid emphasizing thinness as the only sign of healthfulness, which can encourage eating disorders and exercise disorders or just too much focus on our own and others' appearance. TC contributor Caryn Rivadeniera wrote about that very issue last year at Her.meneutics. We need to be careful to balance helping people feel they can take control of their weight by changing their habits and not making people feel ashamed about their bodies. I worry these Georgia ads lean too hard on making kids and parents feel ashamed.
Additionally, when a problem like childhood obesity grows at the rate it has in contemporary America, it's necessary to think about whether our societal sins contribute more than individual choices. It's unlikely that so many people have just gotten lazier or more indulgent; at least some of the problem is likely a result of culture or environment.
The website associated with this campaign points to some of the usual suspects (junk food, screen time replacing physical activity), but ignores some of the potential causes at a social level (fewer green spaces, loss of recess and PE time in public schools, parents working too many hours to prepare healthy meals and snacks). Individual solutions are easier to implement, but I think we have a temptation to assume thin people are more virtuous, when the biology and sociology of the situation is a lot more complicated.
As Christians, we have a lot of theological concepts that help us hold these two issues in tension with each other. A systemic view of sin helps us get beyond the complex question of fault. If we think of our entire world as broken by sin, then obesity is a combination of the specific consequences of individual sin and the general consequences of living in an imperfect world. We can understand it as just another problem we must address with the grace and mercy that God extends to all of us, in our communal and individual sinfulness. This doesn't mean we can't help people live healthier lives, but it also means we must approach obesity like any other problem - with humility, empathy and love before judgment.
The even tougher question is: how does that look? What should the church do to love and help its own members and others who are overweight or obese?
Bethany Keeley-Jonker is a blogger and PhD candidate in Communication at the University of Georgia. She is married to Justin and lives in Athens, Ga.
Two Athens, Ga., churches - one black, one white - came together yesterday morning to celebrate the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Mount Pleasant Baptist Church and Milledge Avenue Baptist Church combined for a Sunday-morning service and luncheon as a way to celebrate the federal holiday that honors the pastor and Civil Rights hero.
About 600 people packed the sanctuary at Mount Pleasant, filling the balcony and causing the ushers to bring out extra chairs. This effort to 'desegregate' what King called the mostsegregatedhourcame about through conversations between the two pastors, Rev. Edward Bolen, pastor of MilledgeAvenueBaptistChurch, and Rev. Abraham Mosley, pastor of MountPleasantBaptistChurch.
Athens, a city with a long history of race-related struggles that continue in varying forms today, is an ideal place for such an experiment. Mosley said he and Bolen had sought ways for the two churches - and two communities - to come together. Bolen pitched the idea of swapping pulpits and choirs. Mosley said that wasn't enough.
'We need to interact with each other and meet and greet one another,' Mosley recalled saying. 'There are a lot of white people in this community who are afraid of black people and there are a lot of black people in this community who are afraid of white people.'
Mosley said one way to get over that fear - rooted in the past - was one word: unity, which was the theme of the Sunday service. 'After all,' Mosley said, 'we have the same message, same heaven, same God.'
Then came the idea of a Sunday afternoon special service. But that wasn't enough, either.
It was Bolen who said that Milledge Avenue wanted to close their doors on Sunday and combine with Mount Pleasant to worship and fellowship on Sunday and serve the city of Athens on Monday, the official Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. The vote by the church's governing board was unanimous.
'If this is really real and really important to overcome some of these barriers, let's come together and come out of our comfort zones,' Bolen said.
When Sunday morning came, the worshipers came, too. The mood was celebratory and reverent, members of both congregations made a conscious effort to sit in an unfamiliar place next to an unfamiliar face to worship a very familiar God.
The unity began in earnest with the opening praise team of members from both congregations. Throughout the service, speakers made considerable efforts to acknowledge the bumpy road of the past and present and honestly engage the present and future about how to overcome barriers to unity.
The blended worship styles were on full display, as the choir from Milledge Avenue sang the Negro spiritual, 'My Lord What a Morning.'
Rev. Claude McBride, pastor emeritus of Milledge Avenue, set the tone with a challenge for the congregations to have a 'mountaintop experience.' Mount Pleasant member Derica Laramore, a senior at Emory University, performed a monologue that echoed Dr. King's most famous speech. She asked the congregants to accept applause for living out Dr. King's dream that - on this day - saw 'the sons of slaves and the sons of former slave owners to come together' for Sunday morning worship.
Deacon Willie Hull of Mount Pleasant put the day in perspective after congregants from both churches had dined together. 'We accomplished what we set out to accomplish,' he said. 'We lived the dream.'
'Today is one of the greatest days in our history,' said Mary Louise Hill, a deacon at Milledge Avenue. 'Today will become an historic day depending on what we do after today.'
Mosley said perhaps next year, Mount Pleasant will close its doors and worship at Milledge Avenue. This is just the beginning. Both pastors said the same thing when asked what Dr. King would say about the Sunday service: 'It's about time.'
With additional reporting by Linda Davis. Kimberly Davis is working on her Ph.D. at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, where she researches the intersection of religion, media and politics. Follow her on Twitter as @KDavis.
(Photo courtesy of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church.)
I remember one day in my high-school psychology class, during a unit on sensory perception, my teacher asked the class a question: 'If you had to make a choice between being blind or being deaf, what would you choose?'
The question held little interest for me, but I was intrigued by the responses. Along with two others, I chose blindness. The rest of the class said they would prefer to be deaf. The three of us who chose blindness were all active musicians and participated in band and choir.
I suppose now, if someone asked me what sense is most important to me, I would initially be tempted to choose hearing. Not only do I enjoy music as entertainment, but I am also a music therapist. I utilize music to help people reach non-musical goals and objectives. I help people with dementia reminisce and socialize with each other using music. I have created musical mnemonics for high-school students with cognitive impairments to help them learn to tell time by using lyric rewrites of 'N Sync and Britney Spears songs. I have helped people with Parkinson's disease maintain their level of independence by improving their gait patterns utilizing strategically placed sounds and beats. Music is not just a diversion for me; I have witnessed the differences it can make in people's lives.
Not being able to hear would be devastating to me. I would not only miss the tones in music, but I would miss the tone in a friend's voice, a tone that conveys an emotion that one can sometimes hide on a face. I would miss the sound of a baby's laugh, the rush of the wind in the Colorado Rockies, the blast of a horn when the Vikings score a touchdown, the sound of shifting sheets of ice on a Minnesota lake in the winter or the call of the loon on the same lake in the summer. I can't imagine what it would be like not to hear.
However, upon further reflection, I cannot imagine being without any of the senses I have. I wouldn't want to lack the sense of smell: the smell of Dutch apple pie in the oven, burgers on the grill, fresh cut grass, the air before it rains or the scent of an old book. I cannot imagine being without the sense of taste: the taste of juicy steak, a sip of single-barrel Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey or the first sip of morning coffee. I cannot imagine lacking my sense of touch: a back rub, a passionate kiss, an empathetic hug from a friend, the softness of a puppy or the sifting sand on a beach. Indeed, I would have a difficult time if I lost any of my senses. I truly cannot choose one of greater importance over the others.
I can, however, choose one I could live without. My choice remains the same as my answer in high school. I can easily live without sight, as I have been totally blind my entire life. People often ask me things like, 'Don't you wish you could see?' or, 'Wasn't it hard growing up and being blind?' My answer is, 'No.' I often have a difficult time conveying the fact that I honestly, genuinely, really don't care that I can't see, and it doesn't bother me as I know no other way. An astronaut could just as well ask me, 'What's it like for you never to have walked on the moon? Was it hard for you as a child, knowing others had walked on the moon and you couldn't? If you could pay a million dollars some day, would you consider a space voyage if there was a 50-percent chance you could walk on the moon ' or a 90-percent chance?'
The reality is that it's hard to miss things when we haven't experienced them in the first place. Perhaps other blind people feel differently. Perhaps I would feel differently if I had my sight, then lost it. I can only speak from my own personal perspective. I write as I know and from what I perceive, and I perceive through the senses I possess '- not just the four I mentioned, but others as well, like balance, pain, temperature and pressure.
I believe God gave us the senses we need to perceive the world he created, to increase our knowledge of Him and to glorify Him. That is the beauty of the senses: we get to use them to experience God and His creation, and God equips us individually with what He knows we need.
Tracy Kiel is a board-certified music therapist. She lives in Three Rivers, Mich., and works as an activities director in a skilled nursing and rehabilitation center. This piece originally appeared on Catapult.
As I successfully Google obscurities such as "How to make soap from raccoon fat" or soak up rare video footage of Fritz Wunderlich (my favorite classical singer, dead 50 years), I marvel at the Internet. Submitting to its many charms, I feign productivity, wishing I inclined as naturally to stewardship of hours and minutes as I do to dollars and cents.
While others debate the relative merits of iPhones versus Androids, I have barely an inkling what they do. A Blackberry, to me, ripens mid-June, along a forest's southern faces, waiting to be plucked into my upcycledtin bucket. Among the rapidly dwindling 10 percent of Americans lacking a mobile phone, I cling to a bare-bones AT&T landline. Call me and - without the benefit of voicemail or call waiting - you may hear an anachronistic busy signal or endless ringing. I resisted home Internet access until my online business, Laura's Last Ditch, outgrew the public library's computer lab.
My Grandma, too, resisted the digital age. On Thanksgiving Day, she scarcely noticed the oversized computer monitor atop her vintage metal desk (Grandma's parties are BYOT, with 'T' signifying Technology). My mom, well aware of Grandma's technophobic tendencies, lured her into the office, ostensibly to see my blog. She spurned the computer, though, until a mere touch to the prominently placed 'plus' icon enlarged the print to a manageable size. No ordinary machine, the AARP magazine advertised this WOW! computer for seniors new toWeb navigation. Realizing it belonged to her - a surprise gift - my Grandma said, "I'm just not sure about this. I try to be a good steward of my time."
Nevertheless, the family gathered, sharing favorite YouTube videos: Susan Boyle's stunning TV debut; Danny Macaskill's acrobatic bike stunts, Paul Potts singing opera. We Googled Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, a malady afflicting an honorary grandchild. Growing interested, yet not fully convinced, we signed her up for Facebook. She beheld endearing photos of great-grandchildren in fleeting stages of babyhood and clips of a just-celebrated Thanksgiving dinner at the in-laws' - a virtual family reunion. Won over, my Grandmother exclaimed, "Wow! So this is what I've been missing!"
While pondering the Internet's magnificence, I consider how, some day, when we see Heaven, we likewise will exclaim, "So this is what we've been missing!" We will see not only the dearly departed, but our Savior, Jesus Christ - no longer through a glass, darkly, but face to face. (Take that, Facebook!)
Though I enjoy the Internet, perhaps a little too much, I recall my wise Grandmother's admonition about stewardship of time, knowing I must answer to the same Jesus for how I've spent mine. I resolve to do better, yet fail miserably. Thank God, the same Jesus, who could condemn us, owns a love more personal than Facebook, wiser than Wikipedia and vaster than Google.
Last June, Malaysia Airlines listened to grumpy travelers worldwide and banned children from first class. Does your family have the money to actually fly first class? You will have to settle for economy. Do you and your children need to get home quickly from Malaysia and the only seats available are in first class? You'll have to wait for the next flight.
Kid-free travel has been around for some time, but it's not just luxury destinations that are banning kids. Restaurants, movie theaters, even some grocery stores are introducing bans on children - and their parents. There is even a Twitter hashtag: #youngkidsshouldbebannedfrom.
Admittedly, there are few such outright bans in the United States. However, there are plenty of examples of businesses trying to push kids out. Recently I loaded my boys up for a trip to the local bookstore. With not one, but two train tables for the boys to play with, it's a popular spot for indoor fun. We hadn't been there in a few weeks, so the boys were excited. We spent the ride discussing the name of the bookstore, as it was now under new ownership.
When we arrived, the store was in complete disarray. Shelves pushed into aisles, books misplaced and hurried employees flashing half-smiles. I followed the boys back to the kids' section, taking in all the new changes. I was admiring the new YA section when I heard the cries.
'Mom! The train tables aren't here!'
We weren't the only family standing there, confused and disoriented. Several other moms tried to distract the kids with books as we whispered amongst ourselves and tried to get answers from rushed employees.
'Yes, we took them down,' one lady finally said. 'We MIGHT put another one back up later.' Her emphasis made her opinion on the subject obvious.
Just around the corner sits a national grocery that specializes in 'whole food.' Despite a small kids table with a wagon of fruit for the taking, I rarely take my boys in there. We get stares from the other patrons, usually accompanied by rolled eyes as I maneuver my kids through the store.
Americans are having fewer kids, according to the 2010 census. As young professionals return to the cities, get married later and have few - if any - kids, it often seems that children are no longer a welcome part of society. Or, if they are included, it is in a way that segregates both them and their parents from the rest of the world. Often even our churches are segregated by age and life stage.
Of course, this isn't everyone's experience. Many people feel that our culture is dominated, even controlled, by children. There are kids' menus at some upscale restaurants and kids' productions of popular plays and concerts. The story-time lady at the above-mentioned bookstore is a local celebrity and our triple-A baseball stadium boasts a playground to attract bored kids.
In 2010 there were at least 3.9 million mommy bloggers focusing on all things parenting. Toy sections at stores are larger and larger; Etsy is full of homemade products for infants and kids. There are even entire brick-and-mortar stores devoted to various baby 'necessities.' With the rise of stay-at-home moms, homeschooling and children's sports, it often seems as though our parenting is more kid-centric than in the past.
So where should our focus be? Is there a Biblical standard? None of the writers of Scripture directly say, 'Thou shalt put children at the center of all.' In ancient cultures the children were there, all the time, everywhere. They worked alongside the parents and went to temple to study God's word with them, too. Rabbis - i.e. celebrity pastors - would often take young boys and train them in Torah.
I don't want to head back to ancient Israel any time soon, but the inclusion of children, adults and old people in the fabric of life is something worth emulating. When we embrace and include all segments of culture - including their separate joys and responsibilities - we more fully show the body of Christ to the world.
What is your experience with the place of children in your community: is it kid-centric or are kids not allowed? Should Christians take one side over the other?
Although the Occupy movement appears to be losing steam, the issue of fiscal inequality is one that is going to fester and, make no mistake, the anger will erupt again. I know Christians of good will who hold strong opinions on both sides of this issue. But is it really an issue over which Christians might agree to disagree?
One Christian lady has put a bumper sticker on her car, yet another volley in the bumper-sticker battle between political left and right. Her sticker says this: "Don't spread my wealth. Spread my work ethic." She is not wealthy, however. She is part of the famously shrinking middle class. What's more, she will likely never be wealthy. Sociologist Judy Root Aulette writes that many scholars have observed how the wealthy have a preoccupation with maintaining the boundaries between themselves and others. They are not just going to open the doors and give her access to the great vaults, no matter how hard she knocks.
With her bumper sticker, however, this woman is making it clear where she stands regarding the Occupy movement. She is taking the side of the wealthy. She has her reasons and she can tell you what they are: she does not want the government to have the power to redistribute wealth, an infringement on her rights; she wants what small wealth she does have to stay where it is.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, the issue of slavery did not just split our nation, it split the church as well. Before the war, every major denomination fractured over the issue of slavery - a fracture that cracked along the same crooked geographical path that the war's battle lines would take: North against South.
Not many southerners actually owned slaves - a few very wealthy plantation owners did - yet they supported the institution in hopes that someday they might be in a position to buy a slave, to start amassing real wealth. For most, the financial realities made their chances of pulling it off so unlikely as to be impossible.
Many southerners who supported the institution did not say it was slavery they favored, but state's rights, the right of every state to self-government without intrusion from Washington.
You might say the long-past issue of slavery has no similarities to the present trouble. I say yes it does, particularly for Christians.
When it becomes clear that an institution operates in such a way as to allow - even foster - the perpetuation of inequality, where should a follower of Christ stand? Sure, good people work within that system. No doubt there were a lot of good Christian people working inside the slave-fueled economy of the antebellum South.
Most conservative Christians today say it is big government they stand against, not financial inequality. But, like the southern Christians who supported the slave economy, they hold this position by ignoring the very clear and unequivocal words of Jesus on the subject of money and wealth. Set your politics aside and go back and reread carefully what Christ has to say about the rich and the poor, and the use of money. Ask yourself which side of the Occupy line he would be standing on. Without fail, Jesus takes the side of the downtrodden, the marginalized, the subjugated.
History does not look kindly on the southern Christians who flouted Christ's clear teaching and supported the so-called rights of slave owners to profit from the labor of their fellow human beings without spreading the wealth. Neither will it be kind to Christians who today are, in spirit, doing much the same thing.
Vic Sizemore's writing is published or forthcoming in Story Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review, Connecticut Review, PANK Magazine, Rock & Sling, Saint Katherine Review and elsewhere. Sizemore is also a regular contributor to the 'Good Letters' page at Image Journal.
(Photo of an Occupy encampment courtesy of Debra M. Gaines/Wikimedia Commons.)