How Important is (fill in the blank with favorite Christian topic)? or Why are There so Many Denominations?

Pull a copy of the yellow pages off the shelf and set it before you.  I’m assuming you keep one copy of the annual directory in case of a power outage or a dead cell phone.. Turn to churches and look at the list sorted by denominational affiliation or dropped into the non-denominational catch-all bucket.  This method works with online directories, but the print version provides greater visual impact.various crosses

Then within one denomination, say Lutheran, look at how the churches are subdivided further.  My local directory splits the listings into Lutheran, Lutheran – Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Lutheran – Missouri Synod and Lutheran – Wisconsin Synod.  The Baptists are categorized as Baptist, Baptist – General, Baptist – General Conference, Baptist – Independent, Baptist – Missionary and Baptist – Missionary Association of America.

How did the church started by the disciples of Jesus and declared in the Nicene Creed to be “one holy apostolic catholic church” become subdivided into more lots than a California housing development?  A complete answer would require an extensive history lesson into the split in 1057 AD between the Greek-speaking East and the Latin-speaking West, the split resulting from the Reformation between Protestant and Roman Catholic, and the further division among Protestants between Lutheran, Reformed, Pietist, Pentecostal, Methodist, Anglican, and other denominations.

A shorter answer is Dogmatic Rank. The phrase may incite fear, sound stuffy or too theological, but stick with me here.  I was first introduced to this method for categorization of beliefs by Dr. Elizabeth Sung, Assistant Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology, at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and have found it incredibly useful.  Friends have too, and thus I am sharing it with you.  

Begun by the Lutheran Scholastics in the 1600’s, dogmatic rank helpfully recognizes a conceptual distinction between beliefs of greater or lesser weight.  A scriptural basis for this distinction appears in Matthew 23:23-24 when Jesus reprimands the Pharisees for not focusing on the “more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness” and instead concentrating on correctly tithing herbs from the garden.  Parents of adolescents are counseled to choose their battles carefully as not every issue is of equal importance.   Let the daughter wear the giant hoop earrings or mismatched clothing to school even if you find them tasteless and focus instead on resolving the question of when she must be home after the football game.

Dogmatic rank provides a  basis for determining which theological position or issue of church practice requires steadfast defense, which are debatable (hopefully cordially), and which are matters of opinion. These three categories divide the topics into dogma, doctrine and opinion.

PlatformDogma  –  This word carries negative connotations in general use, but in the realm of ranking theological issues it is supremely positive.  Here dogma refers to positions which are essential, binding, obligatory, and universally recognized within the catholic church (catholic in the Nicene Creed’s sense of worldwide, not Roman Catholic).  These are the matters central and definitive to the Christian faith and known by divine revelation through the Bible and Christ’s incarnation.  The Bible is clear and consistent on the view and importance of these topics.  A person holding a different view would be considered heretical.

Issues of dogmatic importance include the identification, existence and works of God through creation and redemptive salvation and the Trinity.  Read the Nicene Creed again for a good summary of these issues to understand the position of orthodox Christianity.

Doctrine – General usage of the word includes all the subjects listed above, but within the ranking system, doctrine refers to secondary matters which don’t compromise the shared belief in the Trinity or the salvific work of Jesus Christ.  On these issues, those on opposing sides aren’t at risk of heresy.

Caution is warranted in arguing either side is the “biblical” position because the position can’t be conclusively proven.  The same scriptural text often produces diverse views and holders of either view aren’t jeopardizing their salvation.  Interpretations of these issues are community specific and often the basis for division between denominations and churches.

Issues include: creation and evolution in Genesis 1, divine sovereignty, Calvinist vs. Arminian, the continuity between the Old and New Testaments, covenant vs. dispensational, eschatology timeline – pre-millennial, a millennial, post millennial, church order and government – congregational vs. elder-led, ordination of women, baptism – infant, full-immersion, sprinkling, and the list goes on.

Opinion or personal conviction  – Issues in this category are those which may be individually held, but are not to be demanded or prescribed for other Christians.  One’s position on these views has no bearing on one’s salvation.  In Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8 Paul addresses these kinds of issues being dealt with by the churches in Rome and Corinth.  The Roman believers disagreed about whether to eat meat or only vegetables (v. 2-3) and whether certain foods were clean or unclean. The Corinthians wrestled with whether to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols.  Paul allows leeway for individual decisions in these areas, but strongly urges consideration for those brothers and sisters who hold the opposing position so they aren’t harmed by your behavior (I Corinthians 8:9-11).

Examples include whether or not to drink alcohol and watch Harry Potter movies, political party allegiance, style of worship music and school choice – public, private, home school.

With this many points of divergence possible between Christians who hold to the same dogmatic tenets, I find the question of why there are so many different denominations becomes more understandable; particularly in a culture where personal choice and freedom of expression are important values. If you’re disheartened or confused by the denominations, I encourage you to pick a couple and study their positions on some of these issues.  Look into the history of a denomination’s formation and discover what theological positions were considered of such importance as to lead to the formation of a new group.  Afterwards I think you’ll have a greater appreciation for this particular branch of the Christian family tree.

Hopefully this method of weighting issues also challenges you to think about how you personally rank and discuss these topics.  When you’re in a debate, consider where the issue would fit on the ranking scale.  Is it worth staunchly defending, or is it a point fellow Christians can gracefully disagree about?  Are you prone to elevating a personal conviction to the doctrine level or granting too much leeway on issues ranked as dogma?  Do you dismiss those of different doctrinal positions as not worth listening to?  Next time you’re tempted to do so, consider the issue’s importance and be more open on those non-dogmatic issues.

What issues are you prone to raise from doctrine to dogma?   How might this weighting system prove helpful for you?

Follow-up to Multiple Voices Post

globeflagsIn a comment to my previous blog post friend and fellow blogger, Michelle Van Loon, encouraged me to post recommendations for non-Western and/or female theological voices to consider when reading the Bible. Great idea

Before the list of suggested texts and authors, I want to make a few disclaimers. The names were gathered from bibliographies and websites, mentioned in a text or lecture in a seminary class.  I do not claim expertise nor theological agreement; my aim is primarily to introduce additional voices.


Samuel Waje Kunhiyop.  African Christian Ethics.  Hippo/Zondervan, 2008.

List of Evangelical African Theologians


Hwa Yung – Mangoes or Bananas?


Athalyah Brenner – The Israelite Woman.  Editor:  The Feminist Companion to the Hebrew Bible.

Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza – historical focus.  Bread Not Stone, In Memory of Her, 

Amy-Jill Levine, Women Like This. 

Sallie McFague – Speaking in Parables, Metaphorical Theology, Models of God

Carol Meyers – Discovering Eve, numerous articles and book contributions.

Mujerista – Latina women in US

Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz – En La Lucha/In the Struggle:  Elaborating a Mujerista Theology.  

Womanist – African-American women

Renita Weems – Battered Love.  

These names are just the tip of the iceberg.   Additional suggestions?



Book Clubs: Bonus When Multiple Voices Read Same Text

Stack of books

I’ve spent three years in a couple’s book club and so appreciate the multiplicity of voices and respect each participant’s perspective and their ears.  Each person hears the author’s voice slightly differently, and the text becomes grander and richer through the discussions.

Our group meets about six times a year to share a meal and discuss a book chosen by one member.  The rule is it must be a selection none of us had read previously.  (Well, that rule has been broken.  There are lawyers in the group, and loopholes have been discovered.)

At times the menu matches the book’s theme or the date on the calendar.  French food to celebrate Hemingway’s Parisian tome,A Moveable Feast, and corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day, for example. Sometimes dinner-table talk centers around a question such as, “What were your five favorite college classes?”  Other times the conversation meanders through family events and politics.  We’re flexible.

As a group we’ve read non-fiction, biographies, novels, and a collection of short stories.  Certain members who would choose to read nothing but biographies and history find themselves stretched by a fiction selection. Certain members, me in particular, avoid stories of suffering in POW or concentration camps. But I made it through Unbroken and Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and am glad I read these tales of valor, character and risk taking.

Occasionally perspectives split along gender lines as was evident in the discussion of Ian McEwan’s novel, Solar.  The male protagonist’s career peaks when he wins the Nobel prize for physics in his 30’s, and the rest of his life is a downhill slide through multiple marriages, overeating and third-rate scientific findings. He hasn’t had an original idea for years and lives life in the long but fading shadow of early notoriety.

Interestingly, the men identified with the career challenges of the book’s main character while the women focused on his sad and growing sadder personal life.  I needed to hear both the male and female voices to catch the fullest possible understanding of the text and the author’s intent.  I would have missed a whole layer of meaning and understanding without that masculine angle.

Is the Bible any different?  The Bible can be described from a literary perspective as a collection of poetry, historical narrative, wisdom literature, personal correspondence, allegory and apocalyptic writing.  Maybe I prefer Paul’s epistles and would study only those given free rein.  I need a setting where I am challenged to read historical narrative and Revelation.  As one reader, I’ll never plumb the depths (well, no one every will)  if I read alone without discussing the story with others. If I listen only to male voices talking about the text, whether the voices belong to preachers, teachers or commentary writers, I am going to miss the richness a studied female voice can provide.  

Add the spiritual dimension of the Holy Bible, and the importance of multiple readers and multiple voices grows even stronger. Fortunately opportunities to hear feminine voices continue to proliferate as more women attend seminary, gain academic faculty positions, publish commentaries, write journal articles, teach, blog, author books and stand in the pulpit.  More teachers and writers now come from Africa, Asia and Hispanic countries and their perspectives lend new understandings of a text an American would completely miss. 

If multiple readers deepen my experience with a 20th century novel, how can I ignore listening to varied voices when I study Scripture?  Yes one needs to choose the voices carefully, but intentionally seek them out and be sure some of them are from the opposite sex and the opposite side of the world.

What practical steps have you taken to broaden your experience with Scripture?   How have you benefited from a different perspective?


Work: A blessing or a curse?

work-in-progress1How do you view work? I find most people, including myself, have a love/hate relationship with work.  We find enormous satisfaction in a job well done, yet are frustrated by not being able to do what we want because we must work.

Not so sure?  Notice how many conversations revolve around vacation itineraries, weekend plans and retirement dreams at the water cooler and in social settings.  Then listen for people’s excitement as they talk about a case won, a deal closed, a promotion, a completed semester, a deadline met, a finished remodeling project, a garden planted.  There’s tension and a paradox in the subject of work.

Which isn’t surprising when one travels back to the first chapters of Genesis and looks at the topic.  The biblical story opens in Genesis 1 with God creating the “heavens and the earth” and every living thing.  (How he did this and how long it took isn’t the issue here, only the affirmation that God was the agent and designer behind it all.)  Then Genesis 2:13 states God finished the work he had been doing and rested on the seventh day.  Work and the need for rest from work have been the plan from the beginning.

The concept of work trickled down from the Creator’s example to the Creature’s mandate in Genesis 1:26-28.  God made mankind as male and female and gave them a job to do – often termed the “cultural mandate”.  The task included being fruitful, multiplying, subduing the earth and ruling over the living creatures.  God creates a workplace for the start of the process when he plants a garden and puts the man there (Genesis 2:8) to “work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15).  Most likely this meant a responsibility to “cultivate the garden and keep it”. (NDBT)    

In the earliest writings of God’s self-revelation and pre-fall, the concept and example of work is established.  Work is not seen as drudgery, burdensome, or something to be avoided at this stage, rather “work is intrinsic to created human existence” and portrayed in a positive light.  (NDBT)

When did the hate relationship with work take root?  When God cursed the ground post-fall and told Adam work would now involve painful toil, sweat, and the soil would produce thistles (Genesis 3:17). The fulfillment of the cultural mandate would no longer mean labor in God’s garden, but rather hard toil on begrudging ground.  A few commentators and preachers stretch this curse on the ground to include work itself, but such a stretch conflicts with other biblical passages and the general attitude toward the subject.

For example, God carefully outlines his blueprints for the tabernacle (Exodus 25-30) and then charges Moses to employ the skilled craftsman needed to create these designs – some of the workers are specifically named (Exodus 31:1-11).  If work were cursed (judged or denounced) per se why would God give meticulous instructions for constructing a space for worship and designate individuals to perform the tasks?

Isaiah describes the new heavens and new earth and talks of the inhabitants building houses, planting vineyards and eating fruit (Isaiah 65:21-23).  Rather than heaven being a place of endless leisure, it will be a peaceful place characterized by fruitful work.

When the Israelites enter the land of Canaan, God speaks in glowing terms of this good land which will abundantly produce crops enough to provide sustenance and satisfaction.  Presumably this will be a partnership between God and man and require work and responsibility on the part of humans.  God will bless the efforts, but the warning given is to not forget that it is God who gives the abundance (Deuteronomy 8:11-14).  

From these few examples, we can see that scripture does not sugarcoat work, but neither does it demonize it.  The writer of Ecclesiastes readily acknowledges the tension and paradox of work when he charges people to enjoy their toil even while declaring much of the work to be meaningless (Ecclesiastes 2:4-11, 24-25).  Who hasn’t experienced that feeling?  Why am I cleaning the floor when it will be dirty again in 24 hours?  Why does the boss want me to do this? It’s a complete waste of time.

Granted, much of work is mundane, boring, humdrum and involves frustration, sweat, toil and even blood; but it isn’t cursed.  God himself provided the example of work followed by rest and charged mankind to do likewise.  From the beginning God gave humans a job to do, a task to fulfill, a mandate to complete and the ability to enjoy the fruits of labor and the work of their hands.  We were not created for a life of endless vacations and leisure no matter how much we think that would make us happy and complete.

Nope, we were made to work and to find satisfaction in a job well done in partnership with a God who did the same.

NDBT – New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 2000.

The Accepted Addiction: Busyness Pt. 2

onion_sayingPreviously I wrote how a week-long illness sparked a period of reflection in my life.  I had adopted a BUSY lifestyle and found it wanting and damaging, not fulfilling.  I decided to make changes.

I started with changes to my calendar and schedule.  I dropped the commitments I could, decreased my level of involvement in others, and determined not to say “yes” to any additional undertakings.  My burden was lighter, but still not light.  (Matthew 11:28-30)

The external changes were a start, but they didn’t deal with the issues and principles underlying my behavior.   They weren’t getting at the core of my addiction to busyness.  An apple slicer quickly exposes the fruit’s core and easily separates it from the fleshy part of the fruit.   But a human being is more complex than a Golden Delicious and more akin to an onion with multiple layers.  I found the slow process of internal change required a layer by layer examination of myself and my beliefs, produced as many tears as onion peeling and took as much time.

My peeling process began with greater self-understanding and awareness.  Through a Sunday School discussion of a Meyers-Briggs self-test, I realized as an introvert I needed time away from people to recharge and needed to build that into my life.  Rather than feeling guilty for wanting to bury my nose in a book or spend time alone, I now knew those breaks were essential for my emotional health and took them.

As a consummate people-pleaser, I often undertook tasks with the motive of pleasing.  Instead of examining my real desires and gifts, I said “yes” and volunteered.  Stepping into roles that don’t seem a good fit isn’t always a bad thing, latent talents may be discovered, but a pattern of people-pleasing isn’t healthy.

Next layers:  my theology.  The word “theology” scares some away or leads to eye-rolling in others.  But at it’s core, theology is our system for describing God and our religious beliefs..  As Carolyn Custis James writes in When Life and Beliefs Collide, “the moment the word ‘why’ crosses your lips, you are doing theology”.

Some whys:  Why did I think accomplishing many things made me worthy?  Why did my identity come from what I did?  Why did I need the approval of people so much?  Where did the Protestant work ethic come from?  Why did lots of church commitments make me think I was righteous?  Where did my standards I get my standards for success?  Why did I think doing was more important than becoming?

The process of asking these questions, seeking answers, getting counsel, asking for guidance, reading, studying, refining, and asking more questions has taken years.  I believe it will continue for the rest of my life.  I keep the box of Kleenex handy.

I find a verse or passage from the Bible often correlates with a layer. Romans 8:1 spoke to me when I struggled to allow grace to remove all feelings of guilt – false and real guilt.  Galatians 5:1 came linked with a greater awareness of the freedom offered in Christ and how busyness enslaved.   The parable of the gracious vineyard owner in Matthew 20 accompanied me on my struggle to accept grace when I wanted to work and earn it.

Lately I’ve been planted in Ephesians 3:17-19, particularly the sections about “being rooted and established in love” and Paul’s prayer for believers to know the immeasurable measure of God’s love.  I see more clearly how healthy self-identity and awareness come from roots planted in God’s love, not in people pleasing, not in accomplishments, not in doing things and being busy.

What needed to change?  Lots of things.  What still needs to change?  Lots of things.

I relapse and get busy.  I forget about grace and love and go back to merit and work.  I work harder on doing than becoming.  I try to find my identity in the wrong places.  Fortunately God is demonstrates his unconditional love and is patient with this onion.  I need to be patient, too.

What have been your layers?

The Acceptable Addiction: Busyness


I am convinced that growth and maturity come through the ongoing process of shredding the tapes running in our heads and replacing them with new ones.

For years I lived by the mantra, “If you’re busy, you must be important”.  My genetic roots run right through the Protestant Work Ethic soil of Scotland, England, Germany and who knows where else, so I blame everything on my DNA.

I remember hearing the maxims: “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” and “cleanliness is next to godliness” and wondering if they were part of the Ten Commandments or hidden in Proverbs somewhere. When I was in junior high, I used a concordance to check out the second one and was so relieved to find it wasn’t in the Bible.

I don’t want to make it sound as though my childhood was a sweatshop experience, as it wasn’t; but these axioms were indelibly pressed in my mind as standards for living.  Not a completely bad thing.  As a result I learned to enjoy working hard, to not waste time, to set goals, and to complete the projects I started. Yet I missed finding joy in “goofing around” or doing things just because they were fun, not because they were on a “to-do” list.  I’m not sure my parents who grew up during the Depression had those experiences to pass on; their lives were hardscrabble.

The people at church and my children’s school I chose to emulate reinforced the “work hard” message.  They were busy, and they sounded important when they listed all the scheduling conflicts for a planned meeting.  They were doing, serving, leading, and getting things done.  Weren’t those good things to strive for?

By the time my boys were in elementary school, I was busy.  The kids played sports — I watched.  I drove carpool, I served on several school committees, I exercised regularly, I was in a Bible Study and small group at church, I belonged to a camera club, I worked part-time out of the house. Then I crashed.  I was decked by a high fever and the flu for over a week, and in a foggy haze one afternoon, I made the decision to change the hectic, busy pace of my life.  Lying on your back in sweaty pajamas for a week will do that to you.

But it’s not easy an easy thing to change; it wasn’t then and it still isn’t.   Being a busy and productive person was originally a choice of lifestyle, but it had wormed its way into to being part of my identity.  I had used a full calendar to boost my sense of self-worth and to feel necessary, needed, instrumental.

My involvements brought kudos and affirmation.  Statements such as, “I’m amazed at how much you get done”, “the club newsletter wouldn’t happen if you weren’t writing it”, “your discipline inspires me” fueled me. Yet the invitation from Jesus in Matthew 11:28-30 tugged at me, gnawed at me.  I was weary, and he offered rest.  He offered an easy yoke and light burden instead of the list of “shoulds” and “must-dos” that weighed on my neck and shoulders.  Jesus’ invitation sounded like a “day at the spa” gift card. I wanted to redeem his offer.  I wanted to take that step into the unknown with the conviction my life would be better than it currently was, but the siren song of busyness still played.

What needed to change?

Stay tuned…

Been in this spot?  Are in this spot?  How do you handle the challenge of busyness?



Dreams Really Do Come True: A Women’s Theology Conference

Dreamer Yesterday I stepped away from the registration table and stood in the back of Melton Hall on Trinity International University’s campus and reveled in the sight of 132 women gathered for Identity: A Women’s Theology Conference.  The dream had come true.

In August 2012 an idea was hatched on the sun porch of a recent Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) graduate, Carol Marshall,  and M.Div. (Masters of Divinity) student, Nancy Bartell.  Why not have a conference on theology which targets women?  Great idea, but how to go about doing this?

Ingrid Faro, Ph.D. candidate at TEDS, recently announced she would lead the on-campus student group, Trinity Society of Women (TSW), for the coming school year.  Carol and Nancy thought TSW could serve as the “front” for the conference and provide credibility, since who would come to the Carol and Nancy Show?

I count all three ladies as friends and was thrilled with they invited me to join the planning process early on.  They knew of my love for theology and desire to inspire women to love it as well.  I also needed to fulfill a Field Education requirement for my Masters in Christian Studies, and planning the conference would give the hands-on training needed.  The Fabulous Four was formed, and the date of February 23, 2013 was set aside for the conference.

Nancy’s softball coaching and TIU sports department responsibilities  pulled her away from organizing, but the planning continued.  Over the course of the next few months, the theme, format, target audience and marketing methods were discussed and defined. Ideas for speakers were floated and considered, and the fuzzy shape of a “maybe” was becoming a “this is really going to happen”.

Esther Theonugraha, Ph.D. candidate, brought the World Cafe idea to the planning group and helped narrow and refine the theme further. She also agreed to be one of the plenary speakers, as did Ingrid.  Writer Michelle Van Loon came on board to help with writing and marketing and held the team to a working timetable.  She stepped into Nancy’s cleats and the Fabulous Four was at full force again.

Yesterday the fruits of all the labor on the part of the planning team, speakers, and various Trinity departments was in plain sight.  The sold-out conference showed the hunger of women to wrestle with the question of Identity.  When all is stripped away– the roles, the careers, the relationships, the finances, the personas — who are we really?  If everything I’m attached to in life were stripped away, who would I be?

Ingrid started in Genesis with the imago Dei, the concept of our being made in the image of God.  Esther challenged all with her theme of “Identity in Relationships:  Advocacy and  Representation”; a look at the responsibilities each of us have to fulfill these roles as Jesus modeled them.

Dynitta Lieuwen, Ph.D candidate, shared the struggles and challenges of a tough childhood in inner-city Cincinnati that has been redeemed and made beautiful through her relationship with Jesus Christ.  She challenged all to re-examine the expectations received from home, community and church and determine which are true and which are lies.  The work then is to replace the lies with theological truth.

Rosalie de Rosset, Professor at Moody Bible Institute closed out the day with thoughts on “A Theology of Dignity” drawn from her newly-published book, Unseduced and Unshaken.

What a thrill it was to see a room packed with women hungry to dive into theological concepts, wrestle with new perspectives and listen to challenges to be godly human beings first and foremost.  No matter where we are in life or our spiritual journeys, we are always daughters of the King.  And don’t forget that!

The sell-out crowd was beyond the expectations of the final Fabulous Four, but not Nancy Bartell – she envisioned 1000 women gathered; maybe that dream will come true one day, too.


Old Dogs Can Learn New Tricks, aka Neuroplasticity

Brain as play doh

With the advent of each technological advancement comes a discussion of its impact upon culture, society and how people think.  The printed page, typewriters, radio, television and now the internet have undergone such analysis. Journalists and researchers are now pulling the alarm as the rewiring which occurs in the physical brain through frequent exposure to the internet becomes increasingly apparent.  The relatively new field of neuroplasticity provides insight and an explanation of the actual physical changes to the brain and the resulting impact on learning .

Early brain research led to the formation of the localization theory.  Scientists found particular spots in the brain were responsible for specific functions, such as speech, control of the left arm or hearing.  They concluded that damage to a specific area would lead to the irreparable loss of the specific function controlled by that area.

But researchers working with victims of war or serious accidents discovered patients could learn a skill even when the part of the brain which handled that skill was damaged; the plasticity of the brain was acknowledged.  The easy, quick learning of children and their brain’s plasticity was accepted, then in the 1970’s Dr. Michael Merzenich demonstrated that this plasticity exists from the cradle to the grave.

His cleverly designed studies show that radical improvement in cognitive thinking is possible no matter the age of the individual.  Paying close attention to something which requires highly focused attention will redesign the brain and change the mapping system the brain utilizes to perform the function.  This adaptability has upsides and downsides.

Adult learners can acquire a new language or take up dancing, while habitual liars will increase their facility in lying as extra white matter in the prefrontal cortex develops to handle the task.  Oversurfers of the internet will stretch out their brains and be distracted more easily; and multi-taskers will become less deliberative and less able to think and reason out a problem.  They may think they’re more skilled, but it is at a superficial level.

Internet users touch keys and a mouse, click here, drag there and receive a steady stream of input through physical, visual and audio sensations.  That and the quick results of Google searches and the unending trail of hyperlinks actually create a need for mental stimulation, information and impressions.  Users become adept at scanning lots of data, recognizing patterns and quickly deciding what is relevant.  The plastic brain adapts to handle the bombardment of stimuli, but to the detriment of other skills.

Inductive analysis, critical thinking, reflection, and deep thinking become harder and harder to do.  The brain struggles to follow lengthy narratives or involved arguments, and the movement of new information into long-term memory occurs less frequently.  As restlessness is hardwired into our brains, concentration becomes increasingly difficult.

I have experienced aspects of this phenomenon myself.  Three years ago I enrolled in a masters level graduate program thirty years after graduating from college.  Heading back to school is challenging in and of itself, but I think my online activity made it even more challenging.

For years I’d followed hyperlinks, multi-tasked, and bounced from site to site. I quickly scanned sites using an “F” shaped movement of my eyes rather than reading thoroughly, flitted from blog post to blog post, jumped between multiple browser tabs and along the way began to crave sensory stimulation.

Then came my rude awakening. Graduate school classes consisted of 2-5 hour lectures with outlines on an overhead projector or a PowerPoint presentation at best. Readings were often dense, linear arguments (particularly in theology classes) and research papers required critical thinking and analytic skills. Not much sensory stimulation happening, unless you counted trying to avoid watching other students flit between screens on their laptops.

It took a year to shift my brain into academic mode.  Gradually my attention span lengthened,  the ability to follow convoluted arguments improved, and my writing reflected improved critical thinking skills. I noticed the regained skills diminished over breaks when I utilized the internet and social media more. Granted, some of the learning challenges may be related to being a Middle-

aged Student, but my re-acclimation to streams of sensory input and mental stimulation certainly wasn’t helping.

I’m not a Luddite and I’m not about to cancel my ISP, but as a result of my exploration into neuroplasticity, I am more intentional when I use the internet.  It’s a fabulous tool for communication and information, but I want to use it more than be shaped by it.

What’s been your experience?

I researched the topic for a class on teaching methodologies.  If you want to explore further, here are some links.  Follow them at your own peril.

Anderson, Sam. “In Defense of Distraction.” New York 42, no. 18 (May 25, 2009): 28–101.
Bush, Harold K. “Brain Memoirs:  Thinking About Thinking.” The Cresset. Accessed January 13, 2013.
Carr, Nicholas. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic, August 2008.
———. “The Juggler’s Brain.” Part of a Special Issue: Technology; Excerpt from The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.  Kappan,  92, no. 4 (December 2010): 8–14.
Carr, Nicholas G. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Norton pbk. [ed.]. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011.
Neulieb, Christine. “Changing Our Minds.” Commonweal 137, no. 22 (December 17, 2010): 15–18.




Lance and “Limitless”

Lance ArmstrongLance Armstrong’s taped confession to Oprah scheduled to be aired this Thursday, January 17, 2013, brings to mind the concept and message underlying the 2011 movie, “Limitless“. In the movie, a writer, Eddie Morra, suffering from writer’s block discovers an experimental pharmaceutical, NZT, which enables him to access the underutilized 70-80% of his brain.

Suddenly he can recall everything he’s experienced or read in life, read financials and predict a stock’s performance, charm women, write the Great American Novel, and learn a new language in a day without Berlitz or Rosetta Stone. Eddie has become all he hoped to be and then some. He’s popular, rich, courted by the beautiful and powerful — he has arrived.

Course there are some downsides to his success and drug usage.  Unsavory characters want his stash of the drug, a greedy Wall Street tycoon seeks to profit from his financial acumen, and his body is ravaged by the drug’s side effects. Even with the known negatives, Eddie finds the surpassing of normal human mental limitations appealing enough to continue taking the drug.

In a similar vein, Lance Armstrong’s 7 Tour de France wins after battling and beating testicular cancer surpassed normal human physical limitations.  In years past, I completed a century ride of 100 miles in a day, and could not imagine the endurance and strength needed to cycle through the mountains and plains of France riding 100 or so miles daily for nearly 21 days.  That anyone can win one Tour de France is an amazing feat; winning seven is phenomenal; winning seven after cancer treatment is a superhuman feat. A superhuman feat now acknowledged to be accomplished by the usage of pharmaceuticals.

The feats of the fictional Eddie Morra and the real-life Lance Armstrong highlight the innate human desire to surpass or bypass limits. Much of sport and entertainment revolves around people who have broken the limits, set new records, or turned in the best performance of their life.  Much of reality TV pokes fun at people who have limits and can’t surpass them.  Let’s fact it, we humans don’t like having limits – even if it’s only one.

The Garden of Eden was a wonderful, stupendous, magical place to live where God walked and talked regularly with the human dwellers.  The food supply was amble, the work load manageable and pleasurable; and the co-worker beautiful and naked.  How much better could life get?

Well, Adam and Eve thought it would be better if there weren’t any limits. God had given them one limit in Genesis 2:16-17 – don’t eat from one tree.  One tree; one dietary restriction, and they weren’t happy. Eddie Morra took NZT, Lance took PED’s, and Eve swallowed the serpent’s lie (Genesis 3:6-7).  All three wanted to surpass  their natural or imposed limits, and all three suffered for their choices.

Whether it’s speed limits, the number of items I can take in a dressing room, or the weight of my checked luggage, I don’t like limits.  But I recognize it was God who instituted a limit before the fall, and limits have their place.  I don’t like how long it takes me to learn a new skill, a new language or a new dance step; I don’t like limits.  But I recognize God is calling me to acknowledge the limits of my humanity and accept these limits as a good thing.   After all, God created me that way, he created Adam and Eve that way and declared his creation to be “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).

I’m sure I’ll continue to celebrate the achievements of the Usain Bolts and Michael Phelps of the world and hope they aren’t using.  But if they are, I’ll recognize our common humanity and desire to beat the limits.


Laughing About Punctuation

Cover of, "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" book

Cover of, “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” book

Lynne Truss made me laugh out loud while reading her best-selling book on punctuation, “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”.  Any author who can make a reader laugh, even silently, about punctuation is to be respected and commended.  If the reader loudly guffaws, they are to be knighted.

My indoctrination into punctuation and sentence diagramming came under the boring tutelage of my seventh-grade teacher, Mrs. Barr.  I found her descriptions tedious and often hid other reading material behind my English textbook and was regularly reprimanded for not paying attention.  If she had taught as Truss writes, I would have listened.

Truss artfully weaves the history and development of punctuation marks into this primer on proper usage.  Though she writes from other side of the pond, she regularly points out the distinctions between UK and USA terms for the marks and the variances in usage.  For example, a “full stop” is the UK equivalent of the period; and “inverted commas” are only American quotation marks in disguise.

A self-described stickler, she speaks of the “little shocks endured” when she looks in horror at badly punctuated signs and the world goes on, completely blind to the plight of the sensitive stickler.  She compares herself to the little boy in The Sixth Sense, “who can see dead people, except that we can see dead punctuation”.

Truss appreciates punctuation properly used and portrays the necessity and usefulness of these printers’ marks.  She writes, “Another writer tells us that punctuation marks are the traffic signals of language: they tell us to slow down, notice this, take a detour, and stop”.  Punctuation lets the reader “hear” the words as though they were spoken rather than written, and tell actors how to speak them.  For example, commas serve to delineate the “rhythm, direction, pitch, tone and flow” similar to musical notation.

Punctuation is essential for clarity of communication. Truss employs numerous examples to drive home her point.  One of the best is the following:

A woman, without her man, is nothing.

A woman: without her, man is nothing.

Further examples include, “A re-formed rock band is quite different from a reformed one. Likewise, a long-standing friend is different from a long standing one. A cross-section of the public is quite different from a cross section of the public”.  I had to read the last one twice before I caught the subtle difference, but it is there. Many of the distinctions are nuances; and the examples require careful reading with a proof-reader’s eyes.

I confess to writing these comments with a sense of apprehension.  Several times I’ve wondered if I am using the punctuation marks correctly. Wait, was that the US or the UK usage of inverted commas at the end of the sentence? Are they to appear before or after the full stop?  Nevertheless, (a comma is definitely required here!), I am pecking away at the keyboard in hopes that you, too, will pick up the book and marvel and laugh at those little marks who use often confuses, but whose absence would leave us truly confused.