Thursday, December 8

Generational differences vs. Peer pressure

I spent some time today with Chatham Drug Free, a county-wide coalition to help prevent alcohol, tobacco, and drug abuse among youth. I volunteered to sit on their data subcommittee and to help them analyze and communicate the results of a county-wide student survey they conduct every spring.

It's been kind of fun to flex some of my unused, Oxford-trained data sleuthing.

Today, I saw something that interested me. For each substance (tobacco, e-cigs, alcohol, prescription drugs, illicit drugs) students were asked these three questions about underage use (along with many more):

  • Do your peers think it's wrong?
  • Do your parents' think it's wrong?
  • Do you think it's wrong?
On just about every indicator the students' personal responses more strongly resembled their peers than their parents. 

At first I read this as peer pressure. That's such a brutal reality for middle and high school students. They pull away from their parents and lean in toward their peers. That's a normal, natural, stage-of-life thing. But that's probably not what this was.

The students actually recorded their peers as being more disapproving of risky behavior than they themselves felt. This surprised me. If 95% of parents felt heroin was a bad decision and 90% of peers shared that opinion, I'd expect the interview subjects to be somewhere in the middle - sharing the view of their family of origin but pulled downward by their peers. But the effect seemed to be working in the other direction. If parents were at 95% and peers were at 90% the subjects would invariably be around 87-88%.

Small artifacts like these in the data serve as clues that something interesting is happening.

My guess is that we're seeing a generational effect. Mom, dad, and all other Gen Xers believe one way about the use of these substances. The Millennials believe another way. The tribe isn't necessarily exerting pressure. The tribe is just the tribe.

This raises a new set of questions for me:
  • Does this generation believe differently about drug usage than the previous generation did at this stage of life?
  • What factors shaped the more conservative generation's belief about drug usage?
  • How does one shift a generation's thinking about drug usage?
In research, as in life, paying close attention to the data makes a big difference. Whole vistas will open up to you for brief moments if you're looking for them ... and will be gone in a breath if you aren't.

Wednesday, December 7

Mary hits the road

As I continue to study the Christmas narrative, I continue to discover threads in the story that I've never explored in previous readings. There's so much there!

This is one of the things I love most about the Bible. I keep reading it and reading it and keep noticing facets to the story I'd missed. There's enough in here for me to read for my entire life.

Today I noticed how often Mary hits the road. She travels with Joseph to Bethlehem and then Jerusalem and back to Bethlehem. Then she heads to Egypt as a refugee, Nazareth as a semi-exile, and Jerusalem as a soon-to-be-grieving mother. Legend has it that she spends her twilight years in Ephesus.

That's a lot of mileage for a peasant woman in that era.

But the trip that interested me the most is her first trip that's mentioned. When she finds out she's pregnant, the angel Gabriel also tells her that her relative Elizabeth - after a long struggle with infertility - has finally conceived a child and is pregnant. Mary hits the road and goes to the town in the hill country of Judea where Elizabeth is living in seclusion.

The story doesn't tell us whether Mary went by herself or not, but it noticeably doesn't include any fellow travelers for her (unlike every other travel narrative for her in the Bible).

The story doesn't tell us why Mary went. Did she want to verify the angel's story? Did she want to help Elizabeth? Did she want to commiserate with another miracle mama? We don't know.

What we do know is that Mary lived an unusually mobile life.  Her son would spend the majority of his ministry-time on the road. His roots didn't prevent him from going where the Spirit and his purpose led him. I wonder if that is part of the spiritual heritage he inherited from his mother.

I could write another whole post on that concept of the spiritual heritage we pick up from our families of origin, but that's another post for another time.

Tuesday, December 6

Curiouser and Curiouser

I had two great conversations today about curiosity.

The first conversation was with a friend who loves, loves, loves getting to know people. He asks great questions, listens well, and shares his own experience in healthy ways. He's curious about what other people believe. His curiosity creates space for friendship.

The second conversation was with a student who had tons of questions about her faith. She believes in Jesus, but wants to hear, know, and understand more. We talked about faith and science, dinosaurs in the Bible, imaginative readings of the Bible, leveraging experience for the sake of faith, and the need to ask good questions. Her curiosity creates space for deep conversation.

All to often people squash curiosity in the name of "protecting the faith." They withhold their curiosity in an attempt to maintain polite relational distance. This is a mistake.

Curiosity is like a muscle. The more we exercise it, the more it grows. And it's a gift from God. St. Anselm called it "fides quaerens intellectum" or "faith seeking understanding." All personal relationships require us to have faith that somewhere in the other person there's someone interesting to connect with, something interesting to learn, and someone worth loving. This is true in our friendships with other people and in our relationship with God.

My biggest challenge in this arena, personally, is to accept that I'm a worthy subject of curiosity. I can go days and day without anyone asking me a personal question. I'm so curious about other people that I don't give them a chance to be curious about me. And now I find myself feeling uncomfortable if someone asks too many questions about me. I've had so many negative experiences of people plying me with questions and then leveraging my answers to take advantage of me. It takes tremendous work to open up and I'm grateful to be blessed with friends who are caring enough, persistent enough, curious enough to keep asking questions.

Monday, December 5

Our Picture of Christmas Eve

This week's Saturday Night Live had a great sketch about Christmas Eve (watch it here). In the sketch they imagine what it would be like for a teenage Mary to give birth in a barn. It's silliness but it rattles the gilded image that we carry of Christmas Eve.

At one point in the sketch Mary (played by Emma Stone) says: "When I found out I was going to give birth to the Savior I guess I just assumed it was gonna be ... nicer."

The birth narratives in the Gospels are full of gritty detail. Over time we have compressed and cleaned the story to fit our cultural values and presuppositions. We look at the Christmas story and see ourselves reflected back in them.

  • Who was present at Jesus' birth?
  • How old were Mary and Joseph?
  • How many people were in their caravan to Bethlehem?
  • What role did poverty have in Joseph and Mary's Christmas experience?
  • What were Mary's parents and aunts/uncles doing when she went to visit Elizabeth or travelled with her fiancĂ© to Bethlehem? 
  • Why don't the narratives in Matthew and Luke line up easily? Why don't Mark and John contain birth narratives?
  • How did Matthew and Luke get this information?
We don't have concrete biblical answers to any of these questions, but we answer them whenever we picture the Christmas story.

Sunday, December 4

When a little bit of a good thing is actually a bad thing

A little bit of a bad thing can actually be a good thing. A little bit of a virus can give you an immunity. A little bit of loss can make you grateful for what you have. A little bit of chocolate can boost your heart health.

But the reverse isn't true. A little bit of a good thing can actually be a bad thing.

I've been thinking about this recently as I've thought about God, faith, and racial reconciliation. Research has shown that, for white evangelicals, having one black friend can actually make it harder for them to listen to the experiences of black people. That one friend either becomes the exception or the rule and gives the white person license to believe whatever they want to believe about race, racism, and reconciliation.

We've been talking about racial reconciliation a bit over the last year in InterVarsity and at the church where I work. Those conversations have been good. Hard. Painful. Thought-provoking. But one the whole, good.

What will happen if InterVarsity or Chatham Church pump the brakes on these conversations? Now that we've gone from zero to one we run the risk of losing all of our progress.

Here are possible conversations:

  • We tried and it didn't work.
  • We've already come a long way.
  • We've done all we can right now.
  • Look, we have a person of color in a significant position.
  • Let's wait until things are a little less hectic.
If you're going to pump the brakes, it would have been better to not even have started. Once you've started, you have to keep going. Slowly is fine. Subversively and behind the scenes is okay too. But we can't just give up.

I have significant concerns about both InterVarsity's and Chatham Church's ability to sustain the racial reconciliation conversation. But I also have tremendous faith and hope. The Lord is building a multiethnic kingdom to testify to the world that his good news is true, powerful, and meaningful. He will not let us give up without a fight. 

Blessed is the community that struggles and submits to the Lord.