Mental Malaise in a Fragmented Age

A reoccurring issue in both the books I’m reading and in the schools I’ve worked at, is that we live in an age of particular fragmentations and on a scale that is unique. Reasons for this vary, but the internet age is part of it. How we have utilized the internet is another factor, such as social media, and the ubiquity of mobile internet devices in the hands of increasingly younger people is perhaps the biggest. It’s the amount of info, including targeted ads and messaging, in the hands and drawing the eyes of a critical mass of young people that has led to a kind of fragmentation of identity and a malaise that follows it. Students are overwhelmed with information and then with the the task of making sense of it. Adults have the issue as well, and while they have tried, or not, to figure out this new life, they have certainly failed to pass a serviceable amount of wisdom to the next generation.

In my own experience of being a student when the internet first really popped, and mobile technology quickly followed, there was a fragmentation of knowledge, how to interpret it, how to act on it, and confusion was a very common feeling. At the time I didn’t appreciate any of this as a global phenomena or anything beyond my own experience. I took it as a problem of fitting in on my part as an individual. It wasn’t long before I went to university and realized the issue was a bit bigger than me, and then further into life to see a larger impact, especially as I traveled and worked around the USA and the world. Now the market is flooded with books, talks, consultants, and all manner of attempts to sort it all out. We no longer have a unified story, or identity, and with the loss has gone a basis for agreed upon virtues. We are well marketed into consumerism, but very poorly discipled into humanity.

I say none of this as a technology naysayer. I’m largely for technology and its utilization in education. But I also can’t deny what I and the market at large are seeing, and that is a real dearth of wisdom, perhaps a specific kind of wisdom in the form of information literacy. With incredulity towards metanarrative comes the absence of the kinds of norms that support any harmony between an intellectual and a virtuous life. There is only left a life of distraction and whim. Happiness is quick to fade as well. Suicide becomes a common thought, and slowly a more common practice. Fragmented attention, fragmented stories, fragmented lives and malaise are all that’s available under this worldview rubric. And to this end the materialistic cultures rush headlong.

As a Christian I have to acknowledge the fragmentation of my own tribe. It’s well beyond good apostle’s warnings to not “be of Paul, or Apollos, but of Christ.” It’s also beyond schisms and reformations and three major divisions. We’re well into thousands of expressions of faith, some quite close, others may as well be from different galaxies. The debate about doctrinal and practical norms will perhaps never cease until time’s end. And yet, in my experience and in my intellectual explorations, I can find no greater answer to the problems of our age than the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Bible in which its contents are found. While the various traditions squabble over what the Bible is, and how it is to be used, and what other sources of authority to draw from and how precisely to do that, at the end of the day it is the Bible and it is the life and work of Jesus that are the center of the Christian story. While we have much to overcome, we have so much to offer. I for one draw a great deal of purpose from this effort in my context. There is a wholeness to be had amidst the fragments, and a healing calm more powerful than the malaise.

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Bonhoeffer, Religious Education, Secularism, and the quest for a dissertation topic

Going for the trifecta here this week. 

For those interested I’m listening to nothing but the faint hum of my desktop computer fan as I write this. I’m too mentally tired to go to the trouble to pick a song to listen to while I write, but not too tired to write. Does anyone else understand this phenomenon?

About a Friday a month I hang out with one of my wife’s colleagues who has become a good friend. He’s an English professor at the university that my secondary school is located on the campus of. He’s currently working on a dissertation with the University of London on Bonhoeffer’s contribution to philosophical ethics, and tonight we were so tired that he shared the details with me at length. Have you ever been so tired that you were too lazy to summarize anything? I think many have experienced this. In any case, to summarize now it was rather impressive and I look forward to his finished product. Another colleague of his and of my wife just finished a dissertation from a South African university, where he is from, on the distinctives of religious education in comparison to secular education by doing original research on a Jewish school, a catholic school, a protestant school and I believe a public school. The results were fascinating and really close to home for me, as a Bible teacher in a school that is accredited with both the Korean government and the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI). My school lives in a constant identity crisis of how much to bend our emphases toward the demands of public universities and what each faculty and admin thinks regarding the rubric for distinctive Christian education. Somehow we educate children in the midst of these regular hot takes. God’s grace alone, perhaps. 

Last year and on into the early part of this year I was doing research on a dissertation in the area of cross-cultural leadership. I got just far enough into it to realize I wouldn’t have time over the next three years to complete it, nor the stable environment with which to work on original research on my school. We’re in the middle of some major transitions, including some that double and possibly triple my workload. That’s just life. However, I’m still on the quest for a dissertation topic related to missiology and religious studies. It’s very challenging to narrow one’s interest down to the level of a specific research topic to focus on and write about for several years, and I’m really impressed with my friends who are doing it or have done it. I think education is a wonderful and powerful thing, and a gift from God in fact. I take pleasure in learning in such a way that I find it worshipful, as it stirs my heart toward affection for the Creator even as it stirs my mind toward deeper knowledge in any given field of study. I hope my students come out of my classes, and our school, with the same feelings and thoughts. 

That’s it for tonight. I’m finally too tired to even write. Goodnight and Happy Thanksgiving to all my American friends.  

Rites of passage, identity, and adulthood.

My second blog of 2018. I’m on a roll now. Don’t hold your breath, it may be my last. 

For those interested I’m listening to Lord Huron’s album Mighty as I write this. I feel a bit of shame for admitting how I first came across them, but here it is nonetheless. I first learned of them while watching the first season of the controversial 13 Reasons Why Netflix show, and their song The Night We Met was prominently  featured in it. I didn’t like the show or the even the song that much, but I wanted to know more about the band and I ended up enjoying their Strange Trails album on the whole. Since then I watched their NPR tiny desk concert and have listened to their older stuff from time to time to see if I enjoy it. I think it’s OK. 

While discussing video games with my students the nature of rites of passage came up. Video games are huge anywhere internet technology is, and in South Korea, which boasts some of the fastest internet speeds in the world and a massive professional and recreational gaming culture, they are big deal. Another thing about much of the developed and developing world is that many local traditions are fading out and giving way to more transient lifestyles, global networks, and the quest for upward mobility. On a bit of a side note, I thought senator Ben Sasse’s conversation with Stephen Colbert about this kind of thing in a recent interview was really well put. My students and I discussed the fact that for many youth, especially the lads, video games are replacing the identity formation mechanisms that were well established in their culture since ancient times. 

I reflected with them on my own formation into adulthood and realized how many markers there were for me along the way. As a southerner I was given a gun by age 8, and taught hunt shortly after I had learned to ride a bike without training wheels. By the time I was 16 I was deer hunting alone, driving, and speaking in front of modest sized crowds at church. I was also working during summers and many weekends. I say none of this to brag, I actually don’t think about it that often except when I want to get my West Coast friends to laugh about my redneck roots. I’m also in favor of stricter gun laws, for anyone wondering, especially regarding assault rifles. I’d like to think of myself as political hybrid of moderate redneck and moderate city dweller. I’m mostly appalled when I read news by just about everything. But in the context of this conversation I reflected on the portion of my life that was pre-internet and pre-cellphone and realized that for all its faults my local, rural, country life was filled with meaning and markers for identity formation into adulthood. Some of it was cultural, some spiritual. It wasn’t perfect, but as I survey my students and many regions of the world I come in contact with I realized that I had something I simply see missing today, especially with my students. There’s a family decay, a community decay, a relational decay, and don’t get me started on the spiritual decay. I don’t have the energy left in my day to process that with you now.

With my students there is a craving to know when one has traversed childhood into adulthood, from boyhood into manhood, girlhood into womanhood, something beyond they studied their eyes bloody and took a big test. Right now many of them are turning to games which have missions and teamwork and levels and markers for development. I wonder how families, churches and schools can recover what was lost, or adapt to something improved in order to more holistically form students and society into something other than depersonalized pieces on a market gaming board. 

That’s all I got for now, I’m tapped. I wish you well, dear reader.