Tuesday, August 28, 2007

How Shall We Teach Them (and Us) Not to Tiptoe?

When I went out for a walk this morning with Chase and saw the first fallen maple leaves lying on the grass, it hit me that summer is really coming to a close. It finds me right in the middle of seriously revamping my classes at Mercy and writing church school curriculum for the kids at South. As I do so, I'm trying to keep this quote from Shane Claiborne's The Irresistible Revolution in mind:

“I am convinced that if we lose kids to the culture of drugs and materialism, of violence and war, it’s because we don’t dare them, not because we don’t entertain them. It’s because we make the gospel too easy, not because we make it too difficult. Kids want to do something heroic with their lives, which is why they play video games and join the army. But what are they to do with a church that teaches them to tiptoe through life so they can arrive safely at death?”

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Don't Bother Me Mom

This morning I finished Marc Prensky's Don't Bother Me Mom- I'm Learinng, a book that was recommended reading on several tech in education sites. From the sites, I had the sense that it was going to be an eye-opening book that would cover creative ways to use videogames, cell phones, and other computer applications to deepen learning. I was deeply disappointed. The book was a very light read with what seemed to be only one basic message: people are making decisions, acting creatively, and learning various skills while playing well-constructed computer games. Perhaps if a book with this message had been written in the early 90's, I'd understand why if was published, but this was a book written last year and there's not much more to it than that basic message. On top of that several of the games listed in the book are no longer being produced and at least one of the major websites Prensky recommends no longer exists. As I put the book down I thought, what a wasted $14 for a book not worth reading, much less putting on my book shelf.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

First Life!!

There's a wonderful satire of Second Life-- and a good implied caution about spending too much time only in a virtual world--here . I found it very, very funny.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Great Resource for Future Educational Trends

I've just run across KnowledgeWorks map outlining future trends for education (from 2006-2016). It looks at what will happen once you've factored in environmental, technological, economic, and other demographic trends. I wish I'd seen it before doing the futuring course this summer, because I'd love to know what others think of it. On at least first blush, it seems like a great resource. You can find it here.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Revamping Intro to Religion

I’ve spent a large portion of the last two days getting my fall Relg 109 Introduction to Religion class set. I’ve redesigned the course requirements so that class work is a mix of reading, writing, exploration, oral presentation, discussion (both F2F and online), and collaboration. I’ve created a new blog for the class (Check it out at relg109dfb.blogspot.com) that will include work done in class as well as links to individual students’ blogs. I’ve put the syllabus up on the Mercy College Blackboard page. And I’m about half way through revamping assignments. So far I’ve designed assignments that will send students farther out into the real world and assignments that will put them into the virtual world, assignments that can be done individually and assignments that will require networking, assignments that require analysis of an ancient text and assignments that require creative design of new religious images.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Road Again

I’ve finished about half of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s been on my “to read” pile for a while, but I’d put it off actually beginning it because I’d always heard that McCarthy’s writing had a Hemingway macho style to it. And then Oprah chose it as one of her reading club books, giving me yet another reason not to begin it.

But I began it the other day when Dillard’s The Mayfields seemed too slow a read for my mood of the moment and I was pleasantly surprised. The story is both exquisitely beautiful and haunting, often at the same time, and the writing is direct and clear. In many ways the mood it evokes reminds me of that captured by the biblical writer in the Akeda story, with its intertwining of love and horror.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Barges, Waterfalls, and Hares

Our last organized trip as part of the Celtic Christianity course ended up being to Llarhaeadr-ym-Mochnant and then Pennant Melangell. It had been an extremely rainy night and so one or two other places that had been planned were cancelled, but from my perspective this much simpler trip turned out to be better than the one planned.

We began by going to see the Poncyslite Aqueduct and the canal barges (some of which we’d passed on Saturday) that travel over it and through the neighboring valleys. Kathy walked across from one end to the other while I part way across and then down to the Dee River to see the actual bridge construction. The early 19th century aqueduct is made up of 19 arches that cover more than 1000 feet of space from one valley’s banks to the other. Walking cross it has great views.

From there we went to Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant. The purpose of the trip was to see the Church of St. Dogfan, where William Morgan (the first person to translate the Bible into Welsh) worshipped. Except for a cross that has been dug up and now is in one corner of the church—the remains of a monastery that was once on the site?—I didn’t find the place so exciting. After the basic lecture, while the rest of our group looked at the sanctuary in more detail, Kathy, Graham and I walked through the town in the direction of the Pistyll Rhaeadr, Wale’s highest waterfall. We couldn’t get to the waterfall itself, which was about 3 to 4 miles away, but we got to see the village, which was charming. (Several of the scenes from the movie The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain were filmed in Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant.) Everywhere on our walk, there were beautiful flowers—wild flowers in the fields and by the brook and gardens outside the homes.

Next we took a long ride away from any villages along deserted (barely) one lane roads to Pennant Melangell, the church dedicated to St. Melangell, a 7th or 8th century saint who is known as the patron saint of hares. The church is in the middle of nowhere—a nowhere with gorgeous views of mountains all around it—in a valley that’s often described as a thin place because heaven and earth appear very close there. In the 12th century a shrine was build on the site (and perhaps a convent?) and people often made pilgimages to visit it. During the Reformation, however, the shrine was torn down. In the 20th century, archaeology turned up several remains from the building—including a rood screen that depicts the story of St. Melangell and the hares. Since then hundreds of thousands of pounds have been spent by the Anglican Church of Wales to restore it, though the building still reeks of mold and made me very dizzy. We had a very brief worship service in the sanctuary. Luckily we spent more of the time in the nearby building that was originally designed as a cancer help center and now serves as a free mental health counseling center (though how anyone would get there on a regular basis given how far it is from even the tiniest of villages is beyond me). By lunchtime the sun was shining and so we ate outside with pheasants walking around in the nearby fields and great views of flowers, mountains, and sheep. And in the yard between the center and the sanctuary were these four amazingly yew trees, which many think may be 2000 years old.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

A Knowledge Space or a Borgian World?

Over the last several days I've begun to read the work of anthropologist Pierre Levy. In some ways his overall views about a future emphasizing collective intelligence seems to echo some of Teilhard's noosphere concept. Until I read his fleshing out of what such a world might be like, it never occurred to me that part of what would be involved would be inventing another way of communicating that was beyond writing but it makes sense. Just as writing, and then the printing press, moved us away from oral communication of knowledge to a communication of knowledge that could happen even when the communicator wasn't physically present (although with the loss of accompanying gestures and tones), so the current evolution of knowledge will produce new tools and ways of communicating that will replace the written word as the major form of communication.

At times the world that Levy describes sounds wonderful and exciting. (He's clearly a real optimist about cyberspace--the exact opposite of the world Gibson develops in Neuromancer.) At other times, it seems to have a concept of collective knowledge that might have a shadow side that's much like the Borg collective. Both aspects seem present, for example, in this quote that's from early in Levy's Collective Intelligence:

“Either we cross a new threshold, enter a new stage of hominization, by inventing some human attribute that is as essential as language but operates at a much higher level, or we continue to “communicate” through the media and think within the context of separate institutions, which contribute to the suffocation and division of intelligence. In the latter case we will no longer be confronted only by problems of power and survival. But if we are committed to the process of collective intelligence, we will gradually create the technologies, sign systems, forms of social organization and regulation that enable us to think as a group, concentrate our intellectual and spiritual forces, and negotiate practical real-time solutions to the complex problems we must inevitably confront.”

On a different note, today's New York Times has an interesting article on real estate in Second Life. Check it out: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/09/garden/09second.html?8dpc=&_r=1&oref=slogin&pagewanted=all.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Too Many Church Fundraising Speeches!

On Saturday, July 21st, we did the second of the day trips through northern Wales with the Celtic Christianity group. I enjoyed the first stop of the day a lot, but, aside from the chance to see some more of the countryside, the rest of the day seemed largely a waste to me.

The first stop we made was at Valle Crucis Abbey, which is in the mountains near Llangollen and was founded by Cistercian monks in the 13th century and then expanded a century or so later. It was the second wealthiest monastery in Wales during its height. It had been raining as we drove there and most everything was extremely muddy, but even so you could get a sense of how quiet and peaceful the surroundings must have been for the sheep farmer monks who lived there. Nearby, as we drove out, we passed Eliseg’s Pillar, which is a shaft-stump of what’s left of a 9th century cross and is one of the earliest pieces of the puzzle over how and when crosses were used in northern Wales.

From Valle Crucis we drove to the tiny sheep farming village of Bryn Eglwys to see St. Tysilio’s Church, which has a connection with the Yale family and has received a lot of the funds to keep it up from that family. I was at a loss for why we were seeing the church. While it originally probably dated from the 6th century, Margaret Harvey, the former rector, spent much more time telling us about the Yales than about any connection it might have with Celtic Christianity. The ony thing that I found redeeming about the time there was that she actually mentioned the congregation and what they were doing as well as all the funds being spent on renovations and repairs.

After we left St. Tysilio’s, our bus raced Margaret to Corwen, a small market town, where we had lunch at Coleg y Groes, a renovated 12th century retreat house that she and Heather Fenton, the current rector of St. Tysilio’s, run. There Dale and I were supposed to meet with Lyn Bechtel, the Drew professor who was to work with us on our Celtic Christianity research, but she never showed.

During the afternoon we went to see more old churches and heard more stories about how funds were being used to restore them. First we hiked through a field to see Llangar Church, a tiny medieval building with 15th century wall paintings, a 17th century painting of a skull that greets you when you first step through the narthex door, and box pews. Once a month there’s a small church service there, but otherwise no one except the occasional tourist uses the building.

Then we went to see Rhug Chapel, which had been a private chapel built
in the 17th century by a colonel (who may have been important, but his name meant nothing to me) and William Morgan, the bishop who first translated the Bible into Welsh. At this point, as our tour guide started on his spiel yet again of how funds were raised to repair this chapel, I decided to go for a walk out in the raining but beautiful garden rather than listening to what was being said.

At the end of the day, we spent about 45 minutes in the town of Llangollen. It was still raining fairly hard, so we went spent the time walking in and out of stores in the town. The town had a Fringe Festival—a smaller scale of the Edinburgh one?—going on, so, although we were in between the afternoon and evening performance times, there were lots of people on the streets.

On the bus ride back to St. Deiniol’s, I kept wondering what connection the people planning the trip saw between what we saw in most of the churches and Celtic Christianity, since most were built after the time when Celtic Christianity was at its height. Between that and the Drew professor not even bothering to show up, my frustration with the course was pretty great.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Deathly Hallows, Knights, and Gardeners

I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows last night. While it didn’t have as many unusual or magical creatures as in the first book or two in the series (or perhaps I’ve just gotten used to the Rowling’s imaginary world), it was still a good read. More than the actions in the book— the searching for Horcruxes, the fighting between the death eaters and Dumbledore’s Army/Order of the Phoenix, and the final showdown between Voldemort and Harry—what I enjoyed was the background biographies that were filled in, especially for Dumbledore and Snape.

The ending interested me, not for the events themselves, but because I wonder if Rowling was trying to respond to some of the criticism she’s gotten from the religious right. Or perhaps she was playing with some of the classical mythic hero themes, as Rick Diamond suggests in one of his blog entries. (http://becauseisayyes.blogspot.com/2007/07/hero.html) In an email to me, Rick suggests that this last book takes much more of a challenge/response view than the others, which are clearly “knight” novels. For Ron and Harry, and perhaps even for Hermione, I think that may be true, especially in the middle of the book. But for Dumbledore, the faculty at Hogwarts, and the larger wizarding world, the story still seems very much like a knight’s tale. Had Rowling wanted to make it otherwise, perhaps Dumbledore and Harry might have paid a little bit of attention to the crying baby toward the end of the story.

Or maybe another way to see this volume is generational. The older wizarding generation, represented by Dumbledore, are clearly knights. The youngest wizarding generation, with Harry, Ron, and Hermione as its main representatives in the series, are gardeners. And the generation in between—Snape, Lily Potter, Syrius Black, Lupin, etc.--- are exactly that, an in between generation who are largely knights but have gardener moments that help change who they are.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Pilgrimage to Aberdaron

Two weeks ago, we did our first trip through the northern part of Wales, moving through the Lleyn peninsula and ending in Aberdaron. Despite all the rain, the sun stopped as the bus made its way to the first church we were to see, a church in Clynnog Fawr associated with Beuno, the 7th century Northern Welsh saint who by legend had amazing healing powers, was the uncle of Saint Gwenfrewi (Winifred), and founded a monastery where the church currently is. The church is set right alongside the road in a tiny town –my guess is there were about 100 people living there—with a nice little restaurant/pub that we got to know well because, when we’d gotten back on board after seeing the church, our bus wouldn’t start again. We ended up spending another hour or so hanging out in the pub while the bus company sent a replacement and then stopping there again later for tea on our trip back to St. Deiniol’s. The church itself was a pretty large one for such a small town and had been used as a stopping place for pilgrims who were making the journey toward Abedaron and then ultimately Bardsey Island, but I didn’t find it remarkable in any other way. The church rector, who met us, pointed out both a painting on a wall of their smaller chapel, and a trunk which traditionally was used during Beuno’s day to keep any donations that pilgrims made. Both were in a very damp, very musty room which can’t have been good for them.

From there we traveled along the rest of the Lleyn peninsula to Aberdaron, which is a quaint village with lots of narrow winding streets, a great coastline with a small beach, and St. Hywyn’s Church. We met there with the vicar, Evelyn Davies, who has put most of her energy into fundraising to restore the church, using both its connection to pilgrimages to Bardsey Island, which can be seen from its graveyard (and which you can see behind Kathy and me in the picture) and to R.S. Thomas, the Welsh poet who was vicar at St. Hywyn’s from 1967 to 1978. (At the back of the church is a copy of his—to my mind, mediocre—poem The Other” on a slate.) I found much of her talk, focused as it was on restoring a church building rather than the people of the area or any other sense of mission, very boring and slightly frustrating, but really enjoyed being in the village itself (a little of which you can see up the road from the church cemetery).

From the village of Aberdaron we traveled up some very bumpy, very narrow roads into pasture lands where there was nothing but sheep and a wonderful view of Bardsey Island (which you can see between the heads of Dale Skinner, another student in my Drew D.Min. program, and me).

By then the sun was out, the sheep were running around happily, and the view of Bardsey was great.

Wikinomics for Universities and Churches

Don Tapscott’s Wikinomics seems to me a must read for anyone who wants to understand not only what’s happening on the web and in business but in the world today. Not only do the ideas in the book explain a lot of Web 2.0 uses, but they suggest the basic value of democratic, horizontal collaboration as the keystone of 21st century postmodern culture.

I became painfully aware as I read Tapscott that both educational and religious institutions are so far behind being within, much less on the cutting edge of, current cultural organizations. How can either universities or churches hope to be vital participants in building a new world if they’re still stuck operating in entirely 20th century (or really 19th century) models? I know that both institutions are conservative by their very essence, but unless each adapts to new ways of being accessible in the public square, neither will have anything at all to offer in the near future.

At Mercy, for example, if what my students tell me is accurate, most of the work being assigned is still of the closed, monologue type, with data guarded (through citations among other things!) closely and websites still used as if they’re nothing more than digital books. Even old-fashioned collaborative assignments in a classroom are rarely given. When will educators move toward assignments that make use of Web 2.0 sources like Zoho’s free, collaborative office suite to partner students together in creative, innovative assignments? And when will churches start trying to catch up with 20th century website culture and move toward building ministries using blogs, wikis, and other new collaborative tools that can form ad hoc groups across all kinds of boundaries that used to stand in the way? What will it take to pull these two institutions into the 21st century?

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

St. Deiniol's in Hawarden

From July 18th to 25th, Kathy and I were part of a group staying in Hawarden Wales and doing a course on Celtic Christianity offered by St. Deiniol’s Library. For me, once I write a paper on some aspect of Celtic Christianity later this month, this will also become part of my D.Min. transcript. There were 19 people in our group, about 1/3 from Great Britain (England and southern Wales), 1/3 from Canada, and 1/3 from the United States (Indiana, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, and Virginia). Most of the folks were Anglican and were really into the lives of individual Anglican Welsh saints.

St. Deiniol’s is a residential library, with about 30 bedrooms (though they’re currently doing construction to add a few more that will be handicap accessible) and shared hall bathrooms. It’s got a library of about 250,000 books (including about 30,000 that once belonged to England’s former prime minister William Gladstone, who used to live about a mile away from St. Deiniol’s. While our group was staying there to hear “Celtic Christianity” lectures on a wide variety of (unrelated) topics—the Welsh language, St. Non, Iron Age Wales, R.S. Thomas—there were also folks staying at the library who were there purely to do research.

The village of Hawarden is a pretty small one with a population of less than 2000. It’s got a post office/convenience store, a bank, a golf course, a train station, a few churches (including St. Deiniol’s Church which is right next to the library, a Catholic church and a Presbyterian church), a pharmacy, a few pubs and a cafĂ©, a village hall/library, and some homes. There are no supermarkets, bookstores, or clothing stores.
(This is what you see when you leave Church Street, where St. Deiniol's is located, and look to the left down the main street in town.)

Hawarden also has a large “garden”, part of which is accessible to the public and part of which requires a letter of permission, which folks staying at St. Deiniol’s are automatically given. The garden continues to be owned and controlled by the Gladstone family (and we were told that most of the village zoning and rules are still under Gladstone control). There are a few benches along the garden trails. When we were there, lots of folks were walking their dogs, though because of the heavy rains only the public part of the trail didn't involve wading through mud. Toward the end of the public part of the garden are the ruins of Hawarden Castle, which was one of four 13th century castles in Northern Wales.

Because there was no TV or easy internet access at St. Deiniol’s --you put your name on an “internet list” at the local public library to use it for a few minutes during the library’s brief hours open--, no shopping to do, and no real restaurants to eat at –all meals were provided for us by St. Deiniol’s—the setting provides a very quiet life of talking with others over meals or at a pub, walking, and reading.


While I was in England I finished watching the last few episodes of the wonderful science fiction TV series Heroes. It’s one of the most creative shows I’ve seen in year--who would have expected this from NBC?-- combining the feel of Marvel comic books and their everyday, imperfect heroes with a lot of mythic images and symbols and key issues currently being raised in current affairs and in science. The whole thing has got a real post-modern, global feel to it with characters living and interacting all over the globe and speaking their own native languages rather than everyone speaking English.

My favorite character is Hiro Nakamura, who lives in Tokyo and seems to have developed the ability to manipulate time and space. As the first season of the series goes on, it’s clear that Hiro (joined by his sidekick Ando) is clearly on a classical mythological quest, making one choice after another to become a real hero despite his feet of clay. And it doesn’t hurt that, late in the season, we meet his father, who is played by George Takei! I’m also intrigued by Mohinder Suresh, who is a university professor in Madras, India and is picking up on genetic research his father had begun and becoming aware of its ramifications.

I think it’d be possible to teach an entire course on mythology using the writings of folks like Joseph Campbell, classical mythologies of various civilizations, and two episodes of Heroes each week as illustrations of various themes and symbols in what the students are reading. I hope the second season stays as strong in this way as the first was!