Sunday faculty meeting

I am speaking at the PUST Sunday morning faculty meeting, explaining the meaning of the Pilgrim songs.

Faculty meeting

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Dinner, not Korean

Tonight we went to the Italian restaurant in downtown Pyongyang where I had the pizza and Coke pictured below for dinner. Pyongyang is a place of startling and puzzling contrasts.

Pizza

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Breakfast at PUST

Cafeteria breakfast, Korean style. A very moist and delicious piece of wheat bread, a soybean and rice porridge that is very much like oatmeal, and the inevitable kimchi. Not a bad breakfast for an American, but most of us also supplement with something containing more protein.
Breakfast

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Cafeteria Food

42 jars of soybean paste are being prepared the traditional way for the cafeteria at PUST in the DPRK. In the background are the faculty apartments. The round glass building contains our Sunday meeting room.

Pots of Soybean Paste

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Teaching at PUST

For the month of July I will be teaching at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in the DPRK (North Korea).
I don’t have regular communication and would prefer that you not try to contact me while I am at PUST, but I hope to post a few photos occasionally to give you a taste of what life is like here.
Below is the airliner at the Beijing airport waiting to take us to Pyongyang. Air Koryo is the flagship airline of the DPRK, and they fly a modern Russian airliner on this route.
Air Koryo airliner

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The Placebo Phenomenon

I just read a great article on the placebo effect in medicine and how some doctors are trying to study it and take advantage of it in treatment.

This is part of the explanation for why so many “quack” cures are around and why they seem to work for some people. It is also an exploration of the powerful effect our minds have on the health of our bodies. One intriguing excerpt:

“Kaptchuk explains… for years, ‘We were struggling to increase drug effects while no one was trying to increase the placebo effect.’”

And why not deliberately increase the placebo effect? Or, to put it in more positive terms, why not give more attention to the psychological factors involved in how medical care is administered?

The Placebo Phenomenon by Cara Feinburg, Harvard Magazine.

 

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Lemuel Haynes

I am enjoying exploring the life and works of Lemuel Haynes, an important but neglected figure in American history. He was a patriot, a preacher, and a poet. His accomplishments are all the more remarkable because he was the half-black son of a slave. You can find many biographies of his life on the web. The brief PBS one is perhaps as good as any for a brief overview:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part2/2p29.html

From PBS you won’t get a sense of Haynes’ love for God and His word and his devotion to the ministry. He is sometimes called the “black puritan,” a reflection of the depth of his preaching and writing and theological understanding. I haven’t read all of his writings, and as he was a Calvinist Congregationalist there are a few things I know we would disagree on. However, I find in his sermons a love for God and His word that resonates with me and makes me think I would like to meet him some day in heaven.

His works are hard to find online; they are available primarily in libraries and out-of-print books. I found this one at the BJU library:

Black Preacher to White America by Richard Newman

And here on Google books is an old collection of excerpts:

Sketches of the Life and Character of the Rev. Lemuel Haynes

In order to make his works more accessible, I have started converting some of them into Kindle books, starting with one containing his two famous poems:

The Poems of Lemuel Haynes

With Valentine’s Day approaching, I will include below some things I wrote last Valentine’s Day but didn’t post for fear they would be misunderstood. These are some personal thoughts on the subject of racism:

In a video promoting a recent book, a dramatically side-lit preacher looks into the camera, spooky music in the background, as he intones, “I grew up… as a full-blooded racist.”

As an aside, I’m not sure what he means by “full blooded” in this context. The dictionary definition refers to a lineage pure and unmixed, a purebred, something you genetically inherit from both parents. Does he mean he followed in the steps of both his parents who were also pure blooded racists? From the story that follows apparently not, because it was his mother who objected to the mistreatment of blacks at a wedding. Nevertheless, whatever a full-blooded racist is, this man says he was one.

So I reflect on my own upbringing and personal experience, and I sincerely don’t think I am, or ever was, a racist. Here’s an official OED definition for reference, “The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.” Nothing about that definition sounds like me, especially because of my sense that race is impossible to define and is hopelessly muddled with the broader concept of ethnicity. “Ethnicist” isn’t a word, but if it were it would better describe what is often called racism. I have experienced the tension that can come when people from different cultures interact, in some cases involving people of the same race but dramatically different cultures. The white American subcultures known as “redneck” or “hillbilly” serve as examples. I have also experienced the feeling of being a minority, in my case the only Caucasian in a department store packed with a thousand Koreans. But I cannot relate to racism in the “pure-blooded” traditional sense, where a person draws conclusions about other people based merely on their biological phenotype.

My experience with encountering other cultures is that every culture is a mixture of good and bad. It is appropriate to compare cultures and say, “There are things in this culture that I admire and think we could learn from.” It is also not wrong to say, “There are aspects of this culture that I do not appreciate and am not eager to follow.” That could superficially sound like racism, but it is not.

For example, someone might say, “people from that culture tend to be lazy.” This is not racist and might be true. To say, “everyone in that culture is lazy” is a hasty generalization and probably not true, but it is not racism either. However, to say, “all people of that skin color are naturally lazy,” is racist and surely wrong.

I recently bought my wife a greeting card for her birthday. It had a picture of a husband and wife on the front and some appropriate text that communicated well what I wanted to say to my wife. When I took it out at home to sign it, I noticed on the back a reference to Hallmark.com/mahogany. The website explains that this card is from a line of cards that “speak to African-American culture.” Some people might react negatively to this. “What would people say if it was Hallmark.com/white?” they might ask. Isn’t this voluntary self-segregation? But notice the confirmation of what I am saying. It doesn’t say, “Speak to people with black skin,” or “speak to people of African descent.” A lot of the rhetoric about racism could be defused if we could talk instead in terms of culture. In this case, if loving your wife is part of African-American culture, then I am for it. The fact that the couple pictured on the front had skin darker than mine was a non-issue when I picked out the card.

Speaking of the rhetoric of racism, it is hard to even consider writing about this topic because of the landmines of language. The Negro College Fund is still going strong (uncf.org) but the censure would be severe if I were to use that word. Similarly there is still an organization advancing the interests of colored people (naacp.org) but I best not use that word either. On the other hand, to use “African-American” will bring accusations of bowing to the demands of political correctness. It is hard to have open conversation when people are so touchy about vocabulary.

Revelation 5:9 is well known in this context. “[Thou] hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation.” Are those words merely four synonymous ways to describe a “multiracial” crowd, or is the Bible itself not suggesting that the issue is more complicated? “Tongue” refers to people of a common language, a central component of culture. “Nation” is the Greek word “ethnos” and is a broad reference to ethnicity. “Tribe” references a people group politically. “People” identifies common descent, perhaps the closest term to what we mean by race. May we get beyond the (dare I say it) black and white world of “you’re a racist” and begin to deal with the multicultural realities of both this world and the one to come?

Mahogany Valentine's Day Card

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You can always look it up

We live in the “Internet age” when the memorization of facts is scorned because “you can always look it up.” Teachers instinctively know there is a seed of truth to this idea, but it is generally a dangerous philosophy. A 2000 paper in the American Educator explores this topic effectively and is worth reading:

‘You Can Always Look It Up’… or Can You?
E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
American Educator, Spring 2000

A couple of excerpts may provide motivation to go read the whole article:

“Their studies provide insight into the paradox that you can successfully look something up only if you already know quite a lot about the subject.”

“To make it worthwhile to look something up, you already need to know 95% of the words.”

I came across the above article reading this blog entry, which is also worth reading:

“Memory Cannot be Outsourced”
The Wing to Heaven blog by Daisy Christodoulou

And here is another thoughtful take on the same subject.

“Kids These Days: Why They Think Differently and What We Should Do About It”
Dan Olinger
BJU Press White Paper

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Only Beautiful, Please

I spent the month of July teaching a Computer Science class at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) in North Korea. It was a good trip, and I greatly enjoyed beginning to build relationships with students and staff. I am not ready to blog about the full details of that trip yet. It is difficult to reconcile all the various sources of information about North Korea with what I saw there.

However, a recent book describes in detail the part of North Korea represented by PUST. The book is titled Only Beautiful, Please: A British Diplomat in North Korea. It was written by John Everard, a former British ambassador to North Korea. His descriptions of life in Pyongyang closely match my experiences there. It is recommended reading for anyone interested in North Korea.

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Chapel follow-up

After my chapel sermon on February 22, several people have asked follow-up questions. The following comments may help to answer some of these questions.

Someone asked about following your parents’ lifestyle and personal preferences. In the case of the Rechabites the practices in question were commanded by Jonadab. When I say, “your parents are strict,” I mean they are strict in the guidelines they try to enforce on you and ask you to follow. Your parents may have personal practices that they do not expect you to follow. You may have their blessing to be less strict in some areas. The application was not intended to mean that you should exactly copy your parents lifestyle. However, where your parents expect you to follow their example, then you need to think seriously about how best to honor them.

Some people have asked about the limits of parental obedience. This can be a difficult question, but there is an interesting answer in the story itself, in Jeremiah 35:11. The command was to live in tents. However, at the time of this meeting with Jeremiah the Rechabites are apparently not actually living in tents. They explain almost apologetically that the Babylonian invasion has forced them to temporarily move to Jerusalem for safety. Nevertheless in verse 10 they say, “we have obeyed.” Jeremiah agrees in verse 18 when he says, “you have obeyed.” This temporary move in time of war is not considered to be disobedience. It acknowledges that there may be legitimate exceptions in special cases. But be careful about our tendency often to think our situation is an exception when it really isn’t.

Finally some have pointed out that the main point of Jeremiah’s sermon was not about honoring your parents. This is true. If you ask, “Why is Jeremiah 35 in the Bible,” I don’t think the primary reason is, “to encourage you to obey and honor your parents.” But the Rechabite illustration is longer than the recorded sermon, and when the sermon is over Jeremiah adds the post-script of verses 18-19 commending the Rechabites for their obedience. So why is the Rechabite illustration itself recorded in the Bible and what do we learn from it? I think verses 18-19 in particular mean that we should reflect on and take as a positive example the Rechabites themselves. We should not limit the application of this chapter merely to national disobedience to God. These things were recorded “for examples,” not just for historical record.

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