Sunday, September 19, 2010

HELP: My Essay for Admission to Divinity School

Dear reader,

As you may or may not know, I am applying to divinity school this fall. If you do not already know, this unfortunately does not mean I will be studying divination (re: Harry Potter's coursework in reading into the future), but is actually more akin to what some call "seminary."

I am applying to several schools that I have slim chances of being accepted to, and I need YOUR help! I am posting here one version of my personal statement, and I would be indebted to you forever, dear reader, if you would give me any critical, constructive feedback. Post it here, or email me at julieknopp@gmail.com. The more feedback the merrier!

Warning: If you have been reading this blog or if you have talked to me in the past four years, this essay might sound a bit like a broken record. Also, these essays sometimes involve a vomit-inducing amount of tooting one's own horn. My apologies! Here goes!

I consider “Pops” one of my greatest spiritual mentors. Pops has been homeless for over thirty years and earns astounding wages collecting gratuities from passersby on the street as he invites them to sign his clothing. Over the past decade, he has filled up almost five hundred coats, shirts, and hats with signatures. While it started out as a way to survive, Pops now calls this his ministry. Through this practice, he makes each passerby feel truly special. Without judgment, Pops listens to their stories in a way that makes them feel worthy of being heard. His ministry has taught me to never doubt the value of any human being or their story.

I met Pops when I was 17, while volunteering at Peace House, where I first began to explore the possibility of a vocation in community ministry. Often defined by its motto “a place to belong,” Peace House is a spiritual oasis for the homeless, drug-addicted and mentally-ill of downtown Minneapolis. It also draws a considerable number of members from wealthy, suburban communities attracted to its indiscriminate love and acceptance. Few other places offer the opportunity to gather in roundtable discussion for an hour every day with individuals of diverse religious, political and socioeconomic backgrounds. We discuss belief about God, sources of joy and where we find meaning.

From hundreds of such discussions, I discovered that there is immense transformative possibility in opening the mind up to dialogue with people of different convictions from our own—to the unacknowledged truths another’s story might have to offer. I find my spiritual growth is most inhibited by the assumption that I already know. At Peace House, I realized that diversified community dialogue offers an invaluable exposure to our assumptions about truth. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). In this way, rarely a day passes at Peace House when I am not confronted by the precarious nature of one of my theological assumptions or lifestyle choices and forced to reevaluate my logic. I seek balance as I confront the contrast between the theologies of the privileged and the theologies of the oppressed, present with eerie consistency at Peace House.

In my last year at Kalamazoo College, my thesis project came to reinforce this belief in the power of community dialogue. Through 24 semi-structured interviews, I sought to examine how “mega-church” evangelicalism might shift traditional patterns in the relationship between belief about God and social class. I was originally hesitant to take my advisor’s suggestion of focusing on the evangelical movement, which I had prejudged as a reactionary faith culture. Yet, after only a few interviews at the “mega-church,” I found that these evangelicals seem to be more passionate about social justice than any mainline Protestant or Catholic church I had ever come in contact with before. Over the course of three years, this church alone donated over $2 million towards AIDS reduction efforts. Engaging in dialogue with evangelicals brought me to see their humanity and their invaluable contributions to the world.

Based on my experiences working at Peace House and writing my thesis, I posit that encountering another reality beyond one’s own primary socio-political environment works towards a theology more accommodating of the vast range of human experience. For this reason, my central academic goal at Candler School of Theology begs further exploration of the social context of religious belief. Engaging Marx, Niebuhr, and James Cone, I hope to explore the notion of theology as subjective speech about God. How might we enrich our theological worldviews through dialogue or through exposure to new socio-cultural settings? I believe my previous study on this subject would bring a unique analytical edge to the classroom at Candler.

Through years of work at Peace House and through study abroad in Ju├írez, Mexico and rural Thailand, I would bring to Candler the ability of relating to people from diverse backgrounds and lifestyles. My experience coordinating interfaith discussion at Peace House, as well as my experience as a student chaplain at Kalamazoo College, has helped me develop a set of skills for facilitating faith-based dialogue. I would be eager to put these skills to work as a member of Candler’s Social Concerns Network. In such a forum, I could be of service in developing constructive dialogues between students of theology and the greater Atlanta community. Given my experiences of working with a diverse client base in both a university setting and an inner-city environment, I could help bridge the gaps that often exist between academia and public interest. I hope to continue building strong theological and personal communication skills for social ministry through courses with Dr. Jenkins and Dr. Burkholder.

Since the time when Pops' ministry of collecting signatures first inspired me, I have ruminated over how best to implement my talents to apply to our shared value of acknowledging the inherent worth of each individual's story. My conclusion has brought me back to how I met Pops, as I define my central vocational goal as generating innovation in religious dialogue. I am energized by the possibilities for constructive community exchange that I see in my future. While my ideas remain imperfect, my enthusiasm for them is limitless. With help from more experienced religious leaders at Candler, I am confident I could implement such a career in ministry in an influential way.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Six Things I've Learned at College

In just twenty-one days, all of us "K" College seniors will become graduates. So, what has it been worth-- beyond the diploma (fingers crossed!)? Despite my frustrations at this un-round number, there are precisely six things that pop up as being the biggest "take-home" messages for me, and I will share them now.

6. Defining Success in Terms of Community. Cliche as it sounds, I came to "K" with a sense of individualism and hopes of "traveling the world." But in only my second term, that idea started to wear away as I read Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life by Robert Bellah et al. for my Intro to Sociology course. The authors conducted an extensive series of interviews concluding that a strong sense of individualism generally leads to the feeling of isolation and a lack of fulfillment. While Americans generally think of freedom as freedom from, we often fail to consider a definition of freedom as emerging from ties to community through which we can discover our true strengths and our roles in a society where we are dependent upon the labor and livelihood of one another. Early American leaders, like John Winthrop, embraced this idea, defining success as: “the creation of community in which a genuinely ethical and spiritual life could be lived.” Duty, he believed, does not make us less free, but is instead the mark of a free person.

5. "If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude. Don't complain." In the past 4 years, I've definitely come to take this piece of advice from Maya Angelou more seriously. It's fairly accurate to say I spent the better part of my four years at "K" complaining because I didn't like it here. I won't bore you with the details since many of you have heard them ad nauseam. I still see 100% where I was coming from with those complaints, but it was absolutely ridiculous for me to stick around and continue to complain about it. As the sort of person who liked to start what I finish, I hesitated to see the idea of transferring as anything more than a cop out or a lack of follow-through. Now, instead, I've started to believe that there is nothing wrong with changing one's mind.

(I should add that I now have Stockholm Syndrome and have actually started to--eek-- like it here.)

4. Truly Free Thought Requires Effort to Distance Oneself from the Peer Group. By the end of my twenty-four interviews on religious belief for my SIP (thesis project), it came to my attention that I could literally predict almost exactly what a person would believe about God and scripture, and how a person would exercise those beliefs based on their parents' beliefs, early religious community, and their social class. This creeped me the hell out. Everyone was able to explain themselves with such conviction, even when, as in the case of upper-middle class liberals, that meant no conviction at all about anything.

As I mentioned in a pervious post, as I did my SIP, the vast majority of "K" College people I mentioned it to would make some sort of disparaging remark about evangelicals (or one could read the equivalent sentiment on their face). At the beginning, I identified with their reactions, but as I really got into dialogue with evangelicals about their beliefs and practices, I was amazed by their willingness to grapple with questions of faith and make serious sacrifices for their beliefs.

Moreover, as my favorite Science Fiction author Robert Heinlein once said: "I never learned from a man who agreed with me." There is immense possibility in being willing to open the mind up to dialogue with people with different political, social and religious convictions from our own. (But by this I don't just mean tolerance, which I often find to be a sort of liberal cover-all cop-out, instead I mean a true interest in the perhaps unacknowledged truths that another's story might have to offer.)

3. When people tell you you have a stupid idea, you may be on to something. During the summer of my freshman year, I delivered flyers en masse to the mailboxes of well-to-do homes in the Twin Cities. Probably hundreds. I advertised my abilities: "Spanish-speaker, can make balloon animals, can comfort the elderly, can mow lawns, etc." I essentially offered to do anything legal for money; I was desperate for a job not working for "The Man" at Snyder's (a Walgreens-like chain drug store), as I had been for so long. The idea was absolutely torn to shreds by those who I proposed it to before executing the plan. After I handed the flyers out, a woman called me, offering to pay me a very high hourly rate to look after her luxurious home (since she is usually out of town) and to occasionally driver her places since she was partially blind. She also offered to help me practice Spanish and French in the process, since she was fluent in both languages. This brought the possibility for, if I may be so bold, one of the most high-paying, cushy and ideal college jobs one could hope for! Unfortunately, I couldn't take it because I would be moving around from Michigan to Minnesota so often and was looking for more of a brief project, but if I had listened to all of the nay-sayers I never would have encountered such an opportunity!

I had a similar experience before I went on Border Studies. I lost count of how many people seemed to show a gag reflex when I told them about going to the border-- "Why would anyone want to go to Juarez!?" Turns out, it was one of the most fun, fulfilling and edifying experiences of my life.

Who knows-- maybe my personalizable food thermometer invention really will be the next big thing!

2. "Without friends, no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods." -Aristotle, Nichomacean Ethics. One of my greatest joys and biggest pains has been my habit of having a few friends who most people don't like. In one of my favorite books, Advice on Dying and Living a Better Life by the current Dalai Lama, he writes: "Even though we all equally want happiness and do not want suffering, you like the faces of some people and think 'these are my friends' and dislike the faces of others and think 'these are my enemies.'" My friendships have been a window into a different way of living and a different way of seeing that keep me sane (while at other times drive me insane). They have offered a wonderful opportunity to feel free of constraints of arbitrary, petty personality preferences.

I will never forget coordinating my 13th birthday party, and after having drafted the guest list, having parents tell me I wasn't allowed to invite someone on the list, simply because of his reputation as an "odd duck" and perhaps "troubled." It broke my heart, not so much because I couldn't invite him, but more because of what this shows about how our society operates, on such an arbitrary system of some people as "in," some as "out." I hope never to sacrifice a single opportunity for friendship for the sake of this societal construct, as each one is an absolute treasure for different reasons.

1. It's a love issue. Oprah has said that her biggest epiphany in her struggle with weight has been realizing it as a love issue-- "Do I love myself enough and do I value my body enough to discipline myself to exercise and to eat foods that love me back?"

While I've always believed that the most moral thing to do is to give until you're blue in the face (and then some), it's come to my attention that ignoring one's own needs and sense of dignity is as bad as ignoring another's. And the people around us pay the price for when we short ourselves. I've seen myself and many friends give and give and forgive and forgive, especially in romantic situations, that end up culminating in no one's benefit. That is to say, as Maya Angelou said: "When people tell you who they are, believe them-- the first time." Giving until one is blue in the face, often never satisfies the "getter" while constantly effacing the dignity of the "giver." Understanding giving to others and understanding my own lifestyle as love issues that require a fine balance will continue to be instrumental in the way I live.

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

An Update on the St. John's Wort Experiment

For those of you who haven't heard, I have spent the past month taking St. John's wort, an herbal dietary supplement, in the doses for which it is used to treat mild depression to see if I could induce in myself an ever-euphoric mood. If I could summarize the results of this experiment in two words they would be "epic fail." While I recorded a significant increase in mood during the third and fourth weeks of the experiment, it was not worth the side effects, which included skin that can be burnt with only a few minutes of moderate sun exposure, decreased complexion beauty, and increased anxiety. 

One of the top five Knopp family values transmitted to me as I was growing up was "sunburns will be the death of you." Thus, when I got my sunburn on just an average day, I knew something was up. Worse yet, I was more irritable about the subject than I usually would be because of my increased anxiety. To be fair, it is not possible for me to know if these symptoms were the effects of St. John's wort, but since they were extremely unusual, I think I can assert these claims with some assurance. 

Anyway, to those who say "I told you so" about this experiment, I'll just respond that knowing is better than not knowing. Now, I'll never have to wonder if I could have lived life on an untamable high without the use of illegal drugs. But, needless to say, I'm not taking St. John's wort anymore.  

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

To Your Health!: A Proselytizing Rant

The United States has done a progressively impressive job of demonizing the use of tobacco over the past quarter-century. Most people who smoke, particularly in upper-middle class culture, realize or at least have come to terms with the fact that they might be judged or ostracized for this habit. The demonization of this unhealthy lifestyle choice is sensible (smoking kills), and some other countries have done the same. (Example: My bosom friend Ilana Kresch has saved a cigarette box from Chile that, when translated, reads: "Warning: these cigarettes are killing you.") Yet, the equally detrimental decision of many to lead a sedentary lifestyle has, somehow, largely dodged criticism. While it is generally acceptable to say, for example, "I want you to quit smoking because I care about you" telling a friend "I want you to start exercising because I care about you" is far less acceptable. Yet, the research on the negative impacts of a sedentary lifestyle are practically as striking as that of tobacco use. Leading medical research indicates that exercise is linked to increased positive mood and mental health, creativity, increased energy and decreased risk of chronic disease.

I find excuses like "I don't like to do it" or "It's not fun" ineffectual in lieu of the smoker's excuse "I like to do it" or "It makes me feel good." You might notice a parallel. As Dr. Oz says (I feel great shame knowing that this is the second time I'm citing him on this newborn blog), regardless of whether or not one has found an entirely "fun" form of it, exercise should be like brushing your teeth; you do it every day, even when you don't want to. (But it can be fun. Speed walking with a friend, being involved in a sports team, or playing with your dog... fun! Everyone can find something they enjoy.) 

My point? A little piece of me dies every time I hear a shamelessly sedentary person lambasting smoking or a particular smoker. (Not that we should avoid passing any judgment ever for fear that we are speaking hypocritically... but this hypocrisy particularly peeves me because it is so common.)

Okay. Proselytizing rant over. What I really want to talk about on the subject of health and well-being is the exciting new research on Blue Zones. If you're not familiar with them, Blue Zones refers to the communities in or regions of the world where people live the longest and healthiest lives, often living over 100 years with limited disease. Examples of Blue Zones include Sardinia, an island off the coast of Italy that boasts the largest population of centenarians in the world, Loma Linda, California, a community composed largely of Seventh Day Adventists, and Okinawa, an island off the coast of Japan with the highest disability-free life expectancy in the world.

Scientists are studying these longevity hot-spots to identify threads in lifestyle, and they have developed eight principles that lead to such healthy and long lives:
-Eating a plant-based diet (limited meat consumption)
-Regular, low-intensity exercise (i.e.: gardening, playing with kids, etc.)
-Family-oriented lifestyle
-Practicing a communal faith once a week (this reduces risky behaviors and encourages scheduled time for reflection/meditation)
-Identifying a sense of overarching purpose
-Eating to only 80% fullness
-Drinking wine moderately and responsibly
-Living in community that supports the healthful sort of lifestyle outlined above

To hear more detail about these communities and their lifestyle, click here for a video-clip. I hope learning about Blue Zones has been as edifying for you as it was for me. For one, it has inspired me to abandon my lifestyle of sobriety for a glass of wine per day. Huzzah! 

Monday, April 26, 2010

You Ate What!?: Uncommon Foods & the Beauty of the Sandwich

I must confess that there was a time in my childhood where I ate plain butter on occasion. To be totally honest, it wasn't butter. It was actually I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! Yikes. That was a dark period in my life.

I find it fascinating to hear the different things people enjoy consuming that elicit the response: "You eat what!?," which comes about most often in cultural exchange. I was a bit surprised when I first encountered the popular Mexican street food called elotes, or roasted corn on the cob smeared with mayonnaise, hot sauce, sour cream, cheese, lemon juice, salt, butter or any combination of the above. As it turns out, that's delicious! By contrast, I found it far more difficult to enjoy several Thai snacks including deep-fried crickets and sticky rice, bees, and live shrimp. It just doesn't seem comfortable to put something that's still moving into one's mouth. However, I do recognize that those are all totally legitimate forms of protein, and I think, given more time, I could grow to appreciate a good deep-fried cricket.

But there's no need to go abroad; there's no shortage of unusual foods being consumed by our very neighbors. I've recently gathered some information on this topic, and I'd like to throw out a few under-appreciated food combinations I've come across in my research and personal life:
-(Vanilla) ice cream with slices of cucumber and sunflower seeds (Qiqi Puranchenkova)
-Apparently, dipping bread in maple syrup or honey mixed with peanut butter is a Southern treat. One might also enjoy dipping honey in pretzels (Caleb Kennedy, Shira Kresch)
-Potatoes and nutmeg
-My immediately family has always enjoyed graham crackers dipped or crushed in milk and banana with peanut butter, respectively

One of the foods that has most wowed me in the course of my life is a Southern-style cake. I've yet to actually experience one, but it is on my list of things to eat before death. To give you a sense for their wow factor, one woman trained in the tradition reported that "three or four [layers] weren't nothing to brag about." A really well-made cake might have up to thirteen layers! But, don't let your imagination run too wild; the layers are more like pancakes than the layers us Yankees are used to. You can read about and watch the art of making these cakes and get the recipe here. I'm still on the hunt for someone with enough chutzpah to try making this with me.

While we're on this topic of things edible, I must share a new fascination of mine: the sandwich. So taken for granted. I only recently learned that the sandwich is named after an 18th century aristocrat named John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich (a town in Kent, England). He would often order his valet to bring him meat in between two slices of bread, and others who started to enjoy it would order, saying: "the same as Sandwich!" He reportedly liked the food because it allowed him to eat and play cards at the same time, without getting his fingers greasy like eating meat plain. Once my fascination with sandwiches took hold, I discovered the most amazing website: Insanewiches, which highlights highly creative and bizarre sandwiches (see: "best insanewiches" in the right hand column). Inspired, I'm working on creating my own signature sandwich, to be appropriately called: The Julie. The genius behind The Julie, is not the same sort of creativity as seen in the Insanewiches, but rather it is that the majority of the contents are made into a paste, so you don't have to deal with the frustration of whole tomato slices, avocado slices, etc. falling out of your sandwich. It's very stressful and it ruins everything. So, the basic recipe for The Julie recommends the following layers between two slices of whole wheat bread (Arnold's is a quality, yet cheap brand): hummus, signature guacamole (half of an avocado, minced tomato/mushroom/jalapeno pepper/garlic/onion to taste), cucumber embedded into the hummus and guacamole to ensure nothing falls out, and spinach. It's still a work in progress and I'm toying with the radical concept of fruit on sandwiches, especially with dried berries and thin slices of apple. All input and constructive criticism is welcome; I have big dreams for The Julie.

Postscript: I am very interested in learning about more under-appreciated food combinations from anyone who knows of any.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

What do Einstein, Charlie Chaplin and Howard Hughes Have in Common?

The answer? They are all considered "eccentrics." In this post, I will do a highlight reel of my new favourite book, entitled: Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness by Dr. David Weeks and Jamie James, wherein the two psychologists present a study they conducted throughout the U.S. and Great Britain to explore what an eccentric is and what causes a person to be one. Before this study, psychological research on eccentricity was almost nonexistent, since eccentrics do not seek psychological treatment because their condition usually does not impose suffering. Weeks and James hoped that examining the sources of eccentricity might shed light on how we can all better become ourselves. Throughout the course of their research, they were amazed to find that eccentrics seemed significantly happier and more comfortable with themselves than the population at large.

The study, which they argue makes for the largest population group ever sampled by a group of psychologists short of the U.S. census, found that the prevalence of eccentrics in the population could be estimated at about 1 in every 10,000 people, with the highest per capita population to be found in none other than Minneapolis/St. Paul! While the people in the study varied greatly in character, Weeks and James developed a list of shared characteristics among eccentrics, including: "idealistic (wanting to make the world a better place and the people in it happier); happily obsessed with one or more hobbyhorses (usually five or six); intelligent; opinionated and outspoken, convinced that he or she is right and that the rest of the world is out of step; noncompetitive, not in need of reassurance or reinforcement from society; not particularly interested in the opinions or company of other people, except in order to persuade them to his or her--the correct--point of view; single; usually the eldest or an only child; and a bad speller."

The book also includes a review of historical eccentrics from Benjamin Franklin to Davy Crockett. My personal favourite is John Chapman (1774-1845), better known as Johnny Appleseed, who "devoted his whole life to the apple, traveling across the country planting countless thousands or millions of apple trees over an area of land estimated to exceed 100,000 square miles... He dressed in old coffee sacks with holes cut out for his arms and legs, and went barefoot except in the extreme cold... The one thing that could ruffle his placid demeanor was to hear any slanderous reference made to the apple in the Garden of Eden."

While I recommend that you read the book for yourself, I can't help but share the portraits of a few of my other favourite eccentrics from the study itself:

-Minnesotan Marvin Staples walks everywhere backwards, believing living life in reverse makes him feel younger and has cured him of chronic backache and arthritis in his knees. (He is in the Guinness Book of World Records for traveling the furthest distance by walking backwards.) He said, "The Hyokas Indians used to walk backward trusting the Great Spirit to catch them if they fell. The Hyokas and the Sioux also did things backwards to make people laugh and to forget about their problems."

-John Slater, who has spent the better part of the past ten years living in a cave in Scotland which floods with water at high tide, is the only person to have ever walked from Land's End to John O'Groats (in Great Britain) in his bare feet, wearing only striped pajamas (but accompanied by his dog who wore suede booties). He once volunteered to spend six months in the London Zoo as part of a "human exhibit" to raise money for the conservation of pandas, but zoo authorities "foolishly declined" this offer. Slater's life goal is to raise a million pounds for charity. His motto is: "Wag your tail at everyone you meet."

-One man, who became completely enthralled by the legend of Robin Hood, moved to Sherwood Forest and legally adopted the name "Robin Hood." "He now wears a historically accurate medieval forester's costume--all in green, complete with longbow, a quiverful of arrows and a feathered hat--seven days a week." 

Weeks and James conclude that certain types of deviant behavior can be healthy and life-enhancing. Eccentrics embrace their freedom to be original and inspire others to do so. Moreover, this book reminded me of the pervasive societal misconception that "It matters what people think of me." The authors show that realizing that as a foolish notion unleashes a wealth of possibility for our human potential and happiness. 

But this book also got me wondering: have I ever even met an eccentric, if they are only about 1 in every 10,000 people? (Maybe Mark Smith, K College folks?) Anyway, I am on the hunt now, and I would love to hear from you, if you think you might know one!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Two Steps to a Smarter, Happier Nation

"Dr. Oz"* (of Oprah Show fame) believes that in order to do the right thing, we must make the right thing to do the easy thing to do. For instance, Dr. Oz has replaced the couch in front of his TV with a stationary bike, making it easy to sprinkle his daily routine with plenty of heart-healthy exercise. In this way, I have devised two plans that have the potential to relatively easily increase my breadth of knowledge and quality of life that might also work well for the population at large.

First, I propose educational music. Today, I memorized all of the books of the New Testament in order by listening to this song. It only took a few listens, and I think it is now stuck with me for months (and maybe years). Now I'm working on learning the capitals of hispanic countries with this video. As the inept Spanish teach in the linked video shows, educational, a'cappella songs are intrinsically self-deprecating for the singer, which only adds to the fun! 

What if the easy listening music "Muzak" we are constantly bombarded with at public establishments ("Crocodile Rock," "Brown Eyed Girl," smooth jazz, etc.) and the catchy tunes we listen to in our leisure time actually had this sort of practical application to our lives (instead of all being about love/romance/sex/moral deviancy)?

The only example in popular culture that comes close to this "educational music" I am proposing that I can think of is Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire." In addition, Bill Nye and a few other children's "edutainers" (comes from educational entertainers and is a term I just coined) have worked to build a relationship between education and popular music. However, the "edutainer" approach falls short of my vision by only targeting children and by often doing parodies of already popular songs. Let me know if you can think of any further examples of educational music in popular culture.

My second idea, regarding how to increase the general well-being of our population, is that St. John's wort become a more common, widely-marketed dietary supplement for your average Joe. For those who aren't familiar with it, St. John's wort is a plant often used as an herbal treatment for depression (and it has been widely documented as an effective treatment for mild forms). It is an over-the-counter dietary supplement with minimal side effects that induces positive mood. 

I have designed an experiment, starting today, that seeks to test the effectiveness of St. John's wort on a person not suffering from depression (i.e., me). I track my mood on a 9-point scale (5 being neutral, 1 being "depths-of-despair" and 9 being "cloud 9") three times per day and will continue to do so for two months. For the first week (this week), I will not take St. John's wort, and then for the following seven weeks I will consume it at the recommended dose for the mildly depressed. At the end of the two months, I will chart the mood records to reveal the results. I have confirmed with a medical doctor that this study should not pose any significant threats to my health.

I realize the obvious weaknesses of this study: the subjectivity of self-evaluated moods, the placebo effect, etc. Nonetheless, I think the study has the potential to yield some interesting results that might suggest the need for further, more reputable research. If it does induce an almost euphoric mood in an already happy person, I think it could help us "all just get along" a little better. Expect a post soon on the progress of this cutting-edge experiment!

*Note: I do not endorse Dr. Oz.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

SkyMall: The Best Mall

Many of you may be familiar with SkyMall, the shopping magazine you find in front of you on airplanes, filled with delightful and zany inventions. For years I've considered it one of the greatest joys of air travel (although you can peruse their products anytime, it's just not the same). If you're familiar with SkyMall, and with me, you might find we're a perfect match-- both creating unique, innovative products that no one else seems to appreciate.

Let me first offer a sample of my own work-in-progress product list. My personal favourite is a fashionable food thermometer, which makes you look chic and trendy while ensuring that you don't ruin the rest of your week by eating a burrito that is hotter at its core than you expected. (It has happened to all of us.) You can even customize it to your ideal food temperature, so nothing is ever too hot or too cold. That's right, Goldilocks, this one is for YOU!

Another invention, to which most of the credit goes to my collaborator and "fraintance" Jeff Hollenbeck, is a lead, pen(cil) stamp used for standardized testing. When fellow students are losing precious seconds filling in circles like monkeys for multiple choice questions on the ACT or SAT, you can just stamp, stamp, stamp your heart away with this mechanism! To be totally honest, this idea is becoming less and less marketable with the onset of computerized test-taking. But who knows how many students could advance their scores on the ACT/SAT in this year alone with the release of the lead stamp invention?!

By comparison, SkyMall features such unusual products as tools for "potty training" your cat to use your personal toilet (seen here), a ball-point "spy" pen boasting a hidden video-recording device (seen here), and a "gentle" alarm clock that slowly emits light, rejuvenating fragrances, and soothing nature sounds to wake you up over the course of a half an hour (seen here).

The only weakness to SkyMall, other than the fact that I am not on their team, is their marketing. First of all, they make no effort to get noticed on ground (not just in the sky). The do not circulate or publicize outside of airplanes (and the internet), and in doing so they're missing out on expanding their customer base to elderly or sick people who don't travel, people who are afraid of planes, and people who don't have enough money to fly (but who might be willing to splurge on a secret spy pen). Now, I will explain a second weakness in marketing. Listed under the heading: "The Greatest Gift... is to help others help themselves" in SkyMall magazine are the "E-pen," which removes unwanted facial hair on women, and an anti-snoring aid, amongst other products. These items should never be gifts. SkyMall needs a loyal customer base; giving these gifts to one's friends might end the friendships and thus would not provide such a stable base of support.

Hopefully, it can be understood by the preceding discussion that SkyMall and I are a match made in heaven. We are both dedicated to innovation in the daily lives of common people. We both see the importance of potty training our cats, spying in our day-to-day encounters, and testing the temperature of food before we take the risky leap of taking a bite (presumably they would like this product as well). My hope is that someone from SkyMall reads this and sees that I could be capable of writing catchy blurbs for their products, critical analysis of SkyMall corporate growth and loss, or coming up with the product lists for each magazine. My more realistic hope is that you have gained a new appreciation for SkyMall and will do a thorough read-through of the magazine the next time you travel on commercial air.

Notes: Credit goes to Shira Kresch for reminding me of the joys of SkyMall. On an unrelated note, let me offer my apologies for coming off as a profit-driven, capitalist swine in this post.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Why Evangelical Christians Matter and Why I (Sometimes) Like Them

Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history at Columbia University, calls the tremendous ongoing growth of the evangelical movement the most important religious and social movement in American history. Other scholars call it a revolution in American religion, restructuring our political and religious identity as a nation. Whether you agree or disagree, you are surely familiar with evangelicalism, the widespread adoption of a Bible-based worldview promoted by a diverse group of Christians who, over the past twenty-five years, have kept growing and growing, and growing. It’s not difficult to see this boom happening in my home state of Minnesota, with the unparalleled growth of Eagle Brook Church, an evangelical community started in 1991 that now boasts the highest weekend attendance of any church in the state (over 11,000). In December, Eagle Brook, which broadcasts televised sermons from its Lino Lakes campus to sites in Spring Lake Park and White Bear Lake, released to the press that it will be building two additional sites in Blaine and Woodbury, respectively. The Eagle Brook experience may seem foreign to Christians who are new to the “mega-church” scene; the sights and sounds of Eagle Brook include stadium seating, rock-type music, smoke on the stage, and a few hands waving in the air.

This past summer, I conducted twenty-four interviews at three Twin Cities churches as part of my Senior Individualized Project ("senior thesis") at Kalamazoo College. I studied Eagle Brook’s various campuses, House of Hope Church on Summit Avenue in Saint Paul, and Central Presbyterian Church in downtown St. Paul to examine how the traditional patterns linking social class and belief about God in America are challenged by the increasing popularity of evangelicalism among the upper-middle class. One of the most important findings of the study posits that the congregation at Eagle Brook demonstrates a stunning in-group theological unity (i.e. everyone believes the same things), unparalleled by mainline Protestant churches like House of Hope and Central. In my analysis, I argued that Eagle Brook does this by directly defining expectations for the beliefs and behaviors of its congregants and by capitalizing on emotionally-charged group experiences with the sacred. They achieve this with culturally relevant services and by demonstrating mastery of the art of oral communication in a nation of talkers.

In a left-leaning state, there is no shortage of negative stereotypes about evangelicals. When I told fellow Minnesotans (or fellow students) about my thesis, they often responded with disparaging perceptions about evangelicals. Upon beginning the study, I myself assumed that evangelical culture embraces a stagnant thinking and irrational faith. After attending a few services and conducting several interviews, I discovered that, on the contrary, “Eagle Brookers” invest great energy into wrestling with the doubt and mystery of a Christian faith. Further, Eagle Brook places a radical emphasis on reducing global and local poverty beyond that of any church I had ever seen or heard of before.

Like many others, before I began the study I found it hard to rationalize the staggering costs of the facilities at Eagle Brook, with the construction of the Lino Lakes campus alone totaling $24 million. But throughout the course of the study, I began to see the astounding social impact of “Eagle Brookers.” According to my interview with executive pastor Rev. Scott Anderson, in the past three years alone, Eagle Brook has raised $2 million for the reduction of AIDS in Mozambique. Anderson said, “We can do more, too. I see it as a failure of the church that people…are starving. Shame on us when the Church of Jesus Christ is more worried about the air conditioning level in an office than about the people who are dying all around us.”

According to the Eagle Brook Church website (eaglebrookchurch.com), since 2007, “Eagle Brookers” have filled and donated 4,300 backpacks to kids in need through Here’s Life Inner-City. Their March 2009 food drive yielded 23,100 pounds of food and almost $17,000 in cash donations for local food shelves. In November 2009, Eagle Brookers donated 5,753 gift-filled shoeboxes to be given to children in desperate situations around the world through Operation Christmas Child. The list of local and global social contributions goes on, and the point remains that Eagle Brook is making an astonishing social impact.

The facilities may be expensive, but the Eagle Brook community realizes that with such privilege comes great responsibility. Whether or not you agree with the theological or political opinions of the majority of evangelicals, there is no denying that the seriousness with which social issues are addressed at most “mega-churches” and the magnitude of their impact on poverty reduction leaves most mainline Protestant churches (and many secular non-profits) in the dust. As Eagle Brook and its like-minded churches nation-wide plan even more radical goals for poverty reduction in the coming years, I look forward to a more just local and global community. (Click here for a two-minute snippet of a sermon from Willow Creek Church, which inspired the "mega-church" movement. Click here for my favourite full-length sermon from "Willow" on enemy love.)