the green fields beyond


Location: Charles City, Virginia, United States

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Shooting Pains

As Mel and I prepare to move to Virginia, we're working through the usual checklist: How to change our address, how to transfer insurance, figuring out if our cell-phone network will work in our rural destination, etc. Mundane stuff, mostly.
But by far the most amusing discoveries have been the Virginia gun laws. See, Mel's dad restores and collects firearms, and he's thinking of giving us a couple of rifles when we move. In inquiring whether we needed to register them or anything, I discovered some useful facts:
+ It's illegal to carry concealed guns, nunchuks or Ninja "throwing stars" in Virginia.
+ Unless you are a mailman.
+ Or the HarborMaster of the city of Hopewell (it's just Hopewell! Sorry, Norfolk, better luck next time).
+ It's also illegal to drive with a loaded rifle or shotgun in your vehicle, unless:
a)you are engaged in official military or police duties, Or,
b)you are "any person who reasonably believes that a loaded rifle or shotgun is necessary for his personal safety in the course of his employment or business."

Now, (b) raises some interesting questions...who exactly does this apply to? Drug dealers? Farmers with a grudge against groundhogs? Who?

And best of all, given the vocation we'll be pursuing in Virginia: it's illegal to carry a gun, bowie knife, or other dangerous weapon into a place of worship, during a worship service, "without good and sufficient reason."
Now again, what's that last clause supposed to cover? "I need a shotgun in case the sermon gets boring;" "I never liked that stained glass window, so I'm going to smash it with this katana;" "we're staging a modern setting of the Crucifixion, and the Romans are going to carry M-16s." Etc.
This is going to be an exciting place!

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Interview with Susan Wise Bauer

Blogger Mindy Withrow (co-author of a multi-volume history book for kids) has posted an exclusive interview with Susan Wise Bauer, whose The History of the Ancient World: from the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome recently hit bookstores. Susan opens up about the writing process, learning how to balance motherhood, scholarship, marriage, and job, and how a chicken shed can be a writer's best friend.

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Friday, March 09, 2007

Berenstain Bears response paper

John Keegan begins his now-classic work on human reactions to combat, The Face of Battle, with the disclaimer “I have never been in a battle.” I need to give my equivalent of that at the start: I have never raised a child; my wife and I, as yet, have none. So as I offer a brief critique on a book dealing with parenting, I’m very mindful that most of my knowledge of kids comes from babysitting, tutoring, working with the church youth group, or from books and classes. There is MUCH I don’t know.
Having said that, I’m posting a brief reaction paper, from one of my Counseling classes, on a popular children’s book, The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies (you can read excerpts from the book using the Search Inside feature here). 260 million copies of Berenstain Bears books have been sold since they first appeared, making them perhaps the best-selling children’s series in history. The interaction is much briefer than I’d like (we were under a word limit), and it proved to be more challenging than I’d expected: how do I appreciate the Berenstains’ insights and challenge their blind spots, while not offering simplistic replacements? I’m not completely satisfied with how it turned out, so I really do welcome your comments, criticisms, or suggestions! Here goes...
I was surprised to realize that TBBGTG is aimed not only at kids but also at their parents. Of course the format suggests an audience of children, but the epigraph on the title page reads, “when a cub’s behavior takes a turn for the worst, it’s hard for parents to know what to do first,” which strongly implies that the authors want to educate parents, too. “We know that raising children is hard,” they are saying, “but we think we’ve discovered what to do first.”

As a book for families, TBBGTG connects with everyday concerns and rings true with everyday experience. It deals with mundane struggles of life: how do you provide for and delight your children without “spoiling” them? The Berenstains paint an accurate picture of greedy kids throwing tantrums, and of parents’ rising frustration. Anyone who has tried to safely guide a demanding child through a supermarket will identify with Mama’s exasperation and Papa’s helpless embarrassment (pp. 11-12), and the cubs’ tantrums are all too realistic. The book’s illustrations help, too: we see the passersby staring indignantly at the noisy scene the cubs are making, and we know that Mama and Papa feel the burn of every disapproving glance.

What causes the gimmies? The Berenstains’ narration suggests several contributing factors: overindulgent parenting (page 2), a consumeristic society that bombards the cubs with advertising (page 3), even genetics (pages 21-22 reveal that Papa had the same gimmie-habit when he was young). All these explanations accurately diagnose real-world problems, but the book stays at this shallow, external level and never asks why the cubs are so susceptible to these influences. Why do they get “that old gimmie gleam in their eyes”? What’s going on in their hearts and minds? Are they to blame at all for their behavior? The Berenstains don’t try to address these questions; they stay at a pragmatic level.

How can the gimmies be solved? Papa first tries a moralistic lecture: the cubs should appreciate what they have. They shouldn’t want more because life won’t give them all they want, and they’ll be dissatisfied. Of course this airy, abstract advice doesn’t stick with the cubs for long, and soon they are behaving greedily once more. Now that moral exhortation has failed, Papa gets advice from his parents and tries their more pragmatic approach: the cubs can each pick out one, and only one, item to get each time they go to the store, and if they throw tantrums they’ll get nothing. This plan works beautifully, and soon the cubs are even casting superior looks and self-righteous platitudes at other families whose children have the gimmies.

While it certainly makes trips to the store calmer and less embarrassing, this approach to curbing the cubs’ acquisitiveness leaves much to be desired. It appeals solely to their greed: if they’re well-behaved, they get a treat every time they go to the store, while bad behavior means no treats. They are being bought off. If we press the logic of this approach, it seems to imply either that the cubs are annoyances to be bribed into silence, or that their greed is a legitimate “given” and can only be channeled, not challenged. This is a bleak and ugly view of children. The proposed solution makes the family slightly more functional, for sure, but it’s only a quick-fix or Band-Aid. (Not to mention the obvious practical flaw: what happens when the cubs grow older, and “treats” become more expensive things like convertibles or trips to Hawaii?)

I believe there’s a better way—addressing the cubs not as obstacles or embarrassments but as young “people” who, just like their parents, need to change at the level of the heart. This approach will take a bit longer than the Berenstains’—there are no quick fixes—but I believe it will produce deeper and more lasting change. The parents know, already, that this greed isn’t good for cubs or for the grown-ups the cubs will become (p. 6). So first, Mama and Papa should check their own attitudes and actions: are the parents behaving greedily at home, or are they displaying self-control? (The Berenstains are right that the cubs are influenced by what they see in their parents.) Are Mama & Papa showing love to their kids in a variety of ways, so that the kids don’t only think of love in financial terms? The Berenstains only address the children’s problems, leaving unaddressed Papa’s warning signs: outbursts of rage, empty threats, inconsistent parenting. His unbalanced craving for control and tranquility is just as grave a problem as the cubs’ craving for treats.
Secondly, the parents need to challenge their children’s greed—not in a “you can’t always get what you want” way, but in a “let me help you see what’s going on” way! They need to explain that being selfish is wrong: it’s wrong to want everyone to serve your every wish, and to bully your parents into buying things for you. Specifically, it’s wrong because there is a God who is generous and giving towards us, and wants us to be the same towards others.
But this shouldn’t turn into a condemnatory lecture. I hope that Mama and Papa, all through the cubs’ lives, have been telling them wonderful true stories about Jesus. Jesus could have stayed with his Father in heaven, where he had everything. But he came to earth because we needed to be rescued from all our greedy, hurtful attitudes and actions. He even gave up his life to save us. And now he lives again, full of God’s power and ready to change us, slowly but surely, into unselfish “cubs”! So faith in Jesus is not just a “religious” compartment in life. It’s inseparable from grocery-store tantrums and the way that those tantrums reveal our hearts.
Along with patient, long-term instruction in faith and its implications, Mama and Papa could teach the kids about generosity and responsibility. What about having them save their pennies until they had enough to buy something they wanted? Or broadening their horizons by bringing them along to volunteer at a shelter for cubs who have nothing? And of course, buying them the occasional gumball or coloring book is fine, if the parents aren’t blackmailed into it.
Fighting our gimmies is a lifelong struggle, with no easy answers. But the process will never begin if we only feed our greed.

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Monday, March 05, 2007


After nearly four years of Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Qoheleth, and Paul, this week I'll be reading and commenting on the heaviest piece of writing i've been assigned yet...

The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies. All 29 pages of it.

For one of my Counseling and Psychology classes, with Dave Powlison (who i'd love to be when i grow up), we're reading this Berenstain book to see one way that psychology works at the popular, rather than academic, level. Like Dr. Phil or other popular psychologists, the Berenstains want to educate people and improve life. All well and good. But what assumptions do they make about human nature, about what changes people and what the goal of child-rearing is? Can they actually deliver what they promise?
It may seem over-picky to ask these questions of a kids' book. But kids' books can provide an amazing window into how a society's priorities and how it tries to shape its children, and we ought to take them seriously. I'm looking forward to this, and I'll try to post my response paper later this week.

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