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Monday, December 21, 2009

buy where you shop

Tim O'Reilly consideres the shortsightedness of new online comparison shopping tools:

On the surface, these are great tools for consumers (and there are other applications besides price comparison.) But remember, cutthroat pursuit of the lowest price will hasten the demise of many retailers, while strengthening others (usually, the biggest and most efficient, who can make money on the slenderest margins.)

Sure, you might be able to save money buying online. But if you like to see the product in the store first, it's in your interest to keep the store in business:

Online shopping is terrific: you can get detailed product information, recommendations from other customers, make a choice, and have the product delivered right to your door. But if you aren't satisfied with the online shopping experience, you want to look at the physical product, for example browsing through a book in the store, you owe it to the retailer--and to yourself--to buy it there, rather than going home and saving a few dollars by ordering it online.

Think about it for a minute: the retailer pays rent, orders and stocks the product, pays salespeople. You take advantage of all those services, and then give your money to someone else who can give you a better price because they don't incur the cost of those services you just used. Not only is this unfair; it's short-sighted, because it will only be so long before that retailer closes his or her doors, and you can no longer make use of those services you enjoy.

What does the future hold? Will brick and mortar stores all eventually shut their doors? Will all consumer products someday be bought online?


Thursday, October 22, 2009

missions and culture

Eddie Arthur points to a post by Karl and Sun Dahlfred, asking whether long-term missionaries are obsolete.

The post was spurred by a conversation Dahlfred had with a U.S.-based pastor who believes that sending someone to live in another country is just not strategic or cost effective.

This pastor and his church conduct many short-term training events and seminars throughout the world, gathering together a large group of local leaders and teaching them in an intensive course. When the course is done, the pastor and his team go back to the USA and the local leaders go back to their homes and churches, presumably to put into practice what they have learned.…It is his belief that Western churches can have a much bigger global impact for the Gospel by doing missions through this type of short-term leadership training rather than paying for long-term foreign missionaries (I am defining “missionary” as one who intentionally crosses barriers of language and culture to share the Gospel with those who would normally not have the opportunity to hear the Gospel within their cultural and/or linguistic context).

Dahlfred presents three reasons why long-term missionaries are still needed in some areas. A brief summary:

  1. The Numbers Argument: Some countries just don't have enough local Christian presence to make a difference

  2. The Cultural Contextualization Argument: You can't send prepackaged Bible study materials written from a Western perspective and expect them to be relevant to people living in other cultures.

  3. The Incarnation Argument: Jesus himself set the example by coming to earth to interact with people liviing in a specific time and place.

Dahlfred says much more about each of these — read the whole post — but I want to focus on the second argument, cultural contextualization. Dahlfred says:

In cross-cultural teaching and discipleship, it is necessary to understand where people are coming from in order to most effectively help them to understand and apply the Bible accurately. Prepackaged Bible teaching from a Western perspective, addressing the issues of the Western church, and geared towards listeners from a Western background is going to be limited in its effectiveness because it fails to address many of the challenges and issues that Christians in other parts of the world are facing. I am not saying that such teaching is completely ineffective but merely that it is often limited in its effectiveness and is likely not as effective as its teachers believe it to be. Such training by short-term foreign missionaries can be helpful but it is short-sighted to see such training courses as the only necessary strategy in foreign missions today. Because of cultural differences, Bible teaching needs to be contextualized in order to have a long term impact for a healthy indigenous church and not a Western looking church whose growth will be stunted in local soil. The way to contextualize your teaching for greatest effectiveness is to live with the people you are teaching, to learn their language, to learn their culture, to learn the barriers to the Gospel in that culture, and the particular challenges to discipleship in that culture that may be different than those of another culture. [Emphasis in the original]

Sending and supporting long-term missionaries might also help Western churches see beyond their own cultural biases, to realize that strategery and cost effectiveness might not be God's priorities.

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Monday, August 10, 2009

personal change, social change, and climate change

Derrick Jensen asks, in his article Forget Shorter Showers from Orion Magazine:

WOULD ANY SANE PERSON think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday, or that chopping wood and carrying water would have gotten people out of Tsarist prisons, or that dancing naked around a fire would have helped put in place the Voting Rights Act of 1957 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

And yet, Jenson observes, many of the most-publicized remedies for global warming focus on changes in personal habits.

Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance. An Inconvenient Truth helped raise consciousness about global warming. But did you notice that all of the solutions presented had to do with personal consumption—changing light bulbs, inflating tires, driving half as much—and had nothing to do with shifting power away from corporations, or stopping the growth economy that is destroying the planet?

Suppose every individual in the United States started taking shorter showers, bicycling to the grocery store, buying compact fluorescent light bulbs, using cloth shopping bags, and recycling all our trash. We might feel like congratulating ourselves, but aside from good feelings we wouldn't have accomplished much:

Even if every person in the United States did everything the movie suggested, U.S. carbon emissions would fall by only 22 percent. Scientific consensus is that emissions must be reduced by at least 75 percent worldwide.

The problem, Jensen says, goes to the very core of Western civilization. Our consumption-based culture is slowly choking this fragile earth that we all must share. Industrial forces beyond any one person's control cause more damage than any one person can mitigate. And we can't avert the problem by opting out:

So if we choose option one—if we avidly participate in the industrial economy—we may in the short term think we win because we may accumulate wealth, the marker of “success” in this culture. But we lose, because in doing so we give up our empathy, our animal humanity. And we really lose because industrial civilization is killing the planet, which means everyone loses. If we choose the “alternative” option of living more simply, thus causing less harm, but still not stopping the industrial economy from killing the planet, we may in the short term think we win because we get to feel pure, and we didn’t even have to give up all of our empathy (just enough to justify not stopping the horrors), but once again we really lose because industrial civilization is still killing the planet, which means everyone still loses.

This is a sobering realization for those of us who make a conscious effort to live simply. Though we may gain personal benefits from cutting back, we cannot turn back the tide of industry that is etching a permanent scar on the face of our planet.

As stark as this picture is, Jenson's solution is just as stark:

We can follow the example of those who remembered that the role of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much integrity as possible, but rather to confront and take down those systems.

But Jenson fails to recognize that these same systems have also brought major improvements to our quality of life. More children than ever survive into adulthood. More people overcome diseases that killed our ancestors. More people have enough food to eat. More families have their own homes. More people earn enough money to keep themselves out of poverty, and to save for a comfortable retirement.

We are hooked on the horns of a dilemma. We can't destroy our industrial systems without destroying the good they have brought us. Yet our industrial systems are pushing us over the edge of sustainability. Where do we go from here?

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Monday, August 03, 2009

a real snake oil salesman

Reuters News reports on a man who sells snake oil for a living. I find it morbidly fascinating, the depths to which the old-line news services have sunk.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

the usa is number one

... in child poverty, that is. And it's not even close.

Image source: Think Progress

Here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, it's easy to blame the victims. It's not so easy to acknowledge that we are not all created equal. We are born helpless, wholly dependent on others to take care of our every need. Our lives and our values are shaped extensively by the family and the the community into which we are born. Children born into poverty don't have the same opportunities as children of more privileged families, thus increasing the risk that their own children will be born into poverty. And so we've reached the point where, in the wealthiest nation ever to exist, one out of five children are born into poverty.

Can the cycle be stopped? Probably not entirely, but the experience of other industrial nations shows that the poverty rate can at least be reduced. The only thing missing in the United States is the will to do it.

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

the bible from a new immigrant's eye

Reginald Mortha is a third generation Lutheran pastor from India, who recently immigrated to the United States. Having lived now in two cultures, he is perhaps more aware than most of us how the culture in which we live affects our reading of the Bible.

Yet the use of Scripture in the Christian tradition in India has been enriched by the influence of Hindu ideas of the sacred. For the Western church of the modern world, the idea of the sacred has become an optional spirituality.

As strangers in a new land, new immigrants may have something to teach us about fellowship, too.

I often attend an Indian immigrant church that worships on Sunday afternoons. They are a faithful and loving congregation. They are a mix of families, friends, distant relations, and strangers. They come from Wesleyan, Lutheran, Baptist, and Charismatic Christian traditions. They look after their own, no matter what their situation. They have a insatiable thirst to be the church.

Furthermore, in most third world countries, the Bible's stories are not so foreign as they are to those of us living in Western democracies:

For me, the world the Bible describes is so close to where I come from — a familiar world of pressing problems, famine and poverty, powerful landlords, and imperial forces. For most new immigrants, the poverty of Lazarus eating the crumbs fallen from the rich man's table is not just a story but an experiential and existential reality.

Read the whole article

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