The Strength to be Uncool

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs, left, giving advice to a young writer in the film "Almost Famous." / Columbia Pictures

DURING THE WINTER of my sophomore year in high school, a fistfight broke out in the cafeteria. It wasn’t anybody I knew especially well, and it didn’t get very far, but it marked a day in my life I’ll never forget.

Once the commotion started and the chant of “fight, fight, fight” rose up in the lunchroom, everybody stood to cheer and watch. I did too, craning my neck to try to see better, probably wearing a sophomoric smirk on my face.  It felt to me as if the whole world had gotten to its feet.

Everybody except one person. I only noticed when it was over and all of us turned to sit back down. My friend JJ hadn’t budged. Judging by the fact that his sandwich was almost gone, he hadn’t even let the matter affect his lunch. He didn’t ask any questions about the fight—not who was involved, not whether there was blood, not who won—he just bit into his apple.

The rest of us tittered on about the whole thing. Who we were rooting for, whether it would continue at the park after school, blah blah blah. JJ just stared off into space.

Finally, the contrast felt too much for me, and I said, “Hey JJ, why didn’t you get up?”

“I don’t like fights,” he responded. Then he looked me straight in the eye and said, “You don’t like fights either.”

He was right. JJ and I had been friends for a long time and had talked often about our dim view of high school fights.

Small as it might seem, I couldn’t get the matter out of my head. Why had JJ stayed seated while I stood up?

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COMMENTARY: Rolling a Joint, a Metaphor for a Nation Losing Its Way

Hand rolling marijuana closeup courtesy Shutterstock.

I am sweating on the treadmill when a young man walks onto the patio outside my window, sits at a table, and spreads out his drug paraphernalia.

He folds a piece of white paper to form a work surface. He measures a brown, leafy substance onto the paper, then, using a subway fare card, mixes in a white powder.

Next he puts half of his pile into a cigarette paper and carefully rolls it into cylinder shape. Now he rolls the other half. Both joints go into a plastic medicine bottle.

Off he goes down a stairway, pausing to light up, then on to his apartment in an adjacent building.

The moral calculation is that not a single one of the people around him matters at all. This is the casual face of anomie, the breakdown of moral guidance and resulting alienation from society. 

The Moral Case For Immigration Reform

The moral case for reform as an alternative to an unacceptable status quo — a humanitarian crisis that is hurting untold numbers of people — has motivated many evangelicals to get involved in the push to fix the immigration system. And today, evangelical writer Jim Wallis makes that moral case by painting a vivid picture of the dilemma the country currently faces:

Why There Needs to Be More than One Story

Courtesy One Wheaton

Wheaton students coordinated a sit-in demonstration before a chapel speaker. Courtesy One Wheaton

We may not all be rich. We don’t all have successful careers. We aren’t all healthy. But the one thing we all have are stories. From the beginning of time, we have thrived on connecting via stories. We consume stories for leisure, speak our stories for sanity, and create stories to capture our imagination.

We are swayed by stories. Stories can compel others in ways propositions and facts statements cannot. Our attention wanes at statistics and exegesis, but perks at vivid characters in an engaging plot. Stories have been proven to be an effective rhetorical device. They draw people’s attention in and leaves them satisfied upon conclusion.

You cannot debate a story. While it may be tempting to try and deconstruct the reasoning behind stories when it goes against your agenda, the genius of stories is that it can’t be used as an argument. The story of a chain smoker’s longevity sits uncomfortably in the presence of someone advocating the ills of nicotine. The story just is. We cannot alter it, the only thing we can control is how we choose to respond to it. Any attempts to dishonor or discredit someone’s story is an assault to their humanity.

I'm With Mrs. Gates: Contraception Shouldn't Be Controversial

I have to admire Melinda Gates' chutzpah.

In her recent TED talk and on her blog, Impatient Optimist, Gates insists that "contraception is not controversial" — when, in the last year, it has been explosively controversial, with many Christians (not just Catholic Christians) seeing the "contraceptive mandate" as a real threat to religious freedom.

Yesterday, the new Affordable Care Act laws took effect, meaning that most employers must now provide free birth control coverage in their health insurance policies. Whether it constitutes a threat to religious liberty and whether  remains to be seen — faith-based groups with religious objections to the law have a "safe harbor" until Aug. 1, 2013. Whether HHS will create an extension of this harbor is as yet unknown.

Regular readers of my blog know where I stand on health insurance. As to the contraceptive mandate specifically, I'd prefer not to wade in those particular waters — David Gibson had a good piece if you're interested in the question of whether the mandate kills religious freedom. However, I do want to consider two small points about contraception that lean me toward the (self-identified Catholic!) Melinda Gates point of view:

1. Contraception doesn't take life;
2. Women want contraception.