More on the Regnerus Study

The University of Texas at Austin concluded that no formal investigation in warranted in the charges of scientific misconduct that had been directed at Mark Regnerus. In their written statement the University indicated that it had

… conducted an inquiry to determine whether the accusations made by writer Scott Rose had merit and warranted a formal investigation. After consulting with a four-member advisory panel composed of senior university faculty members, the Office of the Vice President for Research concluded in a report on Aug. 24 that there is insufficient evidence to warrant an investigation.

The university brought in as an outside consultant, Dr. Alan Price, to review the inquiry:

Price, a private consultant, is former associate director of the Office of Research Integrity in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Price found that the inquiry was handled in a manner consistent with university policy and indicated the process was “also consistent with federal regulatory requirements of inquiries into research misconduct.”

What Does it Mean to Be “Unbroken”?

Every summer for the past maybe 20 summers our family has gotten together for a vacation with extended family. We have for several years now had a book club. This year we read Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.

There is a helpful summary from the author’s web site:

The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini. In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails. As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile. But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown.

Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater. Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will.

Here is a video summary you might find interesting, with Zamperini interviewed:

His conversion to Christianity after the war is also an important part of his story (at a Billy Graham revival, by the way).

For those interested in psychology of religion research, the book raises questions about personal transformation through religious conversion. It is interesting the promise Zamperini made to God when at a desperate moment in his own life. He would remember that at the revival after the war. Other areas of interest would include resilience in the face of adversity and how people make meaning or significance out of events in their lives, including trauma.

The title of the post asks, “What does it mean to be ‘Unbroken’?” because part of our book club discussion covered whether Zamperini was ever “broken” by the many events, trials, and traumatic experiences that transpired in his life. We didn’t reach consensus, and I’ll leave the reader to answer the question for him or herself.  What I will say is that Unbroken is a powerful story of endurance and redemption, and I recommend it.

The Dinner Table Debate

The Dinner Table Debate between Dan Savage and Brian Brown has now been posted. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the context for the debate, it refers back to a talk Savage gave to a high school journalism group. I blogged on it here. It is interesting how civil people can be when the discussion is set up to facilitate actual engagement.

As we consider the exchange, we can recognize that there are folks on both sides of the cultural discussion who would likely not pick either person to be the sole representative of their take on the subject. However, both participants perhaps surprise the viewer with how they are able to share from their perspective.

I was surprised how much attention was given to the Regnerus study, as so much of the initial diatribe (in front of the high school students) was about Scripture. Savage does initially mention his concerns about how Scripture is interpreted and possible points of conflict, but then he moves into a discussion of “bearing false witness,” which I also see as an important point of discussion. Brown focuses, too, on how his organization (and he extends this to other Christians) is talked about by some activists in the gay community.

At about 27 minutes in, Brown does come back to Scripture to discuss the issue of slavery and interpretation. Although Brown may not be the most articulate spokesperson for a Christian view of the topic (of slavery, homosexuality), he is able to point out a few things about Christians playing a role in the abolitionist movement.

Although Savage comes across to the viewer as probably the more passionate, compelling speaker, he seems to struggle to understand a traditional Christian view of marriage. Or perhaps he understands and rejects it in part because of his prior experiences with some Christians, various organizations, or what he sees as logical gaps in the argument. I think there could be more of a discussion of the transcendent meaning and purposes of sexuality, which is a hallmark of a Christian view, although that is arguably one of the more difficult concepts to convey in this setting.

Savage’s point about the “malleable” aspect of the Bible is worth responding to, and I don’t know that Brown is able to say all that other Christian scholars have said. The idea that rules are “set aside” is talked about by both Savage and the moderator as though it were akin to a person picking a style of music. Whether a person agrees or disagrees, not understanding the Christian rationale and process by which Old Testament rules are distinguished (e.g., ceremonial versus civil versus moral) and in some cases maintained is interesting. That has been addressed by Christian theologians and may be important for Christians to understand and be able to articulate.

So it is an interesting dialogue. There are topics toward the end (e.g., adoption, science/reason, discrimination, etc.) that could use more time, attention, and care. Unfortunately, the time runs short. In any case, the exchange does provide an opportunity for Christians to reflect on how their views are understood by those who do not start from the same worldview.

On Being a Christian Scholar

With the start of a new academic year, it seems fitting to reflect a little more on integration. The Emerging Scholar’s Blog recently posted a talk Nicholas Wolterstorff gave titled “Advice to Those Who Would Be Christian Scholars.” He gave the original address at the Veritas Forum in 2009. It is worth reading in its entirety, so check it out here.

On a personal note, I had the opportunity to take the last  class Wolterstorff taught at Calvin College before he accepted the Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology Chair at Yale. A funny memory: he described our class as “pesky.” Until that moment, I had not considered “pesky” a compliment; now I do. (Actually, I tried to describe a cohort in our program this way a few years ago, and they did not take it as a compliment – must be the difference between philosophy and psychology students!)

Wolterstorff has good words that can be applied to Christian scholars in the field of psychology. We certainly see many fads come and go, and we do well to avoid a bandwagon approach, as well as the additive approach (to the exclusion of other considerations). Navigating the various pulls toward these approaches is a challenge in and of itself and worthy of an extended discussion, but let’s press on.

This is what it means to be a Christian scholar, according to Wolterstorff:

To put it in a nutshell, I think the project of being a Christian scholar is the project of thinking with a Christian mind and speaking with a Christian voice within your chosen discipline and within the academy more generally.

I want to come back to the issue of “voice” in one’s discipline, but first let me note that Wolterstorff briefly reflects on the nature of the disciplines. It is interesting to think of a discipline as not having an essence but rather being a social practice that has traditions. I think this is more readily apparent in some fields, and I suspect most folks in psychology (at least applied psychology) can see it right away.

Ok, back to voice. Let me swap out “sociology” for “psychology” in his explanation:

the mode of the Christian’s participation in these on-going, ever-changing, social practices is to think with a Christian mind and to speak with a Christian voice. When engaging in, say, [psychology] with a Christian mind, one will sometimes find oneself critical of what is going on in some part of [psychology]: one will find the assumptions being made about human nature mistaken, one will find the emphasis skewed, one will find the issues discussed unimportant, and so forth. One will then find oneself launching a critique of this part of [psychology], and beyond that, trying to do it differently and better. At other times, when thinking with a Christian mind one will find what is going on in some part of one’s discipline quite OK. Being a Christian scholar requires this sort of discernment.

Wolterstorff identifies a Christian voice as a voice of charity. I agree with this and wish more Christian scholars were able and willing to demonstrate charity in how they engage with others around controversial topics.

Also, he suggests we demonstrate patience, know our discipline, cultivate a Christian mind (through an understanding of Scripture, Christian tradition, and Christian thought reflected in your field), and “nourish” our learning through corporate worship. I love that Wolterstorff would add this last consideration. So often scholarship is thought of as removed from the experience of worship, let alone corporate worship. We do well to heed his advice lest our learning “becomes dry and brittle, easily susceptible to skepticism.”

These are good words for Christian scholars heading into the start of another academic year. Let’s think with a Christian mind and speak with a Christian voice.

Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man’s Prison

I was recently involved in a consultation to address the safety and needs of sexual minorities in corrections. As I learned from my two days with the consultation team, “in corrections” refers to adolescents in the juvenile justice system to adults in prison and just about every setting you can imagine in between.

One of the pleasant surprises of the consultation was the opportunity to talk with T.J. Parsell, author of the book, Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man’s Prison. He had just finished a 20-minute film about his experiences, and he graciously shared that with the consultation group.

It was a sobering, emotionally compelling look at the experience of a teenager who was placed in an adult prison. The people in the room who worked in corrections indicated that it was an accurate depiction of corrections through the eyes of a young man. I shared with T.J. that I downloaded his book at the end of the viewing.

Fish (the book) is an extended and more detailed account of T.J.’s experiences in prison. It is not an easy read in this sense:  if you are not that familiar with corrections, it has a number of disturbing themes, experiences, and events that might be difficult for the reader. However, for those interested in learning more about the inner workings of prison life, it is a compelling read. You gain an understanding of the challenges in establishing oneself in a corrections environment and the reality of rape/sexual assault in these settings.

T.J. Parsell identifies himself as a gay man today, so much of the book also deals with how he navigated his sexual identity in the context of prison. Sexual identity development has been studied now for several years, and we recognize that key milestone events are reported by adults looking back on their adolescence. These include first experiences of same-sex attraction, engaging in same-sex behavior, labeling oneself as gay, disclosing that identity to others, and having an ongoing same-sex relationship.

There are few studies of sexual minorities navigating these milestone events in the context of correctional facilities. However, we do have a study being completed (for a dissertation) that does consider climate for sexual minorities in the context of the juvenile justice system (see the ISSI web site or the ISSI Facebook page for any updates). Obviously, these milestone events would be experienced quite differently in a setting in which same-sex encounters are more common, and in which the sexual assault of an adolescent/young adult was also reported.

So the book is in some ways quite terrifying as it is written through the eyes of a 17-year-old who is sent to an adult prison. It has many graphic scenes and events, some of which might be particularly challenging for the reader. However, to the extent that it depicts the realities that await some men in corrections, it is important for those who work in these settings and for other stakeholders to gain more of an insight into the challenges and possibilities for making improvements, particularly as we identify groups that are particularly at-risk in such settings.

T.J.’s experiences ultimately led him to be an advocate for prison reform. Specifically, he has been an outspoken advocate of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), an act passed by Congress in 2003. PREA was enacted by Congress to address concerns about the sexual victimization and abuse of persons in U.S. correctional facilities. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Prison Fellowship was an early and ardent supporter of PREA. People I met who otherwise reported difficult experiences with Christians reported good experiences with Prison Fellowship, which is a testimony to the gains to be found in identifying superordinate goals toward which we can work.

I hope that this recent consultation and the work that has begun by identifying the issues and concerns faced by sexual minorities in corrections will be an extension of some of these discussions. Perhaps these discussions will lead to improvements in safety that reflect the high regard we share for the dignity and worth of all persons.