AFRICA.

A big pet peeve of mine is when someone means to refer to a specific country or part of Africa but instead just says Africa. It’s exotic and exciting and forbidding all at once but also overwhelmingly insulting to a continent that dwarfs North America in size and diversity. When I was in South Africa I had to watch DVD lectures by pastors and repeatedly they would list all the countries they had been to : Japan, China, India, Russia, Brazil and then invariably finish with: AFRICA. Morons. So you might be surprised that I titled my blog entry with the single word that normally infuriates me when others say it. Simply put I love Africa. The whole thing, from Tunisia in the north to South Africa in the, well you get the idea. When I say AFRICA, I mean the continent.

Given the title of my blog and how many people ask me what I’m going to teach when I tell them I am studying to be a teacher I figured this would be a good topic to write about. I would love to be the “Africa” teacher at a high school. I would offer a broad survey course of Africa covering the history of the continent generally over the course of a year. I would also love to if possible teach a more specific course on modern Africa from independence in the 50s and 60s to today.

So why Africa? I am honestly not sure. It’s one of those things that I can’t explain and I am willing to say simply that “God put it there.” I never use language like that so it really is a big deal. I love the place and have ever since I can remember. I remember in 6th grade I flipped ahead to one of the chapters in my social studies book my class had no chance of getting to. I started reading about this strange country I had never heard of called Burkina Faso. Alas its capital was even more intimidating. Ouagadougou. My first impulse was that I would never pronounce such a crazy name. It was quickly overwhelmed by a desire that I must master it. To my relief a few quick practice runs with the phonetic spelling revealed it was not that difficult and pretty fun to boot. (To those who are curious you say it like this “Wa-ga-du-gu.”) And so a love for a continent was born.

Africa is not a headline to me. It is not a disaster zone or a charity case. It is a living, vibrant, fascinating place bursting with potential. I remember flying over Namibia on my to South Africa, to AFRICA, for the first time in 2008. I looked out the airplane window and I saw glimpses of the land I had only read about in books and newspapers for years. I quickly ripped out a notebook and wrote out a prayer of some sort as I tried not to burst into tears. I suppose you could say it was love at first sight.

Regardless of how many cheeseball things I can say about the place I would love nothing more than to study this amazing continent and share what limited knowledge I have with young people for my career. I don’t really have a witty or thoughtful way to end this so I’ll just say this: AFRICA IS A WHOLE CONTINENT, NOT A COUNTRY. Please respect. Thanks much.

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Imagine? or Reality?

Ever listen to the song Imagine by John Lennon? You probably have. It’s a famous song by one of the most iconic musicians of all time. So simple and yet so easy to listen to. Its message of world peace and unity has been trumpeted by celeb and common person alike as something for which we can only hope to achieve some day. Unfortunately the purpose of this entry is to show you that (in a somewhat roundabout way) the message of the song is a lie.

Last week I wrote a letter to the Boston Globe which was published. The gist of the letter was to explain that religions were different from each other and to claim otherwise, while a nice idea, was simply impossible. A letter next to mine made a similar point that it was perfectly reasonable for followers of a faith to believe in the certitude of their own beliefs. He then followed this logical statement with an absurd one: believing in your own faith doesn’t mean others have to be wrong. And then a week later a follow-up letter was written repeating and even endorsing this logical cartwheel of nonsense. Let me be clear. If you believe something different than me that is fine but do not come up with patronizing, anti-intellectual nonsense that our beliefs are somehow the same and “gee-golly wouldn’t it just be better if we got along?’ And this is why the song Imagine is so unhelpful.

It imagines a world without differences, and specifically religion. Nothing to die for and nothing to worry about in the future. Just live for today in unity and peace. Wouldn’t it be easier to just stop fighting and do whatever John Lennon tells us to do? It nice and pleasant and Utopian but also, completely devoid of reality. Wishing religion away isn’t going to eradicate it and it won’t make those who are intolerant and violent any less so. Saying that all religion is the same is a popular idea in our effectively secular, relativist, western culture recently. But saying it doesn’t make it close to being true.

I am a Christian. I believe some very specific things. One belief is that Jesus was the Son of God. Muslims don’t believe this. Jews don’t believe this. Hindus, Buddhists and certainly atheists don’t accept this. Saying this is so doesn’t make me intolerant or a bigot, it makes me logical. How much longer can smart, educated westerners keep pushing this idea that all religion is more or less the same? It’s not. More to the point, claiming this ridiculous “fact” does nothing to make the world more peaceful or solve any of the world’s problems (kind of like the song Imagine, thanks John Lennon, but no thanks.)

Religion is a complex multifaceted subject. It is not the cause of all violence, evil and death (see Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot circa 20th century) in the world and neither is it always a good thing. It deserves, as does any other subject, our honest and meaningful study. Imagining things about religion to make ourselves feel better that are, in fact, untrue is not helpful; it’s hallucination.

I respect where John Lennon and many others are coming from. We all want peace and justice and harmony. But manufacturing it from an intellectual black hole will not achieve anything. Being honest about what we believe, why we believe it and thriving to comes to terms with what that means for others will hopefully do so much more. There will always be extremists who want to kill, maim, destroy and manipulate. But hopefully as a society we can realize that these forces are no more indicative of true religion than the idea that all faiths are ultimately the same. Religion at its best can help drastically change society for the better. Let’s not imagine an impossible dream and do nothing but let’s do everything we can to make that dream we only could have imagined a reality. Like it or not, on this planet at least, religion will be involved.