Saturday, March 19, 2011

When tragedy can't be eliminated

Ben Kingsley has made several movies about the Holocaust. In one of the recent ones was Anne Frank: The Whole Story in which he plays Anne's father. He joined Scott Simon of NPR in a discussion at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Kingsley now sees himself as a shaman at a campfire sharing stories with the community. He said that Western Civilization wants to eliminate tragedy. In one sense that is good -- it is good to conduct our affairs so that planes don't needlessly fall out of the sky or that millions aren't poisoned with tainted meat. But Kingsley sees that as going further, of trying to deny tragedy is possible. The recent quake and tsunami show that eliminating tragedy is not possible. We need the shaman around the campfire telling us stories so that we learn to deal with tragedy when it happens and to know what caused tragedy in the past.

Parents warn their kids not to hang out with the wrong crowd, the bad kids. They know that peer pressure is strong and has made many a good kid do bad things. Peer pressure is strong enough that stodgy marketing campaigns ("Say no to drugs") don't work.

But peer pressure can also be harnessed for good. Tina Rosenberg has written Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World to document and encourage exactly that. Examples include: an AIDS prevention campaign built around fashion advice and gossip, Asian students who study calculus together and do much better than Hispanic students who study alone, and small group Bible studies built around community service projects. The antidote to peer pressure is more peer pressure.

Over the last year I've come to understand an important part of Christianity is building community. I see this book as saying the same thing. Students who study in community do better. We all do better when there is someone to encourage us. I'll be adding this one to my reading list.

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