Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Al Qaeda Supports Emergent Church

Over on the blog page of the Brethren Revival Fellowship there is a link to this article in Townhall.com, home to some right-wing "thinkers" like Bill Bennett, Michael Medved, and Hugh Hewitt:

The greatest threat to world peace is radical Islam. If not for the United States, millions more would be suffering under the tyranny of sharia law all over the world. Our Muslim enemies know post-Christian Europe has already lost the will to fight. Africa, Asia, and South America seem to be already lost. Russia, China, and India would rather trade than fight…for now. And the United Nations continues to be irrelevant.

Only the United States, and more specifically, only the conservative, evangelical Christians of America are who stand between radical Islam and their quest for global domination.

If the world is to be saved from Muslim conquest, it will be America who does it. And if America is to be saved, only conservatism can do it. And if conservatism is to be saved, it will be those Bible-believing patriots who do it–those conservative, evangelical Christians who are the bedrock of the American way of life.

Why? Because only Christianity has the intellectual and spiritual horsepower to defeat radical Islam and prevent the world from returning to the darkness of the 7th century. After all, the story of the birth and growth of Western Civilization is pretty much the story of the birth and growth of Christianity. The divide between East and West today, fundamentally, is the divide between Islam and Christianity. Christians and Muslims know this, it’s the secularists who don’t get it–or at least won’t admit it.

That’s why anything that helps to further separate the West from its Biblical roots ultimately weakens the resolve of the West to fight. Anything that helps the ACLU to further de-Christianize America, to further silence the Christian voice like the current hate-crimes legislation or the fairness doctrine, and to further weaken the Church and devalue the Bible as the religious left has done for decades, are things that empower our enemies and weaken our allies.

A post-Christian, post-modern, secular-socialist America will be no match for a radical Islam fueled by petro-dollars and threatening the use of nuclear weapons.

But an America where the church is strong, resolute, and courageous? That’s a different thing altogether.

Which is why al Qaeda supports the emergent church.

The emergent church is an ally in the war against radical Islam–al Qaeda’s ally. Not in the sense they are supplying bullets and bombs to Osama, of course, but in the sense they are weakening our conviction to fight.

If those in the emergent “we’re-a-missional-not-an-institutional” church had their way, American church buildings would be just like European church buildings – empty. And the church, the people themselves, would be so intellectually, morally, emotionally, and spiritually lost, confused and uncertain, that they would be incapable of doing hardly anything more than inviting their Muslim oppressors in for a cappuccino and a good conversation about the sociology of knowledge, the absurdity of propositional truth, and the misplaced certitude of the Muslim metanarrative. All the while, no doubt, nodding in agreement that America probably deserved to die and mumbling something about carbon footprints.

The term “emergent church” refers to a loose association of people who share common values and attitudes toward, well, everything. It’s Christianity for postmoderns who don’t like truth, knowledge, science, authority, doctrine, institutions, or religion. They claim absolute or objective truth is unknowable, that the only “truth” that can be known is rooted in communities of shared subjective experience–the infamous “it’s my truth” of relativism.

And if nothing is objectively true, if no text has a meaning independent of the reader, then the truth claims in the Bible are no more authoritative than the funny papers. Hence, there’s no emphasis on core beliefs, essential doctrines, statements of faith or the institutions built to defend and propagate them–especially the institutional church and its Bible colleges and seminaries.

Bottom line, it’s feelings over thoughts, the heart over the head, experience over truth, deeds over creeds, narratives over propositions, the corporate over the individualistic, being inclusive rather than exclusive, with none of that offensive “in versus out” language, such as those who are “saved” and those who are “not saved,” or even the most divisive of all referents–“Christian” and “non-Christian.”

The emergent church and its allies on the religious left are to Christianity what termites are to wood. They devour it from the inside out, little bit by little bit, and you don’t notice it until it’s too late–unless you look for the droppings...

One has to wonder if this article is linked because the blogger agrees with the content. I suspect he does. One also has to wonder what connection the blogger sees between his Church of the Brethren heritage - we are a peace church afterall - and the militaristic venom falsely labeled Christian here. I challenge anyone to make a connection between anything the gospels tell us about Jesus and what is being said here.

Update: The post has been taken down from the BRF blog.

Yippie Ki Yi Yay!

Continuing my brief summer break from politics, here's a fun article from today's local newspaper (Star Tribune) about a displaced cowboy who roped (and saved) a cantankerous bull in the nearby Minnesota countryside. This all took place in the 'backyards' of several members of liberalchurch.

-------------------------------------------------

Real-life wrangler ropes a bull on loose near Elko
By Mary Jane Smetanka, Star Tribune
Last update: July 30, 2007 – 10:20 PM

For at least 11 days, the Brahma bull wandered around farms near Elko, trying to get into corrals with cows, worrying ranchers and generally making a nuisance of himself. Every time the owner showed up with a trailer to retrieve him, the bull made a beeline for the woods.

On Monday, ranchers had finally had enough. It looked like the bull's adventures might end with a bullet.

Enter Damon Rogers, cowboy and rodeo clown. Handy with a rope and canny about cows, he talks with a drawl as wide as the Texas plains. When he lived in Texas, Rogers was often called by county officials to round up wandering cattle. But things changed two years ago when he married a Mayo Clinic nurse and moved to Rochester. He still shoes horses and works as a rodeo clown, but cattle-catching calls have been few and far between.

That changed last week. Thursday at the North Dakota State Fair, Rogers lassoed a rodeo bull running loose on the midway. On Monday, he was in bed at home when he got a call saying the Elko bull would be shot unless he came immediately.

"He's a bucking bull in the pasture with other cattle, and that landowner wasn't happy," Rogers said. "They said if I wasn't there in two hours, he's history," Rogers said.

Unwanted visitor

The bull had been hanging around Cheryl and Jeff Swanson's ranch near Webster, Minn., close to the Rice County-Scott County border, for at least 11 days, Cheryl Swanson said. Her son, Daniel, first spotted the big bull when the animal jumped into a corral that held a young Angus bull and purebred Hereford cows ready to be bred.

The Swansons were not pleased to see the red-haired intruder, which had a big set of horns and weighed an estimated 1,800 pounds, almost twice as much as the Angus bull. Cheryl Swanson was worried that her cows would end up with mongrel offspring and that the Angus bull, which the Swansons do not own, might get hurt in a fight.

She suspected the escapee was from the nearby JS Rodeo Company, so she called it. But when rodeo workers came to retrieve the animal, the bull ran into the woods. Nobody went after him.

Joe Simon, owner of the rodeo company, said the animal jumped a fence. "He's a real docile bull, but pretty smart," Simon said. "He'd stay back in the trees and the woods. ... We had to wait for the right time."

That didn't please his neighbors. Cheryl Swanson said over the 11 days, the bull tried to get back to her cows, trampled her vegetable and flower gardens, and broke a barn window with his horns. She said when she called law enforcement she was told that if members of her family or animals were in danger, she could shoot the bull.

"He was getting ornerier and ornerier and ornerier," she said. "He knew the cows were [ready for breeding]." But the Swansons didn't shoot, worried that a stray bullet could hurt someone else.

Going slow to be fast

On Monday, when the bull trespassed onto another ranch, Rogers was called. When the wrangler arrived, the bull was lying in the shade with a herd of cows while people waited with a gun, a trailer and horses. Rogers, who said he is a descendant of cowboy humorist Will Rogers, looked at the situation and thought of his father.

"My old daddy's been dead for almost 20 years now and I still hear him talking to me and saying, 'If you slow down, you'll be fast,' " he said. "I just tried to slow down and be fast and let it happen."
Worried the bull would bolt, Rogers shot it with two tranquilizer darts and got a rope around the horns. When the bull was alert enough to walk, horseback riders escorted him to the trailer that would take him home.
"You don't want to have a fight with them," Rogers said. "You want them as peaceful as can be."

Simon said he was glad to have the bull back. "I'll give him a higher fence," he said.

Rogers said he "had a blast" catching the bull. But he aches to return with his wife to "cow country," where the life is slower and his skills are in demand.

"I married a Yankee, and I don't fit in," he said. "I've had fun this last week. Maybe it's an omen, God telling me it's time to go back."

-------------------------------------------------------
I hope Rogers and his wife work out their geographical and cultural differences and can live happily ever after...like the bull!

The Last to Know

The thinking part of our brain. A New York Times article reports on the growing body of research that suggests that when it comes to making decisions about what to do next, our subconscious has things figured out for us long before we get around to thinking about it:

In a recent experiment, psychologists at Yale altered people’s judgments of a stranger by handing them a cup of coffee.

The study participants, college students, had no idea that their social instincts were being deliberately manipulated. On the way to the laboratory, they had bumped into a laboratory assistant, who was holding textbooks, a clipboard, papers and a cup of hot or iced coffee — and asked for a hand with the cup.

That was all it took: The students who held a cup of iced coffee rated a hypothetical person they later read about as being much colder, less social and more selfish than did their fellow students, who had momentarily held a cup of hot java.

Findings like this one, as improbable as they seem, have poured forth in psychological research over the last few years. New studies have found that people tidy up more thoroughly when there’s a faint tang of cleaning liquid in the air; they become more competitive if there’s a briefcase in sight, or more cooperative if they glimpse words like “dependable” and “support” — all without being aware of the change, or what prompted it.

Psychologists say that “priming” people in this way is not some form of hypnotism, or even subliminal seduction; rather, it’s a demonstration of how everyday sights, smells and sounds can selectively activate goals or motives that people already have.

More fundamentally, the new studies reveal a subconscious brain that is far more active, purposeful and independent than previously known. Goals, whether to eat, mate or devour an iced latte, are like neural software programs that can only be run one at a time, and the unconscious is perfectly capable of running the program it chooses.

The give and take between these unconscious choices and our rational, conscious aims can help explain some of the more mystifying realities of behavior, like how we can be generous one moment and petty the next, or act rudely at a dinner party when convinced we are emanating charm.

“When it comes to our behavior from moment to moment, the big question is, ‘What to do next?’ ” said John A. Bargh, a professor of psychology at Yale and a co-author, with Lawrence Williams, of the coffee study, which was presented at a recent psychology conference. “Well, we’re finding that we have these unconscious behavioral guidance systems that are continually furnishing suggestions through the day about what to do next, and the brain is considering and often acting on those, all before conscious awareness.”

Dr. Bargh added: “Sometimes those goals are in line with our conscious intentions and purposes, and sometimes they’re not.”

...The results suggest a “bottom-up” decision-making process, in which the ventral pallidum is part of a circuit that first weighs the reward and decides, then interacts with the higher-level, conscious regions later, if at all, Dr. Frith said.

Scientists have spent years trying to pinpoint the exact neural regions that support conscious awareness, so far in vain. But there’s little doubt it involves the prefrontal cortex, the thin outer layer of brain tissue behind the forehead, and experiments like this one show that it can be one of the last neural areas to know when a decision is made.

This bottom-up order makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. The subcortical areas of the brain evolved first and would have had to help individuals fight, flee and scavenge well before conscious, distinctly human layers were added later in evolutionary history. In this sense, Dr. Bargh argues, unconscious goals can be seen as open-ended, adaptive agents acting on behalf of the broad, genetically encoded aims — automatic survival systems.

Somewhere Freud is smiling.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Obama Speaks to CBN

Sen. Barack Obama does an email interview with David Brody of the Christian Broadcast Network:

Brody Question: The latest Time Magazine poll shows that you are viewed as the "most religious" Democrat and you even out poll a number of Republicans. What do you attribute that to?

Senator Obama: I don't think it's helpful as candidates or as a country to get into discussions about who's more religious. That sounds a little like storing up treasures on earth to me. I've just always been clear that my Christian faith has motivated me for 20 years and I'm not ashamed to talk about it, or the role that faith should play in our American life.

Brody Question: As you seek or preach unity during your campaign, you recently gave a speech to your church body where you said, "Faith got hijacked, partly because of the so-called leaders of the Christian Right, all too eager to exploit what divides us." Some Evangelicals were taken aback at what they considered the harsh rhetoric. What was your intention when you said that and why did you feel it needed to be said?

Senator Obama: My intention was to contrast the heated partisan rhetoric of a distinct minority of Christian leaders with the vast majority of Evangelical Christians - conservatives included - who believe that hate has no place in our politics. When you have pastors and television pundits who appear to explicitly coordinate with one political party; when you're implying that your fellow Americans are traitors, terrorist sympathizers or akin to the devil himself; then I think you're attempting to hijack the faith of those who follow you for your own personal or political ends.

But as I said in my speech, it's critically important to understand that these are the "so-called" leaders, not the real leaders. The real leaders are clergy and lay folks who are living out their faith every day in ways large and small, trying their best to determine how best to serve God and their fellow man. They may not agree with me on every issue, they may not even support me in an election (heaven forbid), but they know that hate has no place in the hearts of believers.

Brody Question: There is the so-called "religious left" in this country that focuses primarily on social justice issues and there is the so-called "religious right" in this country that focuses more on personal salvation and the life and marriage issues. Some on the right believe that Evangelicals shouldn't be the only ones moving left. Rather, the left needs to move toward the middle as well and not just put the focus on their issues. What is your plan to bring these two sides together?

Senator Obama: Well, these are difficult problems and there are no easy solutions. But I think that there are some lessons that both progressives and conservatives might learn. For progressives, I think we should recognize the role that values and culture play in addressing some of our most urgent social problems. As I've said many times before, the problems of poverty and racism, the uninsured and the unemployed aren't simply technical problems in search of a ten-point plan. They're rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness - in the imperfections of man.

For example, I believe in keeping guns out of our inner cities, and that our leaders must say so in the face of the gun manufacturers' lobby. But I also believe that when a gang-banger shoots indiscriminately into a crowd because he feels somebody disrespected him, we've got a moral problem. There's a hole in that young man's heart - a hole that the government alone cannot fix. So solving these problems will require changes in government policy, but it will also require changes in hearts and a change in minds. I think progressives would do well to take this to heart.

For my friends on the right, I think it would be helpful to remember the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy but also our religious practice. Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn't the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn't want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves.

It was the forbearers of Evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they didn't want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it. Given this fact, I think that the right might worry a bit more about the dangers of sectarianism.

Whatever we once were, we're no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of non-believers. We should acknowledge this and realize that when we're formulating policies from the state house to the Senate floor to the White House, we've got to work to translate our reasoning into values that are accessible to every one of our citizens, not just members of our own faith community.

China Detains Priests

From the Washington Post:
Four priests from China's underground Roman Catholic church were detained by police, a U.S.-based monitoring group said Sunday. Three priests were detained Tuesday in the northern region of Inner Mongolia after fleeing their hometown to avoid arrest for refusing to join the state-sanctioned church, the Cardinal Kung Foundation announced. It said the fourth priest was detained in early July in the northern province of Hebei following a motorcycle accident.

It gave no details of what charges the priests might face.

China's Catholics are permitted to worship only in churches run by a government-monitored group with no ties to the Vatican. But millions who remain loyal to the pope worship in secret "house churches."

Detroit and Baghdad

Billions wasted in Iraq and one new plan every few months to secure the capitol city, Baghdad. Meanwhile back at home our own cities like Detroit continue to spiral downward:

Half a century after deindustrialization began, the city continues to hemorrhage jobs. Detroit now has an unemployment rate higher than any other major metropolitan area, with joblessness exceeding 50 percent in its poorest sections. One-third of Detroit's people -- and half of its children -- live below the poverty line. Its infant-mortality rate is only a bit better than that of the West Bank. Despite the continuing success of the African American middle class, neighborhoods are still profoundly segregated, far closer to apartheid than to anything approaching racial balance. The school system is almost completely segregated and frighteningly ineffective: Only 22 percent of Detroit's kids graduate from high school. The drug trade flourishes, fueled by young men who see it as the best (and maybe only) entree into America's consumer paradise. And the body count climbs. More than 20,000 Detroiters have been killed since the summer of '67, 203 of them in the first half of this year.

Inner-city Detroit isn't alone in its misery. Cleveland's poverty rate is higher. Memphis's infant-mortality rate is worse. Though Detroit is the most segregated city in the United States, Milwaukee, Newark and New York don't trail far behind. Public schools in Chicago, Baltimore and Washington -- in most major cities, in fact -- remain largely segregated, Washington's at a rate comparable to that of Detroit. And after a decline in the late 1990s, the brutal, senseless violence that policymakers pledged to stop 40 years ago is again on the rise in poor neighborhoods across urban America.

This President and his party would never dream of spending the kinds of money they have wasted in Iraq trying to do nation building to make our own country a better place to live. But imagine what we could do with that kind of money to lift the lives of those suffering in our great cities. What a crime.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

More of the Same

Politics trumps everything:

A surgeon general's report in 2006 that called on Americans to help tackle global health problems has been kept from the public by a Bush political appointee without any background or expertise in medicine or public health, chiefly because the report did not promote the administration's policy accomplishments, according to current and former public health officials.

The report described the link between poverty and poor health, urged the U.S. government to help combat widespread diseases as a key aim of its foreign policy, and called on corporations to help improve health conditions in the countries where they operate. A copy of the report was obtained by The Washington Post.

Three people directly involved in its preparation said its publication was blocked by William R. Steiger, a specialist in education and a scholar of Latin American history whose family has long ties to President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Since 2001, Steiger has run the Office of Global Health Affairs in the Department of Health and Human Services.

Richard H. Carmona, who commissioned the "Call to Action on Global Health" while serving as surgeon general from 2002 to 2006, recently cited its suppression as an example of the Bush administration's frequent efforts during his tenure to give scientific documents a political twist. At a July 10 House committee hearing, Carmona did not cite Steiger by name or detail the report's contents and its implications for American public health.

Compassionate Conservatism

John J. DiIulio headed the office of Faith-Based in Community Initiatives for the Bush Administration in 1991 until he left in frustration. He told Ron Suskind "What you've got is everything -- and I mean everything -- being run by the political arm. It's the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis."His assessment of the Bush Administration hasn't changed:
In 2005, Washington fiddled while New Orleans flooded, and the White House has vacillated in its support for the region's recovery and rebuilding process. Most urban religious nonprofit organizations that provide social services in low-income communities still get no public support whatsoever. Several recent administration positions on social policy contradict the compassion vision Bush articulated in 1999.

In May, Bush rejected a bipartisan House bill that increased funding for Head Start, a program that benefits millions of low-income preschoolers. His spokesmen claimed the bill was bad because it did not include a provision giving faith-based preschool programs an absolute right to discriminate on religious grounds in hiring.

That reason reverses a principle Bush proclaimed in his 1999 speech: "We will keep a commitment to pluralism, not discriminating for or against Methodists or Mormons or Muslims, or good people of no faith at all." As many studies show, most urban faith-based nonprofits that serve their own needy neighbors do not discriminate against beneficiaries, volunteers or staff on religious grounds. These inner-city churches and grassroots groups would love to expand Head Start in their communities.

Last week, Bush threatened to veto a bipartisan Senate plan that would add $35 billion over five years to the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). The decade-old program insures children in families that are not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid but are too poor to afford private insurance. The extra $7 billion a year offered by the Senate would cover a few million more children. New money for the purpose would come from raising the federal excise tax on cigarettes.

Several former Bush advisers have urged the White House to accept some such SCHIP plan. So have many governors in both parties and Republican leaders in the Senate. In 2003, Bush supported a Medicare bill that increased government spending on prescription drugs for elderly middle-income citizens by hundreds of billions of dollars. But he has pledged only $1 billion a year more for low-income children's health insurance. His spokesmen say doing any more for the "government-subsidized program" would encourage families to drop private insurance.

But the health-insurance market has already priced out working-poor families by the millions. With a growing population of low-income children, $1 billion a year more would be insufficient even to maintain current per-capita child coverage levels. Some speculate that SCHIP is now hostage to negotiations over the president's broader plan to expand health coverage via tax cuts and credits. But his plan has no chance in this Congress; besides, treating health insurance for needy children as a political bargaining chip would be wrong.

The Bush Administration playing politics with children? Or seniors? Or people on life support? Or war? Never. Compassionate conservatism was never anything but a campaign slogan.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Keith Ellison on Being Muslim in Congress

He tells the Washington Post:
First, a fairly small number of conversations revolve around religion. Whole days – even weeks – have gone by without me being asked to speak on behalf of the 1.3 billion Muslims in the world. But more importantly, I’ve been able to pursue my work on behalf of my constituents. I have been effective on issues such as peace, ending the war in Iraq, credit justice, and environmental sustainability. My colleagues have been tolerant and inclusive. I have not had a single unpleasant face-to-face encounter with a member of congress over religion. Individual leaders in the Bush Administration have been open and inclusive. I accompanied Speaker Pelosi on her trip to the Middle East, and I’ll never forget the warm reception she received from the women who poured out of the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus just to shake her hand or take a picture.

Of course, there have been a few bumps.

For example, officers in a training class reported that a Minneapolis police lieutenant made comments that implied that I was a terrorist. The comments were rebuked by the Mayor and Police Chief, and the incident is currently under investigation. Commentator Glenn Beck asked me to “prove” him that I was not working with “enemies”. Another conservative commentator opined that I should be barred from serving in Congress if I swear to uphold the U.S. Constitution on the Qur’an.

Of course, there’s more, but those incidents prove my main point: there is much reason for hope. I did win the election. I am making progress on a broad swath of progressive issues. I continue to be inspired by the courage of people standing up for peace, for shared-prosperity, and health care reform.

Endless War

From the Washington Post:
The Bush administration will announce next week a series of arms deals worth at least $20 billion to Saudi Arabia and five other oil-rich Persian Gulf states as well as new 10-year military aid packages to Israel and Egypt, a move to shore up allies in the Middle East and counter Iran's rising influence, U.S. officials said yesterday.
We are the largest arms supplier in the world. There is only one winner here: war and the forces that profit from it. For them Iraq and its consequences are the gift that keeps on giving.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Last Supper Theory Crashes Websites

From MSNBC:
A new theory that Leonardo’s “Last Supper” might hide within it a depiction of Christ blessing the bread and wine has triggered so much interest that Web sites connected to the picture have crashed.

The famous fresco is already the focus of mythical speculation after author Dan Brown based his “The Da Vinci Code” book around the painting, arguing in the novel that Jesus married his follower, Mary Magdelene, and fathered a child.

Now Slavisa Pesci, an information technologist and amateur scholar, says superimposing the “Last Supper” with its mirror-image throws up another picture containing a figure who looks like a Templar knight and another holding a small baby.

“I came across it by accident, from some of the details you can infer that we are not talking about chance but about a precise calculation,” Pesci told journalists when he unveiled the theory earlier this week.

Web sites www.leonardodavinci.tv, www.codicedavinci.tv, www.cenacolo.biz and www.leonardo2007.com had 15 million hits on Thursday morning alone, organizers said, adding they were trying to provide a more powerful server for the sites.

Lest anyone think we have left behind an age of superstition for an age of science and rationalism.

George Bush Hands a Generation to Dems

Via Keven Drum, I see that Democracy Corps is out with a new survey of young people ages 18-29. The survey is here. The results:
The Republican Party suffers from some of the same wounds among young people that damage its standing among voters overall. Its leader, George Bush, is thoroughly discredited. Its war is deeply unpopular. Its basic competence to run the country is discounted. But the Republican’s problems among younger people run deeper than this moment in history. Young people disagree sharply with the Republicans on every core issue tested in this survey. More broadly, younger people look at the Republican Party and find very little of their own values or ideals reflected. We see broad, ideological movement away from the Republican Party among the larger electorate as well, but the depth and breadth of this population’s alienation from one of America’s two major parties is striking and previews a problem for the Republicans extending beyond the life of the current administration.
There is hope for the future of this country.

No YouTube Debate for Republicans

I didn't watch the Democrats' debate on YouTube but have since seen several clips. Apparently the Republican candidates watched and didn't like what they saw:

Rudolph Giuliani and Mitt Romney, both with dozens of videos on their YouTube channels, have not signed up. Neither have the rest of the Republican candidates, including Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.), whose "Tancredo Takes" on his YouTube channel draw hundreds of views. Sources familiar with the Guiliani campaign said he's unlikely to participate. Kevin Madden, Romney's spokesman, said the former Massachusetts governor has seven debate invitations covering a span of 11 days in September.
John McCain and Ron Paul have agreed to participate.

This, by the way, was my favorite YouTube clip from the Dems' debate:


It Takes a Village

Former speech writer for W, Michael Gerson is channeling Hillary Clinton. His piece in the Washington Post this morning about the importance of the role of community in influencing teenage behavior is vintage Hillary:

When the statistics on teen sexuality are controlled for social and economic factors, conservative Protestant teens first have sex at about the same time as their peers -- the average is midway through their 16th year. That is hardly comforting to conservative Protestant parents, who would expect more bang for the bucks they spend funding Sunday schools -- well, actually, less bang.

But these numbers shift when controlled for religious intensity. For those who attend church often, sexual activity is delayed until nearly 17, while nominal evangelicals begin at 16.2 years, earlier than the national average.

This trend is more pronounced in other measures of sexual behavior. Only 1 percent of conservative Protestants who attend church weekly cohabit, compared with 10 percent of all adults. (On this statistic, nominal evangelicals almost exactly mirror the nation.) Twelve percent of churchgoing evangelicals have children out of wedlock, compared with 33 percent of all mothers.

These facts, according to Wilcox, support some liberal claims and some conservative ones. Liberals are correct that economic and cultural factors matter greatly, sometimes more than individual belief. Teens with good life prospects and a strong sense of the future -- kids with economic and educational ambitions -- tend to avoid risky behavior such as drugs and early sex. Without those prospects, the temptation to live for the moment is strong.

The facts also support a basic conservative belief: that it is difficult for teens to be moral alone. Wilcox argues that teen sexual behavior can be influenced -- that teenagers can be more than the sum of their hormones. But responsible behavior requires both "norms" and "networks." An intellectual belief in right and wrong is not sufficient. Teens require a community that supports their good choices, especially in times of testing and personal crisis. "Kids who are embedded in a social network with shared norms," he concludes, "are more likely to abide by them."

Sociologist Peter Berger calls these networks "plausibility structures" -- sources of authority that do more than lecture or shame; they define the meaning of common sense. When institutions such as religious groups, families, government and the media send a strong and consistent message -- smoking is stupid, driving under the influence is criminal, teen pregnancy is self-destructive -- we have sometimes seen dramatic changes in behavior. Teen pregnancy and birth rates in the United States, for example, have declined by about one-third since the early 1990s.

These messages of responsibility are often reinforced by tightknit religious communities, but they are not owned by them. Wilcox notes that American liberal elites often "talk left and walk right, living disciplined lives and expecting their children to do the same, even when they hold liberal social views." Divorce rates among college-educated Americans, he points out, have fallen since the 1980s, as it became more evident that casual divorce did not serve the long-term interests of their children.

The decisive role of authoritative communities in determining individual behavior should not surprise conservatives. Conservatism teaches that individuals are not inherently good and so must be carefully civilized. They need social structures and networks that foster duty and discipline and define those commitments as common sense. In "The Quest for Community," Robert Nisbet warned: "Release man from the contexts of community and you get not freedom and rights but intolerable aloneness and subjection to demoniac fears and passions."

It would be nice if teen sexual behavior could be automatically changed by an abstinence lecture or a sermon. Setting those norms and expectations, however, is a small part of a larger cultural task. Moral men and women need moral communities.

What is particularly interesting about Gerson's piece is his attempt to claim a basic liberal value as conservative: "it is difficult for teens to be moral alone." The classic American conservative myth is of the lone ranger, who is fully self-sufficient and doesn't need the help of community or government. (This is what Ronald Reagan embodied and why he was such a conservative hero.) At best he or she has a strong family but that is all it takes to be healthy and happy. That conservative myth plays itself out in conservative economics. Get the government out of the way; private schools, private Social Security accounts, no government regulations for things like pollution or workplace safety (no nanny state), and most importantly of all - no using the tax system to redistribute wealth from those who have made it successfully on their own and deserve their money to those who are too lazy or undisciplined to make it all by themselves. It's survival of the fittest.

It is a classic American liberal value to argue that it is difficult for anyone to be moral alone. We need a strong community that includes families and faith communities and neighborhoods and schools and government all working together to create both the moral and economic climate that makes it possible for teens to thrive. Gerson even quotes a liberal scholar, Peter Berger, in support of this supposedly conservative value.

Strong families and faith communities are important, but they are not enough. It really does take a village to raise a child. And sometimes, apparently, it takes having a teenager to finally realize this.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Moderate Joe Lieberman

Over on Salon, Glenn Greenwald has a long post about Senator Joe Lieberman and his relationship with John Hagee and the group he leads, Christians United for Israel. At a CUI event last week Lieberman had this to say about Hagee:

I begin by thanking your founder, Pastor John Hagee. I would describe Pastor Hagee with the words the Torah uses to describe Moses, he is an "Eesh Elo Kim," a man of God because those words fit him; and, like Moses he has become the leader of a mighty multitude in pursuit of and defense of Israel . . . .

You know his story -- almost sixty years ago, a young John Hagee sat at his family's kitchen table in Channelview, Texas, heard the news about Israel's Declaration of Independence, and saw how moved his family was by it. Since then, he has been devoted to the defense of Israel, and to its vitality. He has done so because Israel's fight is his fight. Israel's values are his values. And Israel's hopes and dreams are his hopes and dreams.

Pastor Hagee, I pray that God will bless you with all that you pray for, and I do so with great confidence because I know what the Lord said to Abraham in Genesis 12:3. If ever there was a man who will be blessed because he has blessed Israel, Pastor Hagee, it is you.

Who is Hagee? As reported by Greenwald this is a portion of an interview he gave on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross:
Hagee sermon: "For those of you in Washington, Jerusalem is not up for negotiation at any time, for any reason, in the future, no matter what your raod map calls for. There are still people in this nation who believes the Bible takes precedence over Washington, DC."

TG: Pastor Hagee, if you believe that the Bible takes precedence over Washington - I would assume you think the Bible takes precedence over the Israeli Government as well --

If you use the Bible as the basis for policy, is there any room for compromise? And if you use the bible as the basis for policy, should Muslims use the Koran as the basis for their policy, and then again, what possible basis is there for compromise at that point?

JH: There is really no room for compromise between radical Islam --

TG: I'm not talking about radical Islam. I'm just talking about Islam in general.

JH: Well Islam in general - those who live by the Koran have a scriptural mandate to kill Christians and Jews.

And there's this:

TG: I just want to ask you one question, based on one of your sermons, and this is not about Israel -- you said after Hurricane Katrina, that it was an act of God, and you said when you violate God's will long enough, the judgment of God comes to you. Katrina is an act of God for a society that is becoming Sodom and Gomorrah re-born.

Do you still believe that Katrina is punishment from God for a society that is becoming like Sodom and Gomorrah?

JH: All hurricanes are acts of God, because God controls the heavens. I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they were recipients of the judgment of God for that.

The newspaper carried the story in our local area, that was not carried nationally, that there was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that the Katrina came. And the promise of that parade was that it would was going to reach a level of sexuality never demonstrated before in any of the other gay pride parades.

So I believe that the judgment of God is a very real thing. I know there are people who demur from that, but I believe that the Bible teaches that when you violate the law of God, that God brings punishment sometimes before the Day of Judgment, and I believe that the Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans.

I once thought of Joe Lieberman as a political moderate. Boy was I wrong. As for Hagee, it just never ceases to amaze me that there are people who believe this kind of garbage, and sadly they presume to call themselves followers of Jesus.

Mainline Evangelism

In a review in The Christian Century of a book on evangelism in mainline churches (it's tempting to suggest it's probably a slim volume) by Martha Grace Reece, Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism, the reviewer says:
It has long struck me that the same mainline church members who pass resolutions on gay marriage and propose solutions to conflict in the Middle East suddenly shrink in silence on the subject of their faith, and they do this—here's the irony—so they won't offend anyone. For too long, our noble impulses toward tolerance and inclusivity have turned us into spiritual illiterates who, being out of practice, have forgotten how to speak the words of our faith.

We ask our church members to vote on the most complicated social issues, but we let them off the hook when it comes to inviting a neighbor to church. We relegate that duty to the pastor, the professional Christian who speaks about the faith on everyone's behalf and hopefully has a whole lot of neighbors.
It's true but not as ironic as it sounds. It isn't as easy to share about one's faith when it can't be summed up in a couple of sound bites. I find it helpful to stay away from "this is what I believe" and focus on "this is why I go" and "this is what I get out of it." But it sounds like the tide is beginning to turn. We are slowly remembering how to share the good news as we understand it.

Gospel of Success Thrives in Africa

In a recent issue of Christian Century, Paul Gifford talks about a rapidly growing segment of Christianity in Africa:
Though virtually all forms of Christianity in Africa are experiencing explosive growth, the churches growing most spectacularly are the ones that are Pentecostal or neo-Pentecostal or "Pentecostal-like." After 23 years of visiting African churches, I would venture another generalization: the growing Pentecostal churches have one thing in common—a focus on achieving success. Discussing African Pentecostalism without discussing its emphasis on success is like discussing computers without mentioning software.

In this form of Christianity, a believer is successful; if not, something is very wrong. This emphasis can be seen in the names of the churches: Victory Bible Church, Jesus Breakthrough Assembly, Triumphant Christian Centre. The titles and themes of conventions, crusades and conferences repeat this emphasis: "Living a Life of Abundance," "Taking Your Territories," "Stepping into Greatness." For all these churches, size and expansion are tangible signs of success—which is why the terms Global, World or International appear in so many of their titles...

I remember listening to a sermon broadcast in Ghana. My wife, who heard the sermon with me, observed at the end: "Did you notice that Jesus wasn't mentioned in that sermon, but Bill Gates was twice?" I hadn't noticed, because in this sector of Christianity that omission is unremarkable.

The theme of success emerges also in an explicit preaching of a prosperity gospel according to which God has met all the needs of human beings in the suffering and death of Christ, and every Christian should now share in Christ's victory over sin, sickness and poverty—blessings which can be obtained by a confession of faith. This gospel is invariably linked with ideas of "seed faith," or with the biblical image of "sowing and reaping." Tithes and offerings become instruments of prosperity...

What are we to make of this phenomenon? One's judgment is likely to be tied to one's understanding of the African context. The continent obviously has been shaped by colonialism, the cold-war rivalry of the superpowers, the world trade system and a huge burden of debt. But in my view the most significant fact about Africa is the dysfunctional political culture that permits an unaccountable elite to appropriate wealth and power at the expense of the people.

The gospel of success does little to challenge this dysfunctional political structure. For one thing, many preachers openly claim that the political-economic system simply doesn't matter, because a born-again Christian will prosper under any political or economic regime. For a child of God, normal principles of politics or economics don't apply. I've heard a Winners pastor in Ghana even tell his congregation to stop complaining about the collapse of the currency: "Even if the cedi [comes to be worth] 10,000 to the dollar, even if you have to carry sackfuls of it, it doesn't affect you. Why? Because where it comes from [namely God's plenty] never runs out." Indeed, the movement exemplifies the "Big Man" disease that is the curse of Africa. The cars and houses of pastors (acquired through a theology of tithing and seed faith) are purchased at the expense of the people they are theoretically serving, just as the politicians' wealth is gained through "service" of their constituents.
Yuk.
Brian McLaren is one of the leaders of the Emergent Church movement. Here, in the Wittenburg Door, McLaren talks about what it was that caused him to shift away from evangelical orthodoxy:

DOOR: So, what do you believe is the real scandal of Jesus' message that you explore in The Secret Message of Jesus?

MCLAREN: It's that He isn't talking about just going or not going to hell after you die. He's talking about a radically different way of living. He's talking about changing the world and living in a subversive and radical way in this world. That's what His pregnant phrase "kingdom of God" involves.

DOOR: As you finished The Secret Message of Jesus, what was the most significant insight for you?

MCLAREN: I began the book with the hypothesis that the message of the kingdom was at the center of what Jesus taught. By the time I was done, I was convinced it was in the center of not only what He said but also what He did. Obviously, parables are short, fictional ways of describing the kingdom, but as I wrote the book I came to understand the miracles as signs of wonders of the kingdom, and I understood the crucifixion and resurrection as a prophetic dramatization of the kingdom. The pervasiveness of it really hit me. I ended the book with more questions than I began with regarding how the message of the kingdom relates to eschatology. I'm still thinking that area through.

What is absolutely clear is the call to join Jesus in a radically different way of living in the kin-dom of God. What is not so clear, and leaves many more questions than answers, is how this message relates to the doctrines of orthodox Christianity.

A Little "Help" from Your Friends!

This study on obesity was reported in the New York Times today.

Find Yourself Packing It On? Blame Friends

By GINA KOLATA
Published: July 26, 2007

Obesity can spread from person to person, much like a virus, researchers are reporting today. When one person gains weight, close friends tend to gain weight, too.

Their study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, involved a detailed analysis of a large social network of 12,067 people who had been closely followed for 32 years, from 1971 to 2003.

The investigators knew who was friends with whom as well as who was a spouse or sibling or neighbor, and they knew how much each person weighed at various times over three decades. That let them reconstruct what happened over the years as individuals became obese. Did their friends also become obese? Did family members? Or neighbors?

The answer, the researchers report, was that people were most likely to become obese when a friend became obese. That increased a person’s chances of becoming obese by 57 percent. There was no effect when a neighbor gained or lost weight, however, and family members had less influence than friends.

It did not even matter if the friend was hundreds of miles away, the influence remained. And the greatest influence of all was between close mutual friends. There, if one became obese, the other had a 171 percent increased chance of becoming obese, too.

The same effect seemed to occur for weight loss, the investigators say. But since most people were gaining, not losing, over the 32 years, the result was, on average, that people grew fatter.

Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, a physician and professor of medical sociology at Harvard Medical School and a principal investigator in the new study, said one explanation was that friends affected each others’ perception of fatness. When a close friend becomes obese, obesity may not look so bad.

“You change your idea of what is an acceptable body type by looking at the people around you,” Dr. Christakis said.

The investigators say their findings can help explain why Americans have become fatter in recent years — each person who became obese was likely to drag along some friends.

Their analysis was unique, Dr. Christakis said, because it moved beyond a simple analysis of one person and his or her social contacts and instead examined an entire social network at once, looking at how a person’s friend’s friends, or a spouse’s sibling’s friends, could have an influence on a person’s weight.

The effects, he said, “highlight the importance of a spreading process, a kind of social contagion, that spreads through the network.”

Of course, the investigators say, social networks are not the only factors that affect body weight. There is a strong genetic component at work, too.

Science has shown that individuals have genetically determined ranges of weights, spanning perhaps 30 or so pounds for each person. But that leaves a large role for the environment in determining whether a person’s weight is near the top of his or her range or near the bottom. As people have gotten fatter, it appears that many are edging toward the top of their ranges. The question has been why.

If the new research is correct, it may say that something in the environment seeded what some call an obesity epidemic, making a few people gain weight. Then social networks let the obesity spread rapidly.

It may also mean that the way to avoid becoming fat is to avoid having fat friends.

That is not the message they mean to convey, say the study investigators, Dr. Christakis and his colleague, James H. Fowler, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.

You do not want to lose a friend who becomes obese, Dr. Christakis said. Friends are good for your overall health, he explained. So why not make friends with a thin person, he suggested, and let the thin person’s behavior influence you and your obese friend?

That answer does not satisfy obesity researchers like Kelly D. Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.

“I think there’s a great risk here in blaming obese people even more for things that are caused by a terrible environment,” Dr. Brownell said.

On average, the investigators said, their rough calculations show that a person who became obese gained 17 pounds and the newly obese person’s friend gained five. But some gained less or did not gain weight at all, while others gained much more. Those extra pounds were added onto the natural increases in weight that occur when people get older.

What usually happened was that peoples’ weights got high enough to push them over the boundary, a body mass index of 30, that divides overweight and obese. (For example, a 6-foot-tall man who went from 220 pounds to 225 would go from being overweight to obese.)

While other researchers were surprised by the findings, the big surprise for Dr. Christakis was that he could do the study at all. He got the idea for it from all the talk of an obesity epidemic.

“One day I said: ‘Maybe it really is an epidemic. Maybe it spreads from person to person,’ ” Dr. Christakis recalled.

It was only by chance that he discovered a way to find out. He learned that the data he needed were in a large federal study of heart disease, the Framingham Heart Study, that had followed the population of Framingham, Mass., for decades, keeping track of nearly every one of its participants.

The study’s records included each participant’s address and the names of family members. To ensure that researchers would not lose track of their subjects, each subject was asked to name a close friend who would know where the person was at the time of the next exam, in roughly four years.

Since much of the town and most of the subjects’ relatives were participating, the data contained all that Dr. Christakis and his colleagues needed to reconstruct the social network and track it through 32 years.

Their research has taken obesity specialists and social scientists aback. But many say the finding is pathbreaking and can shed light on how and why people have gotten so fat so fast.

“It is an extraordinarily subtle and sophisticated way of getting a handle on aspects of the environment that are not normally considered,” said Dr. Rudolph L. Leibel, an obesity researcher at Columbia University.

Richard M. Suzman, who directs the office of behavioral and social research programs at the National Institute on Aging, called the research “one of the most exciting studies to come out of medical sociology in decades.” The National Institute on Aging financed the study.

But Dr. Stephen O’Rahilly, an obesity researcher at the University of Cambridge, said the very uniqueness of the Framingham data would make it hard to try to replicate the new findings. No other study that he knows of has the same sort of long-term and detailed data on social interactions.

“I don’t want to look like an old curmudgeon,” Dr. O’Rahilly said, “but when you come upon things that inherently look a bit implausible, you raise the bar for standards of proof. Good science is all about replication, but it is hard to see how science will ever replicate this.”

“Boy,” he said, “is the Framingham Study unique.”

-----------------------------------------------------

As a person who has been overweight most of her life, I think that the results of the observations of the study data have been misinterpreted. The initial interpretation reported says that overweight people drag their friends into obesity.

However, I believe that society's silent discrimination against people who are obese--including those people like myself who have struggled all their lives trying to control their weight with only intermittent success--forces overweight people to find solace with one another. It is a defacto emotional support group. And then when that group gets together they do what they do instinctively, eat to console their feelings of being social outcasts of one degree or another.

Just ask Oprah Winfrey. Just ask all those people who "worship" her. They understand this. If it was as easy as hanging around with thin friends, we'd all have "thin sponsors" and look like Kate Moss. While the influence of friends' is great and the ability of one person to give another one permission to be who they are is longed for today, it's just not as simple as having a sphere of influence. Genetics and brain biochemistry are also involved. Compassion needs to be added to this discussion--and the folks who interpreted the data of this study seem to be short on it!

Will people need a vaccination to protect themselves from hanging around people like me? I wonder who will be intentionally avoiding me today because I might make them fat(ter)? This is "judging a book by it's cover" at it's worst! Excuse me, it's time to take a morning walk for my health--alone naturally.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Back to School

In less than 2 weeks my children will be back at school. We started looking together at my older daughter's reading list provided by her 5th grade teacher before school ended (the kids were NOT supposed to read these over the summer).

One of the books my daughter is going to be reading this year is Don Quixote. Unbelievely, although I know the story, I've never read the book before. So I'm very much looking forward to reading it along with my daughter.

In the Discovery Channel video discussion that we checked out of the library, the discussion materials ask readers to compare Don Quixote to Amelia Earhart, Nelson Mandela, Susan B. Anthony, Mahatma Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Theresa as real life examples of people who refused to abandon their dreams despite popular sentiment that those dreams were unattainable. The character Don Quixote, the notes suggest, is a protagonist who refuses to compromise his ideals in order to accomplish a greater good. The Discovery Channel discussion guide also asks readers to think about why people like Curasco feel a need to destroy illusions and dreams of those who do not subscribe to a practical approach to life.

Now let's all go out and tilt at one of the many windmills in our world today--homelessness, poverty, hunger, inequality, war and violence...etc.

Peace,

Political Briefings at the Peace Corps

How can we use the Peace Corps to help us win elections:
White House aides have conducted at least half a dozen political briefings for the Bush administration's top diplomats, including a PowerPoint presentation for ambassadors with senior adviser Karl Rove that named Democratic incumbents targeted for defeat in 2008 and a "general political briefing" at the Peace Corps headquarters after the 2002 midterm elections.
We learn in this Washington Post article the White House take on the 2006 election:

On Jan. 4, just after the 2006 elections tossed the Republicans out of congressional power, Rove met at the White House with six U.S. ambassadors to key European missions and the consul general to Bermuda while the diplomats were in Washington for a State Department conference.

According to a department letter to the Senate panel, Rove explained the White House views on the electoral disaster while Sara M. Taylor, then the director of White House political affairs, showed a PowerPoint presentation that pinned most of the electoral blame on "corrupt" GOP lawmakers and "complacent incumbents."

Place of Women in Islam

A Muslim woman answers questions about Islam in the Washington Post and talks about gender equality:

In early Islamic history women played an essential role participating in all aspects of life whether it is political, theological, military, economic or social. As Islam spread, Muslims took on some of the traditions of the cultures they came across that were not always so generous towards women. Despite this, Muslim women have continued to play a major role in Islamic communities but over the centuries their role in public life has become less obvious.

The question that continues to be asked today is about the rights of Muslim women. Chapter 4 of the Qur'an is entitled ‘An-Nisa’ or ‘The Women’. The reason for this is not to separate women from men or to give them special privileges but to emphasize the need to safeguard the ‘rights’ given to them by God.

Muslim women today who are rediscovering their identity are able to find their place in front of God very easily. To find their place with fellow Muslim men is much harder!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness...

Here's an article republished from the Denver Post in one of the Twin Cities local online papers about the current "happiness craze". I really enjoyed it and simply thought I'd share it with you. Have a Happy Day! :-)

----------------------------------------------------

Desperately seeking happiness
BY COLLEEN O'CONNOR
Denver Post

We're a nation with a happiness fetish.

A new book on happiness seems to roll off the presses every day.

Millions of Americans are training for happiness by wearing 'A Complaint Free World' bracelet because, they say, a global moratorium on griping will bring about happiness.

Still others prefer the 'Complain All You Want' bracelet, saying the emotional release of complaining is its own form of happiness.

And then there are those who seek happiness in the usual things: shopping, sex, food, drugs, alcohol, marriage, divorce, extreme sports, meditation and movies like 'The Pursuit of Happyness.'

Our founding fathers were certainly sage: It is the pursuit of happiness that's an inalienable right, not the attainment of it. Centuries after they penned these words in the Declaration of Independence, we're still in hot pursuit.

And yet our self-reported levels of happiness have not increased since the 1950s, even though there has been a national increase in wealth.

'Asked the same questions that had been asked Americans in the 1950s, people in the 2000s reported themselves to be no happier,' writes Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of 'The Happiness Myth: Why What We Think Is Right Is Wrong,' citing a compilation of these studies in 'The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies,' by political scientist Robert E. Lane.

So what's the deal?

RELATIVE CONTENTMENT

We've got more wealth, more education and more timesaving technology since the days
of the ancient Stoics and Epicureans, who also wrote tomes on how to be happy.
Experts blame the so-called "hedonic treadmill."

The modern pursuit of happiness, they say, is like running on a treadmill: Work hard and stay in the same spot.

"Once people get to a certain level of material prosperity, they're no longer stressed by the pressure of getting that next dollar," says Stephen Post, co-author of "Why Good Things Happen to Good People," which explores the link between happiness and altruism. "The second or third pair of $200 designer jeans doesn't make people happy.

"People are comparative by nature. They compare the state of their material well-being to others, so they're already on the treadmill, never satisfied."

Worse, a 2005 study by Harvard economist Erzo F.P. Luttmer showed that falling behind the Joneses triggers a blast of unhappiness.

"The very famous, and disturbing, results showed that people were less happy if other people in their community were richer," says Jeffrey Zaks, a professor of economics at the University of Colorado.

"The idea that you're happy only if other people are worse off is morally and ethically disturbing."

Authentic happiness takes work. And, like lush lawns, fancy cars and healthy marriages, it requires maintenance. It's easier, experts say, to be unhappy than happy.

"I think we can do things to be happier," says University of Michigan psychologist Stephen Peterson, a happiness expert. "However, it's not five easy steps to lasting fulfillment. That's absolute nonsense. I'm struck by this enormous new self-help genre on how to be happier, and then the crash-diet books. There are no shortcuts to happiness, and there are no shortcuts to weight loss.

"We do know what makes people happier: It is to have good relationships with other human beings, to do work you like and to be a contributing member of some community," Peterson says. "All of that is hard work."

For Post, the pithiest summation of happiness was tossed off about 50 years ago by Viktor E. Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and author of "Man's Search for Meaning." He wrote that people cannot pursue happiness directly; it is a byproduct of helping others.

"I could be surrounded by millions of people who love me and adore me, but unless I can become a source of giving, I'll never be happy," Post says. "Happiness is something of a paradox."

In short, he says: "It's good to be good."

CONFLICTING DESIRES

Let's say you want to experiment with boosting your own happiness. You decide to follow the principles of just one of the many happiness books flooding the market. Let's say you choose "The Happiness Myth." The book, new in April, details three types of happiness:


There's the good day - not spending too much time in tasks of drudgery and indulging in some things that bring pleasure.

There's euphoria, an intense and fleeting state that involves some risk or vulnerability.

And there's the happy life, which requires hard work - striving, nurturing, maintaining, mourning, birthing.

First, Hecht says, realize the fundamental problem. The reason we cannot do everything we want to do in order to be happy is the three kinds of happiness conflict with one another.

If your long-term happiness dictates a trim body, but your idea of a good day is a daily pint of Chunky Monkey, you've got a problem.

Then, once you sort all this out, move along to doing all the work required by each category, trying not to mess up the balance between euphoria, pleasure, striving and maintaining.

If all this sounds exhausting and you're already feeling a tad burnt out, don't worry. Be happy. Just try another book. Like maybe "Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile" by biological psychologist Daniel Nettle. He writes that total happiness is not possible, so stop consciously seeking it.

Don't obsess about being happy, in other words. Just let it be.

5 HAPPINESS HABITS

Happiness is an inside job. Experiment with what works for you. Try these five essential happiness habits, adapted from "How to Do Just About Anything" on ehow.com.

Figure out what is important to you. Do you value a certain kind of job, material things, a relationship, time alone, time with others, time to relax, time to be creative, time to read, time to listen to music or time to have fun?

To be happy, you have to make happiness a priority. Decide to make more time in your life to do more of what is important to you and makes you feel happier.

Start with little things and work up. Little things might be reading for 15 minutes, taking a walk, calling a friend or buying a great-smelling soap, shampoo, candle or tea that you will enjoy every time you use it.

Focus on what is positive. In a journal, write down as many positive things as you can think of about yourself, others and life in general. Keep it handy, read it and continue adding to it.

Appreciate what is working in your life. In the major areas of your life - your health, job, love life, friends, family, money and living situation - what is going well?

Living on the Edge of Religious Orthodoxy

Noah Feldman, an Orthodox Jew and professor at Harvard, reflects on what it is like to be from a separatist religious tradition living in the modern world:

A number of years ago, I went to my 10th high-school reunion, in the backyard of the one classmate whose parents had a pool. Lots of my classmates were there. Almost all were married, and many already had kids. This was not as unusual as it might seem, since I went to a yeshiva day school, and nearly everyone remained Orthodox. I brought my girlfriend. At the end, we all crowded into a big group photo, shot by the school photographer, who had taken our pictures from first grade through graduation. When the alumni newsletter came around a few months later, I happened to notice the photo. I looked, then looked again. My girlfriend and I were nowhere to be found.

I didn’t want to seem paranoid, especially in front of my girlfriend, to whom I was by that time engaged. So I called my oldest school friend, who appeared in the photo, and asked for her explanation. “You’re kidding, right?” she said. My fiancĂ©e was Korean-American. Her presence implied the prospect of something that from the standpoint of Orthodox Jewish law could not be recognized: marriage to someone who was not Jewish. That hint was reason enough to keep us out.

Not long after, I bumped into the photographer, in synagogue, on Yom Kippur. When I walked over to him, his pained expression told me what I already knew. “It wasn’t me,” he said. I believed him.

Since then I have occasionally been in contact with the school’s alumni director, who has known me since I was a child. I say “in contact,” but that implies mutuality where none exists. What I really mean is that in the nine years since the reunion I have sent him several updates about my life, for inclusion in the “Mazal Tov” section of the newsletter. I sent him news of my marriage. When our son was born, I asked him to report that happy event. The most recent news was the birth of our daughter this winter. Nothing doing. None of my reports made it into print.

It would be more dramatic if I had been excommunicated like Baruch Spinoza, in a ceremony complete with black candles and a ban on all social contact, a rite whose solemnity reflected the seriousness of its consequences. But in the modern world, the formal communal ban is an anachronism. Many of my closest relationships are still with people who remain in the Orthodox fold. As best I know, no one, not even the rabbis at my old school who disapprove of my most important life decisions, would go so far as to refuse to shake my hand. What remains of the old technique of excommunication is simply nonrecognition in the school’s formal publications, where my classmates’ growing families and considerable accomplishments are joyfully celebrated...

Despite my intimate understanding of the mind-set that requires such careful attention to who is in and who is out, I am still somehow taken by surprise each time I am confronted with my old school’s inability to treat me like any other graduate. I have tried in my own imperfect way to live up to values that the school taught me, expressing my respect and love for the wisdom of the tradition while trying to reconcile Jewish faith with scholarship and engagement in the public sphere. As a result, I have not felt myself to have rejected my upbringing, even when some others imagine me to have done so by virtue of my marriage.

Some part of me still expects — against the judgment of experience — that the individual human beings who make up the institution and community where I spent so many years of my life will put our longstanding friendships ahead of the imperative to define boundaries. The school did educate me and influence me deeply. What I learned there informs every part of my inner life. In the sense of shared history and formation, I remain of the community even while no longer fully in the community.

An informative article about Orthodox Judaism.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Perkins on Vitter

Louisiana Senator David Vitter was the first public official to be outed in the DC Madam scandal. He was forced to make a public apology, admitting his "sin" and asking for forgiveness. Here is what, Tony Perkins, a prominent leader on the religious right had to say on his blog about Vitter:

The statement by my friend and former colleague, Louisiana Senator David Vitter, was very disappointing. He admitted to a “serious sin” in a statement he released to the press on Monday, prior to news reports revealing that his phone number appeared on a long list of client’s numbers of the now infamous DC Madam, Deborah Jeane Palfrey.

In the release David assumed complete responsibility for what he did and that he “asked for and received forgiveness from God and [his] wife in confession and marriage counseling.” These allegations first surfaced about 4 or 5 years ago when David was considering running for governor of Louisiana. He backed away from the race admitting to marital problems and he and his wife sought counseling. This public revelation coincides with that time frame.

While I commend him on assuming personal responsibility and working to make things whole in his life, I cannot defend David’s behavior. Adultery is a serious matter that affects not only the individuals involved but families and the well being of the entire community. Voters have the right to consider issues like this when they assess the character of an elected official.

Having said that, the American people have shown themselves to be very forgiving toward a public official who admits their failures and takes redemptive steps. And despite what some have said since he released his statement, so does God. Proverbs 24:16 reads “For a righteous man may fall seven times and rise again, but the wicked shall fall by calamity.” I hope to see David back on his feet again.
Do you notice that there is something missing here? There is no mention by Perkins that Vitter, if the allegations are true, broke the law. He is a criminal. His wife can forgive him for committing adultery. Heck, his constituents can forgive him if they want; Louisianans seem to be OK with electing charged criminals. But it's a significant omission on the part of Perkins to fail to mention the criminal element. Isn't this part of the right-wing agenda - no coddling criminals? I seem to remember hearing something about this when Bill Clinton lied before a grand jury about having sex with Monica Lewinsky.

Why Fred Thompson Won't be President

The Economist's cartoonist shows us. Via Andrew Sullivan.

A Church is not a building, but...

Email newsletter article this week:

It is often said, and it's true, that a church isn't a building. A church is people, and it doesn't matter where they meet. But having a building makes a difference for us.

Obviously, it gives us a ready place to meet for worship, meetings, classes, socials, and more. But having a building also makes it possible for us to extend our mission. Lot's of people from the community use our building. An AA group meets there; the Dakota County Green Party holds its monthly meetings there. Various other groups from scouts to support groups to families have regularly used our building since we have been there. For a time we even had a group of concerned Christians outside our building every week praying for our deliverance!

Since its inception mnpACT, a progressive non-partisan political group (that some of us at church participate in) has met there. mnpACT has brought MN Supreme Court Justice Alan Page, MN Attorney General Mike Hatch, and numerous other local dignitaries into our building, and with them lots of other people who have been introduced to Open Circle.

Last month six south metro legislators gathered at our building to talk with constituents about how to move single-payer healthcare legislation forward in the state.

While I was on vacation last week a representative of the Sierra Club called and asked if our building would be available for one of their Cool Cities training events. You can see the details about it below. They called us because we are known in the community as a hub of progressive activity in the south metro. And we have a building that is avalable to use.

It's not a perfect space by any means. But it has become an important part of our mission to be a progressive Christian presence in our community. And I think it is well to remember that our contributions to the church not only support our congregation's direct mission, but make it possible for us to be a progressive presence every time one of these groups uses our space. I think of this every time I see the parking lot full for an event that does not have our name on it. I am glad we are here and glad our building is here.

A Strange Loop

David Brooks calls attention to a book I want to read:

Douglas Hofstadter was a happily married man. After dinner parties, his wife Carol and he would wash the dishes together and relive the highlights of the conversation they’d just enjoyed. But then, when Carol was 42 and their children were 5 and 2, Carol died of a brain tumor.

A few months later, Hofstadter was looking at a picture of Carol. He describes what he felt in his recent book, “I Am A Strange Loop”:

“I looked at her face and looked so deeply that I felt I was behind her eyes and all at once I found myself saying, as tears flowed, ‘That’s me. That’s me!’

“And those simple words brought back many thoughts that I had had before, about the fusion of our souls into one higher-level entity, about the fact that at the core of both our souls lay our identical hopes and dreams for our children, about the notion that those hopes were not separate or distinct hopes but were just one hope, one clear thing that defined us both, that wielded us into a unit, the kind of unit I had but dimly imagined before being married and having children. I realized that though Carol had died, that core piece of her had not died at all, but that it had lived on very determinedly in my brain.”

The Greeks say we suffer our way to wisdom, and Hofstadter’s suffering deepened his understanding of who we are, which he had developed as a professor of cognitive science at Indiana University.

Hofstadter already understood that the mind is not a centralized thing. There are dozens of thoughts, processes and emotions swirling about and competing for attention at any one time. It’s like a quantum mechanics light show.

Carol’s death brought home that when people communicate, they send out little flares into each other’s brains. Friends and lovers create feedback loops of ideas and habits and ways of seeing the world. Even though Carol was dead, her habits and perceptions were still active in the minds of those who knew her.

Carol’s self was still present, Hofstadter sensed, even though it was fading with time. A self, he believes, is a point of view, a way of seeing the world. It emerges from the conglomeration of all the flares, loops and perceptions that have been shared and developed with others. Douglas’s and Carol’s selves overlapped, and that did not stop with her passing.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Abstincence Education Meets Science

And loses. The Senate is balking at funding abstinence education and more and more states are opting out of federal funding:

In abandoning abstinence education, states have largely said that comprehensive sex education programs, which discuss contraception beyond the failure rates, have a better scientific grounding. New laws in Colorado, Iowa and Washington state that sex education must be based on “research” or “science” — which is often interpreted as code for programs that include discussions of safer sex.

Much of the data cited in support of the efficacy of abstinence programs are from surveys taken immediately before and after a program. These commonly find an increase in intentions to stay abstinent, but do not necessarily mean that a year later, high on emotion, teenagers will follow the script.

Most studies so far have found no significant impact on behavior, and the few that do see only modest changes. In April, Mathematica Policy Research released a report that was nine years and $8 million in the making. Scientists followed middle school children enrolled in four separate abstinence programs for about five years, and found no difference in the age of first intercourse between them and their peers.

I don't have any problem with encouraging abstinence as part of a sex education program that also discusses the importance of using birth control. Teaching kids to wait is good; teaching them how to be smart and safe is better. Human nature is human nature, after all.

The abstinence education program has turned into another federal boondoggle; it goes on despite its proven ineffectiveness. And can you guess which state receives the most abstinence education money? The same state that has seen the smallest decline in teenage pregnancy? That would be the home state of our President.

Breakfast at Capitol Hill

Earlier in the month I was up watching Breakfast at Wimbledon at this time of day while on vacation. This morning I am up watching the debate on Iraq in the Senate. I woke up just in time to hear Sen. John Kerry give an overview lesson to the country--not to mention chastize his collegues on the other side of the aisle--why a vote for cloture must be invoked and we must begin to end our U.S. presence in Iraq.

Now please excuse me while I get some caffeine and my daily dose of meds so I can get back to watching the U.S. Senate debate. There was nothing my father liked more than listening to a good fillabuster in the Senate on war policy--but that was another era--the 60s and Vietnam. Now I can watch this history-in-the-making on C-Span 2.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The New Jesus

It's General Petraeus, according to James Fallows:

One memoir of life at the New Yorker under its founding editor, Harold Ross -- maybe it was James Thurber's The Years with Ross, maybe Brendan Gill's Here at the New Yorker -- described the concept of the "New Jesus." Everyone who has ever worked in an office will recognize the idea. The New Jesus is the guy the boss has just brought in to solve the problems that the slackers and idiots already on the staff cannot handle. Of course sooner or later the New Jesus himself turns into a slacker or idiot, and the search for the next Jesus begins.

As has been widely noted, Gen. David Petraeus is getting the full New Jesus treatment. It's underway to an extent I can barely remember happening before. OK, maybe one exception: When Coach Joe Gibbs was brought back to "save" the Washington Redskins three years ago, under their lamentable owner, Dan Snyder. The subsequent travails of Coach Gibbs illustrate the standard New Jesus cycle.

Petraeus is a serious man, but the expectations being heaped on him are simply laughable, and it's worth noting the proportions this phenomenon has taken on.

Salvation

A Jew talks about salvation:

Jews, however, have never adopted the individualistic concept of salvation that marks Christian theology, where salvation is granted on an individual basis to those who accept Jesus as their savior. Judaism, from its earliest stages, has been marked by a collective approach to redemption, rather than individual one to salvation: We pray together to witness the coming of the Messiah, to be taken up as a people to our Holy Land. We pray for God to hear our prayers. This is why Jewish liturgy is phrased almost exclusively in the plural. "Forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement." Judaism is a religion of the "we," not the "I."

In short, I tried to explain to my classmate that Jews don’t need Jesus. We don’t need someone to hold us when we fall short, we don’t need someone to "save" us because we have each other. Jews recognize that our fate is collective: we rise or fall together. This is the basis of the famous Talmudic saying, "kol Yisrael aravim zeh ba-zeh"–"all Israel is responsible for one another." (B. Shevuot 39a) We gain strength from knowing we can lean on others when in need, and gain responsibility from knowing that others lean on us. Hand-in-hand, with God’s help, we help each other reach our collective destiny, a destiny of redemption that rests with God, not with a personal savior.
Lots of Christians also don't believe that Jesus came to save us. He came to show us the Way. We don't need him to save us; we are perfectly capable of following him. There is sometimes a huge gap between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of Christian doctrine.

Real Christians

A female Episcopal Priest speaks about the relevance of the Pope's recent pronouncement on "real" churches:

In that same vein, I experience a lot of what I call “relational ecumenism,” as well. For instance, a Roman Catholic friend of mine routinely takes communion from me because we have a strong spiritual relationship that precedes our current denominational affiliations. She isn’t going to wait until her church says I’m legitimate; she already knows that. Likewise, I wouldn’t for a moment think that the Catholic friend with whom I had dinner on Tuesday is somehow an unfit spiritual companion just because he doesn’t agree with my views on, say, papal authority.

Post-Denominational

Such relational ecumenism may be the strongest among us Christians in our 20s and 30s, the so-called “post-denominational” set. Upwards of 60% of us no longer consider denominational affiliation as important as it was to previous generations, and we also get around more, experiencing different denominations before possibly committing to one—if at all. Such experiences mean that, while not necessarily dismissive of the conversation, we’re just not interested in waiting around until the old men in robes hammer out every minute detail of doctrine before we can share in each other’s faiths.

But this spirit isn’t just limited 20- and 30-somethings. Several of my older parishioners who still identify as Roman Catholics regularly attend my mass because they like me—and I them. The Catholics and Anglicans on the New York Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue Committee represent all different generations, and even as the Vatican tells us we’re not on an equal footing, we still talk about doctrine, politics, faith and life as though we were. While visiting Rome last fall for the 40th anniversary of the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogues, I repeatedly heard female priests obliquely referred to as “obstacles” to unity in the endless round of talks I sat through. Yet once the talks were over and the cocktails wheeled out, I chatted and swapped email addresses with several Roman Catholic priests who daringly made a point to tell me they thought my priesthood was valid.

Examples like these abound. The Vatican can put all it wants down on a piece of paper to the contrary, but for the countless number of seekers for whom denominationalism itself is a mystifying stretch, the impact of pronouncements like these—if they are even heard at all—will be a lack of welcome and a deeper sense of alienation. Fortunately, it won’t stop the ongoing practical and relational ecumenism for the rest of us who already break bread together, serve together and worship the same God together in our daily lives.

I suspect that it may not be as true for Catholic churches and Lutheran churches in MN, but otherwise very few people are looking for a denomination when they go looking for a church. They are looking for a living spiritual community. They can be found under the name of many denominations. And they are all real Christians, despite what the Pope says.