Thursday, July 31, 2008

And Why Are We So Worried About Gays in the Military?

So much time and attention is paid to whether we should have gays in the military. Yet we never hear the statistics about the percentage of women in the military who are raped. This article is shocking!

Women who are preparing their C.O. (conscientious objection)portfolio in the event of a future draft, should print this article and place it into their portfolio!

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A congresswoman said Thursday that her "jaw dropped" when military doctors told her that four in 10 women at a veterans hospital reported being sexually assaulted while in the military. A government report indicates that the numbers could be even higher.

Rep. Jane Harman, D-California, spoke before a House panel investigating the way the military handles reports of sexual assault. She said she recently visited a Veterans Affairs hospital in the Los Angeles area, where women told her horror stories of being raped in the military.

"My jaw dropped when the doctors told me that 41 percent of the female veterans seen there say they were victims of sexual assault while serving in the military," said Harman, who has long sought better protection of women in the military.

"Twenty-nine percent say they were raped during their military service. They spoke of their continued terror, feelings of helplessness and downward spirals many of their lives have taken since. "We have an epidemic here," she said. "Women serving in the U.S. military today are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq."

As of July 24, 100 women had died in Iraq, according to the Pentagon.

In 2007, Harman said, only 181 out of 2,212 reports of military sexual assaults, or 8 percent, were referred to courts martial. By comparison, she said, 40 percent of those arrested in the civilian world on such charges are prosecuted.

Defense statistics show that military commanders took unspecified action, which can include anything from punishment to dismissal, in an additional 419 cases.

But when it came time for the military to defend itself, the panel was told that the Pentagon's top official on sexual abuse, Dr. Kaye Whitley, was ordered not to show up despite a subpoena. "I don't know what you're trying to cover up here, but we're not going to allow it," Rep. Henry Waxman, D-California, said to the Defense official who relayed the news of Whitley's no-show. "This is unacceptable."

Rep. John Tierney, the panel's chairman and a Democrat from Massachusetts, angrily responded, "these actions by the Defense Department are inexplicable." "The Defense Department appears to be willfully and blatantly advising Dr. Whitley not to comply with a duly authorized congressional subpoena," Tierney said.

An Army official who did testify said the Army takes allegations of sexual abuse extremely seriously. "Even one sexual assault violates the very essence of what it means to be a soldier, and it's a betrayal of the Army's core values," Lt. Gen. Michael Rochelle said.

The committee also heard from Mary Lauterbach, the mother of Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, a 20-year-old pregnant Marine who was killed in December, allegedly by a fellow Marine. "I believe that Maria would be alive today if the Marines had provided a more effective system to protect the victims of sexual assault," she said.

In the months after her daughter filed the rape claim, she said, the military didn't seem to take her seriously, and the onus was on "Maria to connect the dots." "The victim should not have the burden to generate evidence for the command," Lauterbach told the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs. "Maria is dead, but there will be many more victims in the future, I promise you. I'm here to ask you to do what you can to help change how the military treats victims of crime and to ensure the victims receive the support and protection they need and they deserve."

Another woman, Ingrid Torres, described being raped on a U.S. base in Korea when she worked with the American Red Cross. "I was raped while I slept," she said. The man who assaulted her, she said, was a flight director who was found guilty and dismissed from the Air Force. Fighting back tears, Torres added, "he still comes after me in my dreams."

The Government Accountability Office released preliminary results from an investigation into sexual assaults in the military and the Coast Guard. The GAO found that the "occurrences of sexual assault may be exceeding the rates being reported."

"At the 14 installations where GAO administered its survey, 103 service members indicated that they had been sexually assaulted within the preceding 12 months. Of these, 52 service members indicated that they did not report the sexual assault," the GAO said.

The office found that the military and Coast Guard have established policies to address sexual assault but that the implementation of the programs is hampered by an array of factors, including that "most, but not all, commanders support the programs."

"Left unchecked, these challenges can discourage or prevent some service members from using the programs when needed," the GAO said.

Tierney said, "what's at stake here goes to the very core of the values of the military and the nation itself. "When our sons and daughters put their lives on the line to defend the rest of us, the last thing they should fear is being attacked by one of our own."

Don't Take Your Guns *From* Town

In a twist on the old Johnny Cash song, there is a town north of Atlanta, GA where by law everyone MUST own a gun. This is just another reason I have no desire to live south of the Mason-Dixon line!

Don't believe this could be true--here's the article that says so!

I wonder whether there is also a confederate flag flying and a statue of the 10 Commandments on the grounds of the county courthouse?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Love of God

Do Muslims and Christians have a different perspective on God's love? Christianity Today reports on the first full day of the “Loving God and Neighbor” conference that is bringing together Christian, Muslim, and (a few) Jewish leaders on the campus of Yale University.

One of the Muslim speakers was Mustafa Ceric, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia:

Dr. Ceric preached the value of forgiveness. Having witnessed the terror and brutality of the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, he has had much to forgive. He told the Yale gathering of Muslims and Christians that “the human being has the right to ‘an eye for an eye.’” But the right to revenge is balanced by Islamic teaching: “If you forgive, you will be forgiven in the world to come, and [here my notes are a bit shaky] it will be your propitiation.”

But Ceric startled several evangelical listeners when he suggested that not everyone was worthy of love all the time. While he talked about love for widows and orphans, for example, he named “the arrogant” as an example of those who should not be loved. This contrasts sharply with Christian notions of love, in which we are called to love unconditionally “because he first loved us.” And the difference between the two notions of love became a point of discussion.

Yale theologian Miroslav Volf made a point of explaining the Christian view of love in his panel presentation just before lunch. Contrasting with another Muslim cleric’s assertion that we cannot speak of love as being of the essence of God, but only of love as God’s actions, Volf read the locus classicus from 1 John 4:7-21, with its famous sentence, “God is love.” Because God loves (among the persons of the Trinity) before the world comes into existence, said Volf, God’s love is not reactive, but is of his essence.

Nothing to comment on, just an interesting point of difference.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Is Your Church "Cutting Edge"?

As the "poster of fluff" on this blog, I feel obligated to lighten the mood every now and then with less serious items. (Although to his credit, Liberalpastor posts great animal photos and clips from U-Tube!)

So here's my contribution for today--a fun quiz. Although this quiz is quick and kind of silly, it could also be a springboard to some good serious discussions about important topics such as demographics, location, ambiance, of your faith community.

Now, for more fun, imagine LiberalPastor with a couple piercings and a few tattoos!


Monday, July 28, 2008

No God's Politics in Canada

One reason there is no (need for a) Jim Wallis in Canada:
On the other hand, Jim Wallis shouldn’t worry too much about that for Canada’s sake, because in Canada we have a social and political landscape that is much closer to the vision that Wallis holds dear than in the United States. And we don’t need to have faith, religion or God to get us there. We have no need of that hypothesis. If God and faith are good for American politics, as Wallis is convinced they are, in Canada we know better than that. Maybe a lot of Democrats have a hunch that we are right, in which case, rather than “getting it” from Jim Wallis, they are more likely to tell him to get lost.

Tragedy at Sunday Service in Tennesee

Prayers for the members of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Powell, Tennessee where an unemployed man opened fire during a youth performance and killed 2 members yesterday. I just read the report of this tragedy on the CNN website site.

This is one of those tragedies where you just feel like tearing your garments and putting on sack cloths and ashes. There are a number of comments that one might comment about the killer and his motives and/or state of mind--but it would all be inadequate and pointless.

McCain on Gay Adoption

Andrew Sullivan highlights this snippet of George Stephanoupolis' interview with John McCain:

STEPHANOPOULOS: What is your position on gay adoption? You told the “New York Times" you were against it, even in cases where the children couldn’t find another home. But then your staff backtracked a bit. What is your position?

MCCAIN: My position is, it’s not the reason why I’m running for president of the United States. And I think that two parent families are best for America.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, what do you mean by that, it’s not the reason you’re running for president of the United States?

MCCAIN: Because I think — well, I think that it’s — it is important for us to emphasize family values. But I think it’s very important that we understand that we have other challenges, too. I’m running for president of the United States, because I want to help with family values. And I think that family values are important, when we have two parent — families that are of parents that are the traditional family.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But there are several hundred thousand children in the country who don’t have a home. And if a gay couple wants to adopt them, what’s wrong with that?

MCCAIN: I am for the values that two parent families, the traditional family represents.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So, you’re against gay adoption.

MCCAIN: I am for the values and principles that two parent families represent. And I also do point out that many of these decisions are made by the states, as we all know. And I will do everything I can to encourage adoption, to encourage all of the things that keeps families together, including educational opportunities, including a better economy, job creation. And I’m running for president, because I want to help families in America. And one of my positions is that I believe that family values and family traditions are preserved.

The straight-talk express is getting derailed here. It seems fairly obvious that McCain doesn't have a problem with gay adoption but knows it isn't going to play with with his political base.

Dancing With the Universe

From MinnPost:
The video was downloaded to the web on Saturday, June 20, 2008. By Sunday, it had 1 million hits. By Thursday, it was everywhere — embedded on Facebook and MySpace pages and flooding email inboxes and translating into millions of viewers, thousands of comments, and official "gone viral" status.

But this one is no YouTube vanity trip. This one is different. This one feels important, necessary, and artistic; it's a concrete manifestation of the change that the world's leaders have been preaching at a time when the human race could use a little pick-me-up, a little jig in its step.

This one is a high-definition television commercial for hope...

The sum effect of "Dancing," which is called "Where the Hell Is Matt (2008)" on YouTube, is just that --especially when coupled with the ephemeral music created by Harding's friend Gary Schyman and sung by Palbasha Siddique, a 17-year-old native of Bangladesh who will be a senior at Minneapolis Southwest High School this year.
Here is a translation of the poem "Stream of Life," by Rabindranath Tagore, which Siddique adapted for "Dancing":

Stream of Life
by Rabindranath Tagore

The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day
runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.

It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth
in numberless blades of grass
and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.

It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth
and of death, in ebb and in flow.

I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life.
And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Colbert on Lambeth

It is very funny.

Days With His Father


Via Andrew Sullivan, Phillip Toledano has a stunning set of photographs of his 98-year-old father.

The Real Jesus

James Carse, in the Religious Case Against Belief, provides an overview of the 2000 year old attempt to capture the essence of Jesus through creeds, theologies, and historical quests. Here is his 20th century list:
... a world-reforming messenger of the kingdom of God, which he was determined to translate into something resembling a nineteenth-century socialist utopia; a divinely appointed son of the god, who, some six thousand years ago, fashioned the earth in six days then all but destroyed it fifteen hundred years later in a worldwide flood resulting in such phenomena as the Grand Canyon; a mysterious Galilean preacher whose proclamation to the world (or kerygma), although encased in mythic thinking we know now to be false, still causes us to confront our own inauthenticity; a pop icon and rock music sensation as "Superstar"; a pure-blooded and exemplary Aryan, first member of the Master Race; a messiah who magically transports himself to the Americas after his resurrection in Jerusalem, speaking a language and describing a holy life only vaguely resembling the gospels of the New Testament; a black man who has "the blood of all races in his veins"; a fun-loving, partygoing preacher of joy who happens also to be a paragon of efficient business discipline, a master advertiser, and in effect the founder of the modern corporation; the representative in relatively modern history of an omnipotent but secret craftsman who billions of years ago assembled a universe that has been evolving since in a process of clockwork perfection; an agent of God whose life on earth, dedicated to the salvation of the human race from sin, was only partly successful and who must therefore return to call his faithful children home in a dramatic event referred to as the "rapture"; an obscure itinerant preacher and wonderworker who once lived in Galilee, something of a commercial and cultural crossroad, preaching a message not particularly distinct from the Judaism in which he was raised, whose reported resurrection is most certainly fictional; a blondish long-haired and non-Semite staring at us slightly off camera, a bit sad-faced but unmarked by suffering, and dressed in elegant and freshly laundered robes; an enigmatic figure who, according to the best current scholarship, is properly to be understood as a "Jewish peasant Cynic"; a singing, dancing incarnation of ecstasy; a man of the people who confronts the political, social, economic, racial, and sexual policies of a repressive capitalist culture; a merciless military commander whose army crushes the forces of Satan on the plains of Israel (known also as Armadeddon), then casts the losing generals into a blazing hole that opens just after he rejects their pleas for mercy; a private voice guiding elected leaders responsible for America's salvific mission to the nondemocratic world. This is not to mention more trivial suggestions that we consider Jesus as a shaman, user of hallucinogenic mushrooms, homosexual, Maoist, father of secret children, Roman spy, pharisee, dupe of political powers, extraordinary athlete, carpenter on a year's sabbatical, member of the Essene cult, protomystic, Egyptian, spirit traveler to India, psychic, one's favorite philosopher, deluded victim of a messianic complex, avatar of Krishna, and just plain fictional, nothing more than an imagined character in a children's story.
He finishes this list off by noting that the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth wrote more than 10,000 pages of books and articles in attempt to capture the essence of Jesus. For some reason not everyone found his answer satisfactory.

So, then, can we find the real Jesus?
The question answers itself...

What does it mean then to "believe" in Jesus, or "believe" that Jesus was God... It means at the very least that we have to hide from ourselves how much we do not know; we have to call in our selected Jesus and close the door against the clamorous horde of alternative Jesuses surrounding our enclosure.
But the quest continues. There is something about the man that compels us to keep looking; there is something yet to be resolved. Recognizing this fact gets us closer to understanding the genius of religion: its ability to continue to generate over decades and then centuries fresh thinking, new approaches, renewed spirituality. It is what we have yet to know about it that is the source of its strength:
It is ignorance and not belief that is the source of the faith's vitality. What remains unsaid, even unthinkable, and what still inspires disagreement, is far more powerful than what is known and intelligible.
To reference a previous post, every belief system is an attempt to nail down the details of Jesus, or the Buddha, or Muhammed. But every belief system is bound to fail because it won't answer every question or solve every problem or translate into another generation or age. We are bound to try to find a belief system that works for us, but if we are wise we will continue to listen to the voices of those who are living out of different belief systems and we will recognize the limits of our own. We will be faithful to what we "know" to be true but we will keep our eyes and ears open for that new horizon that is continually unfolding before us.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A Brief History of Lawns

I am in the process of digging up more of our lawn and turning it into perennial gardens. I have been working on it for almost as many years as we have lived in Minnesota, and little by little the lawn is disappearing. I just turned off a sprinkler that was watering some of the lawn we have left. Here in Burnsville we have an ordinance that you can't water lawns during the peak of the day, and only every other day. So, since we have been very dry recently my lawn is a mix of green and brown. I would be tempted to let my lawn go to weeds but we also have a city ordinance about keeping weeds under conrol and under 6 inches. I know this because every spring at the church our lawn service saves us for last and until they get to us we have usually received at least one letter from the city reminding us that our weeds are too high.

Not too long ago I read an article in the New York Times about a man who was touting the benefits of a moss lawn. If we had mature trees in our lawn I would definitely be interested. I don't know what the city would say about that. I do know that it is now possible some places in the midwest to get a waiver to turn your lawn into a prairie.

In any case, I read an interesting article in the recent New Yorker about the history of well-kept lawns, how un-natural and resource consuming they are, and the recent green movement to do away with green lawns. What was once the mark of European gentry has become the expectation of every suburban property in the country. And although it is now normal, it still isn't natural or healthy for the environment:
The essential trouble with the American lawn is its estrangement from place: it is not a response to the landscape so much as an idea imposed upon it—all green, all the time, everywhere. Recently, a NASA-funded study, which used satellite data collected by the Department of Defense, determined that, including golf courses, lawns in the United States cover nearly fifty thousand square miles—an area roughly the size of New York State. The same study concluded that most of this New York State-size lawn was growing in places where turfgrass should never have been planted. In order to keep all the lawns in the country well irrigated, the author of the study calculated, it would take an astonishing two hundred gallons of water per person, per day. According to a separate estimate, by the Environmental Protection Agency, nearly a third of all residential water use in the United States currently goes toward landscaping.
And then there are all the fertilizers and chemicals it takes to keep them perpetually green and weed-free. And the pollution-spewing machines that we use to mow them. It's not a pretty picture to turn our landscapes into picture-perfect lawns.

Why are Gas Prices So High?

If you want to know the answer to that question, you need to first find the answer to another: why aren't journalists asking the right questions? So says Howell Raines, former editor of the New York Times. In his recent column in Portfolio, he says too many journalists today give oil companies a free pass:

When it comes to the cost of gasoline, who should we believe? Here are some nominees and their viewpoints:
1. The oil companies: It’s supply and demand at its most basic, just like your professor outlined in your freshman economics course.
2. The petro-toadies in Congress: All we have to do is open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the waters off Florida and California.
3. The Department of Energy: OPEC has to pump more, and we’ve got to allow more refineries by rolling back environmental restrictions.
4. King Abdullah: OPEC pumps plenty of crude but “despicable” oil-futures speculators in the West are driving up the prices due to their “selfishness.”
5. Senator John McCain: Exxon Mobil has done such a good job of demonstrating the magic of the marketplace that it deserves another $1.2 billion in tax breaks.
6. Senator Barack Obama: Impose a windfall-profits tax to remind American oil executives that price gouging can backfire politically.
7. About 90 percent of the print and TV reporters in America: See No. 1. It really is that ol’ devil supply and demand.
8. The White House: Never mind. Nobody’s home.

For my money, a sounder answer as to whom to believe is Don Barlett and Jim Steele, the investigative reporting team that has won two Pulitzers and two National Magazine Awards for exposing government theft and corporate greed. Their 2003 series for Time magazine on oil economics remains required reading for anyone who wants a better understanding of how gas at $4 to $5 a gallon represents a carefully arranged screwing of consumers. “The bottom line for the oil people is, How much can I make while spending the least I can get by with on refineries, synthetic fuels, and for exploration and drilling on the vast, unused acreage in existing oil leases?” Barlett says. He notes that Canada has become the United States’ No. 1 oil supplier by funding joint government-­industry exploration of the tar-sand fields of Alberta. “The most chilling statistic is Exxon Mobil’s. It spent twice as much last year to buy back stock as it did on exploration.”

As for shallow journalism that helps Big Oil, Steele makes the point that the newsrooms that were once staffed by the redistributionist children of the New Deal and the A.F.L.-C.I.O. are now populated with the children of Reaganomics: “Younger reporters come out of a mind-set that the market rules, taxes are evil, and government ought to let these people in the oil industry go about their business.”

As journalism has passed from a hungry to an elite profession, there’s no shock value in the fact that Exxon Mobil paid only $5 billion in U.S. income taxes last year while it paid $25 billion to foreign governments. Even with Exxon Mobil making $76,000 a minute, the last thing that occurs to many assignment editors and reporters is to investigate whether a windfall-profits tax would drive Exxon Mobil, BP, and other oil companies to invest in the alternative-energy strategies they boast about in their television commercials.
So, Raines says, we get puff pieces like Matt Lauer interviewing Rex Tillerson, chairman and C.E.O. of Exxon Mobil assuring Lauer's Today Show audience that Exxon is a victim along with consumers in the oil economy. They are doing all they can to explore and drill. But if only they could get more lands open for exploration that would help alot.

No mention is made of the fact that oil companies haven't explored 80 percent of their existing leases in the continental U.S., that they have closed more than half of their 300 refineries in the last 25 years, and made a conscious effort to cut back on exploration and plow money into profits.

What drives me crazy about television news in particular isn't the supposed liberal bias of Katie Couric or the conservative bias of Fox News, it is the constant deferential, trusting treatment of government and business leaders. It is one thing to be respectful and another to be fawning.

Exxon Mobile is raking in record profits while soaring gas prices are affecting the livelihoods of most everyone in the country. I happen to think that the pain at the pump is a good thing if it finally forces us to begin to wean ourselves off of oil, but the oil companies are not victims in this process; they are strategically reaping the financial benefits of our pain. You wouldn't know that by watching the nightly news. Give me back Dan Rather.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Religion versus Belief

James Carse is from New York University where he directed the Religious Studies Program for 30 years. He has a new book out, The Religious Case Against Belief. He is featured in a recent Salon interview where he talks about the difference between belief and religion:
It's an odd thing. Scholars of religion are perfectly aware that belief and religion don't perfectly overlap. It's not that they're completely indifferent to each other, but you can be religious without being a believer. And you can be a believer who's not religious. Let's say you want to know what it means to be Jewish. So you draw up a list of beliefs that you think Jews hold. You go down that list and say, "I think I believe all of these." But does that make you a Jew? Obviously not. Being Jewish is far more and far richer than agreeing to a certain list of beliefs. Now, it is the case that Christians in particular are interested in proper belief and what they call orthodoxy. However, there's a very uneven track of orthodoxy when you look at the history of Christianity. It's not at all clear what exactly one should believe.
Carse argues that belief systems can be found within all major religions, but don't need to be religiously based. Nazism and Marxism are examples of belief systems without religious roots. They share with religiously based belief systems the same tenets. From his book:
Well-developed belief systems have the capacity to account for and explain any issue or question that might arise. They present themselves as thoroughly rational and comprehensible, while answering to a final authority, whether that be a person or a text or an institution. But they are not only large intellectual schemes. They often have distinctive historical narratives, an extensive mythology, a pronounced sense of community, a pantheon of heroes and martyrs, an array of symbols, scripted rituals, sacred geographical sites and monuments. On top of all this is an absolute certainty in the truth of their beliefs. What is more, they see themselves surrounded by treacherous unbelievers who wish nothing more but their demise. (pp. 32-33)
A religion like Christianity can can spin off and sustain multiple belief systems, like Catholicism, Protestantism, Orthodox, Fundamentalism, etc. Belief systems are usually born in conflict and depend on its continuing presence to fan the flames of adherents.

Religion, by contrast is "in its purest form a vast work of poetry." (p. 111) A religion like Christianity resists all attempts by its various belief systems to pin it down to any doctrines or essentials. The Christian scripture is a model religious text. It is a "glorious confusion" that invites continuous interpretation. The search for the real Jesus within the text has been going on for two thousand years:
Altogether the effort must be seen as an extraordinary work of the imagination, a long creative train of innovations, or successive visions... To the present day, novel readings of the text have outrun all attempts to channel or contain them. (p. 119)
Hence, religion, like poetry, is not definitive but generative. It continually leads beyond itself to what is not yet known.

Carse makes some distinctions that I find helpful. He distinguishes three kinds of ignorance. There is "ordinary ignorance" which is simply a lack of knowledge that can be rectified with learning. There is "willful ignorence" which is choosing not to know things that make us uncomfortable or don't fit within our belief systems. We know that someone is unhappy with us but pretend that there is nothing wrong. Belief systems and willful ignorance usually walk hand in hand. Creationists simply ignore the evidence that the earth is older than 10,000 years.

There is a third kind of ignorance that is a "higher ignorance." Higher ignorance comes as a result of long reflection and continuing self-examination. No matter how much knowledge one accumulates, there is a recognition that our knowledge falls short of "the" truth. Religion invites us to grow into this "higher ignorance."

Related to this is Carse's distinction between boundaries and horizons. Boundaries mark the borders of what is true and what is safe. On the inside we are protected; on the outside there is danger and chaos. Belief systems attempt to create clear boundaries. Horizons, on the other hand, do not have a fixed outer edge:
It is not a line drawn by someone else, but the limit of one's own vision. If we walk to the point where our vision was thought to end, the horizon will only have extended itself... Every step taken alters the horizon, changes the field of vision, causing us to see what had been thus far circumscribed as something quite different. (p. 80)
Boundaries and horizons are not incompatable. There are healthy belief systems with fuzzy edges. But there is always a tendency within belief systems to build fences and scare people away from exploring the dangerous borders.

Carse thinks that much of the strife in our world is caused by true believers living out of their unhealthy belief systems, willing to kill in the name of God or the Motherland or the Will of the People. He is out to rescue religion from its true believers.

Along the way he takes a few pot-shots at the new Atheists whose books are selling so well these days. From the Salon interview:
To be an atheist is not to be stunned by the mystery of things or to walk around in wonder about the universe. That's a mode of being that has nothing to do with belief. So I have very little in common with them.
This comment caught the attention of Jason Rosenhouse at his EvolutionBlog, where he fired back and invited further discussion.

I have yet to read the final third of the book entitled Religion Beyond Belief but I think Carse adds an interesting twist on the effort to rethink Christianity and other religions, moving away from defining them by outdated and rigid beliefs. I have been drawn to making a distinction between Christianity as praxis versus Christianity as a set of doctrines or beliefs about Jesus or God. To be a Christian is to follow in the way of Jesus. But Carse's religion-as-poetry metaphor opens up another way of thinking about what it means to be a religious person. The horizon has been altered once again.

Would the Killing in Darfur Stop if James Robinson Went Away?

This is what the Anglican Archbishop of Sudan Daniel Deng Bul suggested in a press conference at the Lambeth Conference:
This issue of homosexuality in the Anglican Communion has a very serious effect in my country. We are called ‘infidels’ by the Moslems. That means that they will do whatever they can against us to keep us from damaging the people of our country. They challenge our people to convert to Islam and leave the infidel Anglican Church. When our people refuse, sometimes they are killed. These people are very evil and mutilate and harm our people. I am begging the Communion on this issue so no more of my people will be killed.
Somehow I doubt that the killing will stop if Robinson resigns, as Bul called for, and the American church "repents" of its evil ways.

You can read more about Bul's statement at the Christianity Today blog here.

Global Addictions--Money and Oil

Back in the late 70s after the energy crisis of the mid 70s, President Jimmy Carter was trying to tell Americans we were using too much oil and too much nonrenewable energy in a polite and palatable way. Americans were in denial. Current "speak" for this is "addiction". We are still in denial but now Al Gore is devoting his life to an world intervention. This article was just published on CNN. It gets to the heart of the matter of our global addictions oil and money. Addiction to money will trump any other addiction almost always.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Pain and Meditation

Still on the journey of recovery from my surgery last week, I had my first physical therapy visit after my return from the hospital yesterday morning. The visit was not bad but the after effects were not as pleasant. Last night I did some recearch online to find guided meditations for pain. I found a whole list of different ones for different purposes--not just pain--from this website. I tried #14 on the list which is specifically for pain. It was good.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Gratitude Prayer

This is today's Beliefnet prayer for today from Albert Einstein. I am in the middle of personal gratitude for the skill and compassion of a number of doctors, nurses, friends, family and spouse who have helped me get through knee replacement surgery this past week and this prayer is perfect for my situation (minus Einstein's sexist language).

In Gratitude for the Labors of Others

A hundred times a day I remind myself
that my inner and outer life depends
on the labors of other men,
living and dead,
and that I must exert myself in order
to give in the measure as I have received
and am still receiving.

- Albert Einstein

It is time to get back to giving as I have received!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Naming Project

LiberalChurch has been collecting money as an Outreach Ministry project to give to The Naming Project so that GLBT and allied teens can attend church camp this summer in Minnesota. We will continue to collect money though the end of July because the week of camp for summer 2008 is coming up very soon!

Read more about The Naming Project here:

Going Emergent

A fifty-eight year old UCC pastor in professional and spiritual transition finds himself, and his wife, worshiping in a bar with 20-somethings:

For my spouse, Susan, who was struggling with the loss of our old church, sitting on a barstool between the pool table and the dartboards raised her sense of adventure. For me, the church raised the hope that the vision of a “third way” I had been pursuing for more than a decade—blending mainline inclusiveness and passion for social justice with evangelical emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ—might be realized by a younger generation that bore fewer scars from the culture wars.

On our second visit, a former student of my spouse greeted her with shock: “Dr. McFadden! What are you doing here?” In a community of students, musicians and baristas, we clearly stood out like sore thumbs. The former student shared a bit of her story, one we have since heard many versions of: she was raised in an extremely conservative church, counts her faith in Christ central in her life, but wearied of having non-Christian friends “assume that because I love Jesus I support George Bush and hate gay people.” Much of my “third-way” vision is present in San Damiano in people like this student.

Music is central to our experience of worship. San Damiano folk are equally disdainful of traditional, organ-accompanied hymnody and evangelical praise music, which they call “Jesus goes to Vegas.” Simplicity and authenticity are hallmarks: Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” filtered through the life of a man who has experienced God’s liberation from narrow judgment, becomes a hymn.

As a mainline institutional guy, I had a lot of adjusting to do. For example, our worship service officially begins at “10:30ish,” which is emergent code for “maybe 10:40, maybe 11:05,” challenging for a former pastor who anguished if the 8:45 service began at 8:46. The sacrament is celebrated every week, but until six months ago it was a “self-serve body-and-blood buffet.” And Greg, my cherished pastor, reads scripture through a literalist hermeneutic: “The beloved disciple was a really old guy when he wrote the Book of Revelation.” San Damiano has mellowed me in many ways. Now if the service begins before 10:45, I am sometimes annoyed because I am not done chatting with my friends. I have learned that the truth of the gospel can be fully expressed within a hermeneutic different from my own. Above all, I am learning new things about Christian community, Christian friendship and Christian hospitality.


The answer to our hunger problems might be found in eating less meat and more bugs. It is also better for the environment. From the Economist:

Eating insects does far less damage. For one thing, the habit could help to protect crops. Some 30 years ago the Thai government, struggling to contain a plague of locusts with pesticides, began encouraging its citizens to collect and eat the insects. Officials even distributed recipes for cooking them. Locusts were not commonly eaten at the time, but they have since become popular. Today some farmers plant corn just to attract them. Stir-frying other menaces could help reduce the use of pesticides.

But insect populations vary with the seasons, and it is hard to control the amount on offer at a given time. “There is very little knowledge or appreciation of the potential for managing and harvesting insects sustainably,” notes Patrick Durst, a Bangkok-based senior forestry officer at the FAO. Those looking for a reliable source of protein might prefer to farm them. Protein makes up a high proportion of most insects’ weight. That makes them much more efficient at converting feed to protein than livestock. For example, a cow yields only 10lb (4.5kg) of beef for every 100lb of feed it eats, whereas the same amount of feed would produce tens times as much cricket.

Academics at Khon Kaen University in Thailand have developed a low-cost cricket-rearing technique, and taught it to some 4,500 families. On just a few hundred square feet of land a single family can raise crickets in numbers large enough to increase their income significantly. Or they can rear them on a smaller scale inside their homes, within large containers. The insects do not require much food or water, grow fast and reproduce quickly. And if they somehow perish, the financial impact on a poor family is far less devastating than the loss of a cow or pig.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Light blogging from me

I am visiting family in PA for the next 2 weeks and won't be blogging much if at all. Today my wife and I celebrate our 27th wedding anniversary. We were married at the chapel at Penn State University. We are in State College visiting her folks right now, and will likely walk the "hallowed grounds" later today.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Gays in Military Don't Hurt Ability to Fight

From CNN:
Congress should repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" law because the presence of gays in the military is unlikely to undermine the ability to fight and win, according to a new study released by a California-based research center.

The study was conducted by four retired military officers, including the three-star Air Force lieutenant general who in early 1993 was tasked with implementing President Clinton's policy that the military stop questioning recruits on their sexual orientation.

"Evidence shows that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly is unlikely to pose any significant risk to morale, good order, discipline or cohesion," the officers states.

Now there's a surprise.

Broder on Helms

Via Andrew Sullivan I see this post by David Broder from 2001, re-posted today, on the announcement of Jesse Helms retirement from the Senate:

Those who believe that the "liberal press" always has its knives sharpened for Republicans and conservatives must have been flummoxed by the coverage of Sen. Jesse Helms's announcement last week that he will not run for reelection next year in North Carolina. The reporting on his retirement was circumspect to the point of pussyfooting.

On the day his decision became known, the New York Times described him as "a conservative stalwart for nearly 30 years," the Boston Globe as "an unyielding icon of conservatives and an archenemy of liberals." The Washington Post identified Helms as "one of the most powerful conservatives on Capitol Hill for three decades."

Those were accurate descriptions. But they skirted the point. There are plenty of powerful conservatives in government. A few, such as Don Rumsfeld and Henry Hyde, have been around as long as Helms and have their own significant roles in 20th century political history. What really sets Jesse Helms apart is that he is the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country -- a title that one hopes will now be permanently retired. A few editorials and columns came close to saying that. But the squeamishness of much of the press in characterizing Helms for what he is suggests an unwillingness to confront the reality of race in our national life.

My own paper, The Washington Post, carried three stories about Helms's departure. In their 54 paragraphs, exactly two -- the 10th paragraph of one story and the last paragraph of another -- alluded to the subject of race.

Let me be clear. Helms has fought many battles in his career, and whether you agreed with him or not on small issues such as the funding of the arts or large ones such as Cuba, China, the Panama Canal and the United Nations, you had to respect his right as an elected and reelected senator to fight for his beliefs.

Even if you thought, as I did, that he was petty and vindictive in using his power as a committee chairman to block the appointment of former Massachusetts governor William Weld as ambassador to Mexico and, just this year, to force concessions from President Bush on textile imports before the top Treasury officials could be confirmed, you had to admit that other senators also have used their leverage to advance personal political agendas.

What is unique about Helms -- and from my viewpoint, unforgivable -- is his willingness to pick at the scab of the great wound of American history, the legacy of slavery and segregation, and to inflame racial resentment against African Americans.

Many of the accounts of Helms's retirement linked him with another prospective retiree, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Both these Senate veterans switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party when the Democrats began pressing for civil rights legislation in the 1960s. But there is a great difference between them. Thurmond, who holds the record for the longest anti-civil rights filibuster, accepted change. For three decades he has treated African Americans and black institutions as respectfully as he treats all his other constituents.

To the best of my knowledge, Helms has never done what the late George Wallace did well before his death -- recant and apologize for his use of racial issues. And that use was blatant.

In 1984, when Helms faced his toughest opponent in Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt, the late Bill Peterson, one of the most evenhanded reporters I have ever known, summed up what "some said was the meanest Senate campaign in history."

"Racial epithets and standing in school doors are no longer fashionable," Peterson wrote, "but 1984 proved that the ugly politics of race are alive and well. Helms is their master."

A year before the election, when public polls showed Helms trailing by 20 points, he launched a Senate filibuster against the bill making the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. a national holiday. Thurmond and the Senate majority were on the other side, but the next poll showed Helms had halved his deficit.

All year, Peterson reported, "Helms campaign literature sounded a drumbeat of warnings about black voter-registration drives. . . . On election eve, he accused Hunt of being supported by 'homosexuals, the labor union bosses and the crooks' and said he feared a large 'bloc vote.' What did he mean? 'The black vote,' Helms said." He won, 52 percent to 48 percent.

In 1990, locked in a tight race with an African American Democrat, former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt, Helms aired a final-week TV ad that showed a pair of white hands crumpling a rejection letter, while an announcer said, "You needed that job and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota." Once again, he pulled through.

That is not a history to be sanitized.

He will not be missed. And whatever happened to the David Broder who used to write good columns like this? I miss him.

Flags in Church

Continuing along on the blog train this morning I came across some lively discussion about flags in church. The discussion came in response to this quote by Stanley Hauerwas:
I assume most of you are here because you think you are Christians, but it is not all clear to me that the Christianity that has made you Christians is Christianity. For example: How many of you worship in a church with an American flag? I am sorry to tell you that your salvation is in doubt. How many of you worship in a church in which the fourth of July is celebrated? I am sorry to tell you that your salvation is in doubt.
Hauerwas teaches at Duke Divinity School and at the Duke University School of Law. He has an affinity for anabaptist theology and promotes a form of virtue ethics. He is very popular in Church of the Brethren and Mennonite circles. Many are part of the Hauerwas Mafia.

Jim West posted this comment on his blog:

What Hauerwas has forgotten, or perhaps doesn’t know, is that salvation is by faith, through grace, and not by anything that we do or leave undone. Flying or not flying a flag; sitting in a sanctuary with or without a flag; these are things which have no bearing on salvation at all.

If H. believes that the presence of the flag in a Church is an idol and that it leads to idolatry- which it may well do for some - then he must also insist that every Christian sitting in any Church with any sort of money at all in their pockets must too be an unbeliever, since money is an idol far more frequently worshiped than a flag.

Hauerwas wishes to make Christianity a-political. But that is an impossibility since we live in a world in which politics is a reality. He may believe that his intention is good- but it is shortsighted, narrow minded, bigoted, biased, and evil. His demonization of a group of seminary students by implication is as wrong as calling all blacks by the n-word or all Jews by a slur. H. may imagine, in his somewhat gifted mind, that he is on the side of right- but he is on the side of darkness precisely because he has striven to make salvation a work. For that reason he deserves all the scorn and mockery we children of the Reformation can hurl at him. Sola fide, thou unbeliever.

I think West is wrong to say that Hauerwas wishes to make Christianity a-political. I think he wants to make it more political, but from what he argues is a truer pre-Constantinian-Christian, not liberal and not American, perspective.

I also think he is vastly oversimplifying the faith-works dichotomy. The louder you shout that Christianity is all about faith not works, the more you turn it into a work. It is always both; it can't be any other way.

But to the flags. Here is where I realize that I am a child of the Radical Reformation. Too much time spent learning about the dangers of cozy church-state relationships and persecution of my Anabaptist ancestors at the hands of Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed, all in the name of God and with the help of Caesar's sword.

The flag is a symbol of allegiance to a country. It belongs in lots of places but never in church. There is room for only one allegiance there. It is certainly true that we don't experience church-state coercion in the United States, but there is already far too much mistaking of the will of God with the might of America. Church should stand as one place where it is clear that the two do not go together.

My first experience with a flag in worship came as a seminarian in Chicago when I spent a year working at Wheaton First Presbyterian Church. What an education! It was the largest church I had ever been in and the Jr. High youth group I was hired to be "in charge" of was larger than almost all Church of the Brethren congregations. The flag was conspicuously present on Sundays. What is more on American holidays like Memorial Day and the 4th of July, the flag was processed in along with the Bible to patriotic hymns. Talk about culture shock.

My second flag in church experience came while serving as pastor at my first church in Youngstown, OH. One Sunday an American flag "appeared" in the front of the sanctuary, donated in memory of someone in the church who had died. What a brouhaha ensued. People threatened to quit the church if it stayed; people threatened to quit the church if it left. A negotiated settlement was reached where the flag was moved into the fellowship area, which also served as home to some other civic groups who used the church as well as a precinct voting location during election years. Some still left the church over the presence of the flags.

It's totally unrelated, but the same family that donated the flag in honor of one deceased relative later donated clocks with the face of Jesus on them after another relative died. What fun I had at that church!

Pornography and Evangelical Worship

Hopping links this morning brought me to this post that I really liked:
There’s been a lot of speculation in recent years about why so many evangelicals are converting to Rome and to Eastern Orthodoxy. I wonder whether the highly experiential focus of contemporary worship might have something to do with it.

The New York singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega has an entertaining song entitled “Pornographer’s Dream” (from her 2007 album, Beauty and Crime). In the song, Vega asks what kind of woman a pornographer would dream about:

Would he still dream of the thigh? of the flesh upon high?
What he saw so much of?
Wouldn’t he dream of the thing that he never
Could quite get the touch of?

It’s out of his hands, over his head
Out of his reach, under this real life
Hidden in veils, covered in silk
He’s dreaming of what might be

Out of his hands, over his head
Out of his reach, under this real life
Hidden in veils,
He’s dreaming of mystery.

It’s a nice idea: the pornographer, from whom nothing is concealed, dreams only of concealment itself. Unlike the rest of us, his fantasies involve not naked flesh, but a body “hidden in veils, covered in silk.” For the pornographer, the only thing forbidden is mystery, so that his fantasises are of clothed women, veiled flesh.

As an analysis of pornography, I think this is completely correct. The real problem with pornography is not that it is too erotic, but that it is not erotic enough. In seeking to reveal everything, to fulfil every fantasy, it destroys the very possibility of fantasy and eroticism. And so the use of pornography ultimately results not in erotic ecstasy or euphoria, but in mere boredom.

Perhaps all this can serve as a parable for the contemporary preference for experiential worship styles. Where every church service becomes the opportunity for a life-changing experience of the divine presence; where every song and sermon and prayer is designed to produce immediate emotional impact; where the whole Christian life is transformed into the pursuit of a “naked” experience of the divine – here, the final outcome can only be a profound and paralysing boredom. And for those subjected to such boredom, the only remaining spiritual desire is for a mysterious God, a God not merely naked and exposed, but clothed in ritual, sacrament, tradition.

Why are so many evangelicals converting to Rome and Constantinople? Perhaps their infinitely deferred quest for a Deus nudus has finally resulted in an unbearable boredom. Perhaps they’re dreaming of a God who is not always promiscuously available to immediate experience, but is instead “hidden in veils, covered in silk” – a more modest, and therefore more sexy God.

For what it’s worth, my own opinion is that we should avoid the pitfalls both of a promiscuous experientialism and of any reaction towards ritualism for its own sake. Instead of trying by our own efforts either to strip God or to clothe him, we should look to the place where God has both veiled and unveiled himself for us: in the event of Jesus Christ.
I can't speak to the experience of what it is like to be part of a salvation show every week, but I can say that one of the challenges of experiencing simple, non-liturgical worship week after week is finding (and offering) a sense of mystery and awe. I understand the pull of the Cathedral and the Eastern rites.

"I Hated Gay People"

Drew Tatusko is an academic administrator and instructor at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, PA. He posts frequently to his blog Notes From Off-Center. On this blog he describes why he is gay-friendly:

I hated gay people.

This was a sentiment often covered up by statements like, “I am being compassionate for their eternal status with God”, or “Hate the sin, love the sinner”, or “God did not create us to have sex with people of the same gender”. I was a harbinger of repentance, of purity, and of chastity for those who had succumbed to the whims of desire, a fallen culture, and the poor misguided choice of the psychologically needy to seek out someone of the same gender to fulfill their dark sexual desire. I had a very clear and indubitable assumption that a “practicing” homosexual could not receive Christ and those who believed they had, were deceiving themselves. After all did not John say, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us”?

But these were statements to absolve me of my own guilt. The truth is that I hated gay people because they were a disease to the world and the the Church. Gay people were pedophiles, sexual addicts, and the source of the AIDS epidemic - something God must have brought upon us to make us aware…of them.

Then my sister came out and everything began to change...

The rest of this post is well-worth the read. What changes conservative Christian hearts and minds about homosexuality is not good biblical scholarship or efforts at reasoning but personal experience with gay people, especially friends and family.

I found this blogger via Exploring our Matrix.

We Are Not at War

So says Fareed Zakaria in a recent Newsweek article, and he makes an interesting case:

George W. Bush is fond of describing himself as a "war president." And he has made many decisions involving soldiers and battle. But does this make the description an appropriate one? For many people the answer is obvious. We're engaged in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, after all. But Bill Clinton initiated hostilities in the Balkans twice, George H.W. Bush invaded Panama and Iraq, and neither president ever described himself as a "war president."

For a superpower, being involved in a military conflict somewhere is more the norm than the exception. Since 1945, only one president has not presided over combat that engaged American troops—Jimmy Carter. (Between the Bay of Pigs operation and the American "advisers" in South Vietnam, John F. Kennedy doesn't make the cut.) America remains the world's dominant military-political power, so local crises often engage American allies or interests. Britain was in a somewhat similar position in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As a result, British forces were fighting someone, somewhere for most of that period. But Britain did not think of itself as "at war," nor would British prime ministers have described themselves as "wartime" leaders. (In fact, Tony Blair has never described himself as such, even though he presided over British military involvement in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq.)

America (and before it, Britain) has felt it was "at war" when the conflict threatened the country's basic security—not merely its interests or its allies abroad. This is the common-sense way in which we define a wartime leader, and by that definition the politicians in charge during World Wars I and II—Wilson, Lloyd George, Roosevelt, Churchill—are often described as such. It's not a perfect definition. The United States has been so far removed from most conflicts that even World War I's effects could be described as indirect (incorrectly in my view). But it conjures up the image of a threat to society as a whole, which then requires a national response.

By any of these criteria, we are not at war. At some level, we all know it. Life in America today is surprisingly normal for a country with troops in two battle zones. The country may be engaged in wars, but it is not at war. Consider as evidence the behavior of our "war president." Bush recently explained that for the last few years he has given up golf, because "to play the sport in a time of war" would send the wrong signal. Compare Bush's "sacrifice" to those made by Americans during World War II, when most able-bodied men were drafted, food was rationed and industries were commandeered to produce military equipment. For example, there were no civilian cars manufactured in the United States from 1941 to 1945.

From an America-as-superpower perspective this may be true. I would imagine that it feels somewhat different for the the American families who have lost their sons and daughters in the conflicts and for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Among the many failings of the Bush Administration, I think the lost opportunity after 9/11 is the greatest. Bush could have put us on a war-like footing. With the nation united behind him, he had one of those once in a generation opportunities to change the course of the country. He could have said then that we are going to move quickly to end our dependence on foreign oil and get ourselves ourselves out of the losing politics of the Middle East. He could have said to the country that it was time for us all to make some real but necessary sacrifices, and the country would have responded. We would be in a much different place today.

Instead he told us to go shopping and he immediately began planning to invade Iraq as well as Afghanistan. And he gave up golf.

Buddha's Caves

An interesting article in the New York Times about the Buddhist caves of Dunhaung, China. Click on the multimedia link in the article to see a slide show of the beautiful artwork in the caves.

Pray at the Pump

I suppose it isn't surprising that with the pain of high gas prices we get this:
The Pray at the Pump Movement, founded by Rocky Twyman, has been holding prayer vigils at gas stations across the country. On Monday, Twyman decided to take his movement from Exxon and Shell stations straight to the steps of the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, D.C., hoping to encourage the oil-rich country to raise the amount of barrels they release each day from 200,000 to 1.2 million.

Twyman, who is a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, spent the afternoon outside of the embassy praying and asking passersby to sign his petition for the release of more oil, which he hopes to deliver to the Saudi oil minister.
There is a well-known adage that God always answers prayers but doesn't always give us what we ask. Could it be that these prayers are already being answered?

We have known for decades now that for our own energy security and for the health of the planet we Americans need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and move away from our fossil-fuel guzzling, polluting ways. Yet, American car manufacturers give us Hummers and other obscene gas-hogs. And we buy them. Suburbia continues to explode with its massive highways, commutes, wasted gas, and tons of pollution. Every President since Richard Nixon talks about reducing our energy dependence on the Middle East but nothing ever changes; in fact it just gets worse.

So God, knowing all that is to come and watching it slowly but surely unfold, decides to speed things up. He gives us an oil-man for President and a Halliburtan executive for his VP. Conservation, they tell us, is for sissies. Global warming? Who you gonna believe? A bunch of educated scientists or Pat Robertson? What we need is to invade a country that has lots of oil. It's a win-win. Our friends get rich and the country has an unlimited supply of cheap oil. God bless America!

So a crisis that might have taken decades to arrive, with any semi-responsible national leadership nibbling at the edges of the problem, takes just eight years to explode under Bush-Cheney.

"Mission Accomplished." God has answered our prayers. For those who have ears to hear.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Prozac Works, But We Are Just Now Beginning to Learn How

There is a fascinating article in yesterday's Boston Globe about depression and what causes it. Recent thinking linked depression to a chemical imbalance, and drugs like Prozac revolutionized the treatment of depression by correcting the chemical imbalance. Or so the thinking went. But now...:

In recent years, scientists have developed a novel theory of what falters in the depressed brain. Instead of seeing the disease as the result of a chemical imbalance, these researchers argue that the brain's cells are shrinking and dying. This theory has gained momentum in the past few months, with the publication of several high profile scientific papers. The effectiveness of Prozac, these scientists say, has little to do with the amount of serotonin in the brain. Rather, the drug works because it helps heal our neurons, allowing them to grow and thrive again.

In this sense, Prozac is simply a bottled version of other activities that have a similar effect, such as physical exercise. They aren't happy pills, but healing pills.

These discoveries are causing scientists to fundamentally reimagine depression. While the mental illness is often defined in terms of its emotional symptoms - this led a generation of researchers to search for the chemicals, like serotonin, that might trigger such distorted moods - researchers are now focusing on more systematic changes in the depressed brain.

"The best way to think about depression is as a mild neurodegenerative disorder," says Ronald Duman, a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at Yale. "Your brain cells atrophy, just like in other diseases [such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's]. The only difference with depression is that it's reversible. The brain can recover."

What is not clear to me from reading this article is what it is that causes the brain cells to atrophy in depressed people. Alzheimer's and Parkinson's are degenerative diseases that generally take years to develop. Depression often shows up in young people. Why does this happen?

Still, this is a remarkable find. This is one of area of medicine where we have come to far in just a few decades. It wasn't that long ago when it was common for people who battle depression to accept their "melancholy" temperament as part of who they are, and for others to dismiss depression as laziness or the mark of someone who is a "problem." It just doesn't have to be this way anymore. If ever there was a miracle drug it is Prozac. I have seen it, and its medical siblings, change the lives of many people for the better. It works; it helps. And yet there is so much more to learn about how it works and how the brain works. What we learn in the years ahead can only bode well for those struggling with this life-sapping illness.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Discovered Dead Sea Tablet

Via James Tabor I see the New York Times article about a stone tablet discovered near the Dead Sea in Jordan. The tablet apparently dates from the first century BCE. It has been examined by Ada Yardeni, who is an expert on Hebrew script from the period and it has undergone a chemical analysis by Yuval Goren, a professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University who specializes in the verification of ancient artifacts. They are vouching for its authenticity.

The text has an an interesting inscription, which bolsters a theory set forth by Israel Knohl, a professor of Bible studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, in a book published in 2000 where he suggested that the idea of a suffering messiah predates Jesus:

Mr. Knohl is part of a larger scholarly movement that focuses on the political atmosphere in Jesus’ day as an important explanation of that era’s messianic spirit. As he notes, after the death of Herod, Jewish rebels sought to throw off the yoke of the Rome-supported monarchy, so the rise of a major Jewish independence fighter could take on messianic overtones.

In Mr. Knohl’s interpretation, the specific messianic figure embodied on the stone could be a man named Simon who was slain by a commander in the Herodian army, according to the first-century historian Josephus. The writers of the stone’s passages were probably Simon’s followers, Mr. Knohl contends.

The slaying of Simon, or any case of the suffering messiah, is seen as a necessary step toward national salvation, he says, pointing to lines 19 through 21 of the tablet — “In three days you will know that evil will be defeated by justice” — and other lines that speak of blood and slaughter as pathways to justice.

To make his case about the importance of the stone, Mr. Knohl focuses especially on line 80, which begins clearly with the words “L’shloshet yamin,” meaning “in three days.” The next word of the line was deemed partially illegible by Ms. Yardeni and Mr. Elitzur, but Mr. Knohl, who is an expert on the language of the Bible and Talmud, says the word is “hayeh,” or “live” in the imperative. It has an unusual spelling, but it is one in keeping with the era.

Two more hard-to-read words come later, and Mr. Knohl said he believed that he had deciphered them as well, so that the line reads, “In three days you shall live, I, Gabriel, command you.”

To whom is the archangel speaking? The next line says “Sar hasarin,” or prince of princes. Since the Book of Daniel, one of the primary sources for the Gabriel text, speaks of Gabriel and of “a prince of princes,” Mr. Knohl contends that the stone’s writings are about the death of a leader of the Jews who will be resurrected in three days.

He says further that such a suffering messiah is very different from the traditional Jewish image of the messiah as a triumphal, powerful descendant of King David.

“This should shake our basic view of Christianity,” he said as he sat in his office of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem where he is a senior fellow in addition to being the Yehezkel Kaufman Professor of Biblical Studies at Hebrew University. “Resurrection after three days becomes a motif developed before Jesus, which runs contrary to nearly all scholarship. What happens in the New Testament was adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story.”

As the article points out Knohl's theory is not without controversy because some of the inscription isn't clear. But it wouldn't shock me to learn that Jesus picked up on an extant but somewhat novel interpretation of the messiah and made it his own - if indeed he did see himself as a messiah. Or that his followers or the gospel writers did the same.

More than anything this discovery reminds us that there is still a lot of history buried beneath the edifice of modern Israel. Who knows what we have yet to learn about Jesus and his times.