Friday, April 30, 2010

Oxymoron Watch

Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary E. Landry on how cooperative BP has been in responding to the oil spill:
BP, from Day 1, has attempted to be very responsive and be a very responsible spiller.
It appears that this is could be an epic environmental disaster for the gulf coast. The only silver lining is that it should kill the Obama plan to open up new coastlines for drilling.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Atheist Delusions

I have been reading David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies. Hart is taking on the so-called New Atheists who argue that Christian history is marked by its violence, ignorance, and opposition to science. I am only about half-way in but I find Hart making some good points.

One is that the Christian way of life was a marked upgrade from the pagan way of life that preceded it. He makes basically the same point here that Rodney Stark makes when Stark talks about how the Christians and pagans responded so differently when the Roman empire was visited by the plagues. The pagans fled for the hills, including the pagan doctors. The Christians stayed and took care of the sick. The result was that many of the pagans who survived converted to Christianity. It was a better way of living.

Why did the Christians stay and take care of the sick? Because at the heart of the Christian story there is a suffering God. On the surface it sounds like a terrible marketing strategy: my God gets hung on a cross, suffers and dies; how great can he be? It is a stumbling block. But in practice it leads to care for the suffering because this is where God is present. So widows are cared for, orphans are cared for, sick people are cared for. Christians are to stop supporting the games where humans suffer and die for sport. Christianity treats humans with more dignity; human consciousness evolves thanks to Christianity.

Christian culture brings us not only hospitals and better care for the suffering but a flourishing of the arts: literature, music, painting and sculpture. Creativity is encouraged; beauty is valued. And so the argument goes. The end of the pagan era was not the end of a golden era replaced by a thousand years of night until the enlightenment once again lit the mind on fire. The Christian era was in many ways a huge step up for humanity.

Another point, on Christian opposition to science, Hart essentially asks this question: in what culture did Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler to name just a few history-making scientists, make their history? Christian culture. Where did they do their work? In universities created and funded by Christian institutions. Where they had remarkable freedom to study and write as they pleased. Hart talks at some length about Galileo's silencing at the hands of Pope Urban VIII over the issue Galileo's support of Copernicus' heliocentric theory. Hart repeats an argument I have read before that Galileo's problem was not in holding a view of the earth's place in the universe that the church found threatening. His problem was that he was a pompous ass who needlessly offended his erstwhile friend and patron the Pope. Even then his punishment was very mild. The pope and the church were not anti-science.

Hart acknowledges the reality of violence at the hands of Christians against Jews, witches, and Muslims, and he discusses the causes and consequences of the "dark ages" in western Christianity after the fall of the Roman empire. He notes, though, that Christian culture thrived in the East, and that this was gifted to the Muslims in their conquests and expansions. He traces the movement of ancient literature and learning back to the West during the Crusades. And that is as far as I have gotten.

One thing I will say for Hart and I am not sure this is a complement, he can match Dawkins and Hitchens snark for snark. The cultured despisers have no monopoly on the ability to hurl witty epithets at opponents.

Although I haven't finished the book my hunch is that Hart is worried about our future as we move into a post-Christian world that is losing its grounding in Christianity's great idea that charity and self-less love is the heart of God and the heart of a better way of living. I don't know the answer to that. Are we falling backward or are we evolving into a better future? I would say there is no way of knowing.

I wonder, though, if it is possible to be a practicing Christian but not a believing Christian and keep hope alive. The theology of Christianity doesn't work so well for me anymore, at least if that theology includes some kind of belief in a supernatural world, but the incarnational side that has God becoming human (in us all) and more particularly God being present in suffering and our calling to respond to that with love and service, that works for me. It is enough for me but is it enough for Christianity and for our culture?

I wonder to what hope there is when so many Christians identify their Christianity with militarism and capitalism. Christianity was once a better idea. It might still be but how would we know when you can't tell Christians apart from anyone else?

Ross sisters - Solid Potato Salad

A friend sent along a copy of this YouTube clip of the Ross sisters performing in 1944. at first I was surprised by the scanty costumes, although even the belly button is covered. Then I was amused at the subject of the music, although they more than do justice to potato salad. And then about one minute in I was pretty much blown away. You don't see this on American Idol.

Capitalism Works When...

It is heavily regulated. E.J. Dionne gets it right:

It is, indeed, naive to expect Wall Street to act as charitably as the Salvation Army, and you have to respect Fabulous Fab's brutal candor about this. Which brings us back to socialism.

Marx's predictions about the inevitable collapse of capitalism have been wrong so far because the system has worked reasonably well, thanks to the rules and redistributive programs established after the Great Depression.

The lesson is that the surest way to save capitalism is to regulate it in the public interest. The surest way to create socialists is for everyone to experience the economic consequences of counting only on the goodness in the hearts of Mr. Potter and Fabrice Tourre.

It was the unwinding of the post-Depression financial regulations, which allowed the free hand of the market to run loose, that brought us the worst recession since the Great Depression. There is a classic lesson here about human nature and it always amazes me that conservatives who supposedly believe in the lessons of human nature don't believe they apply in the economic arena. Or they don't care.

Capitalism only works well when it is heavily regulated by the government.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

On the Nest

My Mallard is on the now on the nest pretty much 24/7. I saw her last evening under one of the bird feeders for a few minutes eating then she was back on the nest. She is well protected by the wood pile and the straw that she has piled up around her. I can't get a picture of her except like this one, using a mirror to view out the window - which is above my head - of the back garage door.

The Work of the Devil

Two Washington Post articles on the Catholic Church and the clergy abuse scandal include details of the devil's work. The first is about a planned Latin Mass in DC at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The event organizers, the Paulus Institute, invited a former Vatican official to lead the mass. However the selection of Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos of Colombia has outraged victims' rights group because the Cardinal once praised a French bishop for not telling police about a priest who had sexually assaulted children. Paul King, president of the Paulus Institute knows what is going on here:
At first, King said, divine providence seemed to shine on their efforts. Scheduling conflicts at the Basilica -- the largest Catholic church in North America -- had made it impossible to hold the event in 2008 and 2009. So it was with care that organizers picked April 24, 2010, for their Mass. Weeks later, they realized it coincided with the fifth anniversary of Benedict's papal inauguration.

"It seemed like even the date was selected by God. It was like God himself was blessing our Mass," King said.

Now, he says, a more sinister force seems to be at work. "We've perceived things that are obviously the work of the devil," he noted darkly. "The disruption of this Mass by protesters, for example, is not something we invited."

The second article notes that Thomas Paprocki, an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Chicago, who was announced Tuesday as the church's ninth bishop of Springfield, IL, said three years ago that the principal force behind the waves of abuse lawsuits was "none other than the devil."

What century are we living in?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Who to Support for MN Governor

For those living in MN Dave Mindeman has a great post today on the merits and problems with the DFL candidates. Dave is doing some of the best political blogging in the state.

Spring Clean Up

Spring has come early to Minnesota; warm weather in March has us running about two weeks ahead of schedule. I have been slowly making my way around our gardens cleaning up last year's perennials, removing straw from around the more than 50 shrub roses we have planted and trimming back the dead branches.

There is one area just off the brick patio out back that I haven't touched yet.

What you are looking at here is my winter wood pile that I keep on the patio for outdoor fires. Immediately to the right of it is a small bed that has our only two hybrid roses as well as an herb garden of perennial lavender, thyme, and lemon balm. In Minnesota hybrid tea roses need to be buried completely underground using the Minnesota Tip Method. I usually bury these two but we were back and forth to PA in the late fall as Mary Ann's father declined and I didn't get it done. I piled some straw around them and then we were blessed with heavy snow. I piled it high on the roses and was pleasantly surprised to find them alive this spring.

In any case I usually clean up this area first since it is right off the deck and patio, but not this year. Here is why:

One of our resident Mallards has chosen this spot to lay her eggs. It's kind of amazing to me that she doesn't seem to spend time on them during the day but she comes in every evening and spends the night. Every year Mallards lay eggs somewhere on our property or on a neighbors. They never make it; crows or foxes or skunks get the eggs. We will see if these fare any better this year.

Rowling on Going From Poor To Rich and Paying Taxes

J.K. Rowling has a great piece in the TimesOnline about her indebtedness to the British welfare state and why now that she is rich she doesn't support the party of the rich or simply move out of country to avoid paying taxes:
But wait, some will say. Given that you have long since left single parenthood for marriage and a nuclear family; given that you are now so far from a life dependent on benefits that Private Eye habitually refers to you as Rowlinginnit, why do you care? Surely, nowadays, you are a natural Tory voter?

No, I’m afraid not. The 2010 election campaign, more than any other, has underscored the continuing gulf between Tory values and my own. It is not only that the renewed marginalisation of the single, the divorced and the widowed brings back very bad memories. There has also been the revelation, after ten years of prevarication on the subject, that Lord Ashcroft, deputy chairman of the Conservatives, is non-domiciled for tax purposes.

Now, I never, ever, expected to find myself in a position where I could understand, from personal experience, the choices and temptations open to a man as rich as Lord Ashcroft. The fact remains that the first time I ever met my recently retired accountant, he put it to me point-blank: would I organise my money around my life, or my life around my money? If the latter, it was time to relocate to Ireland, Monaco, or possibly Belize.

I chose to remain a domiciled taxpayer for a couple of reasons. The main one was that I wanted my children to grow up where I grew up, to have proper roots in a culture as old and magnificent as Britain’s; to be citizens, with everything that implies, of a real country, not free-floating ex-pats, living in the limbo of some tax haven and associating only with the children of similarly greedy tax exiles.

A second reason, however, was that I am indebted to the British welfare state; the very one that Mr Cameron would like to replace with charity handouts. When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s Government, was there to break the fall. I cannot help feeling, therefore, that it would have been contemptible to scarper for the West Indies at the first sniff of a seven-figure royalty cheque. This, if you like, is my notion of patriotism. On the available evidence, I suspect that it is Lord Ashcroft’s idea of being a mug.
That's a great quote for tax day.

Jennifer Knapp Comes Out

Via Andrew Sullivan I see this Christianity Today interview with singer Jennifer Knapp:
Traveling alone or with your partner?
Knapp: With my partner.
Have you been with the same partner for a long time?
Knapp: About eight years, but I don't want to get into that. For whatever reason the rumor mill [about me being gay] has persisted for so long, I wanted to acknowledge; I don't want to come off as somebody who's shirking the truth in my life. At the same time, I'm intensely private. Even if I were married to a man and had six children, it would be my personal choice to not get that kind of conversation rolling.
I understand. But I'm curious: Were you struggling with same-sex attraction when writing your first three albums? Those songs are so confessional, clearly coming from a place of a person who knows her need for grace and mercy.
Knapp: To be honest, it never occurred to me while writing those songs. I wasn't seeking out a same-sex relationship during that time.

During my college years, I received some admonishment about some relationships I'd had with women. Some people said, "You might want to renegotiate that," even though those relationships weren't sexual. Hindsight being 20/20, I guess it makes sense. But if you remove the social problem that homosexuality brings to the church—and the debate as to whether or not it should be called a "struggle," because there are proponents on both sides—you remove the notion that I am living my life with a great deal of joy. It never occurred to me that I was in something that should be labeled as a "struggle." The struggle I've had has been with the church, acknowledging me as a human being, trying to live the spiritual life that I've been called to, in whatever ramshackled, broken, frustrated way that I've always approached my faith. I still consider my hope to be a whole human being, to be a person of love and grace. So it's difficult for me to say that I've struggled within myself, because I haven't. I've struggled with other people. I've struggled with what that means in my own faith. I have struggled with how that perception of me will affect the way I feel about myself.
I am struck by the persistent questions about her relationship with her partner and wonder if she would get the same kinds of questions if she was straight. But more than that I really like Jennifer Knapp's response that she has been living her life with joy and being gay isn't a struggle for her; or it wouldn't be if the church of Jesus acted like Jesus and welcomed her for the person she is.

The Church and Social Justice

The Washington Post On Faith section is currently featuring a discussion about Glenn Beck's recent statement that Christians should flee churches where social justice is featured. Southern Baptist leader Al Mohler comes to Beck's defense:
My concern is very different. As an evangelical Christian, my concern is the primacy of the Gospel of Christ -- the Gospel that reveals the power of God in the salvation of sinners through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. The church's main message must be that Gospel. The New Testament is stunningly silent on any plan for governmental or social action. The apostles launched no social reform movement. Instead, they preached the Gospel of Christ and planted Gospel churches. Our task is to follow Christ's command and the example of the apostles.
The New Testament is stunningly silent on any plan for government or social action. Interesting response. Yes it is true that the New Testament writers don't have much to say about a government plan for social justice. Their government was the pagan Roman Empire and and in the eyes of the empire Christians were a new and suspicious religious movement. Government leaders did not recognize Christianity as legitimate; there was occasional government sanctioned persecution of Christians. The message of the NT writers was either lay low and don't make trouble or pray for the day when Jesus will return and punish the great whore Babylon. It is entirely unsurprising to find the NT silent on any plan for government social action.

What about the Old Testament, though. What about the prophets who railed against religious and political leaders for their injustice? They certainly had a vision for government social action on behalf of the poor and widows. Why isn't that pertinent to the discussion of whether Christians who now find themselves with a political voice and access to political power shouldn't use their voice and power to establish justice through government action? I am always confused about how some evangelical Christians pick and choose their moments to look to the Hebrew Bible for support.

And then there is Mohler's next sentence: The apostles launched no social reform movement. Read this passage from Acts:
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.
This sounds a lot like a social reform movement to me. It sounds a lot like a socialist reform movement to me. It sounds like the kind of reform movement you would launch when there is no government sponsored social safety net and you are on your own. It also sounds like a template you might then transfer to the government when, lo and behold, you one day find yourself running it.

I think it is fair to say that early Christians felt a divine imperative to implement social justice reforms within their movement. I think if Rodney Stark is correct they not only did a good job of taking care of their own but they extended that care and hospitality to pagans and this helped win converts to the movement.

But I do not think it is fair to say that because the NT is silent on government-run social welfare programs that Christians should oppose them. There is a Christian social justice imperative rooted in the Hebrew scriptures and reinforced in the NT. There is an explicit reference to ends but not means. We ought to be open, then, to whatever is the most effective method of carrying out that imperative. The unparalleled success of Social Security of lifting the burden of poverty from seniors is but one example of social justice done well by the government, and done in a much more comprehensive way than any patchwork of church charities could ever do. Thanks to liberals, including liberal Christians. Thanks to liberals, including liberal Christians the same will soon be true of health care.

Al Mohler is wrong. Walter Rauschenbusch was right.

Tea Party Demographics

The New York Times surveys Tea Party members and finds, surprise surprise, that they are mostly white, wealthy, and well-educated. They describe themselves as angry at Obama and Washington. What are they angry about? Over half of those surveyed thinks that Obama's policies favor the poor over the wealthy and the middle class. Of course they are also angry about all those bank bailouts. Those poor bankers.

They want smaller government but they also don't want anyone touching their Social Security and Medicare. 9 out of 10 think that Obama is doing a bad job and some of them think he is a socialist and a Muslim:
“I just feel he’s getting away from what America is,” said Kathy Mayhugh, 67, a retired medical transcriber in Jacksonville. “He’s a socialist. And to tell you the truth, I think he’s a Muslim and trying to head us in that direction, I don’t care what he says. He’s been in office over a year and can’t find a church to go to. That doesn’t say much for him.”
One bright note from the survey: many of them don't think Sarah Palin is qualified to be President.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Is There Another Level of Reality?

Rod Dreher raises questions about a new report on the use of psychedelic drugs:
Over the years, as I've read about varieties of mystical experience, I've thought about whether or not the temporary chemical changes psychedelic drugs bring about in our brains cause us to hallucinate things that aren't there -- clearly true in some cases -- and whether or not they cause our brains to become more perceptive to realities that actually are there, but which can't be perceived under normal circumstances. How would you tell the difference?

...I am still left with big questions about all this. First (and to repeat), do psychedelic drugs actually open up a door of perception into dimensions of reality that are closed to our brains under normal conditions, or do they only cause hallucinations? (And how would you know the difference?). Second, given the commonplace testimony from psychedelic drug users to experiences that closely resemble mystical episodes of insight that saints and spiritual geniuses in various religious traditions have had, is it advisable for people in search of enlightenment to assist their quest with hallucinogenic drugs? Why or why not?

(On that last question, my intuition is that it would be the difference between someone making a million dollars through years of hard, disciplined labor, and someone winning the lottery. The money is the same, but the lottery winner has no context in which to place his bounty, and, as studies have shown, is far more likely to have his life ruined by the gift. That said, if medical research can show that using hallucinogenics can help terminally ill or badly depressed people find a sense of purpose, positive meaning or peace with their condition, why on earth would anyone want to deny them that?)
You can count me as a skeptic about whether psychedelic drugs open the user up to another level of reality imperceptible to the brain not on drugs. I think there is only one reality in this life and I think our goal ought to be to learn to live in it with a clear head. Healthy spirituality is all about learning to let go of illusions and delusions and living well in the now.

Having said that I am sympathetic to the use of drugs for terminally ill and depressed people that relieve their physical and psychic pain so they can be more present in the here and now. If psychedelic drugs help by altering the brain chemistry in such a way that the here and now is more enjoyable then they should be part of a physician's arsenal. And I am certainly not opposed to the recreational use of mild stimulants. I like my coffee and beer and although I don't use marijuana I think it should be decriminalized.

It's the notion that there is some other more real or true level of reality that I am skeptical about. Let's make it our goal to grow deeper and happier in this all too fleeting moment of reality.

Super Bugs and Weeds

A new scientific study by the National Research Council says that for many farmers the use of genetically modified crops had helped to cut the use of pesticides and herbicides, reduced the need for tilling which leads to soil erosion, and improved yields. The two biggest uses for genetic modification are "Roundup Ready" crops which are resistant to Roundup and its chemical knock-offs which allow farmers to spray the weed killer around the crops without risk of damage to the crops, and "BT" seeds which contain bacterial genes allowing the plants to produce an insecticide.

What is interesting to me, though, is that Roundup ready seeds have been in use for only ten years and already the weeds are adapting:
Overuse of this seductively simple approach to weed control is starting to backfire. Use of Roundup, or its generic equivalent, glyphosate, has skyrocketed to the point that weeds are rapidly becoming resistant to the chemical. That is rendering the technology less useful, requiring farmers to start using additional herbicides, some of them more toxic than glyphosate.
You can bet Monsanto, maker of Roundup, and its competitors are working on new formulations. But it sounds just like the stories of over-use of antibiotics and how rapidly bacteria have morphed into antibiotic-resistant super bugs.

Weeds and bacteria and probably real flying bugs are just as "smart" as we are in their own way. They want to survive and multiply too and it is pretty amazing how quickly they are able to adapt and thrive as tougher-to-kill species. Somehow I doubt that this is a battle that we will win in the end. Some super bug will come back to bite us big time eventually.

While I am not opposed in principle to the use of genetically engineered seeds it would be far better if we could find a way to farm and live without going there. The more we grow our own food and the more we support local and organic farming the lighter our environmental footprint. I don't know if we need genetically modified crops to feed the world. I know that I don't need them and neither do you. We have a choice about what we grow and eat.

Big Ben Beef Jerk

It's not easy being a Steeler's fan these days. The face of the franchise is quite possibly a criminal who just got away with rape, or at the very least he's a cad. I can't imagine that the Rooney family is going to stand by and not respond with a suspension if it doesn't come from the NFL first. I see the company that brought us Big Ben Beef Jerky has ended its marketing relationship with Roethlisberger. What they should do is just change the name to Big Ben Beef Jerk and promise to donate the proceeds of each unit sold to a women's sexual abuse awareness organization.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

More on Beauty and the Church

Rod Dreher posted part of an interview with Barbara Nicolosi-Harrington, an orthodox Catholic who teaches screen-writing in L.A., where she was asked about the clash of values between Hollywood and the church. I thought she had an interesting take:

Again, not to get myself burned in effigy, but Christians feel as alienated from Hollywood as Hollywood people feel watching EWTN or CBN. Hollywood has a value of excellent production value, of talent, and the pagan world absolutely believes in talent, this mysterious gift that comes from they-know-not-where. We know where it comes from; they don't know where it comes from, but they believe in it.

The Church does not believe in talent anymore. We think the most important thing is that everyone feels welcome. So we sit at church and suffer through Doris and Stan, who can't sing, because we don't want to be mean. They would never get a job in Hollywood, because Hollywood has integrity about the beautiful. Or if it's not "the Beautiful" in the classical sense, at least, they value the non-lame.

So when you speak of a tension of values, well, there is the value of the Beautiful, which Hollywood understands and the Church does not, and then there are the values specifically of what is good for human beings. What is it that leads them to their fulfillment, their ultimate destiny, fulfilling their nature? Those things are missing, content-wise, in what you're seeing in a lot of the media.

But in the end, which is more harmful: true words cast in an ugly frame, or untrue words cast in a beautiful frame? I think Hollywood will get people into heaven faster. Even if they have the message wrong, people in the end will turn off some of that. What will really impact them will be the harmony, the wholeness, the completeness of a work.

I think there needs to be a balance in the life of a church. The message that all are welcome and all are encouraged to share their gifts is the right message. There is nothing wrong with encouraging people to sing and read and act in worship even if they aren't great. Everyone needs to feel welcomed and valued.

But the church also needs to care about quality and, yes, beauty. It really makes a difference in worship. I have vivid memories of musical horrors in my first church pastorate. While there was a competent organist she was often traveling. The fill-ins and the special music were often positively atrocious. There was no balance between uplifting music and "non-lame."

When I came to Open Circle I insisted from our beginning that we shell out the money needed to have a professional keyboardist. We got lucky and got one with a great voice as well. To be able to sit in worship on Sundays and experience quality music every Sunday makes worship what is should be - uplifting and inspiring.

Churches don't do themselves any favor when they try to save money by using local talent. Yes there are exceptions but by and large you get what you pay for.


My newsletter article this week:

Dostoevsky said that man, in the end, will be saved by beauty -- or nothing. What he meant by that I think is that there is nothing in the world with the power to change hearts and inspire minds like beauty. Music, stories, poetry, film, photography, the natural world - all have the capacity to lift our hearts and inspire our own creativity. They touch us at a deep level; they inspire us to find our own talents and add our own beauty to the world.

I am a political animal. I read and watch and think politics. Occasionally I dive in and get involved. I think politics is important. Politics is about the distribution of power and resources and it matters to me that power and resources not be concentrated in the hands of a few. Good politics levels the playing field, knocks down walls and ceilings of injustice, puts food on the table for families.

But the older I get the more I am convinced of the limit of politics. By itself, the practice of modern politics tends toward the corrosive. It wears people down. Spend a day watching FOX or CNN and I think you will know what I mean.

It is interesting to me to think about how much the church, and here I am thinking specifically about Christianity in America, has come to see so much of its mission as political. That is what the culture wars are all about - fighting over who has the power to decide what values will predominate in the public square. Both conservative and liberal Christians have joined the fight. We often define our Christianity and our faith by our responses to these political battles.

I do not share with my Anabaptist ancestors or even some of my friends the belief that we should not even be participating in politics. Again, I think it is important and I think the church should encourage political involvement. Justice matters.

I think, though, that our passion for justice needs to be balanced by attention to beauty. If it seems strange to think about beauty as a church task, remember that there was a time when the church was considered the chief patron of the arts, in music, literature, architecture, art. Of course they were also often the only game in town, the only institution with the resources to support artists.

But there was something else going on as well. The church placed a high value on beauty because it believed that creativity and beauty were characteristics of God and God's creation. To experience and create beauty brought us closer to God. The experience and creation of beauty are not peripheral to what it means to be Christian or spiritual.

What got me thinking about beauty? The music in church on Sunday and the beauty that is breaking out all around us this spring. Both were and are inspiring. I hope you have a beautiful day.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Star Came to Rest over Minneapolis

Two intellectual heavy-weights of the Republican Party shared the stage this afternoon in the twin cities. FOX News' Sean Hannity was here covering the event live, lending more gravitas to the celestial event.