Monday, April 30, 2007

The Seven Chronicles of Narnia

I have myself passed on the speculation that each of the Chronicles of Narnia is intentionally designed to represent one of the Seven Deadly Sins of medieval theology. It is a plausible and attractive idea, as Lewis was a medievalist, author of Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, An Introduction to Paradise Lost, English Literature in the 16th Century, excluding Drama from the Oxford History of English Literature Series and The Discarded Image, an introduction to medieval cosmology. That someone like Jack Lewis, who was already smuggling orthodox Christian theology into his children’s stories, would also smuggle in the popular theology of the Middle Ages makes a certain sense.

So too with the idea that the Chronicles would each be tied in theme to one of the medieval planets of both astronomy and astrology - the five visible planets plus the Sun and Moon. Lewis explicitly tied his Perelandra series to the planets in both their physical and mythological forms. Why not the Narnia books as well?

Unfortunately for those who like to see behind and underneath things, neither is likely to be true. Lewis’s own words are available to give the disproof.

Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument, then collected information about child psychology and decided what age group I’d write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out ‘allegories’ to embody them. This is all pure moonshine. I couldn’t write in that way. It all began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord. Of Other Worlds

I think I agree with your order [i.e. chronological] for reading the books more than with your mother’s. The series was not planned beforehand as she thinks. When I wrote The Lion I did not know I was going to write any more. Then I wrote P. Caspian as a sequel and still didn't think there would be any more, and when I had done The Voyage I felt quite sure it would be the last. But I found as I was wrong. So perhaps it does not matter very much in which order anyone read them. I’m not even sure that all the others were written in the same order in which they were published. CS Lewis’s Letters To Children

We could, of course, line them up with whatever group of seven we choose. If we wanted to line them up with the characters from Gilligan's Island, we would have Mr. Howell for Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Ginger would go with The Silver Chair...

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Art In Church - Home Church

A Martian visiting my church would conclude that we worship wood grain and green leaves. A co-worshiper likened it to a worship space for gnostics: with nothing to fasten the eye on, the focus must be directed to the Idea, the Abstract.

We rent the space from the Seventh-Day Adventists, who would be well out on the bell curve of no-representations-in-sanctuary. Very 19th C, very extreme Protestantism.

I'm not sure what I would put up if I had the run of the place. But contemplating wood grain and artificial plants no longer does it for me.

Attacking My Son, eh?

Benny Hinn Ministries has instructed YouTube to remove a video my son uploaded that mentions Hinn. The claim is that there is copyright infringement, but there is nothing of the kind, simply the mention of his name. Presumably, they know that YouTube simply removes videos without checking if there is a copyright infringement claim.

He made the film for the Methodist church he works for down in Houston, so I figured Ben should let them know what is up. They probably don't want any bad publicity either.

So now you know. This particular religious (I cannot bring myself to say "Christian" for reasons unrelated to this issue) ministry protects itself by false accusation against little guys. Nice.

Pass this on, please.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Reading, Writing, and Sex: The Effect of Losing Virginity on Academic Achievement

Other than the obviously fascinating topic, there's not much stunning in this study. A small correlative effect, with little clue as to causation.

The comment by Jenna (third one down) however, is priceless.

Thanks to Tigerhawk for the link.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Funeral: On Art In Church

Today I attended the funeral of a woman I had not seen for decades. She was a childhood friend of my mother’s, loyal to my mother at a time when few were, and the mother of girls about the age of my brother and I. She was um, undiplomatic; the sort of blunt common in those who drink too much. Her daughters were a little wild and I envied them sometimes. The older confided to me recently that she envied us our stable life and calm mother. That irony is an old story. Nothing to see here, move along, folks.

The family was Irish Catholic, but I doubt that mother or daughters have been practicing for many years. Ex-catholics all have their own stories, but in my generation the stories fell into a few standard categories. Rebellion against the Catholic preoccupation with sexual rules often figured prominently in the narratives of my RC friends, but I always figured that was what all churches did. I didn’t think the Catholics were any more obsessed than my own people. In retrospect, it is more likely that it was we adolescents who were obsessed with sexual rules. The adults looked obsessed because they were just responding to us. By looking for constant loopholes we also demonstrated that we were perhaps not, shall we say, the best arbiters of church doctrine. It must have been irritating for adults to listen to twerps like me. That’s another old story, which others have told better than I.

As a Protestant, I was always struck by how astonishingly ugly more than half the art was in Roman Catholic churches. Garishly painted statues, enormous murals of saints in pain, ornate altars that lit up like a carnival ride – what was with that? The expressions on the face of Jesus, and the stilted postures the put Him in – how did that give one the idea of a warm and welcoming God? Wouldn’t it be more likely that children would grow up petrified? The stained glass windows – now those I liked, even when they were impossibly ornate or had symbols I didn’t understand. We had stained glass in our church as well, and staring at them was sometimes the best way to get through a Sunday morning. A lamb carrying a flag, crowns, pelicans, ships – I loved that stuff. I had no clue what it was about until I was older, but it was great. Compared to listening, that is.

Those kids that grow up in those churches with an empty stage, beige carpets, and a single lily in front of a plexiglass lectern, what do they look at for 60 minutes? No wonder the emerging church generation wants more visual art in the sanctuary. The tormented saints gazing heavenward might create repulsion, but the bare sanctuary creates glazed looks. Boring is probably worse than unnerving.

I think I suspected that Catholics were leaving the church because of bad art more than they suspected. Not only because the art was ugly – we can all find charm in ugly things if they have sentimental value – but the way they were ugly. That Sacred Heart of Jesus picture is downright creepy. Those stylized Byzantine saints with black-lined haloes – those come straight out of the worst parts of my unconscious, Jack. Most of the people you see in church art, especially Catholic art, are saying If you ever have a problem, don’t come to us. We lived so long ago it was a different universe. Whatever you’re feeling, we never felt that.

When I first visited Romania, the immense distance of their religious art from my thinking was even more apparent. Eastern Orthodox art is even more likely to have angels spearing trampled dragons, and demons pushing people into the flames. Large wooden crucifixes are stuck in by the side of the road all over Romania, or even out in the sheep-fields. I don’t know whether these are memorials, permanent thank-you cards for significant events or what, but there they are, often with Jesus’s wounds in colorful detail. Hieronymous Bosch, notorious in western art for his fevered, tormented subjects, has got nothing on these guys. My worst nightmares never looked like this.

Yet I like dragons in stories and pictures, and the difference between the Balrog dragging Gandalf into the abyss and this church art with the demons I find so repulsive is…what, exactly? The psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim wrote that the gruesome and frightening nature of fairy tales is not only allowable but necessary for children. Our worlds are already populated by fearful things that hover on the edge of perception or just over the horizon. Better to get them out in the open and demonstrate what can be done about them: pray, show courage, be kind to strangers, give your fear a name. Those who have a fondness for Jung, heroic fantasy, or folk tales, BTW, will find Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment delightful and thought-provoking.

Perhaps that’s the point of this Roman Catholic art that I found so off-putting. I looked at a mural during the funeral today and thought that’s my fear come to light. Guys frightened, puzzled, hanging around Jesus hoping for some sort of relief or protection. I looked further and saw the whole collective unconscious on display: a man holding a baby, plants and animals, stone, wood, darkness and light. Not an erudite discussion on the nature of God and the nature of the universe, with fancy philosophical phrases in foreign languages, but God as bits of food and wine. Eating bread and wine has been done about, oh, one quintillion times since the beginning of man, and about one quadrillion of those have been in honor of God. This is about as close to the center of humankind’s existence as a god can get.

I thought of Mary, the woman whose funeral it was. (I had forgotten that Catholics are big on making sure your confirmation name makes it into your wedding and funeral, and chuckled inside at the daughters, Deborah and Nancy, who were going to give their relatives a jarring moment when their own funerals come: their confirmation name, which they have long since abandoned, will rise to prominence again, and they will be spoken about with a name they hardly knew. The priest kept referring to their mother as Mary Ann – I wonder when was the last time she was called that? Fifty, sixty years ago? I love it. Proof of how little control we have over our legacy.) Sorry, back to Mary. She would hardly have objected to the bad art. This was the first person we knew to get one of those silver Christmas trees with the rotating color wheel. She had miniature poodles with rhinestone collars. Whatever pulled her away from Holy Mother Church, it wasn’t the art. The older daughter is a designer of gardens – the art might bother her. On the other hand, plants, dirt, stone – that’s all very primal stuff, and she’s been reading Jung, so maybe the art looks different to her now. (I’ll be sending this to her. I’ll ask.)

I’m going to have a go at embracing some of the religious symbolism I’ve tried to shove in the background all my life. I’m not a very mystical person, so it likely won’t change things much. But this art, and symbolism, and enactment has fed people for generations, and most of them were better Christians than I. Maybe I’ve had this backwards.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Beginning Slowly on the Emerging Church

Update: Now that I have done some actual writing about the Emerging Church, I am bringing the stories forward again. I think they will mean more a second time around.

The Emerging Church likes to have narratives instead of dogmas, so I will start with some stories.

There is an apocryphal story of a woman who had seven demons who came to Jesus. "Daughter," he said, "what would you have me do?" "Cast out six." she replied. "Or maybe five..."

An angry young man came to the middle-aged pastor's office door. "Your culture is dying and your theology sucks." The older man felt irritation well within him, but composed himself and invited the stranger in. "All right then, tell me about that."

The young man started slowly, but as he told his tale of how he had been disillusioned and insulted by the church of his youth, he warmed visibly. They had called him unchristian when he asked questions. They disparaged his friends. When he found them tedious they said he was unspiritual. The pastor was moved in spite of his initial anger. He had heard such biographies before, and knew that they were often more truth than exaggeration. A particular complaint came so close to what was happening in his own church just that week that tears came to his eyes.

The visitor's reading of the Bible, he said, taught him that Jesus must be different than that. The young man's scowl softened and disappeared as he spoke of his vision of kingdom living - of people who wanted to live the Gospel visibly, function as a community, and actually be generous, be forgiving, be welcoming. He had met some people he thought might be like that. They liked to discuss the things of Jesus instead of just telling him what the "right" answer was.

The pastor nodded silently for some time, and eventually asked. "What are these new people doing to make sure they don't wound those who come after them?"

The scowl returned, and the young man left abruptly, sneering over his shoulder "I told you already. Your culture is dying and your theology sucks."

"And also with you," the older man muttered.

The artistic sister was trying to describe the worship experience to her scientific sister. "There were things that made you think. They were not only people who could welcome you with such simple, homey, gestures, but people who brought up new and exciting ways to think about God. It's like the running into them during the week, and the sharing of meals, wasn't just a preparation for the worship, but an actual part of it. It was their worship, our worship, and as the evening went forward, with the candles and the projected images and the old words coming in by surprise, it seemed that the Holy Spirit was actually there, about to speak!"

"Sounds like a dopamine surge. The anticipation of pleasure. Don't you see that these people are just manipulating you, with their faux familiarity set in faux newness?"

The artist sister, startled but thinking quickly, countered "No, we don't seek a dopamine response to complete our worship, but we're not afraid to use it."

"What's the difference?" asked the scientific sister.

"I don't know, exactly" admitted the other, confused and hurt. The scientific sister walked away, grimly satisfied, back to her worship where there were never any dopamine surges at all.

The Prodigal Son and his elder brother became middle-aged. Their father had died years before, and both now had two sons of their own. In both families, one son left amidst anger and insult, taking half of the family wealth. The new prodigal son of the elder brother eventually returned in much the same way that his uncle had. His father hugged him and wept: "Now at last I understand what my father did years ago." But he also knew how to explain it to his own older son.

The original prodigal did not wait for his wayward son but went looking, as he wished his own father had done. When he found him, he was drunk, and contemptuous, with a tipsy prostitute on his knee. He would not return with his father. When he did show up at the gate many years later the original prodigal would not speak with him. "He made his bed. Let him lie in it."

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

In Case You Didn't Get The Reference

The "Pops" posting was an announcement that my daughter-in-law will give birth to our first grandchild around Thanksgiving. Nana and Pops are very pleased.

A Portable Faith

I read the words “Portable Faith” intended as a disparagement recently. It was an emerging church commenter criticising seeker-friendly and megachurches. I imagine the point was to emphasize the importance of community, and to take a swipe at church-shoppers seeking entertainment.

But people move to other locations for good reason, and we might hope that Christians who do so have a portable faith. It seems rather a compliment than an insult. People who leave a fellowship for another city but “never quite get connected” to a church in their new home are a sadness for us.

And yes, emergents, such things are a testimony to the importance of community; we likely value our jobs too much and our fellowships too little in making a decision to move. Yet the reality – the decentralized, globally-connected reality, as you might note – is that people do move, and often. If we cannot give them a portable faith, then we have perhaps given them little. If our communities are to be the Body of Christ, they must rise above mere nostalgia for the stability of persons in an earlier era. I don’t say that any current Christian communities are a mere nostalgiac re-creation, but that such a danger will always be before us.

When we move our belongings, we throw some things away as inessential. Some things can be easily replaced at the new location, others we find are less important to us than previously once we come to the pinch of inconvenience of packing and transport. Some things will be unusable in the new locale, however much we might miss them.

We do the same with our cultures, and America is the largest repository of data of what people do with their culture when they leave one place to go to another. Whether people came friendless and alone or as part of an intact community transplanting to the New World, they left parts of their culture behind, but tried to cling to what was essential. What we have in America is stripped-down Italian culture, stripped-down eastern European Judaism, stripped-down Cambodian culture, stripped-down Catholicism. Most of our families then moved again, sometimes every generation or two. Now people move many times in a lifetime, preserving a little less of our previous culture, and mixing it with other transplants. We often preserved some oddities as essential,that the sending culture abandoned.

Perhaps this is why the Four Spiritual Laws/revivalist/sinners prayer theology took root here more than other places. It was certainly more common in the frontier cultures. When you can’t bring the community, or the building, the candlesticks, or the organ, or even that many books, you carry the concepts. After your people have moved on to another region six times, that gospel is pretty much a stripped-down version. That is both its strength and its weakness.

When you strip a language down to its bare minimum for communication, it starts acquiring complexities almost immediately. Pidgin-languages are not static, and develop rapidly into languages of full complexity on their own. English was a stripped-down Germanic language, losing a lot of its endings and conjugations as it moved to the British Isles and was learned as a second language by Celts and Scandinavians. But it developed its own subtleties immediately and was incomprehensible to Germanic tribes arriving two centuries later. When the Normans conquered England, more Germanic stuff got stripped off, while French and Latin stuff got added on at the same time. We still call English a Germanic language because its bare framework is German, even though far more of our words come from French and Latin.

The American churches show much the same thing. The Gospel was stripped down for portability, but everywhere it went it developed added complexities. Hundreds of small denominations and cults sprang up in America, and most were based off a stripped-down Protestantism: 1) Repent and know Jesus 2) Refer directly to Bible for all other questions. Each has its own idiosyncracies which rapidly come to seem essential to those within. We can rightly deplore the many splits and competitions in the Body of Christ, but there is a more benign explanation as well. Each of these splinters is a re-expression of the simplified gospel in a new community.

Even those groups with a strong denominational identity displayed this in less intense form. In the middle of the 20th Century there were a dozen variations of being Lutheran, a dozen types of Methodist, and a hundred types of Baptist. Even Catholicism looked different in Irish, Italian, Polish, French-Canadian, or Hispanic expressions, though there was more unity than among the Protestants. Each retained some distinctives of its parent group, yet acquired its own variations.

When communication went national and transportation made moving even easier, there was some tendency for the church to atomise further. But even stronger was the urge to regather, it seems, and what all these American Christians had in common was the stripped-down gospel. Welcome, non-denominational churches, which provide the church experience without requiring a lot of up-front doctrine. Welcome also parachurch ministries, each focussed not on doctrines but on actions: sending Bibles, improving marriages, feeding the hungry.

The similarity of these churches to each other provokes contempt in some, who liken them to chain restaurants or department stores. That analogy is going to be worth a whole post in itself.

In the meantime, consider the tension between churches like shops, which have distinctive identities and thus naturally appeal to some more than others, and churches like shopping malls, which appeal to as many as possible. Our instincts tell us we would much prefer the warmth and community atmosphere of shops; yet our collective behavior says otherwise.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

I Know You're Tired Of This, But...

Okay, I wouldn't read any more commentary about Don Imus either. But Ben asked me to say something, and it has been bouncing around in my mind, even though I think it's useless (for anyone but me) to say any more.

It is not African-American women who should be angry at Don Imus, but African-American men. If you think of it as an SNL skit, where some clueless honkey is trying to impress his black friends by talking about "bitches an' ho's," you'll get the tone right about Imus's comments on his show. The Assistant Village Idiot notes: white people never talk like this. Everyone knows this but no one's saying it. White people might say any number of other bigoted or ignorant things, but not this particular thing. None of them calls black women "ho's," unless they are pretending to talk black. If you read the transcript and know Imus, the tone is clearly in mockery of how (some) African-American men talk about women. The stereotype was not of women, but of how black men talk about them.

Seeing that it is a very limited number of black men who actually talk this way, it is they who should be torqued off at the stereotype of themselves. Al Sharpton brought in his 8 year-old daughter when he had Imus on the show and asked "Would you call her a ho'?" No, Al, he wouldn't. Now think for a minute who might, about ten years from now, call her that behind her back and yours?

If you imagine it as Steve Martin as a flashy "wild and crazy guy" coming up to Eddie Murphy who is in a banker's suit, and trying to ingratiate himself by talking this way, it actually would be pretty funny. Murphy could do a lot with just his eyebrows and a weak smile on that one.

But if you're going to be edgy in your humor, you've got to get it just right. I can tell what humor Imus was going for with his comment, but he didn't pull it off. And when they just die like that, you're going to be all alone.

David Halberstam

Amidst all the encomiums to David Halberstam, it is well to remember that he didn't get the facts right. His technique was to interview people who were there and assemble their memories into a narrative. When people went back to check the actual record, Halberstam was often wrong. Catch Bill James ripping him a new one when he discusses the factual errors of Summer of '49:
There are two possibilities, one frightening and one irritating. It is frightening to think that Halberstam, one of the nation's most respected journalists, is this sloppy in writing about war and politics, yet has still been able to build a reputation simply because nobody has noticed.

What seems more likely is that Halberstam, writing about baseball, just didn't take the subject seriously. He just didn't figure it mattered whether he got the facts right or not, as long as he was just writing about baseball.

And that, to me as a baseball fan, is just irritating as hell.
James was right the first time.

There's a whole lot of folks who are mooning about that if more people had investigated like Halberstam had about Vietnam, we wouldn't be in the mess we are in Iraq today. That would be a more powerful argument if DH had actually bothered to do more reading and less just talking to guys.

Update: Okay, that last was unfair. I repent.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Just to keep my streak going, I throw in a dig at postmodernists at the end.

We use a form of self-fulfilling prophecy to train the young, or new members of groups. We announce to them what the expectations are: what virtues are expected, what faults will be excused..

We’re Irish; we have a temper but we’re loyal.
New Englanders aren’t very demonstrative in their emotions.
You’re a McInness, and no McInness has ever stooped to thieving.
Our people have always been slow to anger, slow to forgive.
We don’t do those things because we’re Christians, and we answer to God more than man.
That’s not the Army way.
Other companies will try and sell people things they don’t need, but we’re proud of our focus on the customer.

We use this not with just one definition about ourselves, but for every group we belong to. We can be subtle or understated about it, defining ourselves in contrast to the world at large or even in contrast to other groups or ourselves at other times. When we tell children you’ll see that differently when you’re older or educated people stopped doing that years ago, we include time and development. We define ourselves by region, occupation, religion, and a dozen other things. And for each we have a set of explanations.

Certainly we reject large portions of what people try to put on us. We pick and choose from among the categories and virtues and assemble ourselves. But these original lessons have power. One reason why astrology, or any of the many ways of categorizing the personality “works” is because it can be self-fulfilling. If the book tells you that you are moody, that quality grows in you. You can usually find something in yourself that matches some aspect of the virtue or fault, and you begin to nurture that. Only if the description seems wildly off do we tend to reject it. Asians might be good a math, but my family, not so much.

This came to mind because of my young friend who mentioned postmodernism on her way to discussing generational differences in evangelism approaches. She had been taught in a youth ministries course that there was a change in those born in the 1980’s: before that, kids tended to be modernist in their outlook, but those born later in the decade were postmodernist. The professor had noted to them that their age group was likely to be mixed.

I have read variations on this argument quite a bit lately. There is this fixed belief that the world is becoming more postmodern, and that belief seems to hold whichever of the many slants on postmodern you favor as a definition. Boomers = modernist, Gen Y = postmodernist, Gen X = mixed, or either. It is a very common view in academia, and I shouldn’t be surprised that it shows up in evangelical academia as well. Christian Arts and Humanities academics tend to take the default A&H view of things unless there is a direct contradiction with their previous knowledge. They might think it’s a bad thing that the world is becoming postmodern, but they accept that it is.

I challenge the idea, root and branch. China, India, and South America are not becoming more subjective in their views, they are adopting the objectivity of the hard sciences and of market forces in great gulps. That’s half the world right there. The world may be getting less hierarchical and more distributed in its power, but that is only one aspect of postmodernism. Text information may have driven previously Europe and North America, which are now receiving their information in more visual ways, but they are receiving more text as well. We are receiving more information, period. In a variety of forms. In the rest of the world, the text increase and visual increase are growing side-by-side. I don't believe the same turn of culture is happening everywhere in America and Europe, either. At a minimum, it is not happening at the same rate throughout the culture.

I am not claiming that there are no cultural changes happening. But if we can pick and choose our evidence for the increase in postmodernism as we like, then it’s not much more helpful than telling people they’re a Scorpio. We might make it more true by teaching thirty years of college kids that it is true and thus making it self-fulfilling, but that’s hardly the same thing.

The modernist/postmodernist split was invented by the postmodernists. Not all sociologists, art and literature critics, or philosophy professors agree with it. A significant minority would say that it’s all just Late Modernism, or would find even the Modernist category inadequate. The postmodernists date the growth of modernism to the Enlightenment, and the preparation for it to the Renaissance. I reject both those categories as artificially imposed to suit a particular agenda. Oddly, that is exactly the type of rejection of metanarrative that postmodernists like to make, claiming that all such are always attempts by one group to exert power over others by controlling the definition. Very true, and nowhere more true than now.

Wikipedia Bias?

The web commentary today is that while conservatives hold their own on certain parts of the web, the internet in general tends leftward and will become more so. The evidence is that Google News favors stories slightly left, and Wikipedia editors include some far-left people.

It hasn't seemed that way to me. When I have read wikipedia articles, I have at times thought "hmm, conservatives might call that point slightly buried," or "I'm not sure I'd give so much space to fringe-left views, even if you're providing a counter-view," but this has been rare, and mild. I would certainly agree that wikipedia does not lean rightward, but if there is a leftward tilt, it isn't strong. I suppose if I start running into articles where I feel the dice are weighted I might have increased suspicion on other articles. Whatever their personal feelings are on the matter, the wiki writers have done well by me so far.

Monday, April 23, 2007


Now that I have half-formed my own EC opinions, I will now turn to the DA Carson book that is somewhat critical of the emerging church. Perhaps the pendulum will swing the other way, and my hypercritical focus will be turned on the attackers now.

I also have one more post on postmodernism. Perhaps that is important to the EC more on the academic level than in the trenches, or more important in the UK than here.


I shall be known as "Pops." I like it.


The Red Sox swept the Yankees. Life is good. I don't get too excited about it, because they always disappoint in the end. There's an urban legend that they won in 2004, but I don't believe it.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Environmental Reminder on Earth Day

The banning of DDT in 1972 has caused 1,000,000 deaths a year. Those are deaths of human beings, mostly children, to malaria; not birds to thinner eggshells.

Now explain to me why Iraq is such a travesty. We strain at gnats and swallow camels.

Update: Good counter-arguments in comments section

No Television

I thought everyone knew we had no television. Woody was shocked, though, so I guess I haven't made that obvious.

Here's the equation: No TV + Read aloud to your children much younger and older than other people do + Let your children discover that if they are reading, parents may not notice bedtime, and they might also get out of setting the table and stuff = astronomical SATV's. That still works even if your kid is ADD. (Online learning is going to be the way home for bright kids with eccentricities, BTW).

However, your children might still deeply resent not having a TV and go and become film students or Simpsons addicts. You still will have done your job. My filmmaker son, when he is old, will be among the last people in the world who can think in text and make it a film. All the popular children's fiction is made into film almost immediately these days. In 20 years, the number of people who can take an older text and make it screenworthy will be miniscule.

Even if you bring in Romanian kids who don't want to be read to, the lack of TV will keeping them afloat on learning to read English even if A)they don't like reading, B) they don't speak English that well, and C)they don't have any ESL help. In fact, I think ESL help might be a minus.

I admit, our fourth son is testing that premise. We are going to have to drag him across the line for highschool graduation. But he's almost there.

The younger two never read my blog, so it's safe to tell you here what I wasn't planning on telling them until they were both out of highschool: their testing in Romania said they were IQ 87 and 85. We knew better. The older has now moved up to B's in college, the younger is passing everything (barely) despite a crummy attitude in half his classes. We had a foster son years ago whose testing was wildly off as well. The tests are good. The testers can be jerks. There is entirely too much of testers seeing what they expect instead of what is there.

And get the TV out of the house. Even if your kids move to computer video, you're still way ahead.

Siraj Wahhaj

I only know what I read. Siraj Wahhaj spoke in Manchester at a $30/plate dinner to raise money to build a mosque here. I wondered immediately whether he is of the Wahhabist strain that supports terrorism, both materially and morally, or of a more moderate stripe. He claims to be of a more moderate stripe, and has publicly condemned violence as an unacceptable method of promoting Islam. He stresses Muslim self-reliance and obedience to the Quran.

He refuses to condemn any of the actual people engaged in violence, however, and is an "unindicted coconspirator" in the 1993 WTC bombing according to the Wall Street Journal. Additional links here, here, and here.

The GWOT comes to NH, I guess.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Motorcycle Guy

Boomer on a motorcycle, with a helmet but no shirt: I like to feel the wind in my hair.

Another Postmodernism Thought

Part One: Carol Gilligan and relational moralities

Sometimes similar thoughts will lie around in your brain unconnected until a single word tugs them together and shows them to be parallel. A young friend who attends Gordon College nearby gave a brief definition of postmodernism on her way to making a related point about generational differences. Yes, I really am fortunate enough to have a community (see the third post down) where such things are likely to come up cross-generationally. She used the word relational to describe the outlook of the rising, postmodernist generation. I don’t recall if she specifically related that to ethics and morality, but that was certainly included in the sense of her comment.

The penny dropped for me this morning, when it occurred to me that this is parallel to Carol Gilligan’s argument that women’s morality is more relational than rule-based. For those who like the formal philosophical phrases, that would be the ethics of care, of morality measured by the effect on one’s circle of connection, versus the ethics of deontology, or duty. Dr. Gilligan’s published work in the 80’s claimed that women were more likely to make moral evaluations based on how their networks were effected, rather than applying inflexible rules. That was raised as a feminist standard, and later attacked by other feminists as a betrayal. Her research has also been called into question, as it has not been replicated and she will not disclose her original data. I offer no opinion on either of those controversies.

I did notice long ago that it seemed rather an evasion, and speculated unfairly what inflexible rules she wished women to be freed from. It was unfair and unkind, but I felt less bad about that when I found I had been dead on in my speculation. I had wondered if abortion and premarital sex were the unacknowledged main issues here, and my later reading confirmed that these examples came up disproportionately in ethics of care discussions. That is not a comment here on the rightness or wrongness of either, just a complaint: I wish people would be more honest with themselves before they start formulating grand moral theories when single issues are their real concern.

The Gilligan theory I had rejected long ago. When quiet, respectable Alabamans didn’t want civil rights for black people in the 50’s and 60’s because it would be disruptive to their communities and way of life we didn’t call that a postmodern morality or ethics of care, we called it for what it was: self-serving rationalization. Some critics of the war in Iraq accuse George Bush and the war supporters of merely caring about our people over their people, discounting any supposed principle behind our actions as a mere evasion. They do not say this approvingly, noting that it is a more postmodern, ethics of care, feminine morality; they condemn it as an abomination. And if it were true that there were no other principles behind our actions, simply a preference for our people over theirs, it would be abominable. Huh. Go figure. When the tables are turned, the “advanced” morality is revealed for what it always was: evasion.

The language of relational morality and disdain for inflexible rules is not the language of women, or postmoderns, or people born after a certain date, or emergents. It is the language of any of us when we are trying to avoid the issue. I recommend in this context the biography of the deconstructionist Paul De Man.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Social Workers Attempting Math

One of the social workers in my department sent out one of those "amazing" math puzzles, that tells you to multiply by 5, add 20, etc, and the result is a number that reveals your age and some other original number you started with. They always say breathlessly "This is the only year it will work!"

She sent it to the whole department - 30 people - asking if anyone could explain how this amazing math stunt worked. I have never found these particularly interesting. The principle is obvious: you you add and multiply stuff up, and you subtract and divide the same numbers back down, just disguised. To take an over-simple example, you add 9 and 2 at the beginning, then subtract 6 and 5 later on. 11 up, 11 down.

I don't think I had ever bothered to take one apart completely, though I may have years ago. But I thought it my duty to fight innumeracy in the social sciences, so I made an effort to explain the solution in as simple a way as possible. I pointed to the unusual number 1757 that was stuck into this whole mess and noted it was a nice round 250 from the current year. I reminded folks that the year of their birth, which was asked for in the problem, plus their age always equals the current year. It's a trick, folks. They got you to reveal you age via your year of birth. Duh.

It "only works this year" because last year 1756 worked, and next year 1758 will work. Shazaam.

I was mildly distressed at the people who were so grateful and impressed that I had explained it to them. Sheesh. Then later I heard about the people who still couldn't follow it. CP Snow's Three Cultures, extended out 40 years later. Ouch.

Cannabis and Schizophrenia

It is always a point of contention in discussing substance abuse whether alcohol or marijuana is worse for you. Alcohol is worse for mood change, leading to more criminal behavior on an acute basis. Angry drunks. Alcohol is worse for balance, affecting navigation. Drunk driving. Marijuana is worse on just about every other count. Long-term studies have inherent chicken-and-egg weaknesses: does marijuana make people unmotivated, or do unmotivated people gravitate to marijuana? But increased paranoia, spatial response deterioration, isolation, abuse of other substances, longer periods of unemployment, psychiatric hospitalization, and anhedonia are all associated with cannabis use.

So when I have some summary evidence I like to pass it along. I excerpt from an article by Alan I. Green, MD, professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth Medical School:

While data indicate that first episode patients presenting with Cannabis Use Disorder (CUD) have an earlier onset of of illness and a poorer outcome than those without CUD, continued cannabis use after antipsychotic treatment, which occurs in approximately 50% of these patients in the initial months after hospitalization, is associated with an even worse outcome. The apparent “toxicity” of cannabis use in first episode patients is paralleled by data from chronic patients, in who CUD is associated with clinical exacerbations, non-compliance with treatment, poor global functioning, and increased relapse.

A growing body of data suggests that a critical period exists in patients with schizophrenia during the early phases of psychosis in which symptoms and and functioning continue to worsen, and that treatment with antipsychotic medications during this period may improve the natural course of the disorder.

Note to professionals: the occasion for the article is discussion of an ongoing study of clozapine versus first-generation antipsychotics in first-episode schizophrenia. Because of the receptors it targets, clozapine may make it easier to refrain from cannabis use during the critical period of those first few months, leading to better long-term outcomes.

Emerging Church and Community

Here’s another obvious statement: The Emerging Church movement is very big on community. They are very concerned with forming and nurturing community, living out in the surrounding culture as an example of the Kingdom of God. Readers may be grumbling at this point “what is this hypercritical SOB going to find wrong with that?” I’m glad you asked.

Community may be the best thing you can do for your spiritual nurturance. We have a community that has met weekly for 30 years. At times, some members have been in the same churches; at times, our children have been at the same schools or in the same activities. We have had creative worship, shared meals, Bible study, and lots and lots of discussion, usually about the raising of children and the aging of parents.

The congregation our family worships with is a community. Even though we are a young congregation, the interaction and support of our small group is likely its greatest strength. The best school any of our children went to was a small Christian K-6, whose dominant distinctive was a community feeling among the grades. If I were to identify one thing that has provided spiritual nurturance for my children it would be community, and I think I might make the same claim for my own growth. I believe that Christian community is the primary vehicle for healing and growth.

But for all that, community is the means and not the end of the Christian faith. The idea that Christ’s primary mission was to found communites and teach them how to live together has become very popular recently in the church. You find this as a central theological point from Jim Wallis and Sojourners. It forms the basis of much of the thought of the theologians Hauerwas and Wright, and it is a very common idea in the conversation of the EC. McLaren anchors all his subsequent conclusions to it. It is common, in fact, thoughout the church of the West in the late 20th – early 21st C. There is a strong tendency to see the Sermon on the Mount as the central focus of the Bible, in contrast to the more familiar focus on Holy Week, the cross, and the resurrection.

A simple question. A question, surely, that an Assistant Village Idiot would ask: If directions for living in community are the point, then why have a death and resurrection at all? In fact, why even bother with the Incarnation? I can see two possible escape routes, which I will forego here for reasons of length, that hold out the promise of preserving this doctrine of the preeminence of community. But both, in my estimation, come to dead ends.

I have not encountered any people from the emerging conversation who deny the resurrection, or consider it unimportant. There are many who view the matter much as I do, seeing community as the vehicle rather than the destination. But there are also many who are influential in the conversation who declare quite boldly that the founding of communites that “reflect the Kingdom” is the main point. Some seem to hold the words “kingdom” and “community” as interchangeable, or at least interpenetrating.
This would seem at first glance to be only a moderate change of emphasis. We and they both believe in community, we and they both believe in the resurrection, but we emphasise the one and they emphasise the other. What’s the problem?

Groups already tend to graft cultural items onto their religion. The things that a circle of believers “just know” about the faith merge subtly with other things that circle “just knows” about economics, sexual morality, food choices, and a hundred other bits of culture. One of the major claims of the Emerging Church is that the traditional church has attached too many cultural effects of modernism to the gospel. We have, according to that narrative, elevated rationality, text, order, and control as parts of the meaning of Christianity.

Elevation of visible community to the central role in the faith has already accentuated this. The EC is already a Gen-X, Arts & Humanities Tribe phenomenon – I think Gen Y is still to be determined. Whatever Gen-X, Arts & Humanities Tribe people outside the faith believe has become the default position for those inside the church in matters of nutrition and health, environmentalism, what society should tolerate, attitudes toward work – just about anything. Keeping one’s own subculture when joining the faith is fine. Coming to believe that your subculture is the faith is something else again.

All of us deny that we do any such thing, of course. We find things that are legitimate parts of the gospel as received and pair them with secular values that are similar. This can be either positive or negative. The worth of the individual is a secular value that derives at least in part from the gospel, and has been strongly embraced by the church over the last few centuries. We can see how it goes wrong in viewing a culture of narcissism and entitlement. But the core idea is compatible with Christianity, and even draws from it. It is very easy for those of us steeped in that individual-worth culture to come to believe that it is part of the gospel to be preached.

It may be that living in community and out in the urban society will be a corrective to this insularity, that contact with other tribes will dilute the current cultural identity of the EC. If the EC continues to attract some from the Science and Technology, Business, Government and Union, and Military Tribes they may reach escape velocity from their own narrow culture. But it is more usual that dominant values become self-reinforcing in the group, as with the Amish attitude toward technology, the Quaker/Shaker attitude toward simplicity, or the Baptist attitude toward alcohol.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Liturgical Dialogue On the Emerging Church

Only those of you who have spent time in the liturgical churches will get the full effect of this. Nonetheless, the rest of you should try and imagine this as chanted, if you can. In the lesson for the day, we review the good things about the emerging church, before I kick them again tomorrow. I will also note the reflexive objections that many of us will have, and then the congregation will respond to resolve the issue.

Cantor 1: The emerging church has fascinating worship alternatives, sitting in cafes, showing videos, reusing ancient liturgies, integrating new music that isn’t soft rock, discussion sermons, and cool lighting effects.

Cantor 2: It is irritating that they think they’re the first ones to do this, rather than the logical extension of what the American church has been doing for two hundred years

Cantor 1: They use forms indigenous to the culture in worship rather than slavishly accepting the methods of their grandfathers.

Cantor 2: What do they think bluegrass gospel, church camp, folk and jazz mass, circuit riding, spirituals, camp meetings, Jesus Freaks, seeker churches, all those ethnic festivals, and Bible movies were, chopped liver? We’ve been adapting for decades.

People: Yeah, so?

Cantor 1: You thought you were so original, too.

Cantor 2: I find it irritating.

People: Get over it.

Cantor 1: The emerging church stresses the community and the communion, making both more visible to the culture around them.

Cantor 2: They incorporate lots of the surrounding culture, deceiving themselves that it’s what Jesus wants.

People: And also did you.

Cantor 1: They have resolved to be the visible presence of Christ, to be generous, and to serve those around them.

Cantor 2: Let me know how that works out over 20 years.

People: O pipe down

Cantor 1: They have ripped the Gospel free from its acquired attachments to patriotism, conservative politics, and being a Good Girl.

Cantor 2: They have reattached it to internationalism, environmentalism, and 60’s liberal clichés.

People: Now you know what it’s like.

Cantor 1: They believe Christian practice should trump doctrinal disagreement.

Cantor 2: They’ll end up heretics

Cantor 1: You’re anal-retentive.

Cantor 2: They’re anal-expulsive.

Cantor 1: Lord, have mercy.

Cantor 2: Lord, have mercy.

People: Christ, have mercy.

Will Europe Eventually Become Muslim?

That thesis is one we have talked about here in discussing the George Wiegel and Mark Steyn books, and linking to Brussels Journal and Demography Matters. I thought you should have another side of that story. Richard John Neuhaus over at First Things discusses Phillip Jenkins series of books on the matter, which take a much less alarmist point-of-view.
But alarm about population change is an old story. Jenkins writes: “A century ago, European thinkers were deeply disturbed about the racial degeneration of their populations, as population decline among the best stock threatened to leave the future to outsiders and lesser breeds. Prophecies that Islam would overwhelm Christian Europe also have a long history, and the predictions carry heavy ideological agendas.” Throughout the book, on population and other worrying developments, Jenkins suggests that we’ve been here before and things did not turn out so badly as many had predicted.

Nations can handle large minorities, he notes. For instance, if we count African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians as minorities, 30 percent of the U.S. population today is minority, and it will probably be 50 percent by 2050. Eight to 10 percent of France today is Muslim, and the figure is about 5 percent if you take Europe as a whole. Moreover, more than a third of the Muslims are not immigrants but long-established populations in countries such as Bulgaria, Albania, and the former Yugoslavia. Then, too, many Muslim young people are as rapidly secularizing as their Christian counterparts.
Neuhaus does not fully agree with Jenkins on this, but the points are well-taken. Even though Brussels, Rotterdam, suburban Paris, and Malmo may have become largely immigrant Muslim, and correspondingly violent and unenculturated, the graph of how it proceeds from here may not be the hockey-stick we fear. It's good to get another side.

Monday, April 16, 2007

The EC and Postmodernism

This Postmodernism thing is very important to a lot of folks in the Emerging Church. As Assistant Village Idiot, it is my job to point out the obvious. In all my reading about the EC, I was puzzled by how frequently it came up. We’re postmodern. We minister to postmoderns. This is a postmodern world. The traditional church is stuck in modernity. This is puzzling because postmodernism as a philosophical approach is unnecessary to what most of them want to do.

It took awhile to figure this out: many of the folks in the Emerging Church use the word “postmodern” so loosely as to escape the meaning of the term. Postmodernism Lite might even be too strong a term. While there are certainly thoroughgoing postmodernists in the EC, most people using the term seem to mean nothing more than “not the old way of doing things.”

They want to have church authority that is less hierarchical and more distributed. Well, that’s the current business model, isn’t it? It’s not an abandonment of order, but a different type of order. They want do be less dogmatic, and appreciate that there are different perspectives. We used to call that “humility.” It’s not postmodernism unless you want to torture that term by including Montaigne. Heck, even Plato with his shadows on the cave wall would qualify for that. They want worship to be less text-based and less linear. Okay, maybe that’s starting to edge into postmodernism, but it’s still a stretch. It’s hard to tell with current philosophical terms like poststructuralist or deconstructionist, because part of the attraction to these ideas is their elusiveness. Nonetheless, people praying to a definite Jesus, just doing it at prayer stations instead of right after the Welcome and Announcements, would not generally be regarded at places like Smith or Occidental as remotely approaching postmodernism.

The confusion comes because many of the movers and shakers in the EC grew up or came up in very hierarchical, even oppressively hierarchical, church structures. The Emerging Church is basically fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals who Have Had It Up To Here. They are particularly drawn from my Arts & Humanities Tribe. When they were exposed to postmodern thinkers, especially if those kept elements of Christian belief in their writings, they were entranced. Postmodernists make their livings by kicking modernists, a group they define for their own convenience, which represents everything they want to get away from. They paint western culture from the time of the Enlightenment as obsessed with order, control, printed word, and rationalism. To the postmodernist, these are not simply useful approaches that other people took up to improve their own lot and that of humankind, but emblems of a deep psychological pathology to control others and cast heretics into the Abyss. How satisfying to oppose cartoons like that.

To people who have been brought up by or working under those folks in the church who really do dig being in control and describing who is being cast into the abyss, this postmodernism thing must have seemed like the voice of prophecy.

I’m wandering off into telling you how it is that the postmodernists are vacuous and self-deceiving. They are, but that wasn’t supposed to be my point here. I’ll take that up another time. No, let me kick them one more time before I move on. When I hear the word “postmodernist,” I think of a person saying “I never much liked math in school.” Also, they think corporations are icky and must be ripping people off.

There are postmodernists in the church who are trying to make converts to their POV. Gibbs and Bolger, Brian McLaren – and these are certainly influential. But I think they oversell their point. They believe in the artificial modern/postmodern dichotomy, many emerging Christians agree with them on some points, bingo- they claim the EC is postmodern. Instant converts. Wishful thinking.

The Emerging Church believes the world has changed/is changing in a postmodernist direction, and with a surety reminiscent of marxist historicism believe that the full transformation in their direction is inexorable and inevitable. It's not. Their particular culture of Arts & Humanities in western culture, not coincidentally tied to blue-state urbanism, is postmodern. That's not the whole world. They are in danger of becoming a niche market. As it is a niche the church has pretty much given up on, I'm all for it.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Emerging Conversation With the Assistant Village Idiot

The Emerging Church conversation is composed of nice, earnest people who want Christianity to be more than a text-based, Sunday morning experience. They want to return to some earlier, multisensory forms of worship, including especially the visual arts, which they believe have been increasingly neglected in the modern church. The EC stresses Christians in community, knit to each other but still interacting with the culture around them. They believe the older culture of Christendom has eroded to the point that the church can no longer use it as a vehicle for bringing Christ into the world, and new models for transforming society must be developed. They have very cool names, too, like Mosaic, Sanctus1, Solomon’s Porch, and Vaux.

So why would a Christian want to kick people like this around?

Probable answer: because I am a grouchy and irritable person who can only focus on the negative.

EC stresses acting like Christians in the world as the driving force for attracting others to relationship with Jesus, in contrast to getting our theological ducks in a row before we move. As a consequence, many of their opponents are the usual crop of fundamentalist meatheads who have a few favored doctrines they want to remain in neon prominence, at the expense of Christian action. Having really irritating critics is usually a plus in my evaluation. If you are torquing off the very folks I think need to be torqued, I have a tendency to salute you reflexively. Emerging churches don’t have sappy music – well, okay, probably just a different kind of sappy music, but I’m all for that at this point – they often use older liturgical pieces in new ways, and they stress the taking of communion. They prefer the telling of stories to the propounding of doctrines. Also, they like candles, which I think you can hardly get enough of.

So why would a Christian want to kick people like this around?

I told you: I’m a miserable person who doesn’t like any new idea that I didn’t think of.

I was struck by how much better I liked reading about the people who are actually doing this, and how much I agreed with them, compared to the people who write about emerging churches and theorise what they’re up to. It would be tempting to ignore the latter group as just the usual wooly-headed chatterboxes with unresolved, uh, personal issues that they confuse with theological insights, such as the church has known through the ages. But the nice people who are actually doing all this good work seem to be very impressed with the writing and speaking of the philosophizers. Therefore, all these PoMo condescensions, vacuities, and reframes cannot be disregarded as some minor eruption common to all revolutions and reactions. Despite the emphasis on orthopraxy – right action – over orthodoxy – right belief – we cannot just assume that all this fancy reconceptualizing of the church is incidental to the conversation, and mere chaff that will fall away in time. For good or ill the theological underpinnings, especially including the claim that the underpinnings are few or none, are central to what is going on. This is not because I say so, but because they themselves say it, by both word and deed.

Intro to Emerging Church

For flat information, you would probably do best to just go to Wikipedia or some other encyclo-type site. As my knowledge of the movement - excuse me, conversation - is piecemeal, I might have my attention focussed on some dominant, but not exclusive, EC position and miss an important minority view.

For wandering about the web, these sites provide ongoing discussion of what people are doing and thinking about the EC: Tall Skinny Kiwi and Scott McKnight's Jesus Creed site. Both have the advantage of talking about many faith issues with emerging church views in prominence, rather than a mere back-and-forth op-ed style of defense and attack of EC versus traditional model church. The Emergent Village site has both. There are hundreds or thousands of other sites, for which you can follow the links at these three.

McKnight also has essay length discussions, mostly positive, about what the EC is and is doing. The best of these are the (similar) What Is The Emerging Church? and Future Or Fad? There is also a mostly sympathetic Glenn Innes essay for a course intro: What Then Is The Emerging Church?

Prominent books would be the Brian McLaren self-explorations about Generous Orthodoxy and A New Kind of Christian, plus the more recent The Secret Message of Jesus. I am currently almost finished the Gibbs and Bolger overview Emerging Churches. The D.A. Carson book Becoming Conversant With The Emerging Church is critical, so I have left off reading it for the moment. That's an oddity of mine. If I am going to come out in favor of something I want to make sure I have read the negative, but if I am going to be critical, I want to be sure I am bringing my own thoughts, not those of other critics.

Yes, that does telegraph that I am going to have some significant negatives in my little offerings to follow. But I also strongly approve of some of the paths they are taking.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Ironies Part Two

Drop back to my Ironies in the Morning post a few comments down and click the comments to see cakreiz's comment. I think that nails it.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Sad Erosion of the Church of England

There is a poignant, but ultimately inspiring article by Terry Waite (remember him? he was long held captive in Lebanon).

"I fear the Church of England that shaped me has gone for ever."

My short term memory seemed to evaporate. So, for example, I could not remember the precise details of my capture, but I could remember happier events from early childhood. By giving me access to these more pleasant memories, I was being protected from some of the harsher realities of the moment.

I remembered All Saint's Church - as the Tin Tabernacle was properly named - and the language that had been communicated to me as a child came flooding back.

The old prayers took on a new significance: 'Lighten our darkness we beseech thee, O Lord, and by thy great mercy defend us from all the perils and dangers of the night.'

Duke Deconstruction Again

One of our commenters here got an Instalanche at his own site today. Over at Maggie's Farm they certainly don't need any traffic from me, but because their article is related to some things we have talked about here, I thought those of you who don't click Instapundit every day should have a chance to drop over.

The article is a discussion of pomo thinking as it relates to the Duke lacrosse case. Go see.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Love It

I love it when someone really smart agrees with one of my favorite soapboxes. About halfway into this interview, Freeman Dyson starts talking about academic and business tribes, with a British perspective.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Why Discuss EC At All?

Most people are not familiar with the Emerging Church, and don't show much interest in it when articles go by in the magazines or in conversation. There have been all sorts of movements in the church over the decades, so why should we pay particular attention to this one?

Because it makes large, even universal claims, it deserves at least a look. The Emerging Church sees itself not as an option that Christians might choose, but the direction the church must move in if it is to survive at all. They believe the world has changed so much culturally that new forms must be adopted, and they intend to find them. Once one states it so broadly, most EC people will back away from such enormity and make a more humble assessment. But in their writings, they revert immediately to categorical statements of what the church has not done recently and must now do. Whatever they say when challenged, among themselves they have enormous assurance that they have the diagnosis right, even if the treatment remains obscure.

Secondly, EC is very big among seminarians at a wide variety of schools. It is especially popular in the evangelical and the liturgical churches - not ordinarily a natural mix. This is what the pastorate is encountering in its training, and so that will greatly affect the future of the church. Among Gen-X urban Christians, it is very much in the mix in all church-future discussions.

So I wanted to weigh in.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Ironies in the Morning

Don Imus, who I seldom listen to anymore but have greatly liked in the past, has gotten himself in serious trouble with what have been called racist remarks. If you don't listen to the show, they seem so outrageous that you can hardly imagine how a person could say them, even for shock value. But for people familiar with the style, Imus and his cohosts frequently make fun of prejudice by giving voice to it. He is very likely to say things like this laughingly, "Congressman, I'm not sure if you really believe this or are just trying to pick up the warmongering cousin-marrying vote in your beautiful home state of Georgia." He is likely to give voice to what some bigot somewhere is thinking in mockery. You could take a comment out of just about any of his shows out of context and portray him as a bigot. He likes to play off the "let's outrage the PC crowd" humor.

For those who get this, the recent statements would have produced a wince and an "okay, that's too outrageous," but would never think for a moment that this was his actual opinion. The people attacking him either don't know this, or know but find it convenient for their own self-importance to jump on him anyway.

The irony of course is that this is the first I have heard of a women's basketball team at Rutgers. On reflection, of course they'd have one. I didn't know they were any good. And this is the most press that women's basketball has gotten in the last month, despite the fact that they've just had their championship. He's done Rutgers women's basketball their biggest favor in a decade.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Bicyclists Attack Minivan in San Fran

Via Giacomo, there is this incident from SFGate.

Seems like an inconsistency of tolerance. Do people just get all entitled-feeling when they do something self-righteous?

Running Across the Sahara

Okay, I'm impressed.

Psychosphere Roundup

Roper's got the new Psychosphere Roundup going. It includes about half my sidebar. Interesting examinations of women and anger, displacement, aiding the enemy - whole bunches o' stuff.

Psych Tidbits

1. Phase II trials are starting on a first-order metabolite of clozapine which does not cause agranulocytosis. If you know what that means, you can skip the next two paragraphs.

As your body metabolises medication, it breaks it down into smaller molecules. In some cases, the breakdown products have similar effects to the original medication. In fluphenazine - Prozac - for example, the body breaks down the original Prozac into a series of Prozac-like chemicals, many of which also have SSRI effect. These breakdowns occur slowly, so as you take the medication over days, you get an additive effect. This is why it takes a few weeks to build up a blood level and get the desired effect. If you took enough of a medication to affect you in a few hours, tomorrow your blood would contain whole bunches of these breakdown products, or metabolites, which would keep compounding as you took more.

First order metabolites, being more similar to the original chemical, are most likely to have similar effect. Clozapine is a tremendous antipsychotic medication, that magic one that made the magazine covers around 1990 because it worked on folks who had not been treatable with typical antipsychotics. I knew a few Clozaril miracle patients, who had lived in hospitals or groups homes for years, fairly quickly returned to non-psychotic thinking and something very near full functionality. I watched a new one last month when I covered on a long-term unit for two-plus weeks. Amazing. Unfortunately, clozapine has the potential side-effect of killing you by causing agranulocytosis, and so has to be monitored uber-carefully. Lots of folks can't tolerate it. So a clozapine derivative that doesn't have this side-effect is very, very good news. My group may get to be part of this next phase of trials. Very cool.

2. Increasing evidence for atypical antipsychotics having a subtle but good effect on personality disorders. We kiddingly call it "a little brain glue," but it seems to work, not only with PTSD/BPD in acute distress, which we have seen for several years, but for avoidant, schizotypal, and schizoid personalities. Because the Asperger's diagnosis is capturing out many previously seen as schizoid and the atypicals are reducing specific symptoms but not whole conditions in the other Axis II diagnoses, we are going to be rethinking the whole batch of Personality disorders over the next decade or so.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Brussels Journal

Two recent articles: Estonia's former ambassador to Russia discusses the shifts in power in the world in response to Russia's and China's recent actions.
Having used his prior bully tactics – gas attacks, political assassinations, obstruction in the Middle-East, etc. – to demonstrate his brutality, resolve and fearlessness in the face of the New Cold War, Putin set the European Union on a crossroads: either Russia or America, either gas and Europe’s readiness for deals or confrontation over economy and security issues with obvious consequences.

The fact that “old Europe” is in a depressing silence shows that Putin’s message has hit home. Only the representatives of the United States and some of the Northern and Mid-European countries, i.e those who feel that they will have to face Russia’s threats anyway, have raised their voices in protest.

Secondly, there is some discussion how the Swedish welfare model is changing.
If the salary of this worker including employer’s tax is said to be around 14 Euros an hour and he or she worked a typical 8 hour work day, the reward for going to work would be less than 16 Euros per day. But there are also costs associated with working. Going out to lunch rather than staying at home to eat might cost an extra 4 Euros per day. Travel to work might bring on an additional expense of 5 Euros. The reward to the individual for a hard days’ labour would thus shrink to only some 7 Euros for each day spent working.


Yeah, that got your attention. I really am going to talk about cheerleaders, though.

An essential deception, or disguise, of cheerleading came to my mind today. It's just a tricky way of yelling at people. Getting the cute girls in short skirts to lead the school in screaming "Defense!" or "Fight, team, fight" is exactly the same thing as the coach yelling "Get yer ass back in there, you wuss." It just seems very different because of the disguise.

Story: Ben was a decent, though not overwhelming, baseball player. Goffstown had Babe Ruth teams that figured prominently in state and even New England tournaments, so that was a pretty good level of play. He elected not to play in his last year of eligibility, when things would be expected to all come together, opting instead to try out for the school team even though he was a freshman. At the same time, the school play was happening. At baseball tryouts he was yelled at. At the school play (for which his parents training had better suited him) he was valued. I summarize the conflict in the single incident of Jelena, the attractive and well-constructed exchange student from Belgrade, hugging Ben and sighing how much she would miss him next year. Put yourself in a fifteen-year-old boy's mind on that one: Let's see, I can have middle-aged men yell at me every afternoon, or I can have exotic females hug me... hmm, tough choice.

Yet you get yelled at by people in theater as well, and humiliated, often by people who are experts in disdainful tones of voice. And, there are coaches and crowds that are enormously encouraging as well. Yelling at you, encouraging you, it's all the same thing. The framing is different, that's all.

In my job we have to "cheerlead" people often - patients, staff, families, and people at other agencies. Sometimes I am brilliantly good at it. Sometimes I am terrible and make people more discouraged. Being a cheerleader for a team that's already lost a lot of games, and hasn't even scored many points, is enormously wearing. I'd rather just tell people to get a life.

But if I remember that "encouragement" is just code for "yelling at people as long as you want, so long as you trick them," then maybe this won't be so bad...

So, y'all get yer ass back in the game out there. That was fun.

Lord, Liar, or Lunatic

Update below

C. S. Lewis’s formulation, as he notes in his essay, is based on the medieval Latin aut Deus aut homo malus: “Either God or a bad man.”

"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to." (Mere Christianity)

Brief Digression: I briefly mentioned in February getting into online arguments about this. People object to this trilemna, insisting that there are other alternatives that could apply. Perhaps Jesus was honestly mistaken. Perhaps some in-between is correct, in that he had later delusions of grandeur superimposed on an earlier depth of moral sanity. There is also the objection that Jesus never really, really claimed to be God. Fascinating objections all, and I mention them here only to note what I said previously, all other possibilities eventually resolve into one of the horns of the trilemna (must be a triceratops). Other explanations appear possible at first, but wind their way down like a grand logical pachinko game into those three piles.

Back To Topic: What has puzzled me more, however, is how quickly Christians zip through this to come to the prescribed Sunday School answer. No one would dare say Jesus is a bad person or a crazy person, so voila, he must be God. Wow. Great small group, let’s have pizza.

There is a failure to engage the real words of Jesus in this. Nearly everything he said was puzzling, unexpected, or outrageous. People in his time thought all three choices very real possibilities. Nicodemus recognises that Jesus is from God in some way and wishes to understand. He can make no sense of the idea of being born again – and rightfully so. Who would? We have such familiarity with the words and concept now that they do not alarm us. Yet hearing them for the first time, who would understand? If we cannot hear with those ears how strange and radical an idea this is, I wonder if we understand it.

The first place we are tempted to reject Jesus’s teachings is their extremity. Did he really tell the rich young ruler to sell all his goods? If we turn back from the plow even once are we actually unfit for the kingdom? Do even the thoughts of murder and lust ruin us? But these are at least understandable concepts, though they seem out of reach. The Beatitudes seem at first reading to be variations on the theme that those who suffer now are nonetheless loved by God and will be rewarded in the next life. That’s a little counterintuitive in a culture that regarded wealth as a gift and sign of favor from God, but most people can get their minds around that pretty quickly. Jews in 1st C Palestine were certainly familiar with the religious ideas that the poor were valuable, even if their culture didn’t lend much support for it (few cultures do).

But taking those comments from the Sermon on the Mount apart a little further, they take odd turns. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Do you mean now, Rabbi Jesus, or later? If it’s only in heaven, then what’s the earth got to do with it? Are we coming back here again? Does God give us this as a reward, or does giving something up make it come back? “Blessed are the peacemakers…” You mean peace with Rome? I have no control over that. Peace in my home, peace in my village? What if I give up my rights but there’s still no peace – is that my fault?

These are not merely extremes, or simple reversals. These are head-scratchers. What’s he mean by that? Maybe he’s crazy. Maybe we should stop following him around Galilee. We should go back to a simple faith: say our prayers, give to the poor, make the sacrifices – this Rabbi may be onto something, but he makes no sense.

The Pharisees certainly thought the “liar” possibility was there. The modern cliché that they wanted to kill Jesus because they didn’t understand him is almost entirely backwards. They understood his claims well, better than the Sadducees and the Romans, and found them blasphemous. There was dispute over whether he was claiming to be God, or the Son of God, or the Messiah, or the King of the Jews, but they were pretty clear that he was announcing an authority higher than theirs that God himself had granted. Their intent was to show that it wasn’t true, and thus the sign they wanted put on the cross “He said he was the king of the Jews.” Thus the guards at the tomb, because he had claimed he would rise again somehow, and they needed to show it was not true. They thought demon possession a possibility for one who did miracles, claimed to speak for God, and made such alarming statement.

We need to imagine these possibilities as well, because the world around us is tempted to those conclusions and we need to see them clearly. What if Jesus had stumbled upon some godly wisdom and decided the only way we would listen would be if he claimed deity? Would that fit with what else he said and did? Could someone who lied like that be trusted in other things? We have to play those thoughts out, following those pachinko balls down through many bounces and turns, to see what pile they end up in.

Update: Gagdad Bob over at One Cosmos, who I am sure will be honored to share the spot with C. S. Lewis, comments today (right on cue):
If you take certain statements of Jesus out of context, you will end up with a deranged and evil morality that is no better than the King of all Spiritual Hucksters, Deepak Chopra. Of our "primitive" Western morality, he has written, for example, that "America leads the world in executing criminals and is among the few Western countries that still retain the death penalty." Obviously the operative word is criminals, although to be accurate he should have said murderers. In the countries we are fighting, the criminals are in charge and murder the innocent, so he has hardly drawn a legitimate comparison.

The title of that whole post, BTW, is "An Eye For a Wedgie." How can you not click through to that, though it be long and challenging?

No Blogging

Power still out. Hope to post tonight.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Next Gas - 420 Miles

Continuing apologies on not producing commentary on the Emerging Church.

I have noticed in myself that I feel a powerful ambivalence about the EC, and such strong attractions and repulsions are always interesting. An understanding of this is gradually taking shape.

In one of the Piers Anthony Xanth books, Grundy the Golem works for the Good Magician Humphrey for a year in order to receive the answer to one question: Do I have a soul? Humphrey provides the answer in a form that not only answers the question but gives the reason: “Only those who have a soul care about the question.” We had a similar question from Ben when he was younger. He was haunted by the idea that he might not be saved. We tried various bits of reasoning, reassurance, deflection, Bible quotes, definitions, and whatever else we could think of. It was clear to us that he had enough abstract thinking ability to sense that the question was not simple, but was still too young to endure the type of ambivalent lifetime questions needed for the task. In sixth grade he was presented with the words of Augustine on the subject. “If you desire to be, you probably are.” That was the key that turned the lock for him. That was good enough. He didn’t need another repetition of formulaic salvationism, he needed a reason that made sense to him. In hindsight, Humphrey’s and Augustine’s are obvious answers, the kind an Assistant Village Idiot could see. But they are not always obvious until pointed out.

Those are the sort of answers I hope to find on any subject. I don’t want to merely give you a report card that says “Emerging Church, B+ for creativity and enthusiasm, C- for clarity, A- for…” I want to pass on insights that will keep on illuminating as new information is added over the years. I’m not the person who is able to notice the elephant in the room – that would be the Village Idiot’s specialty, and I’m stilling learning – but I’m pretty good at smaller creatures. “Hey! There’s a wombat in the room! What’s that doing here?” Why there might be a wombat and why the EC is ignoring it and what it means would be puzzles I could offer tentative explanations for, but others could answer better.
The leftist commenters on right-wing blogs – not a group that should be considered representative of progressives in general – often make oversimplified claims about the war on terror: that Bush should have “worked with our allies more,” or built highways and hospitals, or sifted through the conflicting information to know that 9/11 was coming. I imagine there are equivalent oversimplifiers on the right, complaining that if we had just smacked the Saudis around a little more we wouldn’t be having these problems. When I respond to these writers at all, it is to simply note that they are oversimplifying, and real life is a much more plus-minus, risk-benefit deal than they suggest. I would have thought it unfair to make the claim that lots of progressives think like that. The thought has crossed my mind that there is a fair bit of unrealistic, comic-book thinking on the left, but I put it aside as unfairly critical on my part.

Guess not.

I find this speculative article deeply troubling. Others have found it amusing in its ridiculousness, or irritating in its fatuity, but the implications of this particular foolishness unnerve me.

Quick summary for those not clicking through: an imaginary timeline of how things would have gone in America if Al Gore had been elected president in 2000. Sample entry – September 11, 2001:
At the Houston, LAX and Minneapolis International airports, seven Saudi and Algerian men were forbidden from boarding their flights after airport security personnel found box cutters, wire and other banned items on their persons. These men turn out to be the remnants of the band of Al-Qaeda's September Plotters; all the others had been caught in the FBI's sweep of the flight schools.

Armed with this evidence, Gore demands and gets Congressional authorization to send US troops to Afghanistan. MSNBC's Joe Scarborough ridicules the idea that "idiots with box cutters" could take over an airliner. Rush Limbaugh claims that "Gore is sending our young men and women off on a wild goose chase." Bill O'Reilly, William Kristol, and Ann Coulter demand that Gore invade Iraq, even though none of the would-be hijackers is Iraqi or has any connection to Iraq or to Saddam Hussein.
The timeline is quite detailed, with a considerable series of actions that President Gore would probably have done. They all work out brilliantly.

Entertaining a few hypotheticals is hardly unhealthy. Such imaginings are how we learn from the past and hope to do better. We apply such retrospectives to events small and large. When they become very detailed, however, they move progressively farther from reality. To look at the Al Gore or Democratic Party statements from the campaign or from the previous administration and guess that President Gore would very likely have done A instead of B is quite legitimate. Playing that hypotheitical out over subsequent known events might be a little speculative, but not useless.

This would be too over-the-top as a comic book plot. What, the hero never makes a mistake – knows all, sees all? Even Superman doesn’t do that. This uninterrupted success wouldn’t make it as a sports movie. Its sports equivalent is not even the private fantasy of three steals and three treys in the last minute to win the championship; this is the kid fantasy of winning 100-0 in your driveway. This is not a sexual fantasy of seducing a movie girl – this is dreaming of the Patriots cheerleaders as your harem.

If you want to have those fantasies, fine, that’s your business. But putting them forward as an actual possible history is a little disturbed. We don’t say these things out loud. We don’t admit that we think there is any possibility such unrealism is true. There are social filters in the frontal lobes which should prevent you from displaying how poor your contact with reality is. These filters have been overridden in this case.

Even weirder is that this is not particularly an “Al Gore is brilliant” fantasy. The information is presented as if the hypothetical actions would be rather commonplace, even obvious. Why, any number of Democrats, and maybe even a few Republicans, could have accomplished all this, if only it weren’t for that idiot Bush! You fools! How can you not see that putting us in charge and just letting us do what we want will make everything right with the world? Wars on Terror aren’t difficult! You just need to have good people in there and it all happens automatically.

It’s actually worse than this.
Firedoglake is a big-name lefty blog with lots of traffic.
The writer spent a lot of time putting this together.
Very few of the commenters notice that this is insane.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The People's Hymns: Spirituals, Camp Meeting, and a Little Bluegrass.

I do keep in mind that about a quarter of my readers are nonbelievers and I try to make even the religious posts valuable for them in some way as well. I haven't forgotten you're there.

Hymn-writing became less the province of professional musicians and lyricists only. The Wesleys, for example, were educated men who had received training in both verse and music, but did not see themselves primarily in as hymn-writers. In the 19th C the field became even less professional, especially in egalitarian America, and the words of the less-educated became popular in many religious settings.

I mentioned in the first hymnody post that non-literate cultures often develop call-and-response music, where a leader will sing a complicated line that the group echoes, or sings a patterned response. This is common in African-American spirituals, e.g. Michael Row the Boat Ashore, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, and Amen. Camp Meeting/Revival songs use something like this as well - though the echoes will be mid-line - in a slightly more complicated verse-chorus structure (To God Be The Glory, There Is Power In The Blood) That’s why you learned them at camp, where they didn’t want to be handing out song sheets every fifteen minutes, and the little kids couldn’t read well anyway. This also reduces the need for accompaniment, which is why spirituals are the absolute best music for singing in the shower – they were composed for voice-only. (If you haven’t tried this, you should. NO-body knows the TROUble I’VE SEEN…)

People’s music tends to extremes for rhythm, the slow ones being highly free-form – the spirituals Were You There, O What a Beautiful City and the Camp Meeting The Old Rugged Cross, while the quicker pieces are heavy – very heavy…headache-producing heavy – on the bass and percussion. You can tell a late-19th C Baptist hymn in the first three powerful bangs on the piano. Stand Up, Stand Up For Jesus, On-ward Chris-tian So-o-ol-diers. The African-Americans usually produced more tolerable versions of this pounding, but even they have burdened us with Jacob’s Ladder and Dry Bones.

You may have noticed the imagery is quite different in these people’s musics. Soldiers, boats, ladders, bones – what’s with that? Bible characters and places you never hear about unless you spend a lot of years in Sunday School: Ezekiel, Silas, Jericho, Gilead. It’s the fascinating stuff you get when you have people just latching on to what catches their fancy in the faith, without regard to any systematic theology or overarching narrative.

The images may be varied, but the themes are few: life is hard, but I’m going to heaven, is recurrent. Jesus cares for you and wants you back; get saved – now; Jesus is loyal to you, be loyal to Him. An interesting twist is how often Papa’s and (especially) Mama’s faith is mentioned. When I get to heaven I’m going to see Mama. This becomes especially pronounced in bluegrass gospel music, a later people’s music derived from the earlier. Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Mother Called My Name In Prayer. In a mobile population, often cut off from familiar places and people, the closest family relationships loomed large in the imagination. With a life expectancy around 40-45 and death coming by surprise more often than not, people strip down what they cling to pretty severely: Mom, Jesus, Heaven. We think of it as unsophisticated; for them it was emotional survival. Our condescension comes from our comfortable lives. Not a lot of time for theology in their lives, folks.

An additional note on African-American spirituals: rivers had a dual meaning. Going over Jordan meant dying and going to heaven, but crossing the Ohio River meant getting to freedom in this life. Who’s that yonder dressed in red? Red lantern on the opposite shore. Must be the children that Moses led. Safe to go on. Who’s that yonder dressed in black? No light on the opposite shore. Must be the hypocrites turning back. Go back. Not safe.

Those Five Things I Must Now Blog

1. My father grew up as a farmer and became a salesman. He was a brilliant character actor and storyteller who aspired to be a person of the arts. My mother divorced him when he went to prison for molesting little girls. She eventually remarried a decent enough man who didn’t much care for her children. He was a businessman who eventually became CEO of a mutual fund. Those bare facts are the underground river in all my development, and likely influenced even my recent division of the nation into various tribes, each of which sees life quite differently (Arts & Humanities, Science & Technology, Business, Government & Union, God & Country are some primary American tribes)

2. I was also a character actor when I was young. Jacques Roux, the insane priest in "Marat-Sade," Nana the dog in "Peter Pan," and a host of other drunks, quacks, and clowns. I seemed to end up on the floor a lot. I never got to kiss the girl.

3. I met my wife on the first day of classes freshman year at William and Mary in 1971, though we did not start dating for several years. We discussed possible names for children on our second date. With all those ridiculously romantic Williamsburg backdrops available, I was nonetheless stupid enough to propose to her in my dorm room – bed unmade, laundry scattered on the floor. When my oldest son visited W&M he agreed that his dad had been a complete loser in this regard. When he proposed to Heidi, he was brilliant.

4. I love maps – could look at them for hours. I absorb them and carry them around in my head, which frustrates me when my driving navigators are looking at another part of the map – fifty miles ahead or behind what I am talking about now, and telling me I’ve got it wrong. My children all remember at least one time when I corrected them but they turned out right. They lie. They were looking at slightly different parts of the map and wouldn’t listen.

5. It puzzles me that I mention CS Lewis so little on this site. I am unable to get through any discussion about the faith without referencing him at least once, yet he barely comes up here. I have been at times a Lewis fanatic and he is never very far from my thoughts.