Friday, October 27, 2006

Can the Culture Wars Still Galvanize Conservative Voters?

This week I led the second part of what was to be my church's two-part discussion on homosexuality and the church. However, parts one and two went so well that, by popular demand my plans to teach on the two creation myths of ancient Israel found in the opening chapters of Genesis next month have been scrapped in favor of parts three and four of this two part series. If Douglas Adams can write a five book trilogy, then I suppose I can use four weekly forums to hold a two part discussion.

After years of being the token liberal at conservative evangelical churches it surprised - even shocked - me to find, in the first two parts of this church-wide discussion, that our congregation almost unanimously favors the full inclusion of all persons, regardless of sexual orientation, in both the worship life and leadership of the church. While I had prepared a rather even dialog which would not reveal my own position, and would try to be respectful of all views, I ended up leading a rally to reform the church.

Within that rally, though, I found something that disturbed me. As an evangelical youth minister and then pastor, I was always frustrated by the general tendency of Christians - and I suppose all people - to reach conclusions without having some general understanding of how they got there, and how they might persuade others to arrive there as well. As such, conversations on hot topics like homosexuality generally begin with some sort of defined position, and then try to work out why that position must be both

1.) the right position, and
2.) imposed on all true believers.

Surrounded by people who share many of my political and theological views, and, as such, teaching for once in a relatively safe environment, I was disappointed to find that, in this respect, liberals are no better than conservatives. That shouldn't surprise me. People are people, regardless of their values and ideologies. And people have a hard time trying to understand positions which are not intuitive to them. But as I tried to have a theological discussion on the nature of religious authority, helping the congregation understand and form the theological grounding for their moral, political, cultural, and social intuitions, I found that most of them, at least at first, wanted to skip that step. They didn't see the value in talking about why they believe what they believe, and how it fits into a theological framework consistent with the primary concerns of Christianity. They just wanted to declare their opinions, and then try to change the world.

I admire that activist spirit. I wish I had more of it. I've always been reflective, not necessarily active. For someone often accused of having an activist agenda, I don't really share anything in common with actual activists. But my church is full of activists who have a passion for reshaping the world in accordance with their beliefs; beliefs which I think often best represent the ministry of Jesus in his age. There are, however, two big problems with such unreflective activism:

1.) It has no means by which to effectively communicate with those who do not have the same moral intuitions, and

2.) the activists in my church are not the only activists who claim the name of Jesus.

I just read this article by Alexandra Marks of the Christian Science Monitor, wondering if "Wednesday's New Jersey Supreme Court ruling in favor of full rights for gay couples" might galvanize socially conservative voters. Gay marriage has often been used of late as a "wedge issue" designed to motivate conservative voters to turn out by preying on their cultural fears. It has been an effective political tool, increasing ideological voter turnout by playing into the appearance of a moral crisis in our country. Here is what I wrote about it in my gigantic post on homosexuality from last December (the language in it may get revised, thanks to Amy's comments here - I'm not sure I agree with her position, but I have to take her seriously):

In the last election cycle a number of states, including my home of Kentucky, considered constitutional amendments banning "gay marriage" by defining marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman. These constitutional amendments were considered necessary because of the very real fear that mere laws passed against gay marriage would be overturned as unconstitutional.

These constitutional amendments had various motivations. One very real motivation was simple power politics. This is, of course, always the case when elections are involved. Conservative politicians (particularly national Republican figures) fan the flames of the culture war in order to rally their base to vote. If one of the major issues being discussed nationally and locally is a so-called "moral" issue on which almost all conservatives agree, and if this issue is seen as part of a larger war for the soul of America, then it is easy for morally conservative voters to overlook other, more messy issues such as the state of the economy and the war in Iraq.

Another motivation was the prevailing cultural confusion about sex, and the decline of traditional marriages. Gay marriage was seen, in this time of marital crisis, as yet another threat to traditional marriage. Of course this is a nonsense argument. I am a married heterosexual. My wife and I have had some problems in our marriage. We struggle to communicate to each other openly and honestly, without passing judgment. We struggle to listen to each other attentively. We struggle to truly understand and cater to each other's emotional needs. We struggle with how best to deal with our financial issues. I would say that, by and large, we have a very good marriage, but there have been times when I have understood why some people find it easier to get divorced. One thing which has never affected the health of our marriage, however, is the idea that some day gay people might actually be able to get married too.

Republicans - and social conservatives tend overwhelmingly to be Republican - have been depressed of late by the war in Iraq, the economy (even though the Bush administration claims that we are in a recovery, the recovery has overwhelmingly favored the rich, leaving the majority of Americans in no better - and in some cases much worse - shape than they were before it began) and especially the Mark Foley scandal, which has at least temporarily knocked them off their pedestal of perceived moral superiority. But, in the wake of this New Jersey Supreme Court decision, they can once again fan the flames of the culture war by attacking two of their favorite scapegoats:

1. "activist" judges, and
2. gays.

The question is, will it work? Will voters once again overlook pressing social and economic problems, along with the serious moral problem of an unjust war and the occupation of a sovereign nation, because they have been distracted by the distasteful notion that relationships are not to be judged exclusively by the gender of the persons involved?

That's the question the article asks, albeit in a less loaded way. And, in the typically evenhanded nature of quality journalism, that's the question that I still can't answer, even after reading the whole thing twice.

What do you think?

Thursday, October 26, 2006

This sounds like something my nephew would do

My twin brother Tom is turning into my source on all things strange. He just sent me this story from the AP, which reminds me a great deal of his youngest son Caleb, a strange hybrid of Jedi Knight, surfer, and Viking warrior:

ANTIGO, Wis. - Three-year-old Robert Moore went fishing for a stuffed replica of Sponge Bob and ended up trapped in a vending machine. The toddler's adventure began with a Saturday evening shopping trip with his grandmother, Fredricka Bierdemann, and three siblings.

Bierdemann ended the trip by giving each child a dollar and telling them to have fun in a retailer's game room.

A stuffed Sponge Bob in a vending machine's bin caught Robert's eye. He tried without success to fish it out with a plastic crane.

"I told him I could get it for him," his grandmother said. "He's a character. He said, 'Oh no, I can get it.'"

When she turned her back to get another dollar for a second try, Robert took off his coat and squeezed through an opening in the machine. He landed in the stuffed animal cube.

"I turned around and looked for him, and he said, 'Oma, I'm in here," Bierdemann said. "I thought I would have a heart attack."

Store employees couldn't find a key to the machine, so Robert waited while the Antigo Fire Department was called.

"He was having a ball in there, hugging all the stuffed animals," Bierdemann said. "He was so good-natured, but I was shaking like a leaf."

Firefighters broke one lock but then spotted two latches inside the plastic cube. They passed a screwdriver to Robert.

"He stacked up all the stuffed animals and used that screwdriver to open the latch," his grandmother said. "You should have seen him go."

Eventually, Robert freed himself. But his mother, Marie Moore, and grandmother said they were lucky that he remained calm when another child might not have. He went home safe - but without a stuffed Sponge Bob.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Found a Job

I've started working for peanuts operating a cash register at a large sporting goods store which will never be mentioned by name here - I don't think that it is always appropriate to blog about work, especially when work is a soul-sucking enterprise. We'll have to see how that demand on my time impacts my writing here. In the meantime, before I have to go pay my dues to the Man again, here is a thought about the "new" economy:

Most new jobs created in the current economic climate are low wage jobs. In most of these jobs, employees are treated as fiscal liabilities; that is, as overhead and potential overhead, in need of reduction. They are treated with suspicion by management, seen as thieves or potential thieves, always looking to steal time, money and/or merchandise. They are treated with derision by those they serve, who thank God that they are not like these poor souls who have to slave away in a dead-end, low-pay job.

My first day on the job, many a person treated me like a complete idiot. Not only am I stuck here - an indication of my abilities and my worth - but I'm not any good at it! Surely any idiot, save for this poor, inept soul, can operate a cash register! I spent most of the day wanting to shout out my intellectual credentials, to somehow prove myself to those who see me as little more than a pathetic slave. It was a dehumanizing experience.

Worse still is the myth - nay, lie - that a college degree is a ticket out of low wage work. It shocked me that I couldn't get a better job than this when I decided to re-enter the work force after leaving professional ministry. But it shocked me even more to find that I am not nearly the only person at my work with a college degree. Each of us were a little stunned to find, in this "recovery," that we can't do better than peanuts per hour to work a demeaning and dehumanizing job.

Not, of course, that retail has to be that way. Just that retail, in this environment, is that way. At least mass retail, which follows Wal-Mart's corporate example with varying degrees of success. With, of course, success being determined by the difference between gross revenue and overhead. With, of course, me being seen as overhead, rather than an asset.

In a truly existentially disorienting moment, I ran into one of my co-workers on break, only to realize that he used to be in my Youth Group. He had always seen me as a quasi-mystical creature, someone so intuned with the will and nature of God that I operated on almost another plane. A different category of being. Now I'm just another person in the company uniform, designed to remove as much individuality, creativity, and free will as possible. Talk about being taken down a couple of notches in someone's eyes.

Of course, I always said that I hated how ministry in general and youth ministry in particular too often devolved into a cult of personality. But being at the head of such an accidental cult - even when it comes with "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" - strokes the ego. And my ego had long been in need of stroking. There is a great deal less ego stroking in retail work, where no one notices you unless you make a mistake. Where the whole goal is to minimize the extent to which you can be seen as a liability.

I should start back to school in January, working slowly toward a career in academia, which I'm sure will come with its own challenges and disappointments. In the meantime, I've been dreaming about getting one of my papers tattooed to my forehead, just so that the people who stare at my suddenly blank face will know that I am more than just my function in the store.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Kevin Tillman speaks out

Kevin Tillman, a former Army Ranger and the brother of the late Pat Tillman, the NFL star turned Army Ranger killed by "friendly fire" in Afghanistan, has ended his silence, speaking out against the war in Iraq and the Bush administration. Here is a quote:

Somehow, the same incompetent, narcissistic, virtueless, vacuous, malicious criminals are still in charge of this country. Somehow, this is tolerated. Somehow, nobody is accountable for this.

You can read the full piece at, or you can read the AP article here.

While you're at it, make sure to check out's three part E-ticket investigation, The Truth About Pat Tillman:

An Un-American Tragedy,

Playing With Friendly Fire,


Death of an American Ideal.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Discussion on Homosexuality and the Church

I am the Education Team Chair at my church - think "Director of Education", but without a salary, and in a team-ministry model. As such, I oversee all of the education ministries in the church. On of my favorites is the Wednesday Evening Forum, a kind of weekly seminar on almost any sort of topic, so long as it relates in some way to the life of the church. Usually we bring in a guest speaker/presenter. Last week we had a wonderful time with a local musician who presented on the Gospel roots of blues, R & B, country, rock, and Americana music. I say "presented," because he did much more than just speak or teach - he presented us with the music, and helped us learn how to hear it, how to listen intently and hear things that we may not have expected to hear.

Not surprisingly, that wonderful presentation set an attendance record. But I don't bring in guests all the time, and we can't always talk about the music we grew up listening to. Sometimes I actually get to do some teaching - or at least directing - myself. You may remember that early last month I gave a seminar on the Bible. Well, this month I have a more daunting task.

There is no more divisive issue in our culture and in our churches than homosexuality. This issue sets up some unique pastoral issues. While I don't like dividing our society up based strictly on sexual identity (which reduces a whole person to merely their sexual interests, desires, and behaviors), any sensitive church leader has to appreciate that a group that has been marginalized and stigmatized by our culture will have some unique issues related to that. As such, even though we need to approach homosexual persons as persons, part of affirming their personhood includes exploring issues related to their sexual identity.

Seeing a pressing need for openly discussing the relationship between homosexual persons and the church, my pastor and I decided to do a two-week series, a guided discussion designed to get the congregation talking about that troubled relationship. Yesterday we talked about our personal encounters with homosexual persons, and how they inform our views on homosexuality. It gave everyone a chance to tell their own stories in a safe environment, sharing deep feelings which they may have never had a chance to share in church. Next week we will talk about the ethical and theological issues which surround the topic.

My role this week was to facilitate conversation rather than doing much talking myself. Next week I will probably do more actual presenting. But preparing for both this week and next week's conversations, I put together a list of open-ended questions, designed to get people started talking. Today I'm posting some of those questions here, hoping that this format, while not quite as conducive for conversation as the church parlor, can still lead to some much needed airing out.

As the facilitator at church, my own views on homosexuality and the relationship between homosexual persons and the church were kept hidden so that they wouldn't shape the conversation too much. If we are to have an open conversation, we can't have anyone feeling that we are looking for a "right" answer. At the beginning of a discussion the only right answer is the honest answer, the open answer, the answer which helps air out powerful emotions which may have been festering for a long time. Here, however, my views are certainly not a secret. But, while each of you know my opinion, for the purpose of this discussion there are still no "right" answers.

I do have an agenda with this topic. I would love to see homosexual persons fully accepted and included in the life of the church. And, I would love to see their primary relationships affirmed by the church. But my primary agenda here is to bring some humanity to the topic. That agenda is more immediately important than the other agenda, because it keeps from fragmenting our already divided church. While some leaders on both the left and the right speak eloquently of prophetic moral vision, and decry the "idol" that is the unity of the church, as a worshiping Christian I hate to see any issue get so big that it overwhelms our ability to worship corporately as a single community.

With that in mind, here are some sample questions from both yesterday and next week's sessions. If you find them useful, try to answer them in the comments section so that we can have the sort of fruitful discussion here that my church has been having at our Forum:

Have you ever encountered a homosexual person?
Can you describe that encounter?
How did you feel during it? Were you comfortable or uncomfortable?

Do you have any sort of a relationship with a homosexual person?
Do you work with a homosexual person?
Do you have a homosexual friend of family member?
If so - and given that roughly 10% of the population is homosexual, you probably do, whether you know it or not - how does that relationship inform your views about homosexuality?

What should Christians turn to in order to inform their views of homosexuality?
What sorts of authorities should Christians consider as they wrestle with how to relate to homosexual persons, both as individuals and as a church?

Is there a difference between the way that an individual Christian should relate to a homosexual person and the way that the church as a whole should relate to a homosexual person?

Each of these questions assumes a heterosexual group attempting to make judgments about homosexuality from the outside. As such, these questions participate in one of the most common errors that Christians make: assuming heterosexuality as the normative Christian experience. I wrestled with that, but ultimately chose to embrace that error rather than ask probing questions which might lead to the public outing of a closeted homosexual before they were ready to come out. As we had our first discussion I heard the story of a mother who accidentally outed her daughter at a family event, convincing me that, in that audience, I made the right decision.

That said, this is a slightly different environment. As such, if anyone has wrestled with homosexuality in a more personal way, your stories are also welcome here.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

"I know Stan Lee, and you, sir, are no Stan Lee."

Tom just sent me this little nugget of intolerance, courtesy of the Lexington Herald Leader.

We've covered this ground before, but it is worth revisiting, now that state Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington (not the Stan Lee, mind you, just a Stan Lee using his "convictions" to step for a brief moment into the local limelight) has sponsored a bill "to prohibit domestic partner benefits at Kentucky's public universities and community colleges."

Let me add a hearty AMEN to this comment from the executive director of the gay-rights Kentucky Fairness Alliance, Christina Gilgor:

"Lee is playing politics rather than acting in the best interest of Kentucky's families and children."

Simply put, moral considerations aside (and I think that you know where I stand on the moral considerations!) this bill is bad policy, potentially placing state universities at a competitive disadvantage. Kentucky has a bad enough reputation as a backwards and reactionary state - a reputation made worse by the amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage and civil unions trumpeted by Lee - without codifying this poorly conceived piece of hate-legislation.

After thoroughly dissecting Lee's position in an earlier piece I've about run out of things to say on the subject. I'm happy to see that Lee is no longer building any sort of argument, save for the argument from political power. "The people" oppose anything resembling the equal treatment of homosexual persons, and he is bound to impose the will of those people on everyone he can.

While voting against this bill should be a no-brainer - anything that hurts education is bad for a state that already ranks toward the bottom in education - I wonder if, in this tense social and political climate, enough state legislators will have the courage to vote down a bill which plays to the moral intuition of much of the state. After all, a vote against this bill will be portrayed as a vote for homosexuality in the negative attack ads to come, and in this state that spells political doom.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

What's your theological worldview? quiz

I found this quiz thanks to PamBG's Blog. It's an interesting one. Because of the limits of fixed option quizes, I'm not sure that the quiz nailed me. I view myself as more Emergent/Postmodern than Modern Liberal, and would say that I am much more influenced by Marcus Borg than John Shelby Spong, with whom I have some serious issues. But, all in all, I think that the quiz is a useful tool which will help you reflect on your own theology. Try it.

You scored as Modern Liberal. You are a Modern Liberal. Science and historical study have shown so much of the Bible to be unreliable and that conservative faith has made Jesus out to be a much bigger deal than he actually was. Discipleship involves continuing to preach and practice Jesus' measure of love and acceptance, and dogma is not important in today's world. You are influenced by thinkers like Bultmann and Bishop Spong.

Modern Liberal




Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan


Classical Liberal


Roman Catholic


Neo orthodox




Reformed Evangelical




What's your theological worldview?
created with

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A Note on Charity

I said yesterday that charity, while necessary for reasonable conversations, is a quality sorely lacking in human interactions - especially the interactions which take place in this artificial social environment, the blogosphere. Brian Cubbage has written two excellent posts which deal in great depth on the subject of appropriate and inappropriate interactions in the blogosphere: Blogiquette and its sequel, Blogiquette: A Skeptical View. In the second post Brian briefly mentions that conversations devolve into comment wars when a party in that conversation refuses to argue charitably and in good faith. While that was not the main point of either of Brian's posts, it very easily could be the main point of a post which seeks to understand why blog-based discussions so often fail to go anywhere.

Simply put, for multiple parties (two or more) to engage in a conversation which seeks to bridge the distance between apparently opposing viewpoints, a certain degree of charity is needed from each party. But what exactly do we mean by charity?

First and foremost, charity is a simple assumption: That, absent incontrovertible evidence, the person with whom you are conversing is not a flaming idiot. That is the bare minimum of charity.

Or, to put it another way, when someone makes a comment which appears to you to be idiotic, it is charitable to temporarily suspend judgment on that comment until you can gather more information. This is especially important in cases where the person who has made an apparently idiotic comment has in the past demonstrated the ability to distinguish between good arguments and bad arguments, and has further demonstrated a preference for good arguments.

In other words, if someone has in the past proved to be a reasonable person, capable of building well-reasoned and well-informed arguments, then if at some point in the future they leave a comment which appears to be unreasonable, it is quite possible that such an appearance is due more to your own inability to understand their argument than in some defect in the argument they are presenting. It is less likely that an intelligent person has suddenly become a flaming idiot than that conflicting world-views and philosophic and epistemic commitments have created some confusion which needs to be cleared up.

So, how does charity proceed in the face of such confusion, especially if it is not easy to immediately gather more information about the position which appears to be idiotic? It constructs the most charitable version of the position possible - that is, the best possible construction of the arguments involved, along with the best possible assumptions about the axioms which underlie said arguments.

There are at least three important selfish reasons for doing this, along with one much more important epistemic reason:

1. It avoids the embarrassing possibility of totally misrepresenting in some catastrophic way the perfectly reasonable views of another, and as such looking like a total idiot yourself. This is quite common is comment wars. To assume that the person(s) with whom you are discussing is an idiot leads you to look down, and - more importantly in a public sphere - to talk down to them. While this might score some points with your friends, it does nothing to advance your position, either intellectually or socially. Simply put, no one likes to be talked down to, and as such our informal social structures are designed to discourage such behavior. There may be some immediate positive (selfish, anyway) outcomes, but such outcomes are eventually outweighed by the negative outcomes which come with being identified as an asshole.

In other words, when your more morally sensitive friends have to go behind your back and apologize for you, that's never a good thing. When those who share you ideological concerns are embarrassed for being associated with you, and seek to distance themselves from your methods when advancing their own position - a position which they share with you - that's also never a good thing. A little charity avoids being placed in that uncomfortable position - a position from which it is difficult to escape.

2. Acting uncharitably towards others leads them to act less charitably towards you. Dropping a comment bomb may make you feel great right after you do it (I know that it does for me!), but ultimately it leads to the worst sort of digression in the conversation. As the comments escalate, you find yourself receiving the sort of snide remarks you started offering, which can lead to some subtle but very bad outcomes.

Anger can be a very useful emotion. The adrenaline rush which accompanies it can give you the strength to escape from a physically dangerous situation. But you are rarely in immediate physical danger sitting in front of your computer screen typing comments at a blog. However, your body fails to distinguish between anger which arises as the product of the sort of physical confrontation which may require additional strength and energy to escape bodily harm, and anger arising from some sort of linguistic barb. As such, physiological mechanisms which balance a short-term, immediate need against long-term health risks are triggered in both situations. But, in the case of the comment-war induced anger, there is no immediate gain to be balanced against the long-term risk. As such, you take on an increased risk of pulmonary and cardio-vascular problems, along with a whole host of other problems associated with high stress levels, for no reason at all, save for a lack of charity and a condescending point of view, along with limited impulse control.

3. Finally, for those who treat conversation as competition, there is a very good, yet still selfish reason to construct the most charitable possible version of another person's position: It makes you much more likely to "win" the discussion. Let me preface this by saying that I do not hold that conversations should be competitive, a point which I will make in some detail later. But, many people either explicitly or implicitly do, and this is the source of a great deal of uncharitable comments. Those who wish to "win" a conversation find it expedient to construct, consciously or unconsciously, a "strawman" of their "opponent"'s position, and then tear down that construct rather than the position itself. This leads to a quick apparent victory, which is in fact not a victory at all, as you can fool only the most foolish of fools with it.

If you really wish to be seen as an intellectual giant, construct for your "opponent" the best possible version of their argument - better, perhaps, than they would even have made themselves - and then knock that one down. A greater challenge, sure, but also a much mightier deed, and more impressive in the eyes of whoever it is that you are trying to impress by engaging in such academic pissing contests, I'm sure.

But as important as each of these concerns is, for those of us who engage in discussions with the Socratic goal of arriving at some place closer to the truth, there is a much more important reason to act charitably in a conversation: it is much more likely to lead to the closest you can come to the truth of the matter. Arguing without charity is ultimately like arguing without honestly, for it deals in a fundamentally dishonest way with the views of other persons. And dishonesty leads not toward truth but away from it. If, then, you claim to value truth - or at least the pursuit of truth, as truth can be nebulous indeed - you must also value charity, and use it in your dealings with others.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Game Theory is Everywhere!

Until this week, I hadn't really thought about Game Theory since I took a college course in the philosophy of mathematics, cheesily titled "Excursions in Mathematics" (who comes up with these titles, anyway?). But first, in the discussion mentioned here earlier (I've finally made my exit, convinced that there simply is not enough charity in the world for opposing views to meet constructively in such an artificial social environment), Game Theory was used as a weapon against me, presumably because, as a Christian, I would have never studied it before.

And now, this: I just wanted to read about football, so I went to's Tuesday Morning Quarterback, a weekly column which reviews Sunday and Monday's NFL games. However, author Gregg Easterman had other plans. In the middle of a series of observations about football, he wrote

When Researchers Projected Magnetic Fields Into Dick Cheney's Brain, He Became Friendly: Economists call it the Ultimate Game, and have long contended it proves Homo sapiens insufficiently logical. Here's the situation. Two strangers are brought together by a third person who holds $1,000. He tells them the money is theirs to divide on these terms: Stranger A must propose how to split the $1,000, and Stranger B must either accept or reject A's offer. That concludes the game, no second round. Classical economists maintain Stranger A should say, "I propose that I get $999 and you get $1," and Stranger B should immediately respond, "I accept." Pure economic theory says A should maximize his gain by shafting B out of every possible farthing, while B should calculate that since his sole choice is between $1 and nothing, $1 is better. Yet researchers have played this game with volunteers in many nations, and it never works the way theory says. The bare-minimum offer is always rejected. Generally, A must offer at least 30 percent or B says no and both players get nothing. Classical economists have long harrumphed that B's response when the game is played with real money shows human beings are too emotional and insufficiently focused on maximizing outcomes.

This pot was stirred last week when researchers led by Dario Knoch of the University of Zurich reported that using magnets to disrupt the right prefrontal cortex of volunteers playing Stranger B caused them to become much more willing to accept low offers. Now, if someone was using magnetic waves to scramble parts of your brain, your bargaining skills might decline, too. ("Herr Professor Doktor, ve haff discovered zat when ve knock der volunteers unconscious mit ein sledgehammer, zey refuse to aufgeparticipatehaffen* in the experiment.") But I think tests like the University of Zurich study only point to the Ultimate Game being so flawed that it mainly shows us faults of classical economics.

First, the game assumes money is superior to all other forms of possessions, including psychological well-being. But the world doesn't work that way. If I am Stranger B and accept the $1 offer, I have a dollar bill but also feel like a total dupe: And how can being made to feel like a dupe be worth a mere dollar? Any small-percentage offer accepted by B would make B feel unhappy and taken advantage of, while rejecting the small-percentage offer gives B the pleasure of feeling retribution was achieved against A. Once the offer gets up to around 30 percent, then the value of the money might equal whatever unpleasant thoughts B will experience when seeing A cackling and counting a larger pile of loot. Reactions like rejecting very low offers do not, as classical economists maintain, show that B fails to understand economics. They show that B understands money is not everything!

Next, people in the B role might derive long-term benefits from refusing low offers, and these benefits might exceed the value of the money forgone. In his important new book "The Origin of Wealth," Eric Beinhocker speculates that the kind of circumstances in which B refuses a too-low offer are "the cornerstone for social cooperation that is essential for wealth creation." In order for the free market to serve the overall welfare of society, Beinhocker maintains, all must mutually agree not to participate in arrangements that exploit those with weak bargaining positions. Society must be structured such that A would feel ashamed of offering only $1 to B, and would offer a fair sum in order to feel good about the transaction. If parties in strong positions offer fair sums, the result is mutually beneficial trading for everyone, including the strong. (Are you listening, Wal-Mart?) "The Origin of Wealth" is a major new book that ought to be commanding significant attention. Beinhocker, a management consultant for McKinsey & Company, argues persuasively that market economics is not a war of all against all. Market economies do best, Beinhocker says, and the welfare of society rises most, when people voluntarily take each other's interests into account.

Finally, TMQ contends economists misunderstand their own Ultimate Game because the focus of discussion is always on what Stranger B will accept. The key to this puzzle is not B but Stranger A -- who is a total, utter idiot for offering only $1 because this insures A gets nothing! Offers in which A seeks to claim the lion's share are irrational on A's part, because such offers will fail. I would argue there is only one wise offer for A to make: that they each get $500. A 50/50 split is sure to be accepted, thus insuring Stranger A of pocketing $500. A fair-minded person playing the A role would offer a 50/50 split because it is fair; economically this is also the logical move, because it guarantees a successful transaction. By focusing on whether B will accept an inequitable offer, economists skip over how dumb it is for A to make such an offer. By contrast, fairness leads to benefits for both parties, which is the big point of "The Origin of Wealth."

(*Note: Tuesday Morning Quarterback has long contended that any verb can be converted into pseudo-German using the formula aufgeXXXXXhaffen. Thus to jog becomes to aufgejoggenhaffen, etc.)

Did anyone expect such lucid thoughts from a football writer?!?

More on Columbus Day

Since my son is still out of school because of the "holiday" (Jefferson County Public Schools call it "Fall Break," but, then again, they call the break occasioned by Christmas "Winter Break," a euphemism which does little to disassociate the break from the holiday it coincides with), I thought I'd add a little bit more concerning Columbus Day.

The following comes from the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA's resolution of May 17, 1990:

For the indigenous people of the Caribbean islands, Christopher Columbus's invasion marked the beginning of slavery and their eventual genocide.

For the indigenous people of Central America, the result was slavery, genocide, and exploitations leading to the present struggle for liberation.

For the indigenous people of South America, the result was slavery, genocide, and the exploitation of their mineral and natural resources, fostering the early accumulation of capital by the European countries.

For the indigenous people of Mexico, the result was slavery, genocide, rape of mineral as well as natural resources, and a decline of their civilization.

For the peoples of modern Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines, the result was the eventual grabbing of the land, genocide, and the present economic captivity.

For the indigenous peoples of North America, it brought slavery, genocide, and theft and exploitation of the land which has led to their descendants' impoverished lives.

For the peoples of the African Diaspora, the result was slavery, and evil and immoral system steeped in racism, economic exploitation, rape of mineral as well as human resources, and national divisiveness along the lines of the colonizing nations.

For the peoples from Asia brought to work the land, torn from their families and culture by false promises of economic prosperity, the result was labor camps, discrimination, and today's victimization of the descendants facing anti-Asian racism.

For the descendants of the European conquerors, the subsequent legacy has been the perpetuation of paternalism and racism into our culture and times.

Not a pretty picture. Christ may be seen theologically as a liberator, the perfection of the archetype of Moses, but too often Christians through history have come not as liberators but as exploiters, oppressors, and enslavers. If Christ is often seen in the written Gospels allusions to the Exodus story as the new Moses, and Christians as the new Israel, then too often in what Marc H. Ellis calls the "gospel of history" Christians have instead been Egypt, a powerful, conquering empire built on the backs of slaves.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Columbus Day?

I'm taking a little bit of time away from my discussion at Aaron Kinney's blog Kill the Afterlife to "celebrate" that great holiday, Columbus Day. After all, why not celebrate those great events of 1492, so destructive that they are symbolically linked with Auschwitz and the Holocaust by Jewish theologian Marc H. Ellis? And, less anyone think that Ellis is radically anti-Christian, be advised that he teaches at Maryknoll School of Theology, a Catholic Institution.

1492, the year in which, as the rhyme says, "Columbus sailed the ocean blue," represents the height of Euro-centrism and the moral arrogance of Christian triumphalism. Consider this excerpt of a letter that Columbus (the Anglicized version of Cristobal Colon) sent to his "sponsors" King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain:

And thus the eternal God, Our Lord, gives to all those who walk in His way triumph over things which appear to be impossible, and this [his travels, celebrated by us today] was notably one. For, although men have talked and have written about these lands, all was conjectural, without ocular evidence, but amount only to this, that those who heard for the most part listened and judged rather by hearsay than from even a small something tangible. So that, since Our Redeemer has given the victory to our most illustrious King and Queen, and their renowned kingdoms, in so great a matter, for this all Christendom ought to feel delight and make great feasts and give solemn thanks to the Holy Trinity, with many solemn prayers for the great exaltation which they have in the turning of so many peoples to our holy faith, and afterwards for the temporal benefits, because not only Spain but all of Christendom will have hence refreshment and gain.

Columbus "discovered" a land which even he acknowledges in his final line here, was already populated. Of course, because the indigenous population was neither European nor yet Christian, they didn't really count as persons. Thus they had no moral standing, no legal standing, and no civil standing. They don't count as part of the population of persons mentioned earlier in this section of Columbus' letter, when he writes

For, although men have talked and have written about these lands, all was conjectural, without ocular evidence, but amount only to this, that those who heard for the most part listened and judged rather by hearsay than from even a small something tangible.

It wouldn't occur to him to think that it might be significant that the "men" (who alone he recognizes as persons) and the women already occupying the land that God's favor has allowed him to triumphally discover might indeed have "ocular evidence" for said land's existence.

But 1492 is not only the year that Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and Columbus' journey is not the only project of Christian triumphalism funded and mandated by Ferdinand and Isabella. Also in 1492, all Jews in now Christian Spain were forced to either convert to Christianity, leave Spain, or face death. As such, according to the aforementioned Marc H. Ellis in his book Ending Auschwitz: The Future of Jewish and Christian Life, 1492, as it stand symbolically alongside Auschwitz, can serve as a source of Jewish-Christian solidarity.

This is because, as Ellis realized while teaching Catholic students from Latin America, both Christians and Jews have been the victims of the violence of Christian triumphalism. Auschwitz and the holocaust that it represents serves as the culmination of Christian attitudes towards Jews, while 1492 represents a similar culmination of Christian attitudes towards the indigenous populations of the Americas. 1492 and Auschwitz both represent, at least symbolically, a kind of attempted extermination. Auschwitz the literal attempted extermination of the Jews by a Nazi party which, while not Christian, was the product of a Christian culture; 1492 the extermination of indigenous cultures by Christian missionaries. Ellis writes:

The Christianity my non-European students carried and in some cases had converted to in their lifetime was hardly indigenous or ancient. Most of it was thoroughly Western in teaching and lifestyle. And I saw them struggle with the uprooting that the European empire and European Christianity had brought. By adopting Christianity they had been elevated above others in their societies, even within their families; often they were separated physically from their villages and culturally and spiritually by their internalization of Christian values. They were taught to look down on their own people who had not converted. But through our readings on Columbus and 1492 these students recognized that the privilege of being Christianized also masked the violence of being Christianized and that their Christianization was in many cases a thin layer of experience and values that separated them from their own people and from themselves. Over the years this was the realization that many of my students struggled toward, the dual alienation that Christianity imposed from their own culture and from the deepest memories and intuition of self.

Of course, Ellis does not see the Christianization of indigenous populations in Africa, Asia, and especially Latin America as an entirely bad thing, noting the many cultural and economic advances made in certain populations after they were contacted by Western European Christians. But he certainly doesn't see it as primarily, much less exclusively, good. This is especially true in light of the violence which has so often accompanied Christianization, especially in Africa - where the indigenous population was enslaved - and Latin America.

As Ellis encountered more Christians who were part of indigenous populations that had been forcibly concerted to Christianity, wholly subsumed by the Christians who like Columbus invaded their land, he began to see some points of solidarity between these conquered Christians and his own Jewish people, long victims of Christian triumphalism. He asks himself and his fellow Jews

Were we as Jews the victims of the same gospels under which the Native Americans, the African slaves, and the Filipinos suffered?

As we celebrate Columbus Day - especially us Euro-Americans living on land that should never have belonged to us - let us meditate on our history of violence and moral arrogance. Let us ask ourselves if the ways of Christians are the ways of Christ. And, if - as I suspect - they are not, let us vow to no longer participate in any way of being Christian that is contrary to the ways of Christ.

Violence done on behalf of a victim of violence? Oppression and exploitation in the name of one who spoke out on behalf of the oppressed and exploited. Power wielded in the name of one who made himself powerless. These are not the ways of Christ, and should not be the ways of Christians.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Interesting Conversation

I've been using up my time and energy in this discussion at a rather inflammatory blog called Kill The Afterlife. I know that many of you do not share my love of discussing moral, theological and philosophic issues with atheists, but for those few of you who do, check out the discussion.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Something Funny, Something Less So

I just read this, by Daniel Morgan of Debunking Christianity. Quite possibly the funniest exploration of religion and pornography since Larry Flint, inspired by Billy Graham, temporarily converted to Christianity, but didn't give up his porn empire. He instead tried to make religious-themed pornography, creating some strange parallels that even Morgan's hilarity didn't anticipate.

For a more serious exploration see this piece posted last month by Ben Witherington. While I question his numbers, I don't question the problem which his potentially inflated numbers point to. We need to find the mean between the extremes of our sex-obsessed culture and our religion, which too often mortifies the flesh.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Feasting in Ramadan

Like many Westerners who try to be charitable towards other people's religion while also abhorring violence done in the name of religion, I have a troubled relationship with Islam. As I mentioned in an earlier post there are many aspects of Islam that I admire deeply. I love Islam's radical monotheism, their unwavering devotion to the doctrine that God is one. I love the way in which the ritualized prayers, prayers which use the entire body, in which every movement is significant, help blur the line between the sacred and the profane. Prayer for a devout Muslim is not an intellectual exercise, but rather an act which comes from the depths of one's being, and incorporates that whole being, as a profane body is used for a sacred purpose. And I love the season of Ramadan, a season which challenges one's commitment to religious life.

I used to go to a Middle Eastern restaurant, Babylon, owned and operated by an Iraqi immigrant seeking refuge from the regime of Saddam Hussein. He had been a history professor, and had a rule for his restaurant: if you could ask him a question about Middle Eastern culture, history or politics that he couldn't answer to your satisfaction, you got your meal for free. While I was never able to threaten his knowledge sufficiently to earn a free meal, I did once get my tea and baklava for free, after paying for my salad and main course.

One knock on Islam is that in areas where it is most prevalent, it is imposed on the population. People are observant because there are serious consequences for a lack of observance. Reading Azar Nafisi's popular memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran helped bring that point home to me. In it she laments the imposition of the veil on all women, because it calls into question the devotion of her grandmother, who wore the veil long before the government enforced it. In fact, she says, when her grandmother wore the veil, Iran was such a Westernized nation that that was an act of defiance, rather than the other way around.

But sitting in Babylon for lunch on any day during Ramadan shows you that Islamic observance does not die without a tyrannical government to impose it. In fact, during Ramadan Babylon's owner was most happy to see a Western face, because all of his regulars observed the fast, and so could not eat from sunrise to sunset, really cutting into his lunch business.

I remembered my long-forgotten meals at Babylon (I stopped eating meat, and they went out of business, though I doubt the two are linked) after reading this article in the Christian Science Monitor, about charity feasts in Cairo in the Ramadan dusk. Included in it is this telling passage:

Plates and glasses clink and inky-glasses of sugary tamarind juice are drained. The stringy pulp of dates are sucked from their pits, then the 2,000-odd diners turn to the business of a meal.

There are hundreds of locations similar to the ad hoc charity dinners on Hoda Sharawi throughout Cairo this month. Neighborhood merchants, mosques, film stars, and even belly dancers set up tables on streets, under overpasses, and along the Nile where all are invited to eat. But the convention is that only those that really need it should avail themselves.

Not too many years ago, signs alongside the tables would ostentatiously announce the identity of the benefactors, but that has since gone out of fashion, largely because of the impression that seeking public approval for charity isn't charity at all. No one knows how many free meals are dished out nightly, but it clearly runs into the hundreds of thousands.

I am particularly impressed with the notion "that seeking public approval for charity isn't charity at all," which reminds me of the famous teaching from chapter four of the Diamond Sutra about giving gifts without attachment:

Moreover, Subhuti, when bodhisattvas give a gift, they should not be attached to a thing. When they give a gift, they should not be attached to anything at all. They should not be attached to a sight when they give a gift. Nor should they be attached to a sound, a smell a taste, a touch, or a dharma when they give a gift. Thus, Subhuti, fearless bodhisattvas should give a gift without being attached to the perception of an object. And why? Subhuti, the body of merit of those bodhisattvas is not easy to measure.

In a little commentary on that passage from the Diamond Sutra, I wrote:

We give gifts for many reasons. Sometimes we give gifts out of love for a person. Sometimes we give gifts because we wish to be seen giving gifts. Often we give gifts because it is socially acceptable, or somehow required of us. But, whatever our motive, we often have expectations for the person who receives our gift. If and when they fail to meet our expectations for them, we manufacture suffering, both in ourselves and in others. Therefore, when we give a gift (as in all situations) we should not be attached to anything, but simply give our gift, for the sake of giving our gift.

That, in Cairo, Muslims reject the giving of charity with the attachment of building social merit speaks to the wisdom of that religion, a wisdom which we - who often focus on the many levels of foolishness in certain manifestations of Islams - generally fail to recognize. I have written often here on the culture wars, by which I generally mean a war within our own society between (at least) two competing visions for our collective culture. But as Western leaders ramp up their anti-Muslim rhetoric, and as jihadists lash out against us (and I could just as easily put those two in the opposite order, since it is not so much a matter of one coming first and being followed by the other as it is a matter of the two together creating an endless spiral) it is becoming increasingly clear that the most dangerous culture war may be one that is sometimes called the clash of civilizations. That is, a war between two cultures which apparently have a great deal less in common than red staters have in common with blue staters.

In this war we are often hesitant to see Islam in a charitable light. And, given the prevalence of violence in the Muslim world - violence which includes rival factions blowing up each other's sacred houses of worship on holy days - it is admittedly difficult to look at Islam charitably. But any religion with such a rich history of charity - and charity of the best kind, which bridges social and economic gaps authenticating the basic humanity of all who come to the table to feast - deserves to be treated with at least a little bit of charity. And anyone who wishes to somehow defuse the growing war between Islam and the West had better learn how to see the points where Islamic values overlap with our own, so that we can focus on those points of commonality and learn how to build on them.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Where Have All the Bloggers Gone?

My "Other Blogs" sidebar used to be full of some of the most thought-provoking blogs dealing with religion on the Internet (of course, I'm biased). However, many of them, for various reasons, have all but ceased to operate.

Habakkuk's Watchpost, one the most interesting blog, has not had a "serious" post since the second part of Kyle's August 25 response to this article on homosexuality and the church by UM bishop Timothy W. Whitaker. Tyler Simons, long the most prolific contributor to the Watchpost, hasn't posted anything since this delicious bit of silliness from August 16. He hasn't posted a "serious" piece since this quote from August 15, and he hasn't posted an extended piece since this warning about an impending American theocracy on July 26.

Is it safe to say that the Habakkuk's Watchpost - quite possibly my favorite place on the Web - is dead?

Meanwhile, other blogs have also been drying up. Brian Cubbage's delightful Lost on Twin Earth, for instance, hasn't had a post since August 15, and that single post came after a long period of declared "Blog Silence."

And even here at my Sanctuary, while I've been trucking out some posts, there just haven't been the discussions that I'm used to. I don't know if that is because people aren't reading my work anymore, or just because it takes more time and energy than anyone has left to engage in the kinds of Internet discussions that we used to have.

Simply put, life intervenes, and the blogosphere may not be the best place to find spiritual enrichment in a life which is becoming increasingly taxed for time. I know that I haven't had the time or the energy to pour myself into my posts like I used to. So the question I have, for anyone left reading this, is this: Is it worth it? Is it worth our time and energy to continue writing thought-provoking posts and then discussing them?

Frankly I've been thinking about calling it quits. I doubt that I really would, because I write compulsively, and some of it just demands to be released to the world, whether the world wants it or not. But as I deal with my daily stressors while preparing to hopefully start back to school to pursue a career in academia, it gets harder and harder to come up with interesting things to say here. And without the discussions which fuel my drive to write for this blog, it grows less and less rewarding.

I see other bloggers recognizing the limitations of this format and shifting their efforts to other forms of communication. Especially since I will be preaching twice this month, it is increasingly tempting for me to do the same.