Friday, December 14, 2007

Meme in Bits and Pieces

I've been tagged by Liam, which means, I suppose, that I've caught the latest Meme going around. Since I'm still finishing up my work for the semester, I thought I'd wait a little bit before posting my contribution to this splendid piece of Internet nonsense, but I couldn't help myself. So, here is part of my promised participation in the 8 Meme:

8 Songs That Mean Something to Me:

"Regret," composed by Dave Brubeck, performed by Dave Brubeck and the London Symphony Orchestra, from the album Classical Brubeck. One of the most haunting pieces of music you'll ever hear.

"Fight the Fight," by Living Colour, from the album Time's Up, though I like the version on Live From CBGB even more.

"Sliding Down," composed by Edgar Meyer, performed by Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck, and Mike Marshall, from the album Uncommon Ritual. The fusion of classical and folk genres has always produced interesting music, perhaps none more than this, another haunting piece of music.

"Easy/Lucky/Free," by Bright Eyes, from the album Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. A stand-in for that whole album, really.

"Intervention," by the Arcade Fire, from the album Neon Bible. "Workin' for the church while your family dies," a little too close to home for me.

"Goodnight Elizabeth," by the Counting Crows, from the album Recovering the Satellites. Another psalm of lament. I'm seeing a theme here.

"Was," by Mose Allison, from the album My Backyard. Sometime his wit is vicious, as in the classic "Your Mind is On Vacation." But, sometimes instead of the mean Mose, we get the philosophic Mose. Here he employs his sharp rhetorical skills in a reflection on mortality. A sample: "When am turns to was and now is back when/ Will someone have moments like this/ Moments of unspoken bliss/ And will there be any heros or saints/ Or just a dark new age of complaints."

"Straight, No Chaser," by Thelonious Monk, from the album Straight, No Chaser. Monk could say more in a note than most cats could in their whole lives. 'Nuff said.


Since I'm not done I ain't taggin' no one, but...

I'd love to hear what Tom, Chappy (who introduced me to like half the stuff on this list, and a whole host of maybe even better stuff that somehow didn't make the cut), Brian, Troy, and anyone else might have to say about some of their favorite tunes.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Monday, December 10, 2007

IQ Takes a Knock

While my wife is the professional in psychology in our family, I've long had a keen interest in the intersections between psychology, philosophy, and theology. My fondness of such intersections probably accounts for my love of William James - who while known for his philosophic Pragmatism and for famous study of religious experiences, was trained in psychology and saw himself as first and foremost a scientist. But it has not yet steered me wrong.

As a nineteen year-old college flunk out, frustrated by the distance between my supposedly high IQ and my dismal academic record, I started looking for new ways to think about intelligence. The first two books I encountered did not disappoint. In Emotional Intelligence Daniel Goleman wrestled with the same issue that drove my teenage self crazy: why some conventionally intelligent people - many of whom are quite brilliant - can't seem to navigate life with much success. To put his finding crudely, he posited a new kind of intelligence, which he called (as you might guess from the title of the book in question) "emotional intelligence." This intelligence, EQ, exists alongside IQ, and can be an even better predictor of outcomes.

Reading his book I thought, That's what I'm missing! My cognitive skills were useless given my apparent deficiency in emotional intelligence and maturity. Whether or not it is in fact the case that there is a thing we can call "emotional intelligence," Goleman's work helped me see that this thing we call intellect, smarts, is not so simple as being able to perform well on a few academic tests. Rationality is quite useful, but it is by no means the only driving force of the mind.

The other book I picked up in my teenage quest to refine my understanding of intelligence in a way that would figure out what the hell was wrong with me was neurologist Antonio Damasio's Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. In it Damasio used neurology to combat the mind-body dualism of Western philosophy. He was also especially critical of the distinction we often make between reason on the one hand, and emotion on the other. While such a distinction can be quite useful - Goleman talks about "emotional highjackings," something I think we can all relate to - it is not so hard and fast as we would have it be. There is an intimate and physiological connection, Damasio notes, between what we call "emotion" and what we call "reason."

To highlight his point Damasio starts with the famous example of Phineus P. Gage, who as a twenty-five year old construction foreman in 1848, had a dramatic accident that fundamentally altered both his personality and his ability to think. An explosion shot an iron rod through his head. As Damasio notes, the rod "landed more than a hundred feet away, covered in blood and brains." But Gage lived. This fact made him a kind of modern marvel of his time, and so there was a great deal of research done on him.

While Gage was declared cured of all injuries less than two months after his accident, he was never the same man. And not just in terms of physical abilities. His fundamental personality was altered. Where before he had been ambitious and successful, after his accident Gage was rude and angry, apparently unable to regulate his behavior. Most distressingly, Damasio notes, Gage - who before had been an extraordinarily efficient worker, characterized by his excellent decision-making - simply could not make good decisions. Damasio writes:

Gage had once known all he needed to know about making choices conducive to his betterment. He had a sense of personal and social responsibility, reflected in the way he had secured advancement in his job, cared for the quality of his work, and attracted the admiration of employers and colleagues. He was well adapted in terms of social convention and appears to have been ethical in his dealings. After the accident, he no longer showed respect for social convention; ethics in the broad sense of the term were violated; the decisions he made did not take into account his best interest, and he was given to invent tales... There was no evidence of concern about his future, no sign of forethought.

Damasio uses the tale of Phineus Gage as an entry point for a study on the relationship between emotion, reason, and the physiology of our brains. He is especially concerned with what people like Gage, who have sustained injuries to specific parts of their brains, tell us about how those parts of the brain function - especially in terms of the relationship between emotion and reason. To sum up his arguments, he notes that both what we mean by reason and what we mean by emotion can be located in our brains, and that when parts of our brain are injured, or fail to function properly, that affects both our reasoning and our emotional life.

Perhaps the most powerful and informative case study in Descartes' Error is the case of "Elliot," a thirty-something who developed a brain tumor which required the removal of his frontal lobe. From that point on, Elliot had much in common with Phineus Gage. Most interestingly, while Elliot's basic cognitive functioning remained the same - he would have, for instance, not noticed a change in his IQ - he simply could not function as a human. He lacked any semblance of social skills, and often could not make the most basic decisions.

After building a cumulative case on the basis of stories like those of Phineus Gage and "Elliot," Damasio makes a profound claim about the way in which we reason: In most of the decisions that we make, both what we mean by "reason" and what we mean by "emotion" are engage. We navigate our daily lives not by reason or emotion, as though the two were opposed, but by the two of them working simultaneously, in concert. This challenges the way that most of us think about thinking. We (especially we pseudo-intellectual types in the Western world) often think of proper thinking as reason unclouded by emotion. But Damasio argues that such an image describes not a properly functioning thought-process, but rather total paralysis.

In seminary I encountered another way of thinking about intelligence, when I was forced to apply Howard Gardner's famous theory of Multiple Intelligences to teaching in a church setting. In a nutshell, Gardner - a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and at the Boston University School of Medicine - argues that there is no single thing called "intelligence." Rather, there are several different kinds of intelligence: linguistic, logical-mathematical (those two are what we general mean by intelligence), musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spacial, inter-personal, intra-personal, etc. (He is forever modifying his theory to account for new kinds of intelligence, as well as new ways of thinking about previously identified intelligences.)

In Gardner's thinking - and boy can I relate to this - a gifted mechanic is no less intelligent than, say a mathematician; they simply each are gifted in different ways. Lest you think this is some way of saying "everyone is special, so let's not hurt anyone's feelings by implying some may be more or less intelligent than others," Gardner does believe that we can to a certain extent quantify intelligence within these various categories. He just doesn't think that these modes of intelligence can reasonably be pitted against each other.

All of these positions, taken together with the thousand or so other new(ish) theories of intelligence, amount to a veritable assault on our assumed notion that there is a single quantifiable thing called "intelligence," which is the basic assumption behind the IQ. This matters in part because of the disturbing phenomena of scientific racism. For as long as there have been theories of race, there have been "scientists" who would use the tools of their day to demonstrate the innate genetic superiority of their kind of people, while reducing others to various kinds of brutes. IQ has been intimately involved in this effort to scientifically codify the intellectual superiority of some expressions of humanity, and the inferiority of others. But new research into the nature of IQ has shown that cultural differences on IQ tests are just that: cultural rathe than genetic.

I just read this article by Malcolm Gladwell of the New Yorker. A review of James Flynn's What Is Intelligence?, Gladwell explores Flynn's observations on the change in IQ scores across generations.He argues that IQ tests measure not how smart one is, but rather how modern. Here is a most interesting passage that amplifies what is at stake with that distinction:

The psychologist Michael Cole and some colleagues once gave members of the Kpelle tribe, in Liberia, a version of the WISC similarities test: they took a basket of food, tools, containers, and clothing and asked the tribesmen to sort them into appropriate categories. To the frustration of the researchers, the Kpelle chose functional pairings. They put a potato and a knife together because a knife is used to cut a potato. “A wise man could only do such-and-such,” they explained. Finally, the researchers asked, “How would a fool do it?” The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the “right” categories. It can be argued that taxonomical categories are a developmental improvement—that is, that the Kpelle would be more likely to advance, technologically and scientifically, if they started to see the world that way. But to label them less intelligent than Westerners, on the basis of their performance on that test, is merely to state that they have different cognitive preferences and habits. And if I.Q. varies with habits of mind, which can be adopted or discarded in a generation, what, exactly, is all the fuss about?

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Most Trivial Reader Contest Ever!

With a title like that you might be expecting some sort of witty trivia contest, but I'm not quite that clever. Instead I'd like to offer you a chance to do something that has been amusing me most of the day, distracting me from studying for finals and writing my last papers of the semester. It started with two words:

Projectile Dysfunction

Somehow those two words, put together, have been an endless source of inane amusement for me. Perhaps they will be for you, too.

The contest is this:


a.) Come up with a picture that would best make use of the caption "Projectile Dysfunction," and either email me the picture or leave a comment here describing it, or

b.) Write a brief story or joke featuring "projectile dysfunction" and either email it to me or leave it in the comments section.

The winner gets...

well... hopefully not projectile dysfunction.

The winner gets...

the mythic Dave Chapman award for creative use of the Internet!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

An Open Letter to Sen. Hillary Clinton

Sen. Clinton,

First, please allow me to tell you how uplifting it is to see a woman mounting a serious campaign for the presidency less than a century after the ratification of the 19th Amendment. While the playing field is by no means level - especially in light of recent studies of attitudes concerning women in leadership - you are showing us all that women can accumulate the political, social, and economic power to seriously challenge the male-dominated nature of the political arena.

I think that you have been unfairly attacked in the past, made a target by an often misogynistic right wing for your refusal to act within the constraints generally placed on women in our country. Too often you have been derisively dismissed as "Billary," a product of your husband's undeniable political skills, as though you were not as much involved in shaping him as he has been in shaping you. The double-standards of our culture weigh heavily on you, as when you exhibit traits, such as cunning and ambition, that are often considered virtuous in men, you are condemned as a "bitch" by the gender police. That b-word, incidentally, should when applied to women jar our ears as much as a certain n-word does when applied to blacks. Both are verbal slaps that socially communicate not only hatred and derision, but, most importantly Get back in your place!

All of that said, I must confess that I have some serious concerns about you and your campaign for president.

First, while we both agree on the necessity of universal health care, I fear your plan to achieve it comes complete with corporate sponsorship. I know that you were burned the last time you expressed any sort of prophetic leadership on health care before, but that doesn't excuse your coming up with a plan that does more to line the pockets of an already-too-well-fed industry. I've never understood our irrational fear of socialized medicine.

While I think a great many goods emerge from a free (or, at least, relatively free) economic marketplace, that doesn't mean that all goods should be made subject to our insatiable desire for greater and greater profits. Further, I don't think that most Americans really believe this either. Despite the neo-conservative drive to privatize everything, we are still, by and large, willing to grant that our security should be provided by the public sector. We are still, by and large, willing to grant that our children should be educated in the public sector (though I'll grant that is contentious). And we are overwhelmingly inclined to let the public sector keep on handling our Social Security.

These are goods that most Americans agree have nothing to do with dispersing profits to shareholders. And, when it is placed this bluntly, I firmly believe that most Americans would also be willing to grant that their health would be best served by those whose only goal is to care for it, rather than by corporations that are first and foremost interested in profits. And, despite vast lobbying campaigns to the contrary, this is precisely what health insurance corporations are principally concerned with.

I don't need to cite statistics to you; you've been at this a lot longer than I have. [For such, readers of my blog should see this post.] You and I both know that universal single-payer health care would be considerably more efficient than the plan you're suggesting, in which private insurance is secured for each and every American (the health insurance industries most fantastic wet dream). You've seen the same numbers that I have, showing that while 4% of Medicare's costs are administrative, less than 2% of Canada's single-payer system are administrative, a whopping 30% of the average HMO's costs are administrative in nature. You just - like so many of your political peers - lack faith in the American people to come on board.

I am similarly concerned about your shifting position on Iraq. I won't mention your husband's ridiculous claim that he always opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq. While opposing requires of one a great deal more than just private disagreement, you can't be blamed for your husband any more than my wife can be blamed for me. I certainly wouldn't want her held accountable for every ridiculous thing I've said. No, even though I suspect he said that to lend you some credibility in the anti-war crowd, I'll let him stand alone on that one.

What concerns me isn't that your position on Iraq seems to have shifted. That, to me, is the sign of a health, evolving person, who adapts their stances when confronted with new data that makes the previous stance no longer tenable. Would that our current president demonstrate that trait from time to time. No, my concern is more in your unwillingness to admit that your authorization of this quagmire was a mistake.

I know that your first few years in the Senate were dark and difficult years. We were living under a cloud of fear. While the threat of terrorism did not begin with 9-11, the public's awareness of that threat by and large did. And that public awareness, coupled with the drums of war, cultivated a climate of fear, a climate in which it was difficult to give anything less than full-throated support of any military plan. We had been attacked, and public sentiment demanded that someone must pay. And, with the Bush administration's conflation of Iraq and the "War on Terror," it is easy to see how you could have justified voting with the overwhelming majority.

But, Senator, you were wrong. Your current stance says as much. But your mouth won't admit it, and that concerns me. I know that women are held to a different standard, especially on national defense. I know that your political enemies would have painted you with the broad brush of "weakness" if you hadn't voted for the war, and with that same brush if you now admitted the obvious, that your vote was an understandable mistake, and that you regret it. But your inability or unwillingness to admit this obvious mistake, even as you now attempt to court the anti-war vote, concerns me. Perhaps it reminds me too much of the current president, who as best as I can tell has never recognized a mistake.

Alas, in a culture in which the cosmetic trumps the substantive every time, the real reason why I'm writing you today has nothing to do with health care policy or war. It is regrettably cosmetic, more of a "process" concern than a "policy" one. As fired up as I am over health care and the war, I wouldn't have taken the time this morning to write you (even if you'll never see this) if I hadn't seen this, an apparently trivial thing which, in our culture of trivializing the monumental (and especially vice versa) somehow stands for me as a symbolic act, the significance of which I reserve the right to unpack later.

I saw that you attacked Sen. Barack Obama for claiming to have not planned to run for president. I'll admit that Obama's claim, while trivial, seems disingenuous. In our culture everyone is planning to run for president, aren't they? Some of the evidence you present is even a little bit compelling, though it is offered in support of the trivial (What, after all, is at stake in Sen. Obama's claim, or in your rebuttal to it?). But what has me concerned is the last piece of evidence you offer: that in Kindergarten he wrote an essay titled "I Want to Become President."

Please pardon me, as I'm new at this whole political thing, but what the hell does that have to do with anything?!? I think I wrote that same essay, though I can now honestly say that I have no intention of ever running for city council, much less president. The spotlight shines too brightly on you politicians. I'm sure under such a bright light I'd make more than a few public blunders. But, dragging up what someone's Kindergarten teacher remembers about their political ambition?!? This is what passes for a presidential campaign?!?

No wonder as a country we are getting turned off by politics. I hate to make you a post child for everything that's wrong with the political process right now, as there are many equally compelling candidates for that. But I'm concerned about you. Try to get some sleep. Quit sweating the small stuff, and all that. One day you may have a country to run. And, if you think this is stressful...

Friday, November 30, 2007

Speaking of politics and religion...

I saw this Washington Post editorial cartoon by Tom Toles linked to at Drinking Liberally:

"Do You Believe Every Word of This Book?"

"Do you believe every word of this book?" the questioner asked, holding up a Bible. There are few venues appropriate for such a question, in my mind. As far as religious questions go, it is both divisive and misleading. Divisive, in that the question is used most often not as an honest appeal for information, but rather as a loaded test of one's orthodoxy. Misleading, because what exactly constitutes believing every word (and, in which translation/edition) is left undefined.

I do not recall ever having been asked this question, though I've served in churches who might not have minded asking me it if they had any idea the answer I would offer would be anything but an unqualified "yes." I don't know how I would answer it. The most honest answer would be a simple "Of course not, and neither do you." But such an answer might not sufficiently challenge any assumptions that underlie the question.

But, as unhelpful as that question is in most of the contexts I could place it, it is infinitely less helpful in the place where I actually heard it.

I didn't watch the GOP presidential debate the other night. I didn't watch it for at least two reasons:

1. I'm not a Republican, and so my opinion on any candidate attempting to win the Republican nomination for president of the United States couldn't matter less. They won't let me vote in the primary.

2. American political "debates" aren't really debates at all, and that makes me mad. Debates involve persons interacting with ideas, answering questions, challenging others and responding to challenges. But these made-for-TV events are more successions of stump speeches offered in response to generally staged questions.

The recent GOP on CNN debate, however, is, like the Democratic debate before it, evidently part of a new trend. Questions came from a variety of sources, from political cartoonists (have they ever been invited to the table before?!?) to the general public. And it is from that broad category "general public" that the question at the top of this post came. I first saw the video of it here.

"Do you believe every word of this book?" I don't know how all of the candidates responded to this question. The CNN clip that I linked to had only part of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's answer. I imagine that, if the question were asked sincerely, it was probably aimed at candidates like Romney, a Mormon, and presumptive frontrunner Rudy Giuliani, whose religious credentials have been called into question.

That this question was asked bothers me. But what bothers me more is my conviction - and I should state again that I don't know how the candidates answered, nor how their answers were taken - that the answers to it matter to many as much as any other issue. Of course in a democratic society in which religious people vote - and, given the prevalence of religion, that is every democratic society - there will always be some mixing of religion and politics. As a religious person whose politics are shaped in large part by my religious convictions and commitments, I don't think this is an entirely bad thing, either. But I still have serious problems with question like "Do you believe every word in the Bible?" shaping political discourse in this or any country.

One of those problems stem from the very nature of our democracy. The First Amendment to our Constitution is clear: there is to be no establishment of religion, nor any inhibiting the free exercise of religion. Part of this means that there is, in our nation, no religious test for office. To tie one's ability to hold office to one's religious faith would, it seems clear, violate both the Establishment clause (by favoring a particular religious expression over others, or by favoring being religious over being irreligious) and the Free Exercise clause (by placing such an incentive to be religious or to be religious in a particular way that one's liberty of conscience is placed at odds with one's political ambition).

This question, of course is not being asked by some powerful political agency, and so fails to rise to the level of a First Amendment violation. But in a culture in which one might be effectively disqualified by a sizable chunk of the electorate on the basis of one's answer to such a question on national television, this isn't exactly the case of a private citizen asking an honest religious question in private, either.

While many of our nation's presidents have had religious beliefs at odds with the majority opinion of their day, America has never had a self-proclaimed atheist as president. America has never had a Muslim, nor a Jew, nor a Hindu, nor a Buddhist, nor a Sikh, nor a Shinto, nor (as is becoming timely) a Mormon president, either. By and large, whatever their private religious beliefs, America's presidents have matched the nation's public Protestantism. This is not accidental. Religion in American politics matters. But the strong correlation between religiosity and political power calls into question our commitment to the First Amendment. It also, I would argue, calls into question the wisdom of the concerns that many religious people bring to political candidates.

The second concern that I have with asking GOP presidential candidates, on national television, whether or not they believe every word of the Bible, is a religious one. It does not stem from my conviction that in fact no one currently living, Christian, Jew, or otherwise, really believes every word in the Bible. It also does not, as far as I am aware, stem from the fact that my own views on Biblical authority are anything but orthodox. Rather, it stems from my concern that such questions promote a false religiosity, an uncritical religiosity, and a religiosity more interested in articulating agreement with propositional statements than in a commitment to the kinds of social change that I see as the essence of the Kingdom/Reign of God, one of the dominant metaphors of Jesus' ministry.

Our current president would be right at home answering the question in question. He would no doubt offer an unqualified "YES!" before giving testimony to the power of scripture and the God represented in it in his own life. He is at his rhetorical best telling of how the God of scripture saved him, rescuing him from the meaninglessness and sinfulness of his youth. The language of faith is second nature for him.

But under the veneer of public faith, as we have all, I suspect, learned, lurks something sinisterly anti-Christian, if the witness of Jesus has anything to do with Christianity. The prevalence of such wonderful bumper stickers as "Who Would Jesus Bomb?" and "Who Would Jesus Torture?" speak to the innate contradiction between the reckless militarism of this administration and the witness of the one our president claims is his Christ. Beyond that, I wonder how the apostle Paul [correction: the anonymous author of I John], who coined the wonderful phrase "perfect love drives out fear," would think of one who claims to be Christian while leading a reign of terror, cultivating a sense of perpetual fear in the American population.

The Biblical witness is infinitely more concerned with social and economic justice than with the trappings of religion, and yet our current president seems always more concerned with "faith-based initiatives" than with the plight of the poor and the vulnerable, those on the margins of our society. While he could no doubt articulate his belief in the Biblical text, there are quite a few Biblical texts he is not living by.

Asking candidates whether or not they believe every word in the Bible is not a very efficient way to discover their religious commitments. Further, while, like me, their religious commitments may shape their politics, and thus provide us with some useful information about them, being religious is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for being a good president. To place even an informal religious test on the office of the president serves neither America (who has a great many devout but decidedly bad presidents) nor religion (which has been misused by far too many ambitious persons).

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

"Sean Taylor's Death Wasn't Random"

"Sean Taylor's death wasn't random."

That is how's Jemele Hill opens her commentary on the murder of Washington Redskins' safety Sean Taylor, who died this morning at the tender age of 24. In her column, Hill makes several salient points on "American problem" (as opposed to simply a "racial" problem) represented by the violent death of yet another young black man.

After noting that murder is the leading cause of death for black males aged 15-24 (Sean Taylor's demographic), she calls this "an epidemic more lethal and closer than any war overseas, or any boogeyman terrorist we can unearth or create."

I have not yet been able to process this most recent death in the stream of carnage that characterizes life in the land of guns. I have not yet been able to weave it neatly into a narrative. Nor have I yet been able (or, perhaps, willing) to wrestle with the fact that Taylor's death seems somehow so much more tragic than the countless deaths of more anonymous young black men.

But, in a country where black men are 6 times more likely to be murdered than white men, I have to agree with Hill that this, yet another killing of a young black man, wasn't random.

Do yourself a favor and check out Hill's column.


Edited to add: 12-7-07:

I just read this column by Kevin Blackistone, which is perhaps even more worthwhile than Hill's reflections. Here is a sample quote:

According to most recent disseminated data by the Center for Disease Control, Taylor and Spicer will be two of roughly 4,000 black homicide victims in the country this year killed by guns. Most, of course, won't be a pro athlete like Taylor but an everyman like Spicer.

It didn't matter if they were rich or working-class, went to college or dropped out of high school, lived in a near million dollar home with a remote control gate or in mom's apartment in a tough quarter of town. It didn’t matter if one was strapping, strong and fast as the wind and the other was more like everyone else.

It didn't matter if they were famous or known to only a few. It didn't matter if they were living their dreams or still chasing them. They didn't escape the pathology.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Sandalstraps Cinema

As the semester winds down (and the workload winds up) I've been day dreaming about what I'm going to do with all my soon-to-be-rediscovered free time. And, since doing something worthwhile has long been ruled out, I think I might spend more of my time blogging. At least until something more pressing (like J-term classes followed by the Spring semester) pops up.

But, if I do resume more regular blogging, what, o what should I blog about?

This morning I blew the time I should have been working on the two papers I have due this week finally watching a movie that I simply loved, but don't have time to comment in depth on yet: V for Vendetta, the Wachowwski brothers' worthy follow-up to the Matrix trilogy (first take: better than the second and third Matrix films, not quite as good as the first). Strangely enough, that film explores many of the same issues as my emerging idea for my Masters thesis (or am I just seeing a thesis topic in everything?), but more on that when I take the time to blog for real.

In the meantime, I've decided that until I change my mind (which could well be before any actual posts) I'm going to do more in depth looks at the theological, philosophical, and ethical content in movies, much like I did in these posts, two of my all-time favorites to write:



Or, for less depth, consider these:

Ever Since the World Ended (juxtaposing the film Donnie Darko with a Mose Alison song)

An Unnatural Evil (a look at Augustine's theodicy of natural evil after watching An Inconvenient Truth, but I swear, its not that heavy)

Bobby (paging Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Initial Response to Play the Ball Where the Monkey Drops It

For my "Evil, Suffering, and Death in the New Testament" class we are required to keep a reading journal. Last week's book was Gregory Knox Jones' Play the Ball Where the Monkey Drops It: Why We Suffer and How We Can Hope. It is essentially a primer in Process Theology's response to the problem of evil, though it is not written as a work of academic theology, and never actually mentions "Process Theology." It is a very pastoral book, written not by a theologian but by a Presbyterian minister responding not to the concerns of the academy but the concerns of the congregation. What follows is my reading journal entry for last week, after reading the book. The entry reads more like a book review than a journal entry, reinforcing perhaps a point that my pastor made last week after hearing me preach in our chapel communion service, when she noticed that for great theological treatises I don't even need notes, but when I'm talking about myself I read verbatum from a manuscript. Be that as it may, here is what I wrote in response to Gregory Knox Jones' Play the Ball Where the Monkey Drops It:

My first response to Gregory Knox Jones’ Play the Ball Where the Monkey Drops It is that it was a delightful read. His stories are lively and engaging, and his concerns are refreshingly pastoral. I also appreciated that he takes the philosophic problem of evil seriously. By that I mean this: he recognizes that there is a fundamental logical contradiction between God’s omnipotence and benevolence and the reality of evil and suffering.

While his book is not as rigorously argued as my favorite work on evil from the perspective of Process Theology, Kenneth Cauthen’s The Many Faces of Evil, and while he does not engage the nature of evil in the way that Cauthen does, it serves as an interesting primer on the way that Process Theology meditates on the nature of divine power in the face of the reality of evil and suffering.

The experience of suffering is a legitimate starting point for theology. It is one of the givens of existence, every bit as much as the experience of the holy, the sacred, the other, that which we call “God.” As such, it is valid, I think, to demand that our concepts of God and our reflections of God be accountable to our experience of suffering. This, at a basic level, is what Process Theology does.

In Chapter Five of his book, titled “Persuasive Power,” Jones reflects on the nature of God’s power in the face of the given-ness of suffering. After laying out the basic problem of evil he says this:

If God is all-powerful and loving, then evil should not exist. Yet evil does exist. And not just a little evil here and there, but widespread evil that causes tremendous suffering throughout the planet.

It is from here, the logical impossibility of reconciling God’s unlimited love and power with the brute fact of evil, that Jones argues for the need to understand God’s power in a new way. He could here follow in the footsteps of Christian philosophers like Richard Swinburne, who cling to the language of divine omnipotence while places some logical boundaries around God’s power. But instead he chooses to boldly and honestly assert what I take to be the most responsible theological response to the reality of evil and suffering: “There are some things that God cannot do.”

This statement is troubling to many Christians – nay, to many theists, not just limited to Christian theists – because it radically denies one of our “givens” (see Jones’ reference to Burton Cooper on p. 56) concerning God. Omnipotence is, in fact, such a given that many are incapable of thinking about the word “God” without also thinking about “omnipotence.” I remember taking a philosophy class at a state university, taught by a professor with no personal religious commitments, in which it was categorically stated that “omnipotence” is an essential part of the definition of “God.”

This is also somewhat pastorally challenging. It can rightly be asked how a limited God, a God who allows suffering to happen not for some mysterious reason that humans can never discern, nor for our own good or for any of the other reasons offered up in our formal and informal theodicies, but because God cannot do all things; it can rightly be asked how such a God who lacks the power to initially prevent suffering, to forcibly restrain the forces that cause suffering, can effectively respond to suffering.

It has been suggested to me (by a former minister turned atheist) that we must choose between an omnipotent God who refuses to prevent suffering and an impotent God who is powerless to act in the face of suffering. This, I suggest, is a false dichotomy, and the sort of false dichotomy at work in the minds of many Christians who feel threatened by the statement that there are some things that God can’t do.

We don’t feel the need to impose on anything in the created order the standard we place on God. Of course, this could be because many of us assert that God is radically different from the created order, wholly other, and so it is impossible to make any analogy between God and something created. While I find that sort of thinking about God quite appealing, I also think we should consider this: we would never consider saying that because there are limits on the power of the president, he is essentially impotent. Such a statement would be absurd. Of course there are limits on presidential power – even if some presidents act as though they are unaware of such limits. And, of course the president, despite such limits, is by no means impotent. Both the person and the office contain a great deal of power.

Jones uses his own examples of this sort of argument, saying:

Some seem to think that if God cannot do everything, then God is a weakling. I disagree. We would never say, “If the professor cannot answer every question, he is a useless professor.” Or, “If the physician cannot diagnose every illness, she is a worthless physician.” Such statements are nonsense. Indeed, the professor may open wonderful new worlds to us through brilliant insights, and the physician may save numerous lives through her expertise. Admittedly these are crude analogies, but I trust they make the point.

That is in fact the case for every power we can conceive of in the natural world. Why can’t it be the case for God? Why must God be either omnipotent (as most theists assert) or impotent? I for one can’t come up with a reason.

Jones asserts that not only is God’s power limited, but that power which God does have is quite unlike we often suppose it to be. Jones is wont to wax poetic on the power of God, saying in one of my favorite lines in the whole book, “God is the most powerful force in the universe, brining order out of chaos and making life possible.” But this power is not the brute power to override other wills and impose particular outcomes on situations. Rather, it is what he calls “the power of persuasion."

Jones sees God at work in the world trying to influence situations and bring about the best outcomes, not trying to override the respective wills of each actor. This view of God’s power is quite compelling, in part because it makes sense of things that many of use experience. Many of us have felt the presence of God in our lives. Many of us have “heard” without hearing the “still small voice” of God. Many of us have felt an inexplicable sense of calling, a calling that often takes us far from where we thought we would go in life. In these Jones sees the power of God working to bring about the best in the created order.

This is also compelling because it preserves human freedom (and, I would argue that this freedom extends beyond the bounds of humanity to include all animals, not just the so-called “rational” ones). In fact, Jones takes freedom as, along with the existence of God and the brute fact of suffering, as one of the givens in the created order. I won’t argue with Jones on the given-ness of freedom, as I too experience freedom (or, the determinist would argue, the illusion of freedom) as a given. But, in light of his offering up freedom as a good in a book meditating on the nature of God in the face of evil and suffering, perhaps a few words on the “goodness” of freedom are in order.

Many theodicies hinge on an appeal to free will, arguing variations on this theme: freedom is a good such that its existence offsets the various evils and sufferings that are produced by its creation. That is, God is justified in creating a world that has suffering, because suffering is inevitable in an order that contains authentic freedom, and freedom is so good that it outweighs the collected sufferings that result from it.

When both freedom and suffering are givens – that is, when the experience of both are basic and essential parts of life – the absurdity of this sort of argument is not obvious. As such, we rarely ask ourselves whether or not we would be willing to exchange our freedom for an existence without suffering. If freedom were such an obviously manifest good that it outweighs all concerns about evil and suffering, then it seems to me obvious that all or at least most reasonable people would be categorically unwilling to exchange freedom for anything, as it is a good so precious and so valuable that it makes up for each instance of suffering.

But in times of crisis we learn that, in fact, the opposite is true. When faced with the threat of suffering, the fear of crisis and death, humans are surprisingly willing to exchange a great many individual freedoms (which participate in freedom itself) for even the tiniest illusion of security.

Any book that makes so much of freedom in the face of suffering – even if it does not attempt to offer up a traditional free-will theodicy – should, I think, wrestle more with our willingness to so readily exchange our individual freedoms for some protection from evil, suffering, and death.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Welcome Change of Pace

For once, it seems, gay-bashing didn't work in Kentucky politics.

See this post by Lexington Hearld Leader political reporter John Cheves at Pol Watchers on how disgraced soon to be former Kentucky governor Ernie Fletcher failed in his attempt to distract voters from his scandals and gross incompetence by appealing to our worst homophobic tendencies.

I hope this didn't work because we here in the Bluegrass state are finally seeing the light, but in truth this is probably just a sign that Fletcher really is that unpopular. Even a tried and true Republican smear campaign couldn't rescue him from the stench of the mess he claimed to go to Frankfort to clean up.

Monday, November 05, 2007

How Do Women Fare in Toby Keith's Universe?

This weekend it was just me and Adam - Sami was in Nashville from Thursday through Sunday for a professional conference. While she was gone the boy and I had grand fun eating pizza and chocolate, and watching football and movies. Doing "guy-stuff." The sorts of things Momma wouldn't approve of if she were around. There was much merriment and roughhousing, and very little cleaning.

When she got back Sami presented me with a few gifts to commemorate her time away and celebrate the miracle that no one died while she was gone. Among the stranger gifts, I though at first, was a copy of yesterday's edition of Nashville's newspaper, The Tennessean. I may be a bit of a news junkie, but what does that have to do with me?

As I glanced through that paper this morning, I noticed (with mild disdain) that the Country Music Association (CMA) is gearing up for its annual awards. This must be a heady time for Nashville's canned music factories. I try to like all forms of music, and do in fact have some love for country music. Artists like Lyle Lovett, Allison Krauss, Johnny Cash, Lucinda Williams, and Patsy Cline are well represented in both my analogue and digital music collections. But, of course, if you search the CMA charts you won't find any of those names on them. You won't, in fact, find much country music on them - just cartoonish southern rock retreads in skin-tight leather, with hats, boots, and over-sized belt buckles.

Then I saw, on the front page of the paper, in bold letters (how did I miss them before?) these words:

Country's women toil in a 'man's club'

This article followed that loaded headline, and I read it with great interest. Among the indictments against country music's marketing machine are these:

There are 105 men to only 14 women in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

There are 158 men to only 10 women in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Women also have decidedly unequal access to country music's radio waves, representing, according to this article, only 20% of the songs played on country stations. And of course, that last time a female act won the CMA's Entertainer of the Year Award was 2000, when the Dixie Chicks - who often fly in the face of what is expected of a popular country group - won, before their famous diatribe against President Bush got them effective banned from many country music media outlets.

This article also notes that women are rarely involved in production at major labels, which coupled with the lack of female music executives, could go a long way toward explaining the problem. As the article - written by Beverly Keel - notes:

No women produce acts on the rosters of Warner Bros. or Universal Music Group, while Capitol and Sony BMG each have only one artist produced by a woman (excluding female artists who produce themselves).

In an industry where men are the primary decision makers, it is no great surprise that women are under-represented. What was interesting to me, however, were the defenses offered by male "industry insiders" in another article written by Beverly Keel (which I could not find in the online edition of the newspaper). Most were variations on "blame the victim":

Mike Dungan, president and CEO of Capital Records Nashville, offered Keel this explanation:

The songs that are written for women often sound like you've heard them before... By and large, the music cranked out by female artists over the last three or four years hasn't been as strong as it needs to be.

Overlooking that everything that comes out of Nashville "sound[s] like you've heard it before" and that this corporate executive just used the phrase "cranked out" to describe works of art, showing little appreciation for the creative process, there are two parts of this quote that really steam me. First, it overlooks the fact that the problem of unequal treatment of women in the country music industry is decidedly not a three or four year old problem. And, it overlooks the extent to which quality judgments made by a male-dominated industry are made exclusively by men, who may not be the best judges of the artistic merits of female creations. The game, in other words, is rigged. Men sitting in judgment on women in an industry that has long viewed women as inferior have a vested interest in seeing artistic works by women as by nature inferior to artistic works by men.

In yet another article by Beverly Keel (also unavailable online) she notes that not only are women artists not represented on radio, they also by and large aren't well represented on television. CMT (Country Music Television) participates in the moving of most female artists to the margins of the industry, while simultaneously offering such monuments to women's liberation as Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders: Making the Team and The Ultimate Coyote Ugly Search. These shows (like so much else on television) represent women as primarily the objects of male sexual fantasies. The standards by which a woman is judged are limited to her waist, her bust, and the way she shakes her hips. In response to this situation, Keel quotes songwriter Matraca Berg as saying:

CMT is getting dangerously close to being the Hooters channel, with testosterone, boobs and booze.

What was overlooked in each of Keel's articles, however, is the political climate of popular country music. That, as much as anything else, may explain country's tendency to marginalize all but the most commercially successful female artists - who, of course, are marketed principally through their sex appeal. Any industry that fetishizes a particular reading of 1950s America - one that overlooks the rampant racism and sexism of the day to create an idealized world in which everyone knew their place - is likely, especially when coupled with almost entirely male decision makers, to subordinate women.

But most telling of the state of women in popular country music may be the fate of female artists who have the audacity to transcend the bounds placed on them. When Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks insulted President George W. Bush from on stage in 2003, it set of a firestorm that included not only CD smashings, burnings, and boycotts, but even burning effigies of the band. While much of this had to do with the way that many country music fans idolized (and this time I mean that literally!) President Bush, I suspect much of the angry outcry also had to do with women who had been marketed by the country music industry as vacant, cutesy sex objects having the audacity to voice their own political views. View that, by the way, while initially phrased somewhat crudely, evidenced a great deal of critical thought.

As noted at the time, Maines' statement stemmed from this 1918 quote from Theodore Roosevelt:

The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.

That Maines and the Dixie Chicks were treated like they lacked the intellectual gravitas to comment on such grave political matters - shouldn't they stick to songs about Earl? - shows the extent to which they and other thoughtful female artists are reduced to caricatures by the country music industry, when it bothers to represent them at all.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Quote of the Day

Religious fermentation is always a symptom of the intellectual vigor of a society; and it is only when they forget that they are hypotheses and put on rationalistic and authoritative pretensions, that our faiths do harm.

From the Preface to The Will to Believe by William James

Friday, October 26, 2007

One Jesus for the Poor and Another for the Rich: Is This a Problem for Moltmann?

This post comes out a discussion we had yesterday on Jurgen Moltmann's The Way of Jesus Christ in my Contemporary Theology class.

In his section on "The Messianic Perspective," Moltmann wrestles with Buber's understanding of the distinction between the "Messiah" and the "Son of Man" within the tradition of Jewish Messianic expectation, and uses that as an entry point to discuss his understanding of the role of Jesus as the Christ in a post-Holocaust world. Here Moltmann is interested in asserting the universal nature of Jesus' role as the Christ without totally trampling Judaism, or articulating some abhorrent concept of supercessionism. In this his attempt is, I think, admirable. He is wrestling with his own beliefs about Jesus in light of the problem of Jewish-Christian relations, which in light of the long history of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism (which culminated in the Holocaust) is necessary for any responsible Christian theologian.

However, some of what he says greatly troubled students in my class. Interestingly, the two lines on which we spent most of our time is discussion - while they set up his attempt to understand Jesus in a way that is sensitive to what he calls "the Jewish 'no'" to Jesus as the Christ - don't explicitly have to do with Jewish-Christian relations. Instead, they have to do with the kinds of social and material conditions that he sees as the concern of the "Kingdom of God." In these lines many of my fellow student heard Moltmann articulating what we might call a "multiple Jesus theory" - that is, that Jesus is not the same person for different people:

The same Christ Jesus is not the same for everyone, because people are different. He has one profile for the poor and another for the rich, one profile for the sick and another for the healthy.

While this should be read in the immediate context of Moltmann's concern for understanding differences between Christians and Jews concerning both Messianic hope and the meaning and significance of Jesus (the line that follows these two lines is, after all, "Accordingly, this same Christ Jesus has one particular profile for Jews and another for Gentiles,"), and while Moltmann's wading into the turbulent waters of Jewish-Christian relations in light of Christian claims about Jesus, it is no accident that Moltmann articulates a difference not only between Jesus' profile for Jews and Gentiles, but also between his profile for the poor and the rich, the sick and the healthy.

To this one could add any number of other divisions: black and white, gay and straight, first world and two-thirds world, etc.

That Jesus is not seen the same way by different people is obvious. Jesus looks very different in an Evangelical church than in a Mainline church. Jesus looks very different in a black church than a white church. Jesus looks very different in Asia than he does in Europe.

And, not only does Jesus look different, he has very different concerns. The message and meaning of Jesus varies dramatically from setting to setting, at least in terms of how it is received and understood. But, if this is all that Moltmann means, he is articulating something painfully obvious, without offering any real guidance for how faithful Christians should respond to this situation.

After all, the white Jesus is not just cosmetically different from the black Jesus: he has a totally different ethical, theological, and political agenda. The poor Jesus is not just cosmetically different from the rich Jesus: again, he has a totally different ethical, theological and political agenda. Not only is Jesus' ministry - his message and meaning - different in different settings, Jesus is used differently by different groups of Christians.

The maleness of the human Jesus has been used by many churches throughout Christian history to deny ordination to women. If Jesus is a man, and if it is not accidental (as these churches might claim) that Jesus is a man, then how can women represent Christ, who is essentially (rather than accidentally) male? Similarly, in the American context the normative image of Jesus as white has been used to deny both the full humanity blacks, as well as their participation in the imago Dei. Jesus' concern in many Evangelical churches for personal salvation rather than political and systemic transformation has been used to justify an ethos that looks to an honest reader of the Gospels very little like the ethos of Jesus.

But if it is simply a plain fact - without any value or significance - that Jesus is different for different people, how can anyone's reading of Jesus be used to call anyone else's reading of Jesus into question? If Jesus is so amorphous in nature that he is in fact a different person for different people, can anyone call the white Jesus, or the rich Jesus, or the gay-bashing Jesus, or even the gun-toting Jesus an idolatrous creation by a corrupt people crafting their own Jesus to baptize their prejudices and call them "good"?

These were the very valid concerns of many in class yesterday as we discussed Moltmann's own reading of Jesus and its Christological implications. I can't claim to be an expert on Moltmann, and I certainly shared some of the concerns of those in the room who thought that Moltmann's apparent positing of multiple Jesuses (spell check is going to love my pluralizing "Jesus"!) doesn't leave much room for a prophetic critique of the misuses of Jesus through history. This is, after all, one of the main problems with postmodernism. If there is no grand meta-narrative, no universally valid truth-claim (and I agree that there isn't) by what means can one mediate between competing narratives or truth-claims?

And when these narratives or claims concern Jesus - who has been used by some many different kinds of people in so many varying ways, both good and bad - the situation is even more urgent.

But I think that there is a quite charitable and even helpful way to read Moltmann's articulation of different profiles for Jesus among different kinds of people. While of course this claim can be a valueless claim that legitimates the use of Jesus by some groups to abuse and marginalize others, it can also be a powerfully prophetic claim that acknowledges the different needs of and demands on different groups of people.

This is perhaps most obvious in Moltmann's articulation of a difference between Jesus' profile among the rich and the poor. While this can be used to state the obvious - that the Jesus of the rich in infinitely less concerned with economic justice than the Jesus of the poor - it can also be used in a very different way. One could easily say, as I hear Moltmann saying by his inclusion of God's concern for the poor in his later articulation of the Kingdom of God, that the Jesus of the rich and the Jesus of the poor differ not in their essential nature, but in their message to and demands on their respective communities.

That is to say that, perhaps to say that Jesus has a different profile among the rich than among the poor is not just to state the historical fact that among the rich Jesus' concern for economic justice is minimalized; but rather, it is to say that to the rich Jesus has a very different message and a very different call than he does to the poor. It could mean something more like this.

To the rich, Jesus says: "Anyone who would come after me must take up their cross and follow me."

And to the poor, Jesus says: "Come to me, all who are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest."

These are very different messages to very different communities, but they are both liberative. The poor, those on the margins of society, do not have to be invited to take up their cross. They are crucified daily. And so from Jesus they receive a very different message, a very different invitation. Rather than being invited into suffering, they are invited into comfort. But those who are comfortable in the midst of this fallen world, so characterized by injustice and inequity, they are invited to the cross.

This invitation to the cross is a liberating invitation, because it frees the rich from their slavery to money, it frees the powerful from their slavery to oppressing. This is because, ultimately, the rich, the powerful, the oppressor, is held every bit as captive as the poor, the powerless, the one under the thumb of the worldly powers. To wield power over others, to idolize wealth and to justify oppression, is to be estranged from God and from one's own true nature. This as much as the plight of the poor, is within the realm of God's concern.

But this situation demands a different cure. And so to the rich Jesus appears one way, and to the poor another, because rich and poor, sick and healthy, black and white, gay and straight, all have different needs. But the same Jesus who has so many profiles appears to all and offers reconciliation to all, even if that appearance and that reconciliation looks different for each.

This is at least one viable way to read Moltmann here.

Monday, October 22, 2007

A Day in the Life of a Theology Student

So, you may have noticed I haven't blogged in a while. About that...

Much of it is my own fault, a product of innate laziness and a lack of motivation to wade into the murky waters of the blogosphere. (I know, that's a mixed metaphor. Get over it!) After all, the relative anonymity of the Internet often brings out the worst elements in us. We type the sorts of things most of us would never say to another person, because here we're not really interacting with persons, just with words on a screen. And while the general conversational nastiness of the medium hasn't made its way here in a while, it still depresses somewhat my desire to put my best (or even fourth- or fifth-best) thought out here to be picked apart by the small-minded bullies (faith-based and otherwise) of blogdom.

Also, I've been exploring my creative side a little bit. I've picked up a new mandolin, and have been playing it for the last few months. And now it looks like I'll be getting a violin, my first musical love. I played violin for 11 years (from age 7 to 18), but quit after I graduated high school. While my parents never made me play, I still felt the pressure that came from their approval. I felt like if I didn't play, I would somehow disappoint them. That sucked all of the joy out of music for me, though it is no one's fault but my own.

This past summer, however, I felt like I could live without music any longer, and since then I've devoted most of my free time to cultivating whatever musical ability there is left in me. Which, biologically speaking at least, should be a great deal, since my identical twin brother is one hell of a musician. Consequently I don't have nearly as much of what little free time I ever had, and so have been less than faithful with this blog.

Today, however, I thought I'd drop by and give you at least a tiny glimpse of the chaos that is my life at the moment. Balancing family, school, church, and now music, is getting complicated. So, here's what I have to do today:

1. Write FOUR papers. (Fortunately they are short ones, just 3-4 pages each.)

2. Make a lesson plan for the Wednesday evening Forum at church, which is part of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. For the lesson I'm putting together a brief discussion on Christian views on violence (quick overviews of pacifism and Just War theory) and then screening the HBO documentary Ghost of Abu Ghraib, before leading a discussion on the ethics (or lack thereof) of torture. This is what passes for fun for me right now.

3. Do some general maintenance around the house while Sami and Adam are gone today. For those of you with any mechanical skills, what I'm doing will seem quite simple. I'm fixing an antique lamp (nothing wrong with the wiring, just the body) and hanging up three new sets of blinds to replace the (cheap) ones that our cats have torn up. But as I am, well... mechanically challenged (read "inept"), this may be the hardest thing I'll do today.

So far I've got one set of blinds up, written one of the four papers, outlined two more papers, and located the sources I'll use for the fourth paper, and almost fixed the lamp (it is all in one piece now, but is sitting crooked). Not bad.

When I blog again, I'll write down some of the Adam stories I've been collecting between my ears. I've also been wanting to post some of my observations of how the text of Philemon speaks to oppression, and also on differences between the way that white and black Christians see Moses. But for now, I'm back to work.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Young White Evangelical Protestants Turning Away From President Bush (But What Does it Mean?)

Taking a break from writing a paper this morning, I saw a link to this study by the Pew Forum at Arkansas Democrat-Gazette religion editor Frank Lockwood's blog, the Bible Belt Blogger. It notes the precipitous drop in President Bush's approval rating among young (18-29 years old) white evangelical Protestants:

In 2002 (at the height of his popularity among all voters) Bush's approval rating among young white evangelicals was a whopping 87%, compared to a still incredible 67% approval rate with the total population.

In 2007, however, only 45% of young white evangelicals approve of president Bush. While that is still considerably stronger than his approval rating among the entire population (33%), it is significant to note that not even a majority of those who were once his strongest supporters approve of the Bush presidency.

But, the important question to ask - and the question I can't answer - is this:

What does this mean?

What it doesn't seem to mean, at least according to the Pew Forum, is that young white evangelicals are growing more liberal. A disturbing number of the population to which I nominally belong (60%) still believe that it was right for the US to invade Iraq. An even more disturbing number, given that we all claim allegiance to one who was unjustly executed by the state, (72%) favor capital punishment. While those numbers are not compared to numbers from 2002 (when Bush was at the height of his popularity among both young white evangelical Protestants and the general population), they are compared to the numbers for all Americans between 18 and 29. And, no surprise, only 56% of young Americans (compared to 72% of young white evangelicals) favor the death penalty, and only 41% of young Americans (compared to 60% of young white evangelicals) think that it was right to invade Iraq.

Abortion is a separate issue, because it can easily be made part of a comprehensive pro-life philosophy that opposes wars and state-sanctioned killings. However, it was also a part of the Pew Forum's study, and no surprise, young white evangelicals differ from their peers on it, too. 70%, according to the Pew Forum, believe that it should be "more difficult for a woman to get an abortion," compared to just 39% for young Americans in general.

The study did not, as far as I could tell, ask questions about the actual prosecution of the war in Iraq, nor did it seem to ask about other important issues for young white evangelicals, such as global climate change. It is possible that many young white evangelicals disapprove of president Bush for these reasons - the war is going badly, and the natural environment is becoming more important for young white evangelicals shaped by a kind of "stewardship" theology. And, of course, there are many, many more reasons to oppose the Bush presidency, stemming from corruption, incompetence, and cronyism (and boy, aren't those three related!).

So, I'm not sure what to make of these numbers. While, as a liberal Democrat who takes my faith seriously, I hope that they signal a seismic political shift; as a rational human being I just don't see the numbers reflecting that. Rather, I think the numbers simply reflect what a bad president George W. Bush has been. Even the bulk of his base has left him.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Interesting Links

In the spirit of "Mondays are for blogging," this morning I'm doing something "bloggy": posting links to a few articles and op-ed pieces I've found interesting:

Here is an op-ed piece by "Amir," an Iranian gay man who ushers us into the experience of Iran's "invisible" gay population, whose existence Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad so famously and ludicrously denied. This was originally a special for the Washington Post, but I found it in the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Here is an article by Canadian writer, writing here for the Christian Science Monitor, on the political debate in Canada on public funding for religious schools.

On an infinitely more trivial note, here is a fun profile of a band I like a little (or a whole stinking lot!) the Arcade Fire found in the LEO, Louisville's alternative news weekly, in honor of their visit to our fair city.

I'm still working on separate posts on Philemon and "the binding of Isaac," which I hope to post at some far too speculative date in the future. Today, however, I have to get ready for the two tests I have tomorrow, while also working on the paper I have due Wednesday (looking at "white privilege/power" within the framework of the language of "principalities and powers" in the New Testament). So, I've got my plate pretty full, and I suspect that if I do any more blog-related activities today, they will be as trivial as this post.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Can Vegetarians Eat Crow?

I don't often let my life long obsession with sports intrude into my blogging life, but I'm about to do it for only the second time. Like my first foray into sports blogging, the presenting issue here is once again an unprecedented development in the wacky world of University of Kentucky athletics. (And, for the record, I do wish that state universities - especially state flagship universities - would invest more in academics and less in athletics. If they paid philosophy professors 1/10th what they paid football coaches, the world would be a very different place!)

The last (and, until today, only) time I've blogged about sports, the University of Kentucky had just seen their first ever black basketball coach - former three-time national coach of the year and 1998 NCAA national title winner Tubby Smith - become the first UK basketball coach to voluntarily leave the bluegrass state to go where the grass would presumably be greener, albeit a bit more frost-covered. Motivated in part - though he never said so - by the unrealistic (perennially insane) demands of a rabid fan base, combined with a culture of entrenched racism that made this class act and world-class basketball coach persona non grata despite his rich contribution to the legacy of Kentucky basketball, Mr. Smith went to Minnesota.

Today this situation, and the subject, is a bit different. The University of Kentucky hasn't had a great football program since Bear Bryant, wilting in the long shadow of basketball coach/living deity Adolph Rupp, moved to Alabama to become Bear Bryant, a living deity in his own right. The history of UK football is littered with the mangled corpses of false hopes from seasons past. But, after an ignominious (read "miserable," or even "apparently inept") start to his tenure as UK football coach, Rich Brooks - long the single least popular public figure in the state of Kentucky (and, with our current governor's anemic approval rating and history of corruption and gross incompetence, that's really saying something) - has his Wildcat football team on the cusp of greatness.

Of course, things could fall apart in an instant. This is, after all, Kentucky football we're talking about. This is the football program that has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory so man times that my father once, with tears streaming down his face after his beloved Wildcats managed to intercept seven passes from Florida's All-American quarterback Danny Weurfal and still find a way to lose the game, told me, in all seriousness:

Never, ever, become a University of Kentucky football fan. They'll tear your heart out every time.

But, for the first time since 1984, the Kentucky Wildcats are 5-0 to start a season. For the first time since 1977 (the year my lovely wife was born!) they find themselves in the Top 10 of a college football poll, coming in at #8 in both major polls. Better than that, on their way to this glorious start they've managed to do two things that Kentucky football teams have never been able to do:

1. Beat teams they have no business beating (see victories over Louisville and Arkansas, two teams that returned the bulk of their talent from last season's Top Ten teams, who each seemed poised to make a run this year), and

2. Beat teams they have no business losing to (see this week's 45-17 win over Florida Atlantic, in a classic "trap" game, situated right after the huge wins against Louisville and Arkansas, and right before games against #11 South Carolina, #1 LSU, and #9 Florida).

So what, other than that it makes me very, very excited, does this have to do with me? I'm glad you asked. Coach Rich Brooks controversially arrived at UK right after former coach Guy Morris left for Baylor when new Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart refused to pay him a competitive salary despite a surprising 7 win season. Morris became a legend in the state of Kentucky for leading an entertaining and over-achieving team that had been saddled with NCAA sanctions for the sins of the previous Hal Mumme regime. That, however, wasn't good enough for Barnhart, who refused to make any attempt to keep Morris after Baylor made a bid for his services. Barnhart promised to bring in a "name" coach, and notoriously said he was close to signed NFL legend Bill Parcells, before finally going with "Mr. Personality," Rich Brooks.

Brooks' less than energetic persona, accompanied by his willingness to bad-mouth beloved former coach Guy Morris and his status as Barnhart's long-time friend and former colleague, made UK football fans instantly suspicious of him. His persistent inability to win football games, along with his teams' apparent wholesale lack of discipline, confirmed a rabid fan bases' worst fears. After the bright promise of the all-too-short Morris era, Kentucky was once again saddled with an inept coach. Losses mounted, and memories turned to the bright and nearly winless era of former coach Bill "two yards and a cloud of dust" Curry. It was not a good time to be a UK football fan. The natives were restless, and wanted someone's head.

And I, I'm afraid to say, was a native.

Unlike most of my friends and family, I never said that Rich Brooks should be fired. But that shouldn't be mistaken for a vote of confidence in the man. I just didn't see the wisdom in paying someone millions of dollars not to coach a football team. Personally, I think major college football coach salaries are obscene enough without trying to add a buyout to the deal. If Brooks was going to bilk our state's flagship university out of millions of dollars, the least he could do in my book was show up to work each day. So, to me, firing him never made any sense. His contract was guaranteed. He'd make his money one way or another. So, instead of calling for his head, I counted the days until his contract was up - much like I'm now counting the days until the end of the Bush administration.

Little did I or anyone else know, Mr. Brooks had a plan.

After a dismal start, Kentucky managed to win 8 games - including a win over Clemson in the Music City Bowl - last season. Spirits were starting to soar. Or, at least, they were no longer buried in a not-so-shallow grave. Cautious optimism was the order of the day.

But, now that UK is one win away from its first 6-0 start since 1950; now that Kentucky is a Top 10 team sitting ahead of defending national champion Florida both in the SEC East and in the AP's national college football poll... Well, let's just say that the optimism in these parts is less than cautious. Things haven't been this exciting in my lifetime!

So, that brings me back to my favorite subject: me. I've spent the last few years reciting to anyone who cares about college football the litany of coaching sins of one Rich Brooks. The very same Rich Brooks who now has my beloved Wildcat on the precipice of unprecedented success. So, to Rich Brooks, the much-maligned coach of this incredible Kentucky team, I have this to say:

I'm sorry.

I really am.

I'm sorry I judged you so hastily.

My bad.

It turns out, despite the appearance of your first few years around here, you really can coach football, and coach it well.

I'm sure that, if things keep going the way they are now, more than a few other Kentuckians will happily add their apologies to my own.

So, now I have to ask:

Can vegetarians eat crow?

Friday, September 28, 2007

Gun Totin' Jesus (or, a Bumper Sticker Watch turns into a Reader Contest)

It's been a long time since we've had a Bumper Sticker Watch or a Reader Contest around here. So long, in fact, that I don't care to do any research at all to find out when the last time we did either of those was in order to link to them to let any (please let there be some) new readers know what either of those distinctly Sandalstraps' Sanctuary phenomena are. What I saw on the way to Target (I know, I boycott Wal Mart but shop at Target... Pot, meet Kettle. Kettle, meet Pot. I'm sure you'll be great friends, since you have so much in common...) made me decide to revive them both at the same time. So, today we're having a Bumper Sticker Watch and a Reader Contest in the same post. Enjoy:

Driving to Target to buy some Kashi cereal (don't dwell on it... I've had as hard a time reconciling those two as I have had reconciling myself to that fact that I spent all week driving to school in a minivan while listening to Nirvana - Tom says there's an existential crisis in there somewhere) I saw a roughly 2004 Ford Crown Victoria with two pieces of automotive propaganda - one on each side of the license plate. To the left, a medallion declaring the owner/operator of this automobile as a Lifetime Member of the National Rifle Association. To the right, a metallic fish with the word "Jesus" in the middle, declaring the owner/operator of this car to be, presumably, a disciple of that peace-loving rabble-rouser, Jesus of Nazareth.

I live in the South, a life-long resident of the uncommon Commonwealth of Kentucky. I understand the social phenomenon of "Guns and God." I'm used to Christians strappin'. It happens all the time around here. But something about the name "Jesus" situated next to an NRA badge struck me. I don't mean to say that Christians can't love guns - I know many (including at least one semi-regular reader of this blog) who do. But there seems something contradictory claiming allegiance to someone who argued passionately against any right to violence in the name of self-defense while also being a proud member of an organization whose main purpose is to propagate for the right of individuals to personally use even lethal force to defend themselves against perceived threats.

So, here's the Reader Contest:

Using the text of the canonical Gospels (no fair using the "Infancy Gospel of Thomas," in which Jesus kills a man on the street for bumping into him, and a succession of teachers for having the audacity to question him) and anything you happen to know about the NRA, find any point of commonality between the message and mission of Jesus of Nazareth and the political agenda of the National Rifle Association.

For gun totin' Christians, you may take this as a serious theological challenge. For my pacifist friends, perhaps this is an opportunity for satire. For those of us in the middle, make of this what you will. But, whatever your slant, try your best to reconcile Jesus and the NRA - without resorting to the cultural phenomenon of "Guns and God" in the American South.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Shades of Racism

By Nick Anderson of the Houston Chronicle

Olbermann's Murrow-esque Tirade

While I'm busy praising Michael Westmoreland-White, I'm going to do some pilfering, too. I saw this clip on his blog.

I'm not much for watching cable news, since it never really shows any news. A good friend of mine, who works full time for a privately owned, for profit newspaper, says she is suspicious of publicly-funded news organizations because, since their funding comes at least in part from the government, there is always the chance they could become government organs. She may be right, but so far the record shows that subsidized news outlets, in terms of depth and breadth of coverage and analysis, far out-pace their for-profit peers.

Can anything on, say, CNN or CNBC, or, God-forbid, NBC, ABC, or CBS (I've leaving out all FOX-related enterprises, as they don't even pretend to be journalistic any more, do they?) match PBS's News Hour, much less anything done by the BBC? Or, in a more niche market, will BET ever see the light, and offer up a new program that even remotely approximates NPR's News and Notes? Of course not. Because those publicly subsidized news programs aim principally to offer a valuable public service, rather than to distribute dividends to shareholders.

So, I don't often watch cable news, and when I do I rarely look Keith Olbermann's way. As an unrepentant sports fan, I can't get past the image of him sitting behind the desk on ESPN's Sports Center, the program that first revealed his acid wit. My mistake, if this clip is any indication. He may be, as Michael points out in the post linked to above, a kind of Edward Murrow-Lite, lacking Murrow's hard-journalism credentials. But in this day and age, Murrow-Lite is a welcome change of pace from Limbaugh-Lite. Looks like I might have a new show to add to my nightly TV habit.

Mondays are for blogging...

I'm sitting down to write some reflections on Philemon, but before I do, I want to get some housekeeping stuff out of the way.

First, it looks increasingly like Monday is my (only?) day for blogging. I don't have any classes on Mondays, but Adam is off to preschool for the first half of the day, so I have a little bit of down time. I'm sure I could find something school- or church-related to do, but why?

So I've spent this morning surfing the 'Net, trying to catch up with the goings-on in my limited corner of the blogosphere. And I have to give a "shout out":

I know that Michael Westmoreland-White may be a little down, since his most excellent dream has been deferred (for the record, I'd subscribe to a journal like that in a heartbeat!), but his recent posts have been excellent. I'm just sorry I didn't get to read them until this morning. His post Racial Bias in the Courts: The Case of the Jena 6 is both poignant and prophetic. The church (universal) needs voices unafraid to stare down systemic racial oppression, and Michael is one in a long line of such voices. His post should be added to the growing list of things that I wish that I'd written.

Additionally, I thought his commentary on race and the mechanics of the GOP presidential primary was spot on. I know that he'd like to get back to writing more overtly theological posts, but I for one don't see anything wrong with a theological ethicist turning his or her attention to the socio-political sphere. In fact, the ability of our theologies to speak to that socio-political sphere - to critically engage the ethics of social and political systems, and to offer both critiques and possible solutions - is a test of our theological vitality. In other words, if our respective theologies can't interact with the nuts and bolts of daily life (with daily life being shaped by the social and political power structures in which we live and move and breathe), we are enslaved by dead theologies rightly castigated by Marx as opiates.

So, Michael, keep up the good work. Be comforted by the vitality of your current work in cyberspace, while we all (with, I hope, the Holy Spirit) breathe on the embers of your deferred dream until a bright, warm flame emerges.

Monday, September 17, 2007

"I'm proud of you..."

A friend of mine has an adult son whose life might be described as a perpetual disappointment. An unbiased observer might note that he is singularly responsible for each of his mother's (my friend's) gray hairs. He can't seem to miss an opportunity to make a mistake.

The other day she mentioned him to me. But instead of describing all of the heartbreak he has caused her, all of the unnecessary worry and stress, she said simply this:

He's still the apple of my eye.

Her love for him was palpable, written on her face, bursting through in her words. She is not blind to his reckless disregard for his own health and happiness, or the impact that has on the lives of his friends and family. But that simply isn't a factor. She still adores him passionately, even as she sees all of his flaws and failings.

Listening to my friend talk about her son reminded me of a conversation I once had with my grandmother. I was about 19 or 20 years old, and a mess. I'd flunked out of college, and had no idea who I was or what I wanted to do with my life. Honestly, I wasn't terribly attached to the idea of staying alive. Existence was a burden at best.

In the midst of my psychological torment, in the midst of my unmitigated failure, my grandmother looked at me, sized me up, smiled, and said:

Chris, I'm proud of you.

PROUD OF ME?!? I almost screamed, bewildered by her statement. How could you be proud of me? What have I ever done that would make you proud of me?

She sighed, and patiently said, You don't understand. It's nothing that you did, it's who you are. You're my grandson, and I'm proud of you.

She was right. I didn't understand. I had no idea what love was. I'd never fully experienced it. But I'm starting to learn. Usually when I write about Adam or parenting, it is in the form of some funny story, some clever anecdote. I don't often take the time to reflect on how parenting has changed me. But it has.

When Adam was born, after the nurses cleaned him off, they handed him to me. I held his tiny body, his fragile life, in my clumsy hands. Hands better for dropping than holding, better for smashing than mending. As I held him, he looked so cold. So I wrapped him up in my hands, using my palms as a kind of blanket for him, wrapped as they were around his shivering chest. He nestled up in my arms, stopped crying for a moment, and looked at me.

I know that a newborn baby can't see but a few inches in front of his or her face, so he probably wasn't really looking at me. But it seemed to me that his eyes caught mine, and I know that my eyes caught his. I stared deeply into those just-birthed blue eyes, and I could almost see something behind them, some miraculous consciousness.

He's ALIVE! I wanted to scream. ALIVE! Do you know what a miracle that is?!?

In that moment I was truly proud of him, and he hadn't done anything yet. But the pride that a parent has for a child has nothing to do with the merits of that child, as far as I can tell. It instead has everything to do with being ushered into an appreciation of the miracle of life.

Whenever I look at Adam, I understand that he is a miracle, my miracle. And I'm proud of him for no reason other than that he continues to exist. So, with respect to him, I think, I am learning to love.

Each of us is someone's child. Each of us should be loved like that. As I meditate on the mysterious miracle of the life of my child, may that usher me into an appreciation of the miracle of life itself, as expressed in each person I encounter. They may never be as special to me as my Adam, but I must always treat them as though they are worthy - simply because they exist - of that kind of love and respect, even if I can't yet feel it for them.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Placeholder Post of Sorts

I'm currently drowning in school work, and so may not post much for the next few weeks (or I may manufacture time from thin air and do all that I want to do along with all that I have to do). However, I wanted to let you know, dear reader (who was jilted for all of August!) that I have a few posts in mind for whenever I finally get to write for this blog.

I'm outlining two posts for the But We Proclaim Christ Crucified series, one looking at crucifixion as a call to action, and the other looking at crucifixion within liberation theology. In addition to that, I'm also outlining a meditation of sorts on a book that has always troubled me: Philemon. To anticipate the future post a little bit, I hope to wrestle with Paul's refusal to overtly condemn the practice of slavery, while also identifying some content in Paul's letter to Philemon that will provide us with theological tools for fighting oppression wherever it arises.

But now I've got to get back to school work.

Monday, September 10, 2007

"I'm number two!"

Yesterday Adam and I started watching Roger Federer's coronation as the greatest tennis player to ever live (a.k.a. the Finals of the US Open), and, upon seeing Federer on the screen, he asked:

Who's that?

That's Roger Federer, I replied, the best tennis player in the world. He may well be the greatest to ever play the game. That's the sort of thing Dad's should say in "historic" sports moments, right?

Then the screen widened to reveal the man smacking forehands right back to Federer, so Adam asked:

And who's that other guy?

That's Novak Djokovic. He's only twenty-years-old, but he's already ranked number three in the world.

Always curious, Adam asked me another question:

Who's number two?

Rafael Nadal, I answered this apparently easy question. Then I explained:

He got beat by David Ferrer earlier this tournament. That's why he's not playing against Federer in the Final.

That didn't satisfy Adam:

No, Daddy... he almost sighed, with the patience of one about to drop some proper knowledge on his old man, I'm number two!

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

McGreevey on Craig

I haven't yet said anything on the Larry Craig scandal for a few reasons. First, the story broke while I was taking a blog hiatus - and I honestly didn't know whether or not I would resume blogging. Second, I wasn't sure what to say. Sure, there are a great many easy comments to make, but you've already read those lazy stories. And, frankly, Republican family-values sex hypocrisy stories are getting so common that they've really stopped being interesting.

I've read a few articles that almost elicited a comment or two out of me. Most of them have been in the vein of this one by Linda Chavez, in which she argues that Larry Craig would have been treated differently if he were a Democrat. Her article is the best I've seen of that genre. Others are much less subtle. The basic gist of all of them is that both the "liberal" and "conservative" attacks of Craig have been (like Craig's acts themselves?) hypocritical, in that they violate certain core "liberal" and "conservative" values: namely, from "liberals," the acceptance of all sexual acts that don't cause some obvious harm; and, from "conservative," the non-interference of government in private affairs.

At its best, that mode of arguing, like in Chavez's article, exposes our collective worst inclinations to fan the flames of scandal rather than to calmly pursue the best governing policies for our nation. Thus we dutifully read tabloid-like news coverage of the sordid details of private affairs, rather than demanding that news outlets investigate real issues that impact the real lives of millions globally. And thus Congress holds or threatens to hold hearings to discover who lied about having some form of sex with whom, while refusing to hold the executive branch of our government accountable for what can most charitably be describe as criminal incompetence.

At its worst, however, this mode of arguing - which rests in part on the dubious assumption that if Craig were a Democrat his closeted gay-sex exploits would be no big deal - ignores quite possibly the only real issue in this scandal: the scapegoating of uncloseted gays by closeted, self-hating gays with power. If the "allegations" (using scare quotes because he did, in fact, plead guilty, which where I come from amounts to the kind of confession of guilt that lets us stop using variations of the word "allegation") are true, then this is by no means the first time that a conservative politician who made hay bashing gays has been uncloseted by scandal.

And that brings me to why I'm finally posting something on Sen. Larry Craig, whose arrest for soliciting anonymous gay sex in a public bathroom has brought him to the public's attention. Until now I haven't been able to locate a measure of compassion for the man. But this morning I read this op-ed piece by former New Jersey governor James McGreevey. McGreevey, you may remember, resigned his office only two years into his term, after deciding (however un-freely) to leave the closet. In this piece McGreevey - who as a "liberal" Democrat was somewhat less party to the political sport of gay-bashing (though part of his self-closeting strategy including public support for the restricting of marriage to heterosexual unions) - shows the kind of compassion that has been missing from our public discourse on Larry Craig.

Rather than vilify or defend Craig, rather than call him out for his blatant hypocrisy or scold the rest of us for making what perhaps ought to be private behavior so public, McGreevey shares with us his empathy for Craig, while also exploring the dark confines of the all-too-common closet.

So check it out, and let me know what you think.