Tuesday, January 31, 2006

A Religion That Grew From a Lot of Brew

A Religion That Grew From a Lot of Brew (free registration required):
On the South Pacific island of Tanna, beneath a volcano that rumbles and smokes, a guy wearing a fake U.S. Army uniform raises an American flag. Then 40 barefoot men march past, carrying fake rifles made of bamboo, their brown chests decorated with red paint spelling out "USA."

Later, a group of men slinging fake chainsaws sing a homemade hymn: "We've come from America to cut down all the trees so we can build factories."

This isn't a protest or a piece of performance art. It's a religious ceremony held every year on Feb. 15 -- John Frum Day, the high holy day of a South Pacific religion that worships a messiah who is, as Paul Raffaele writes in a wonderfully weird story in the February issue of Smithsonian, "an American god no sober man has ever seen."

This is a bizarre story dating from the 1930s, through WW2 and on to the present. Our copy of Smithsonian arrived a couple days ago, but I haven't gotten to it yet. I plan to rectify that situation this evening...

CNN.com - Coretta Scott King dies - Jan 31, 2006

CNN.com - Coretta Scott King dies - Jan 31, 2006:
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Coretta Scott King, the widow of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., died Monday night in California, according to a former aide and a public relations firm representing the family.

She was an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, and she will be missed.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Traditional View of an Angry God Has Softened - Los Angeles Times

Traditional View of an Angry God Has Softened - Los Angeles Times:
By Louis Sahagun and Jocelyn Y. Stewart, Times Staff Writers

"To err is human. But is punishment divine? And if God is unleashing his wrath, how do you know?

These eternal questions arose last week when New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin said the hurricanes that devastated his city showed that "God is mad at America" and black communities. A few weeks earlier, TV evangelist Pat Robertson suggested that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke was payback for pulling out of the Gaza Strip.

The remarks raised eyebrows and prompted quick apologies, but they were nothing new. Humans have long invoked a deity — or deities — when trying to make sense of the world...."

Ask what Jonathan Edwards is best known for, and more likely than not the answer will be his sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." The idea that God is a vengeful God is well-entrenched in popular writings, and sad to say, among Christians who should know better.

Mark Noll, in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994, Eerdmans), suggests that Edwards "was responsible for the most God-centered as well as the most intellectualy subtle reasoning in all of American evangelical history" (Noll, p. 80). Ironically, he was also one of the driving forces behind the revival that led to the eclipse of his intellectual works. This led to "evanglicalism's most discriminating thinker [being] best known for one fairly atypical sermon, 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God'." (Noll, p 81). This is unfortunate, as people who have studied Edwards' sermons see a far more compassionate God at work.

Where does the idea of a "vengeful God" come from? Where, for that matter, does the idea that there is a "Old Testament God" and a "New Testament God" come from? Thomas Cahill, in his book "The Gifts of the Jews" (1999, Random House), makes a compelling case that the divine attributes we prefer to think belong to the New Testament God are to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures. To be sure, there are some disturbing narratives in the Old Testament, and by focussing on those to the exclusion of the rest, one could come to the conclusion that the Old Testament God was a thoroughly unpleasant sort. But in its entirety, one is left with the realization that God is a God who protects, heals, loves, and redeems His people. and in fact keeps calling His people back in the face of constant rejection -- hardly the actions of a God of vengeance.

The Los Angeles Times article quotes Ted Haggard, President of the National Association of Evangelicals, as saying "There is no indication that God is not vengeful — if you do awful things, awful things will happen to you," said Haggard, a pastor in Colorado who heads a congregation of 12,000. "If a guy is out at 2 a.m. in a bar with a bunch of hookers, the likelihood is greater that he'll end up with a disease than [will] a little old lady in bed at that hour."

I have to disagree with this statement. A better way to characterize the example Haggard gave would be that disease is a consequence of promiscuous sexual activity; not a punishment. Otherwise how would you characterize Haggard's guy passing his disease to his wife? How you you characterize the hemophiliac children who receieved AIDS-tainted blood? Are these secondary victims of disease being punished for someone else's sins. The clear testimony of Scripture argues otherwise (Ezekial 18; John 9:1-5). The tragedy is that they ARE bearing the consequences of sins committed by others.

This article ends with this:

But many religious leaders argue that those who search for God in calamities would do better to search for him in the aftermath — in the actions of those offering help and comfort.

Rabbi Kanefsky recalled an essay on suffering by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a noted 20th century scholar, who "was very explicit in saying when a calamity occurs, 'Why?' is the wrong question."

Said Kanefsky: "The only question that we ask is … how can we help?"
So -- How are we going to respond?

Saturday, January 28, 2006

The Call - New York Times

The Call - New York Times:
The Call

Published: January 29, 2006

The mission church is scarcely more than a shed with open sides. Rusty beams support a roof of corrugated metal, and a wooden lectern, unadorned, serves as the pulpit. No cross rises from the roof or hangs behind the lectern on the blue-painted cement wall; there is no cross anywhere. The house of worship is almost nothing. But it is too much for the missionary Rick Maples. "I want this to be the last church," he said. "This should be the last church built in this section of the valley."...

This is the first paragraph of a lengthy article about how one family acted on their call from God. This was not an easy decision to make, as young children were involved, but they are now immersed in the local culture trying to make a difference.

In the sub-saharan areas of Africa, Christian evangelism has been fairly successful in that the people were encouraged and empowered to take leadership in their own congregations. Since the early 20th century, when missionaries first came to Kenya, female circumcision was a significant challenge; it is still a challenge, and the missionaries then and now have made it a priority. One of the most poignant stories in this NYTimes Magazine article was how the Maples' 12 year old daughter witnessed a circumcision and wrote about it in her journal. Female circumcision is deeply embedded in the culture, and is not easily counteracted.

The ethnic group that the Maples are trying to reach present some different issues. They are monotheistic with a rich oral tradition, and seem to have no concept of a "savior".

Rick and Carrie talked about converting the Samburu in a new way. They envision developing what they call a Samburu-style church. They intend, gradually, to hold more and more Christian services not under a roof but under the acacia trees amid the manyattas. They want the sparsely attended church down the path from their house to be superseded. And they plan to teach the lessons of the Bible not through the preaching of written verses but through an emphasis on expansive storytelling that will fit with the Samburu's oral tradition. Rick said that the first lesson he had to impart, the first truth he had to instill in the people, was "a sense of sin and separation from God" - a separation that could be reconciled only through Jesus. He drew from 1 Corinthians to capture the essence of his message: "I give you Christ and Him crucified."

This article is long, but well-written, and most of all, it is fair in its presentation. It shows the difficulties in serving in such a place, especially the challenges faced by two young children. It shows the mission field on a far better light than "conventional wisdom" would lead people to believe.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Religion takes center place in Milwaukee voucher debate

The Badger Herald - University of Wisconsin-Madison:

Religion takes center place in Milwaukee voucher debate

"Freedom of choice is a staple of American culture that should be available to every American citizen, but many choices are limited due to factors such as socioeconomic status.

For children born into these circumstances, choices are made by parents to ensure the best possible future. Many are lucky and grow up within the confinement of a good public school district, and so private schools are not needed. For some, private schools are chosen despite good public schools for religious or academic reasons. Then there are those who do not have a competent school district or the option of private schools due to extreme tuition costs and location...."

This editorial raises some interesting points in a fairly balanced way. It is not what one might expect from a student newspaper in what some have called "The Peoples' Republic of Madison."

When one looks at the central issue of WHY Milwaukee chose to go with this voucher system 15 years ago, it may not be as surpising that The Daily Badger took this stance.

Where the public school systems are well-administered and the curriculum is well-taught, then this issue is generally moot. But when the schools are below standards and are not safe places, then private schools become more important. The affluent have far greater access to such schools than the poorer segments of society, so with some reflection, it is actually an egalitarian issue.

But, as 60 Minutes might say, "There's a dark side to all of this." There are 115 private school in Milwaukee that accept vouchers. According to this editorial, most of them do not meet the standards expected, due in large part to the fairly easy requirements to become a voucher school -- and this is just the administrative side of things. The curricula are not always challenging and the teachers are not always required to be certified. Perhaps the worst thing is that there seems to be no accountability when it comes to student success. Absenteeism is one factor, as is the lack of standardized testing; and neither is required to be reported to the state.

The editorial makes the valid point that when nearly $6000 per student per year is allocated to the voucher schools, there must be higher requirements to become a voucher school, and the same accountability that the public schools are expected to demonstrate.

This opinion piece singles out one school for high praise: The Believers in Christ Christian School. This school enrolls 213 voucher students and has had a 100% college admission rate over the past few years. Why? In part, because nearly all the religious voucher schools require certified teachers, in contrast to the nonreligious schools.

The writer ends in a confusing way. On one hand she seems to be calling for higher standards and greater accountability for the voucher schools as a solution to the existing problem. On the other hand she seems to be calling for the end of the voucher program, and the reallocation of the funding to the public schools. My gut feeling is that it would be more cost-effective to insist on higher standards for the voucher schools. The students deserve far better than either the public schools or the voucher schools are currently providing.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Ignorance by design

Holocaust is a religion of Zionism for gentiles: Hoffman:
"...Skepticism is not allowed because the "Holocaust" does not entail the history of World War Two, rather it is a religion, the religion of Judaism for gentiles. To question the details of the gas chambers is to be a "hater" and an "anti-Semite." Historical accounts can be questioned and doubted. Religion cannot be questioned or doubted. The "Holocaust" is a religious cult masquerading as history. It is a means for Judaizing the West...."

I waffled on whether to post this or not.

The Holocaust -- the murder of around 6 million Jews -- is well documented by the perpetrators themselves. When the Allied Forces gained control of the extermination camps, the horrifying results were obvious to even the most casual observer.

This "interview" conducted by an Iranian news outlet consists of softballs pitched to a former newsman who then used them to promote his denial of documented history.

I suppose one can consider the source, and move on, but there is a disturbing trend toward minimizing the historical reality of the attempted extermination of the Jews. Holocaust denial has been around for some time now, but facts simply do not support the notion that it never happened.

True ignorance can be cured by education. Ignorance by choice takes a little more effort. What this former newsman is doing is promoting ignorance by design, and trying to proselytize the people who are truly ignorant of history. I fear this will become easier as those who lived through the events die and are no longer able to speak out.

Daily Herald - IN OUR VIEW: Confusing religion with science

Daily Herald - IN OUR VIEW: Confusing religion with science:
"To listen to some senators in the Utah Legislature, schoolchildren are being indoctrinated in a strange religion. It is called science, and some senators believe they have the antidote.

Senate Bill 96, sponsored by Sen. D. Chris Buttars, passed on Monday and now moves to the House, where it is being sponsored by Rep. Jim Ferrin of Orem. The bill would require science teachers to tell students that there are several theories on the origin of life.

While the bill does not mention "intelligent design," "divine design" or any other euphemism for creationism by name, the implications are clear: A number of legislators want to push religion into the public schools by force of law...."

...The dictionary reports that the word "religion" is associated with "belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe" or "a personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship." We think the government would be wise to stay out of this. Unfortunately, S.B. 96 nudges God into science class, using code words like "theory" as though one's belief in God were as externally valid as any scientific pursuit. The proposition that God exists, that he created the universe and gave life to man is not a theory -- it is faith. It may turn out to be true, but it is not science. Misapplying scientific words to what amounts to a faith-based argument is ultimately not constructive. It is dishonest...."

I'm not sure I would use "dishonest" in this context; "misguided" is probably closer to reality. But the editorialist of the Daily Herald in central Utah makes a good point here.

Science and Faith are two belief systems with different methods and sources of authority and trying to force them into the same teaching framework is just not useful. People shouldn't be afraid to discuss the issues, and there are issues to discuss, but a science classroom is not the proper place.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Quotidian Grace: Squirming in the Pew

Quotidian Grace: Squirming in the Pew:
"Too often we are merely auditing Christianity. Buy the books. Register for the course. Take it for a grade."

This was something Quotidian Grace heard during the sermon yesterday at church.

It really needs no further comment.

USATODAY.com - Two justices who 'get' religion

USATODAY.com - Two justices who 'get' religion:
"...Our Constitution separates church and state not to confine religious belief or silence religious expression, but to curb the ambitions and reach of governments. The point of the First Amendment is not to 'put religion in its place,' but instead to protect religion by keeping the government "in its place." The Amendment's Establishment Clause is not a sword, driving private religious expression from the marketplace of ideas; rather, it is a shield that constrains government precisely to protect religiously motivated speech and action...."

I ordinarily avoid getting into the political realm, having seen how it plays out in the blogs, but I recommend this opinion column in USATODAY. This is not so much for its conclusions (with which I happen to concur), but for its analysis of how the debate has distorted a fundamental constitutional principle in furtherance of a particular political ideology. Richard Garnett, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, has clearly defined the issues of Church and State and how they apply to the current confirmation hearings for Judge Alito.

Read the excerpt and then read the full article. Comments, as always, are welcome.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

The End of the Spear -- A Short Review

Yesterday I posted an article about a story that appeared in the Miami Herald concerning five missionaries who gave their lives 50 years ago this month. They were killed by several members of the Waodani tribe in Ecuador for a variety of reasons, fear among them. This tribe was on the verge of extinction due to their propensity for killing each other for revenge, women, and sometimes for no apparent reason. The movie about this event and the subsequent reaching of these people, The End of the Spear, was released yesterday and I went to see it with my family.

The film is rated PG-13, and that rating is quite correct. The violence is depicted in detail, and young children may find it too intense.

The story begins with Steve Saint, the son of Nate Saint, the missionary pilot, and Mincaye of the Waodani taking a trip together to an destination made clear toward the end of the film. The scene moves back to the mid 1940s when the child Mincaye is caught up in a raid by a rival group of Waodoni. He and a young girl hide and escape the killing, and not long thereafter the girl, Dayumae, approaches a group of men and goes with them even after being told by Mincaye that they would kill her and eat her. The story moves forward over a decade as a group of missionaries, having heard Dayumae's story, searches for the Waodani and, on locating them, prepares to make contact with them. They do, and shortly after they land on a sand bar they are killed by the spears of the Waodani, Mincaye included.

The rest of the story concerns Rachel Saint (Nate Saint's older sister), and Elisabeth Elliot, the widow of another of the slain missionaries, as they make contact with the Waodani. They are able to show, by their love, what the five men had no chance to do -- that there is a better way than revenge at the end of a spear.

This was a moving story, and one that will offer many topics for discussion.

Two things in the AP article by Richard Ostling stood out. One was the assessment of a University of Connecticut anthropologist that, before the missionaries came, the Waodoni were on the verge of cultural extinction due to the extreme violence that characterized their lives. The anthropologist, James Boster, is quoted as saying "of all the ways in which native people confront the larger society, often the most benevolent and caring face of the other culture is by missionaries."

The second thing that stood out in Ostling's article was that Steve Saint was at first reluctant to assist in the filming of the movie because the Waodani did not want it to happen. When they heard of the horrifying events a Columbine High School, in Littleton, Colorado, they changed their mind. It is sobering to realize that people who are seen by some as "savages", feel the need to show us a better way -- and they are uniquely qualified to do so.

As I suggested with The Chronicles of Narnia, don't be in too big a hurry to leave the theater when the credits start to roll, as the real Steve Saint and Mincaye are shown in excerpts from a documentary about the filming of The End of the Spear.

Friday, January 20, 2006

AP Wire | 01/19/2006 | Religion today

AP Wire | 01/19/2006 | Religion today:
"NEW YORK - Far from home, five American missionaries died in brutal fashion: speared and hacked to death by tribesman in the dense jungles of Ecuador.

That nightmare moment 50 years ago this month evolved into a remarkable example of reconciliation, and one of the most influential incidents in 20th century Protestant mission lore.

Now the saga is being retold in "End of the Spear," a moving feature film about redemption in the jungle with a bigger budget ($17 million) and broader release (in 1,200 commercial cinemas this weekend) than many films of this genre...."

I remember this story from the 1960s, not that long after it happened. It affected me then, and while I have not thought about it in years, it looks like the events of 50 years ago, and the inspiring events that followed, will be before the public again.

Richard Ostling's report is well-written and worth reading in its entirety. I look forward to seeing the film, which is already being shown in Columbia, MO.

Supersede Me - Evangelicals rethink how to convert Jews. By Mark Oppenheimer

Supersede Me - Evangelicals rethink how to convert Jews. By Mark Oppenheimer:
"If Occam's razor is right, and the simplest theory is best, then Ariel Sharon's stroke was not a big mystery. Morbidly obese 77-year-olds with high-stress jobs like, say, trying to secure the Holy Land for God's chosen people are good candidates for hemorrhagic episodes. But 700 Club host Pat Robertson thought he had a better explanation..."

Mike Kruse has this linked this morning at The Kruse Kronicle and I thought I would make a few observations.

Mark Oppenheimer is writing about the doctrine of "supersession", which many Christian, including Pat Robertson appear to believe. Basically, this doctrine holds that when Jesus came, all previous convenants were superceded, and that the only one in force was the New Covenant.

While I believe that Jesus is "the Way, the Truth, and the Life", my understanding of Scripture is that God's Covenant with Israel is for eternity, and that did not change when Jesus came.

How these older covenants will continue to play out is not known to me or anyone else; it is God's prerogative. We ARE called by God to tell the good news to the world, and this includes Jews, Muslims, as well as adherents of other religions. The Book of Confessions, Book of Order, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) website are in agreement with this duty, as I documented in an earlier posting on the first of the Great Ends of the Church -- The Proclamation of the Gospel for the Salvation of Humankind.

This article quotes John Neuhaus, the editor of First Things as saying that evangelizing of the Jews must be based on mutual respect, and not proceed from the assumption that we need to correct their errors or roll back their ignorance (my paraphrase). Rather we "can and must say that friendship between Jew and Christian can be secured in shared love for the God of Israel."

At the bottom of Oppenheimer's article are links to other Slate articles on religion, and most of them are worth following.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The high cost of losing our religion - Opinion - smh.com.au

The high cost of losing our religion - Opinion - smh.com.au:
"...If church-going women floated into women's liberation groups, she said, a lot of time was spent raising their consciousness about what an oppressive institution it was: "If you started to think about your life as a woman, the first thing you would do is reject Christianity."

Church attendance began to decline, along with the number of candidates for ministry. In the 1950s, 44 per cent of all Australians attended church at least once a month. According to National Church Life Survey research, this figure fell dramatically in the 1960s, to 30 per cent in 1972.

What is increasingly obvious is that, in the midst of the excitement and turmoil, those driving the social change of the 1970s failed to seriously understand the power of religion as a social force.

Many scorned those who tried to reform the church and argued it should be rejected entirely. Comments such as those of the theologian Mary Daly were typical: "For women to seek ordination in the Christian church is as destructive as it would be for black people to seek to become leaders in the Ku Klux Klan."

Their rationale was understandable, but intellectually, this was a major stuff-up. It's not a question of what they believed, but one of whether they recognised the importance of reforming the church...."

I wasn't sure if I really wanted to comment on this article from the Sydney Morning Herald, as its tone betrays a strong sense of antipathy toward "conservative" Christians. Some of the issues raised, however, deserve scrutiny.

For the author, Julia Baird, the bottom line is that when feminists and other liberal and radical groups rejected the Church in the 1960's and 1970's, they ceded the Church to the conservatives. In so doing, they deprived themselves of an important platform for effecting social change, and the result is that today the Church in Australia is dominated by conservatives

That may be partially true, in that the more orthodox and traditional members remained behind.

The underlying assumption that the "liberals" are better equipped and more willing to work for social justice than the "conservatives" is not realistic. See George H. Gallup's article, Dogma Bites Man, for the results of some polling data that suggest otherwise.

It appears that nearly all the "mainline" denominations are losing members and that more conservative denominations are gaining members. The reasons are complex, but some suggest it has a lot to do with the willingness of churches to state clearly what they believe and what expectations they have of members. According to Beau Weston, "What people want most out of religion is religion. Liberal churches that work hard to accommodate the secular world by offering a refined, intellectual, reasonable faith keep losing people to the even more reasonable pleasures of the newspaper, the golf course, and the warm bed." This same quote appears in Presbyterian evangelicals -- They just might be on to something (Presbyterians Today). The PT article discusses many issues related to membership gains and losses in Presbyterian congregations.

Baird does correctly point out that blaming it all on a liberal exodus is probably too simplistic:
"...It would be simplistic to blame a swag of 1960s activists alone for the resurgence and dominance of conservative religion in political life today. Especially when journalists have so often been dismissive of religion, and tardy to understand its potency and personal sway...."
But then she concludes with this:
"...But I cannot help but wonder if the "smart-arses" of the boomer activists and intellectuals had tackled the corruption and decay in the churches as well as the state, instead of simply turning on their heels, if many politicians would be singing from a different hymn sheet today."

Wondering is always appropriate. The problem here is that there is no indication "corruption and decay" is or was the problem in Australian Churches or elsewhere in the world, nor is there any way to know that the loss of members would not have eventually taken place even if "boomer activists" had not rejected the church. In fact, this article points out that the Uniting Church in Australia (described by Blair as representing the "progressive wing of protestantism) has continued to lose members, experiencing a 22% drop in attendence from 1991-2001, compared with conservative denominations that have grown in size and influence.

Instead of wondering about the past, why not become engaged with the Church and its mission?

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Kruse Kronicle: Church is a Family Business

Kruse Kronicle: Church is a Family Business:
"I have heard that two equally common complaints sum up the frustrations of most pastors and church board members. The first is that the church is run too much like a business. The second is that the church isn’t run enough like a business...."

"...The truth is you don’t need to visit cutting edge churches to see this debate played out. The tug-of-war between business and family metaphors plays out in countless traditional congregations. For instance, most large Presbyterian Churches I know operate in accord with highly programmatic business oriented thinking. Many other Presbyterians I meet say they would never join these large congregations because they enjoy the warm friendly family nature of their small congregation. Of course, almost every church I have seen close could have had as their epitaph “We were a warm friendly family church.” So who is right in this debate? I would say both…and neither...."

Mike Kruse raises an issue that hits close to home. There are many times when I have wanted to state forcefully "We are NOT a business; We are a community of faith!"

Mike's article goes into some detail about what "family" was in the context of the early Church, and what it is today -- and how there are key differences.

His resolution of what may be a false dichotomy between business and family has given me considerable food for thought:

"...A church is a family devoted to a business (or mission.) Lose either the family or business aspects and you have a significant distortion of Paul’s metaphor for church...."

Go ahead and read Mike's whole article.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Presbyterian Outlook: Desegregation or re-segregation?

Presbyterian Outlook: Desegregation or re-segregation?:
"Show me a major city that has a significant African-American population, and I’ll show you a school called “Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary (or Middle or High) School.” Its students will be nearly, or 100 percent, African-American. Wasn’t MLK promoting racial integration?

Show me a denomination that has spoken prophetically against race hatred, against apartheid, against segregation, and against all kinds of social injustice, and I’ll show you any one of thousands of Presbyterian churches, where nearly 100 percent of each congregation’s members come from the same race. Aren’t we promoting racial integration?..."

Jack Haberer, in this Presbyterian Outlook editorial, raises a question that keeps coming up -- but never seems to be resolved.

The answer seems deceptively easy -- be welcoming of visitors of different backgrounds than ourselves -- but how do we get people through the front door of our churches?

It is a two-way street. Not only do we need to welcome strangers who come through our doors, but we need to be strangers who enter the doors of unfamiliar congregations.

This is something that cannot be forced or legislated. Most people will attend services in a congregation where they feel comfortable, whether they are Black, White, Korean, Hispanic, or Chinese. (The last three describe congregations in Columbia, MO which have an ethnic identification as part of their name).

I still have not personally resolved this issue, and neither has my congregation. The topic has come up on a regular basis in the 17 years my wife and I have been members. Is the fact that people go where they are comfortable a symptom of evil in our churches? Is self-imposed segregation the problem? Is denominationalism the underlying problem?

Monday, January 16, 2006

The "Religion Leads to Societal Ills" Meme, revisited

For an interesting look at how statistics can be used to provide illusory support to a popular misconception, read this article, Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies, and then read the following:

From our bulging "How not to do statistics" file
by Scott Gilbreath of the Magic Statistics Blog.

Dogma Bites Man by George H. Gallup, Jr.

I am not a statistician, so I leave it to others to interpret the original article as well as the rebuttals.

I am particularly impressed with the results of polling done in 2002, which suggested that the 10% of respondents who scored highest on "Love of God" were significantly more likely to be involved in service to the poor and suffering, and believed that all people are loved by God and therefore we should also love them (Dogma Bites Man).

(Thanks to Beau Weston of The Gruntled Center for alerting me to these articles.)

New Orleans Mayor Says God Mad at U.S. - Yahoo! News

New Orleans Mayor Says God Mad at U.S. - Yahoo! News:
"NEW ORLEANS - Mayor Ray Nagin suggested Monday that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and other storms were a sign that "God is mad at America" and at black communities, too, for tearing themselves apart with violence and political infighting.

"Surely God is mad at America. He sent us hurricane after hurricane after hurricane, and it's destroyed and put stress on this country," Nagin, who is black, said as he and other city leaders marked Martin Luther King Day...."


Some Abortion Foes Forgo Politics for Quiet Talk - New York Times

Some Abortion Foes Forgo Politics for Quiet Talk - New York Times:
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The eight women sat in a semicircle facing a wooden cross, reflecting on the abortions they said they had never gotten over.

Though they now opposed abortion, they criticized the demonstrators who protest outside clinics.

"They think they're helping these women," said Mendy Mason, 34, who described being suicidal and depressed after her abortion. For women like her, she said, the demonstrators only inflict more pain.

"The pro-life movement wants to demonize the mother and concentrate on protecting the innocent child," Ms. Mason said. "But you can't rip a baby from a woman's womb without ripping out her heart. My babies are in a much better place than I am."...

This is a rare look at a side of the abortion issue that isn't as well publicized as the more public debates. These women have a great deal to say to both sides, and do it with quiet eloquence.

I hope both extremes in this often ugly debate can listen to these women and realize that (1) for these women, choosing an abortion had real and serious consequences; and (2) that harassing women outside the offices of abortion providers does nothing to improve matters.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Multimedia Is New Way to Relay Old Lessons - Los Angeles Times

Multimedia Is New Way to Relay Old Lessons - Los Angeles Times:
"Retired college professor Grace Christensen of Rancho Santa Margarita grew up singing old hymns and reading from the Bible during Sunday worship.

But now she and other congregants of the 400-member Santa Margarita United Methodist Church in Orange County seldom use Bibles or church hymnals during worship service.

Instead, modern technology enables her to participate by watching two big screens where the texts appear in large letters. A crew manning an audiovisual booth in the back of the sanctuary modulates the sound system so that she can hear and see well no matter where she sits, she said...."

Another example of how churches embrace technology...

I should note that some friends of ours went to Australia for a sabbatical about 8 years ago, and described how words to hymns were projected on a screen during services, using overhead transparencies. but even so, the concept is not exactly new. Digital projectors are now down in the $700.00 ballpark, and they can do the job far more efficiently.

There is power in using visual images, music, and words together in an integrated package. MTV, Super Bowl half-time shows, TV advertising are all ways in which imagery can be used to entertain -- or to manipulate. Political advertising and propaganda are generally negative examples of the latter. Visual imagery can also be used to instruct. It is hard to imagine professional meetings that do not rely on PowerPoint in their sessions.

Why not churches? It certainly seems to be a staple in young, growing, congregations. And not to put too fine a point on it, but if congregations are to grow, or even maintain their numbers, they will need to attract youth.

The computer professional in me says "Go for it! You'll not regret it."

The more cautious person in me says "Use it carefully and wisely."

Friday, January 13, 2006

Guardian Unlimited: Supposing ... we could inoculate against religion

Guardian Unlimited: Supposing ... we could inoculate against religion:
So the other day I'm flopping about in my pants watching The Root of All Evil, Richard Dawkins' new Channel 4 series about religion, and it's alternating between terrifying and hilarious. Terrifying because it feels like a report detailing the final seconds before the world slides into an all-out holy fistfight, and hilarious because every time Dawkins meets a religious spokesman, which he does at regular intervals throughout the programme, he quickly becomes far too angry to conduct a civil conversation with them - visibly fumes, in fact, and adopts the expression of an outraged Victorian gentleman who's just been mooned by a cackling street urchin while escorting a lady across Bloomsbury Square. It doesn't exactly move the debate forward.

British humor is not for everyone, but this piece about Richard Dawkins' recent television series tickled me.

Richard Dawkins is a highly respected scientist, but he is stepping way out of his role as a scientist in his attempt to convince people of the inherent evil found in religion. This idea is becoming a meme in the various debates about religion. (Ironically, it was Richard Dawkins who coined the term "meme", which describes the cultural transmission of ideas from one person to another).

The problem with many memes is that they are uncritically accepted, especially in this era of unprecedented access to information and ability to disseminate information (like this blog, for example...) In my original posting on this blog, I mentioned the need for responsibility with this quote from Mark Twain: "A lie will travel halfway around the world before truth has put its boots on". Memes seem to follow the same principle.

One meme that I find particularly egregious is that religions are evil because they have adherents who do evil things. Islam must not be defined by Osama bin Laden or those with similar beliefs. Christianity cannot be defined by the excesses of the Crusades or by the ill-conceived public statements of individuals that seem to find their way into the media on a depressingly regular basis.

Following Jesus, and doing all He has taught us to do, could only leave the world a better place. The Scriptures teach us to feed the hungry, tend to the sick, welcome the stranger -- as if they were Jesus himself (Matthew 25:31-46). Paul, in his letter to the Galations says "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law." (Galatians 5:22-23).

There is no law requiring such things, either -- but those who follow the Lord will make an effort to be all those things and more -- even if we are imperfect in our response to what the Lord requires of us.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Preservationists lose battle over Wilson’s Creek

Preservationists lose battle over Wilson’s Creek:
"REPUBLIC (AP) - A controversial housing development that abuts a Civil War battlefield has won approval from city officials, but a civil lawsuit could still stall the project...."

The battles in Missouri and Arkansas are not as well-known as the ones east of the Mississippi, but they were significant nonetheless. The outcome of WIlson's Creek -- and several months later, Pea Ridge -- secured the western states for the Union, thus reducing the need for a large Union garrison in Missouri. It would be a tragedy if the rural countryside around Wilson's Creek National Battlefield were converted to housing developments. Our heritage should be given more respect.

Considering the location, this would be a bedroom community for Springfield, with a sizable increase in the tax base for Republic.

The Eagle and Child: Rushkoff's Testament -- a different read on Abraham

The Eagle and Child: Rushkoff's Testament -- a different read on Abraham:
Buzz had been building for some time: media theorist Douglas RushkoffVertigo label -- not what older generations expect from a comic book at all. was writing a comic book series based around stories from the Bible. This would be an edgy more mature GenX style presentation under DC's

This, and the articles it references, seems quite interesting. Russell Smith points out that that many liberties are taken with the narrative, but the themes are sound, and the author takes the Scriptures seriously.

As the father of a 13-year-old who finds the "graphical novels" more attractive than reading traditional books, this may be a way to get youth more interested in reading the Bible. I remember Classics Illustrated -- for many years my only exposure to The Count of Monte Cristo was the comic version. I finally read it in its entirety, and it was rather hard to wade through it -- and I am a voracious reader.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

N.J. Lawmakers Suspend Death Penalty - Yahoo! News

N.J. Lawmakers Suspend Death Penalty - Yahoo! News:
TRENTON, N.J. - New Jersey lawmakers voted Monday to suspend executions while a task force studies the fairness and costs of imposing the death penalty.

The measure now heads to Gov. Richard J. Codey, who has indicated he will sign it before leaving office on Jan. 17.

Under the measure, a 13-member commission would have until November to report on whether the death penalty is fairly imposed and whether alternatives would ensure public safety and address the needs of victims' families.

This is a hopeful sign that the inequities of the death penalty in the United States will be scrutinized. New Jersey is the third state to declare a moratorium, but the first to do it legislatively.

California is also considering a legislative moratorium on the death penalty, according to this AP news release.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Gruntled Center: Great Families vs. Social Darwinism

Gruntled Center: Great Families vs. Social Darwinism:
"On Lawn, at Opine Editorials, has a very gratifying appreciation of last week’s series on national greatness and the ecology of families. He or she called these comments “The Social Darwinism of Families.” This got me thinking about the ways in which my position is like social Darwinism – and in a crucial respect is the opposite of social Darwinism...."

Here are two interesting discussions of how sociobiological principles affect the ways families function in society. Follow both links (the one to the Gruntled Center and the one Gruntled is blogging about) and read the entire articles.

I was in graduate school when Sociobiology -- The New Synthesis by Edward O. Wilson was published in 1975. It was greeted by a quick and (in my opinion) vicious attack led mainly by two or three of his colleagues at Harvard. The controversy centered mainly around fears that trying to apply genetic and evolutionary principles to behavior evolution would lead to racism and other undesirable outcomes. These attacks, which seemed to confuse ideology with science, never gained much traction, and the field of sociobiology is a highly respected field today.

I prefer "sociobiology" to "social darwinism" because to me social darwinism is more of an attempt to use Darwin's theory to bolster a preconceived idea of how society should function.

In any event, the idea that altruistic behavior is in the best interests of the family (nuclear or extended) is one that has been studied for many years. A humorous comment I remember from 30 years ago is "I would willingly lay down my life for my brother -- or any eight of my cousins."

Gruntled closes with this:
"...Human beings lead the most satisfying lives not when they are crushing the competition, but when they are serving the greater good. And, counter-intuitively, serving the greater good is actually the best way to serve your own interests. The strong family lineages that endure and advance in wealth, power, and esteem tend to be those that serve the greater good. This is congruent with an evolutionary theory, but goes beyond what is normally understood as social Darwinism.

It is quite satisfying when a scientific/sociological understanding of what is good for strong families converges with what we believe as Reform Christians.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

No wonder atheists are angry: they seem ready to believe anything

No wonder atheists are angry: they seem ready to believe anything

In my previous post in the subject of Richard Dawkins, I failed to note that Presbyweb and The Kruse Kronicle had linked to the above article, which is more comprehensive than the one to which I had linked. The Guardian piece is opinion rather than news, but it makes several points worth considering.

Mike Kruse's take on this is that Dawkins is a "secular fundamentalist", and that seems to me to be a apt description.

Religion ‘a form of child abuse’ - [Sunday Herald]

Religion ‘a form of child abuse’ - [Sunday Herald (Scotland)]:
"CONTROVERSIAL scientist Richard Dawkins will assert tomorrow evening that religion is a “virus” that amounts to child abuse.

The new two-part series, to be shown on Channel 4, will compare Moses to Hitler and claim that God is racist. It will also argue that religion is a “backward belief system” responsible for terrorism.

The controversial films, which were produced by IWC creative director Alan Clements and written by Dawkins, are a polemic against faith and a stout defence of science.

Entitled The Root Of All Evil, the series shows Dawkins visiting theological hot-spots in Lourdes, Colorado Springs, the al-Axa mosque and an English faith school. In each case the presenter, who is an atheist, attempts to show that religion is an “elephant in the room” trying to subvert reason...."

With all the recent news regarding "Intelligent Design" and whether it is proper to teach it in science curricula, it is ironic that such a respected scientist as Dawkins would step so far out of his area of expertise and attack those who have experienced God and have chosen to make it a part of their lives.

What is even more ironic is that Dawkins, a self-described atheist, would use his atheistic world-view in this fashion -- because in asserting that there is no God, he is asserting a negative -- and this is not subject to the rigorous methods of science. Dawkins is entitled to his opinions, but they are in no way to be considered "science".

Science and religion are two different ways of approaching reality, and their sources of authority do not overlap. It is just as wrong to teach intelligent design as if it were science as it is for a scientist to claim that those who have experienced God and teach their children about God are tantamount to child abusers.

The sad thing is that Dawkins does not need to attack religion in order to issue a defence of science and its methods. Science, as a self-correcting method of acquiring and organizing knowledge, and making predictions that can be tested, is easily defended.

Friday, January 06, 2006

CNN.com - Robertson suggests God smote Sharon - Jan 5, 2006

CNN.com - Robertson suggests God smote Sharon - Jan 5, 2006:
"(CNN) -- Television evangelist Pat Robertson suggested Thursday that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke was divine retribution for the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, which Robertson opposed...."

Confusing theology with ideology is not useful...

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Is there an answer?

Is there an answer? (free registration is required to read the full articles in The Presbyterian Outlook):
"Surely, our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) needs an answer. The net losses of 1,887,629 members and 1,985 churches, from the total of our two previous denominations in 1966, cry out for an answer. Lest you conclude that the answer would be to mount a major membership and church building drive, let me suggest that these dismal statistics, in reality, are the symptoms of a deeper malaise, the score card for a team in serious need of coming together for a common purpose.

The church universal, including our PC(USA) denomination, needs an answer. In this country, the church has lost its role of arbitrator/advocate for a moral and ethical society. The church is under attack by new age philosophies that challenge the church’s basic doctrines of sin, repentance, forgiveness and submission to the will of God. Respect for and confidence in the church is daily challenged by widely repeated voices of atheism and agnosticism. In Europe, the church is a remnant of echo-filled cathedrals and dwindling faithful. The church needs an answer...."

William H. "Bill" Wilson has had a long history of service to the PC(USA) and the PCUS, having served on various boards and as Synod of the Sun moderator and moderator of the 197th General Assembly. His words in this Presbyterian Outlook Guest Viewpoint are a timely reminder that we are in need of not only finding the answers, but asking the right question in the first place: "The answer needed by our church begins with one simple, but profound question: For what reason does the church exist?"

Wilson notes that there may be many good and diverse answers, but they will all, ultimately, converge on our witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ in the world.

Given that most Presbyterians already believe this, why do we even need to say this? Wilson's point is that our preoccupation with our divisions gets in the way of our witness to the world around us. The message is mixed, and we need to clarify it.

What a difference it could make if the resources, both financial and human, that have been diverted to fighting among ourselves could be reallocated toward our mission to the world!

The Presbyterian Church (USA) needs to move forward in what unites us rather than be dragged down by what divides us.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Amid 'Terrorism, Nihilism,' Benedict Seeks Path to Peace - Los Angeles Times

Amid 'Terrorism, Nihilism,' Benedict Seeks Path to Peace - Los Angeles Times:
ROME — Roman Catholics embarked Sunday on a new year with a new pope, who used the day's festivities to urge stronger faith in God as a way to make peace in a world threatened by "terrorism, nihilism and fanatic fundamentalism."

Benedict XVI, presiding over the first New Year's Day program of his papacy, led a morning Mass inside St. Peter's Basilica and afterward addressed thousands of pilgrims gathered in the square outside. The Vatican marks Jan. 1 annually by celebrating World Day of Peace, a theme that infused Benedict's comments Sunday.

"A leap of courage and of faith in God and in mankind" are crucial to promoting global peace, the pope said.

It is the duty of everyone — of individuals, world powers and international organizations — to take up the cause, he said, singling out the United Nations and its responsibility to further justice and solidarity in a world confronting the "phenomenon of globalization."

Pope Benedict XVI makes some good points in this article. Each of the groups -- individuals, world powers, and international organizations -- have shown a depressing lack of consistency in their response to evil in our world.

Christians are called to be a part of this process by God, and have responded in many ways. Bread For The World and the One Campaign are two such organizations. The One Campaign, in particular, is a multi-pronged approach to the issues of hunger: Aids, debt relief, extreme poverty. These are issues of justice as well as compassion. Micah 6:6-8 and Matthew 25:31-46 make this abundantly clear.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Trilemma, Continued

In my previous posting, I noted that a trilemma was used by C. S. Lewis in at least two instances: one in his book on apologetics, Mere Christianity; and one in his novel, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.

Not everyone is convinced that the Lewis trilemma is useful in apologetics, but it may be good to point out that Lewis was dealing with one specific issue -- the assertion that "Jesus was a great moral teacher, but not the Son of God."

As the Wikipedia article on the Trilemma points out, the three options that define a trilemma must be mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive. In other words, choosing one option requires that the other two be rejected as false, and the three options must cover all possibilities.

So, assuming that Jesus made claims of divinity for himself (which Scripture leads us to believe), then either he is the Son of God or he is not the Son of God. If he is not, then he is either a liar or he is delusional.

Lewis' point was that if he was not the Son of God, then being a liar or crazy would not be consistent with being a "great moral teacher". This pretty much means that the two characterizations -- Son of God; Great Moral Teacher -- must be accepted together or rejected together.

Does this prove that Jesus was the Son of God? No. All it does is remove one of the arguments against his divinity.

It seems to me that trilemmas are only good for logically eliminating possibilities. What is left is not necessarily "proven".

Let's look at another claim that might lend itself to a trilemma: Did Jesus rise from the dead or didn't he?

Some have said that the disciples concocted this story, and that it was all a lie. Others have said that the disciples were under some sort of mass delusion. The Scriptures make the claim that Jesus rose from the dead.

So, given the underlying assumption that resurrection claims were in fact made, then we are left with the following possibilties:
  • The apostles lied, and in turn convinced others of the lie, and this lie resulted in the Christian religion as we know it today.
  • The apostles were victims of mass delusion and convinced others of the truth of their claims.
  • The apostles saw the Risen Lord, and told the Good News to all who would listen.
So, what can we do with this? I think the first option can be disposed of quickly: According to both Scriptural and secular sources, most of the original 11 Apostles died as a result of their activities in preaching the Good News. Would they have been willing to die for a lie they themselves concocted?

The second option, mass delusion, is a little trickier. Jonestown comes to mind as does the Heaven's Gate sect. Both groups committed mass suicide as a result of mass delusion. It is hard for me though, to accept mass delusion as an explanation for the spread of the resurrection story. I'd have to believe that the women at the tomb, the eleven remaining disciples (including Thomas, who had to see for himself), and others who claimed to have seen the Risen Lord were all suffering from a common delusion. The apostles were accused by some of having had "too much wine", but as Peter pointed out, "It 's only nine in the morning". (Acts 2:13-16)

Occam's Razor suggests that when two competing explanations are made for a particular event, the simpler one is preferred. Both of the above options that deny the Resurrection require assumptions that are not supported by known facts. Another "explaining away" of the Resurrection is that Jesus was taken down from the cross in a comatose state. To believe this requires that one believe that the Romans (who were very good at crucifixion) bungled this one.

If the resurrection never happened, then the crucifixion should have been the end of it. So what made the apostles, and those who heard and believed the Good News, go out into the world and preach and teach what Jesus had taught them? What made them willing to suffer death for what they believed?

To use a well-known quote from Sherlock Holmes: "When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." Or, in matters of faith, becomes easier to accept as the truth.

Does this trilemma prove that the Resurrection happened? No. But it goes a certain distance toward eliminating some common objections to the idea, and coupled with what we know of the way the early Church spread over the Middle East, and into Europe, it makes the Resurrection more plausible on an intellectual level.

It still remains a matter of faith -- but the more I think it through, the shorter the leap becomes.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Happy New Year!

Auld Lang Syne

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to min'?
Should auld acquaintaince be forgot,
And days o' lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,

We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet

For auld lang syne.

We twa hae run about the braes,
And pu'd the gowans fine;
But we've wander'd mony a weary foot
Sin auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidl't i' the burn,
From morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar'd
Sin auld lang syne.

And here's a hand, my trusty fiere
And gie's a hand o' thine;
And we'll tak' a right guid willie-waught
For auld lang syne.

And surely you'll be your pint-stowp
And surely I'll be mine;
And we'll tak a cup o' kindness yet
For auld lang syne.

-- Robert Burns (1759-1796)

The Poetical Works of Robert Burns
Edited by the Rev. Robert Aris Wilmot
Boston: Lee and Shepard, Publishers (1872)