Jul 27, 2015

Beth gets ordained

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My wife gets ordained at Hopwood Christian Church in Johnson City, Tenn. 

Jul 15, 2015

Episcopalians, swimming against the culture

People talk about how Episcopalians used to stand against the culture. They swam against the current. They weren't so accommodating, then. They did things differently.

This isn't what they meant:


I've written before that I think a lot of the conservative critique of the contemporary Episcopal church is based in a false history of the denomination, which was actually at its zenith when it was most aligned with the status quo. This 1917 Chicago headline goes to show, though, that even back then the minister of a "Fashionable Oak Park Church" could sometimes shock -- or at least titillate -- mainstream American culture.

The paper reported that when the minister was informed of the court testimony, he exclaimed, "Oh, horrors!"

Jul 13, 2015

Dante's modern American spirituality

The conservative Christian blogger Rod Dreher made a discovery about Dante.

Here's how he phrased it in a piece published by the Wall Street Journal:
I always thought "The Divine Comedy" was one of those lofty, doorstop-sized Great Books more admired than read. Its intimidating reputation is likely why few people ever walk with Dante through the fires of the Inferno, climb with him up the seven-story mountain of Purgatory and rocket with him through the stars to Paradise.

What a pity. They will never discover the surprisingly accessible beauty of Dante's verse in modern translation. Nor will they grasp how useful his poem can be to modern people who find themselves caught in a personal crisis from which there seems no escape.
He discovered, that is, that Dante is useful. Specifically: therapeutic. Dante's Divine Comedy is "the ultimate self-help book."

Another way of saying this would be to say that Dreher found out that Dante is not literature. It is, rather, middlebrow religious writing, of the sort that Erin A. Smith writes about in her new book, What Would Jesus Read? Popular Religious Books and Everyday Life in Twentieth-Century America.

Popular religious books, Smith argues, are defined most essentially by how they are read therapeutically. The aesthetic standard for this reading is personal and social transformation. The classic example is Charles Sheldon's book about a town where everyone started to ask themselves in every situation, "What would Jesus do?"

Smith writes:
Although a disaster by conventional literary standards, In His Steps was immensely powerful for communities of nonliterary readers. (Charles) Sheldon made the case for traditional literacy -- the intensive reading of a small set of classic texts -- at the same time that his own mass-produced fiction urged reading godly novels as one read the Bible, with an eye toward immediate application to one's daily life. By valuing what texts do in readers' lives over style, form, aesthetics, or understanding them in their historical context, In His Steps challenges literary historians to restate their own professional practices as one among many possible ways with words. 
In His Steps and other similar works are not merely aesthetically bad books; they are books that seek to succeed on entirely different terms -- the transformation of individual and social life.
Like Dante for Dreher, Sheldon only makes sense when not thought of as literature. Only then can you grasp how useful the text truly is.

This sort of reading practice has been strongly identified with evangelicalism, historically. But it also reflects the ethos of the early 20th-century Protestant Social Gospellers, who thought that true religion should be transformative in practical ways, directing men to immanent rather than transcendent purposes. This sort of reading has also largely defined and arguably shaped liberal spirituality, which is eclectic, like middlebrow religious reading, and therapeutic, like middlebrow religious reading.

It also works fine for an Eastern Orthodox Christian with socially conservative politics, like Dreher.

Jul 8, 2015

The traditional marriage argument for polygamy

Opponents of gay marriage have long argued that the social and legal acceptance of gay marriage will lead to the social and legal acceptance of polygamy. If marriage is not only a relationship between a man and a woman, but can also name a relationship between a man and a man or a woman and a woman, then why not between a man and a five women?

The slippery slope is slippery. So the argument goes. 

This was raised in the Supreme Court during oral arguments in Obergefell vs. Hodges. Justice Samuel Alito brought it up. As did Justice Antonin Scalia.

And Chief Justice John Roberts wrote about the polygamy problem in the dissent to the court's 5-4 ruling. If gay marriage, why not plural marriage?

I don't find this argument persuasive. For one thing, it depends on an insistence that marriage has only ever been defined one way, which is historically, empirically inaccurate. It depends too on the idea that any redefinition means throw-up-your-hands-because-now-it-can-mean-anything. That's not how redefinition actually works, though. Humans, it turns out, are quite capable of expanding their definitions without losing all definition completely. 

For another, the argument that same-sex marriage leads to polygamy seems to misunderstand how same-sex marriage advocates have been advocating for marriage. They have not actually argued that marriage is whatever. Marriage, they have said, as Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in Obergefell vs. Hodge, should be about dignity, identity, commitment and, especially, love.

The slogan, after all, has been "love wins," not, "eh, whatever."

At least some of those defining characteristics -- for example identity and commitment -- would not play the same role in plural marriages that they do in either same- or opposite-sex marriages.

There doesn't seem to be any necessary connection between Anthony Kennedy's view of marriage and polygamy. Perhaps redefining marriage will result in further redefining marriage, which will result in the social and legal acceptance of polygamy, but the argument that that is logical inevitable seems lacking. 

At the same time, the argument can be reversed. Isn't it actually arguments for traditional marriage that will lead to the necessary acceptance of polygamy?

Advocates of traditional marriage say marriage must be procreative. They say marriage is only meaningfully "marriage" when it involves the conception or at least potential conception of children. They also argue that tradition is the most important factor in determining the meaning of this social institution. They argue, further, that it is in the interest of the state to enforce this definition because children do measurably better when they are legally bound to both a biological mother and a father.

But aren't all these things true of polygamy?

Polygamous marriages are procreative. They are very traditional. And children raised in polygamous marriages are raised with both a father and a mother.

Certainly there's nothing about the biological basis of conception that demands the pairing be exclusive.

If marriage is about babies, why not polygamy?

Indeed, if you argue that "the record of human history leaves no doubt that the institution of marriage owes its existence to the undeniable biological reality that opposite-sex unions -- and only such unions -- can produce children" and that "irresponsible procreation and childrearing -- the all-too-frequent result of casual or transient sexual relationships between men and women -- commonly results in hardships, costs, and other ills for children, parents, and society as a whole," it would seem that it is in the state's interest to require marriage between all procreative couples.

Regardless of whether that's a first marriage, a second marriage, a third marriage, or a complex marriage.

What is the traditional-marriage argument against polygamy?

The logic would seem to go the other way.

Jul 6, 2015

What's wrong with Christian movies?

Alissa Wilkinson, the chief film critic for Christianity Today, says Christian film makers are making excuses when they blame budgets for the poor quality of their films. The problem isn't the budget:
Low budgets are never the problem with Christian movies. Low budgets are never the problem with bad movies, full stop. What's the old saying? It's a bad carpenter who blames his tools? Most viewers (and certainly most critics) are discerning enough to make allowances for the limitations of technology. "Well, we did our best with a low budget" is an excuse that Christian filmmakers have used for a long time to excuse what is actually shoddy craftsmanship, and it's disdainful of the audience, to boot.

Typically, the biggest problem in Christian films is something that doesn't require money at all: the writing. (Of course the screenwriter should get paid, but it's not like buying a better camera.) Christian films rarely tell stories with anything like nuance ... The single best thing Christians can do as filmmakers is to spend more time on their stories, to workshop them, to develop and hone the craft of writing.
That doesn't mean it's not an economics issue, though.

A lot of times, nuance doesn't sell. But there's a big market for bad art, whatever its religious commitments. The question of why particular art gets made is not unrelated to the question of how particular artists get paid.

There's a scene in "Andre Rublev," the 1966 Andrei Tarkovsky film, where the icon painter complains he wants to paint a picture of redemption but can only get patrons to finance the apocalypse. That might still be true.

Jun 29, 2015

'God is still on His throne'

David Cloud doesn't think Christians should be upset by the Supreme Court's ruling in favor of same-sex marriage.

This doesn't mean he approves of the decision.

From Cloud's perspective, the Supreme Court was "shaking its puny fist at God" when it ruled last week that gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to marriage. But this shouldn't be upsetting to those who believe the Bible, Cloud says.

"This type of thing only reminds the true child of God that he is a pilgrim in a strange land," writes Cloud, a fundamentalist Baptist who runs a small publishing company in Port Huron, Mich. "We claim to believe God's promises. Let's act like it in the face of adversity and not be a people who wring their hands at the mere thought of trouble and what might come."

In the days after this landmark Supreme Court decision, many conservative evangelical Christians expressed discouragement and frustration. Some said they feared for the United States. On this major issue, the religious right has suffered a serious loss.

Other evangelicals, the minority who support gay rights and marriage equality, celebrated the decision.

Evangelicals make up about a quarter of Americans. Like the country as a whole, they are divided over same-sex marriage. Opinions have notably shifted in recent years and reactions to the ruling are predictably divided. As the headline of one Iowa newspaper put it, "Ruling brings celebrations, sadness." What is true for Iowa is true for evangelicals, too.

Many evangelicals, however, want to pursue a third option besides celebration or sadness.

Read the full essay at the Washington Post: Why a lot of evangelicals aren't actually that upset about the Supreme Court's gay marriage decision

Jun 27, 2015

The grace that leads us home


President Barack Obama, giving the eulogy of Clementa Pinkney, sings Amazing Grace.

Jun 26, 2015

Respecting marriage

"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right."

-- Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the majority opinion in favor of same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges

Women not at church


A new Barna Group study says American women -- traditionally more religious than men -- are increasingly less likely to go to church. According to the poll, 45 percent of adult women haven't been to a religious service in the last six months. 

Most of these women used to participate in worship services but have stopped. 

"It's not that most of these unchurched women are unfamiliar with or inexperience in church," the report says, "but rather that at one point they decided church was no longer for them."

There has also been an increase in the number of women who self report they are skeptical of religious claims. The number of agnostics and atheists doesn't correlate to the number of women not going to church, however. Only 11 percent of women say they doubt or don't believe in God. 

The cultural movement, here, is not towards unbelief. It's a movement towards disaffiliation. 

Even for many women who are religious, Barna found that church is not a top priority. While 46 percent report they have been to church in the last month, only 11 percent said religious activities were most important in their lives. By comparison, 10 percent said personal time was their top priority. 

By far, the number one top priority named by women was their families: 68 percent said family comes first. 

Jun 24, 2015

Richard Nixon and the Mormon, American spirit

Richard Nixon talks on Pioneer Day, the Mormon holiday celebrating Utah's first settlers, connecting the spirit of the early Mormons with the spirit of American conservatism and the spirit of American astronauts.

Circa 1970:


"It is that kind of spirit," Nixon said, "the kinda spirit that doesn't blame adversity on somebody else, but tries to do something about it himself, that's what built this state. That's what built America."

Jun 22, 2015

Billy Graham, 'like rock 'n' roll personified'

Bob Dylan, talking about Billy Graham in a recent interview:
When I was growing up, Billy Graham was very popular. He was the greatest preacher and evangelist of my time--that guy could save souls and did. I went to two or three of his rallies in the '50s or '60s. This guy was like rock 'n' roll personified--volatile, explosive. He had the hair, the tone, the elocution--when he spoke, he brought the storm down. Clouds parted. Souls got saved, sometimes 30- or 40,000 of them.

If you ever went to a Billy Graham rally back then, you were changed forever. There's never been a preacher like him. He could fill football stadiums before anybody. He could fill Giants Stadium more than even the Giants football team. Seems like a long time ago. Long before Mick Jagger sang his first note or Bruce strapped on his first guitar--that's some of the part of rock 'n' roll that I retained. I had to. I saw Billy Graham in the flesh and heard him loud and clear.

Jun 19, 2015

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The world from here.