Dec 31, 2011

Where Josh lives

Dec 30, 2011


Dec 29, 2011

A list of lists

1 best-selling book of the year
1 best-selling religious book of the year
3 best books on the King James Bible, that "book of books," in 2011
5 best historical fiction of the year
5 ways poets responded to the multitude in American poetry
5 numbers that define the year in book publishing
7 mega news stories of the year, by coverage
7 unforgetable characters from this year's books
8 longreads of the year
8 types of crime that declined in 2011
10 top fake Time Magazine covers of 2011
10 fastest rising searches on Google for the year
10 top Bible translations sold before Christmas
10 worst predictions of the year
10 top science stories of the year
11 photography books
11 best history books
11 top religion news stories
11 top Pagan/Wiccan news stories of the year
11 best science books
11 great new musicians
12 top Christian news stories of the year
13 best coffee table books of the year
14 best books read by a Calvinist pastor
16 not particularly famous but nevertheless interesting people who died this last year
16 space pictures
17 & 23 best and worst film titles of 2011
18 best Jewish children's books of 2011
20 newsmakers of the year
23 works of poetry that "expanded, deepened and/or transformed" Ron Silliman's reading
25 Christian fiction books reviewed by the SF Christian Fiction Examiner
25 albums of the year, according to NPR listeners
32 musicians who died this last year
41 best works on Mormon history in 2011
45 powerful pictures
54 top 10 lists from Time Magazine
100 top music tracks
105 political people who died in 2011
202 writers who died in 2011
46,000 news stories of the year, analyzed by Pew

Dec 25, 2011

Dec 24, 2011

Three scenes @ at a Christmas Eve bookstore

A. Man: What about Shakespeare?
Woman: Shakespeare's just soooooo Shakespeare.
Man: I guess that's true.

B. (Employee walks up to browsing woman).
Employee: What was that program you were talking about?
Woman: The program?
Employee: That you were talking about.
Woman: What was I ... when?
Employee: You were talking about the program you watched.
Woman: Um.
Employee: With Clinton?
Woman: I don't ...
Employee: You know what? I don't think you're the person I was thinking you were.
(Employee walks away).

C. Woman (holding Marcus Aurelius): Right?
Man: I don't ... what was the ... for, why?
Woman: Because Obama liked the Lincoln book and Lincoln in the book was reading the Marcus Aurelius. And John likes Obama, so.
And to them a star, stars, starring

Dec 23, 2011

After a few days, it's like my mind's been taken hostage by America & I can only bleat out quivery Ginsberg questions

After a few days, it's like America's kidnapped my brain

Why are your libraries full of tears?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
Where are we going, Walt Whitman?
What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?

(Your machinery is too much for me. / You made me want to be a saint.)


Dec 22, 2011

Dec 20, 2011

Christmas angst is here again

I have reservations about Christmas.

The culture-wide promotion of a fantasy coupled with the intense pressure to achieve that perfection, primarily through consumption seems problematic to me. In my time as a crime reporter, I saw enough Christmas-related* suicides, homicides and robberies to make me wonder if, in aggregate, the holiday wasn't a net negative for America.

I'm aware this makes me sound Grinch-y and Scrooge-ish. The fact there's enough social pressure to feel a certain way this time year that we have two names to call people who feel wrong is another reason I have reservations. Are we OK with the "spirit of the season" being so oppressive?

From Jesus Hates Zombies, by Stephen Lindsay

From Evil Eyes, by Jack Chick

Dec 18, 2011

Bet you're glad it's over, they'll say by way of welcome home

The soldier wears street clothes on the last day of the war.

In the line into America, a long long line through Atlanta's Homeland Security and Customs, you wouldn't even know the soldiers were soldiers except for the crewcuts and the backpacks, which are Army backpacks in that pixelated camo color scheme separating this century's wars from the ones before.

They're kids in sneakers and T-shirts, except for the backpacks.

Nine years on, and it's the last day. "Again," but maybe for real this time. And they're in line. It's a week before Christmas, though there are no signs of any holiday in the in-take at Homeland Security, no signs of any season or time of day or year, no signs of celebration or goodwill towards men or the end of a war that's gone on, now, basically half the lives of these kids coming home.

The big sign in front: No cameras or videos! The TV is introducing America, with a bit on baseball, a bit on the Civil Rights Movement memorials you could go see, a bit on diversity and clips of different people saying hello and "Welcome to America."

"Where you coming from?" the agent says.

"Iraq," says the kid with the backpack. "Flew from Frankfurt."

"Welcome home son," the agent says, and he speaks as if all the sudden of behalf of America, though really he actually does. "Glad you're back. Bet you're glad you're back, safe and home and family, holidays. Not in Iraq anymore."

"Sure," says the soldier, who's 18 maybe, 19 at the most. "Yeah," he says.

"But it was exciting over there though."

Dec 16, 2011

Rest in peace Christopher Hitchens

Obits: Vanity Fair, NPR, NY Times, Christianity Today.

Hitchens last work before he died: "So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing."

Dec 15, 2011

American Religion midterm take-home exam

Choose TWO of the following questions, and write a short essay answering each:

1. How does the religious experimentation, as seen in such diverse movements as the “new measures” of Charles G. Finney and the “complex marriage” of the Oneida Community, relate to the political ideas of the new American republic?

2. What does the Ghost Dance tell us about Native American relationships to Christianity in the late 19th century?

3. How did the Puritan conception of corporate identity and the idea that God judges people as groups shape response to (a) Roger Williams or (b) Anne Hutchinson?


Dec 14, 2011

What do you mean, 'respecting an establishment of religion'?

Most positions on the First Amendment's Establishment Clause are only intuitive. People have a vague sense of what "respecting an establishment of religion" feels like, rather than a worked-out standard or principle that can be applied.

There's one conservative interpretation of that phrase that's quite clearly articulated, though. It's a very narrow definition. It has the advantage of being clear, and it also has a sense of symmetry, so that the one clause about Establishments is exactly, equally balanced with the other religion-related clause of the amendment, "prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Kelly Boggs, a Louisiana Baptist and the editor of the Baptist Message, stated this succinct and strict reading this way: "The government cannot enact a law that says you must give allegiance to a specific religion. Neither can the state pass legislation that says you can't pursue a particular religion. That's it."

That is to say, the one clause bars the government from forbidding belief, the other forbids forcing it.

Supreme Court Justice Clarance Thomas takes this same position. He recently wrote that "the Clause only prohibits 'actual legal coercion.'"*

There are (to put it mildly) some problems with this.

Dec 12, 2011

Thesis: people tend to think experimental literature is a lot stranger & newer than it really actually is

One of these pictures is of Jonathan Safron Foer's experimental fiction, Tree of Codes, published last year. The other is the Thomas Jefferson Bible, the cut-and-paste work of deism completed circa 1820.
"Some critics of the secularization paradigm misrepresent it by elevating science to a central position .... A zero-sun notion of knowledge, with rational thought and science conquering territory from superstition, was carried into early sociology by Aguste Comte and Karl Marx among others, but is not part of the modern secularization paradigm. We recognize that modern people are quite capable of believing nonsense and hence that the decreasing plausibility of any body of ideas cannot be explained by the presence of some (to us) more plausible ones. The crucial connections are more subtle and complex than those implied in a science-versus-religion battle and rest on nebulous consequences of assumptions about the orderliness of the world and our mastery over it."
-- Steve Bruce, Secularization

The possible political positions for Evangelicals

Every election season, across the United States, Evangelical churches display and distribute non-partisan voter guides. Not all Evangelical churches, of course. But a lot of them. Enough.

The critique of such "voter education" efforts is typically that they're not really non-partisan, but rather political efforts passing under the tax-exempt guise of non-partisanship.

The Family Research Council's voter scorecard, e.g., claims to merely be "Examining the Pro-Family Voting Record of your Member of Congress," but rates all the Republican representatives of Georgia (to pick the state where I vote) at 90% or more, while all but one of the Democrats come in at only 10%. The ranking is based only on whether the representative voted for or against what the FRC was lobbying for or against, never noting possible conflicts or complications, or possible alternative reasons for those votes besides being simply pro- or anti-family. The Christian Coalition's presidential voter guide from 2008 never makes an explicit endorsements, but also avoids all the issues where politically conservative Christians might have felt uncomfortable with John McCain, overstates the differences between McCain and Barack Obama, actually misstates a number of positions, and dramatically oversimplifies issues in the way they're framed. Vision America -- a less known group in the same vein -- distributed a flyer last year to "patriotic pastors," which, according to the disclaimer on the flyer, was "intended to help voters make an informed decision." To do so, the flyer ranked "All Republicans" as "Excellent," "All Democrats" as "Poor," and included a single, bold bar-graph depicting the difference.

These efforts are not apolitical. But, arguing that they are political misses the primary affect of such efforts.

The voter guides and other such materials need to be understood as arguments.

This is an argument within Evangelicalism about plausible, available public positions Christians can take with regard to politics.

Dec 10, 2011

Dec 9, 2011

In the last of the light, outside the museums

Church Name™

I once knew of a small, conservative Anglican church called St. John the Baptist.

That's not quite accurate.

It was named St. John the Baptist.

The congregants, however, just called it "St. John's."

This frustrated the priest, who thought the name was special. He really wanted that full name. He tried -- unsuccessfully, if I recall correctly -- to get the parishioners to say "St. John the Baptist." Exasperated, the priest once complained, "they just want to be like everyone else."

Church names, for the most part, are not particularly distinct.

Dec 8, 2011

Searching for a narrative for Eastern Orthodox in America

Watch American Religious Studies and American Religious History for even a little while, and you'll see a developing, evolving way of talking about different groups. Go back -- not too far, even -- and one finds almost all the attention given to denominational organizations, and everything framed in terms of continuity or discontinuity with Boston Puritanism.

It's not like that anymore.

Just in recent years, the account of Islam in America is growing and changing. It's now de riguer to note that the first Muslims came to America with the importation of slaves from Africa. Added to that is a new emphasis on the various ways Islam has come to the US: with the slaves, emerging out of the 20th century African American community, with immigrants from South East Asia, with immigrants from the Middle East, etc.

A similar turn has happened in accounts of immigrants in general. Talk about Judaism, talk about Catholicism, and you have to talk about immigrant communities. One of the results of this has been to break up the homogenity of these religious identities. One looks today, for example, at Catholics, plural, focusing on the practices and behaviours of lay Catholics, the way religion functioned in their lives and in their sense of themselves, rather than focusing on Catholicism as an abstraction.

One blank spot, right now, however, is the Eastern Orthodox in America.

Dec 6, 2011

When I survey that generic, content-free cross

American arguments about the relationship of church and state, about the practical meaning of disestablishment in the 21st century, are often framed and understood as arguments between those for and against the cultural dominance of Christianity. In turn, this is understood as those for and against Christianity.

One of the weirder things that this misses in the present day fights over church and state is the ways in which those defending the public displays of Christianity have done so explicitly on the grounds that Christianity is culturally meaningless.

Those arguing for Christian symbols and practices say those symbols and practices are free of Christian content.

Dec 5, 2011


Dec 2, 2011

What he knows

Nov 30, 2011

Theology, the hidden dwarf

"It is well-known that an automaton once existed, which was so constructed that it could counter any move of a chess-player with a counter-move, and thereby assure itself of victory in the match. A puppet in Turkish attire, water-pipe in mouth, sat before the chessboard, which rested on a broad table. Through a system of mirrors, the illusion was created that this table was transparent from all sides. In truth, a hunchbacked dwarf who was a master chess-player sat inside, controlling the hands of the puppet with strings. One can envision a corresponding object to this apparatus in philosophy. The puppet called 'historical materialism' is always supposed to win. It can do this with no further ado against any opponent, so long as it employs the services of theology, which as everyone knows is small and ugly and must be kept out of sight."
-- Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History

Next semester's classes

Proseminar: American Pentecostalism
(B.A. students)

To the casual observer, American pentecostalism may well appear to be the most bewildering of contemporary forms of Christianity. Whether it’s snake handlers or prosperity preachers, healing miracles preformed on television or the exorcism of demons on the radio, “speaking in tongues,” being “slain in the spirit,” or just extraordinarily exuberant prayer, American Pentecostalism seems completely foreign to the culture around it. Yet, it emerged from and exists in that context. American pentecostalism is deeply embedded in 20th century American history. Pushing past the apparent strangeness, this class will examine the pentecostal movement in the United States, looking at its cultural relationships, and its history, beliefs and practices, paying special attention to ways these illuminate America’s recent past.

This course is intended to introduce students to the history of American Pentecostalism, as well as giving them a working understanding of the practice of religious history and cultural studies.

Text: A course reader will be made available.

Nov 29, 2011

The medialization of pentecostals

The Los Angels Daily Times reports the birth
of American pentecostalism at Azusa Street.
One of the stranger things about American religion in the 20th century has to be how completely, totally medialized pentecostalism was. 

In some ways, there's no group more resistant to modern American culture. No group more intent on being separate, on being foreign. Especially in the early days, and with the groups that were holiness. This resistance persists too in the more polished versions, and in even the most recent developments of the movement. Yet, even at the most anti- and counter-cultural moments, pentecostalism is whole-heartedly mediated by media.

I've been doing some research, as I'll be teaching American Pentecostals next semester, and it's fascinating to see how pentecostals use media today. Miracles on YouTube, for example. And how it was in these early moments, like Azusa Street in the LA Times.

There're elements of medialization in all sorts of American religions, of course. One sees the sense of media, the mediation, even the self-conscious mediation, and the affects all across the religious landscape. Billy Graham's tamer suit, the mass weddings of the Unification Church, the telegenic Pope, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' current add campaign, & so on. Many have used media. Many have learned from media. Many have only been able to imagine themselves & present themselves & position themselves through modern media.

With pentecostals, though, it's so thorough. There's no part of it, no movement of it or way it has been experienced that hasn't been presented or represented in media.

Even from the beginning.

All three waves of pentecostalism's history have been represented by and through media. All work, fundamentally, as media spectacle. They make sense, specifically, in terms of the media of their day.

I wonder if it wouldn't even be possible to map the three so-called waves onto to the major developments in mass media in the 20th century. Maybe: the first outbreak with newspapers & radio, your basic mass media; charismatics with cable & 24-hour television; 3rd wave with social media & the internet.

It's a thought. 

Nov 25, 2011

Holidays and holidays to come

Nov 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

Nov 22, 2011

"If you put any event under a microscope, you will find a whole dimension of completely weird, incredible things going on. It's as if there's the macro level of historical research, where things sort of obey natural laws, and the usual things happen and unusual things don't happen. And then there's this other level, where everything is really weird.

"On Nov. 22, in rained the night before ..."
-- Errol Morris, The Umbrella Man

'When we set out, I did not believe that Jesus Christ
is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo, I did'

My students find the fictional conversion narratives in Christian fiction unpersuasive. The word they use to describe it is "sudden." It happens too fast, like a slip over a line. It's not staged as a deduction or a conclusion, though there are arguments. The arguments happen, and then there's a gap. And then a moment where the need for arguments has evaporated. There's a knowledge in that moment -- the character "knows" -- but knowledge that's not at all like the knowledge of a conclusion.

The characters "just know," and, further, they know they know, though there's not really any clear articulation of how.

Generously, my students assume this is a failure of the fiction. That it's simply staged badly. It makes no sense to them that this is how it happens, so they attribute the implausibility to the badly written books. It must, they say, make more sense in real life, and if only the authors were better writers, the conversions would seem less sudden.

I don't know, though. It seems there is this moment of "slip" (that's not quite the right word for it, though). There is a suddenness to conversions, in how they're described by people who experience them. There's a moment when the arguments, however carefully constructed, however thoroughly labored over, don't matter anymore.

Maybe in one sense this makes it irrational, but it's not exactly experienced as a giving up of reason. More like, something about that which one was arguing oneself towards has changed, been vivified, and is no more like a reason than a butterfly. As inarticulate as that is. It's neither a reason nor a rejection of reason, but a realization.

It's a long silent moment, then "oh."

There can be a suddenness to the experience, which seems so implausible from the outside. Accounts of the experience of conversion -- Christian conversions, but others too -- often involve this moment of a sudden switch, a toggle. A moment of "and then I knew."

I'm finding it rather hard to explain.

Nov 19, 2011

Who reads Christian fiction?

Almost every time a cultural critic or an academic refers to readers of Christian fiction, the word "reader" could be replaced with the more pejorative phrase, "those people."

I sometimes have the urge, maybe a little facetiously, to ask, "didn't you read it too?"

Their interpretations, though, don't involve the self-reflexivity required to include their own readings in their theorizing about what happens when people read Christian fiction. Reading seems like it's conceived of as something only other people do.

Other people who are crazy, stupid and scary.

Nov 18, 2011


Nov 17, 2011

Straw man arguments defending straw man arguments

It happens like this: An atheist (or New Atheist) attacks the idea of God as implausible. Someone, a theist of some sort, typically a monotheist, counters that the idea of God being attacked is not, actually, the idea of God held by the theist, or indeed by the majority of the major world religions, and certainly not by the monotheistic ones. I.e., the God you say you don't believe, no one does.

I.e., you are attacking a straw God.

Then, almost invariably, the atheist counters the counter thus:
"the majority of believers believe in an 'anthropocentric, grey-bearded being.' They believe in heaven, hell, angels, demons, and all the other clap-trap that goes along with these bronze-age era beliefs."
But wait. Really? They do?

Nov 14, 2011

Reading as a kind of believing

Imagine if J.K. Rowling were to try to make an argument that Harry Potter existed. It would be very hard to convince anyone. Even if she had a lot of logic and history, and good arguments, even if she said it was revealed by God to be true and that many serious and smart people believed in Harry Potter, most of us would remain skeptical.

We wouldn't actually believe.

More, we probably wouldn't even actually engage with the idea. It's just so implausible, we wouldn't even weigh the arguments and consider the claim.

Imagine, on the other hand, that she didn't give us an argument, but a novel, a story, which started with an invitation to suspend disbelief. Imagine if she said, essentially, "you don't have to really believe in Harry Potter, just pretend." She might have started out, if she were going to do this, with the opening, "imagine ...."

Or she might have begun,
"Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense."
That's not an argument to believe something, but an invitation to suspend one's normal disbelief. The text isn't asking you to believe -- since, "of course" it's not true -- but to just not not-believe for a little while.

"That music was like nothing I'd ever heard before, a cross between Salvation Army and acid rock: tambourines, an electric guitar, drums, cymbals, and voices that careened from one note to the next as though the singers were being sawn in half. 'I shall not be ... I shall not be moved. I shall not be ... I shall not be moved. Just like a tree that's planted by the wa-a-ter, oh ... I shall not be moved!' ...

"They knelt at the makeshift altar and started praying out loud, each a different prayer. J.L.'s voice rose above the others for a measure or so. 'Oh Lord, be with us now, and in thy mercy hold us and keep up, and O Dear God, bless this our little church, amen, and keep it for your own ...'

"Then another voice rose up to meet his, entered into fellowship with it, and fell away, each voice on a separate strand of meaning but weaving with the others into a kind of song, rising and falling, gathering and dispersing ....

"And underneath all the human voices was the incessant rattle of the serpent in the wooden box."

-- Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain.

Nov 12, 2011

Nov 11, 2011

Teaching Apocalyptic Fiction

Nov 10, 2011

Yeah. So, nevermind.

So I was wrong about Rick Perry. The guy is not going to "run the table," clearly. Run off the table, maybe.

I was wrong.

Nov 9, 2011

When Billy Graham met Woody Allen

Billy Graham was a pop culture figure from basically the beginning. In addition to all the other things he has been, there's this really fascinating parade of iconic, pop culture moments where Graham is paired with another famous person. They're often weird and, to me, feel counter intuitive. They're often also enlightening in how they stage the kinds of cultural alliances and divides that marked and made recent history.

Graham and Bette Paige.
Graham and Muhammed Ali.
Graham and William F. Buckley (where Graham says he believes in aliens).
Graham and William Randolph Hearst.
Graham skinny dipping with LBJ.
Graham in disguise at a love-in.
Graham and Nixon talking about Jews.

And so on.

For Graham's 93rd birthday, this week, someone dug up and passed along one of these moments: Graham being interviewed by Woody Allen.

Nov 8, 2011

Religion and the Marketplace conference report

Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, Philip Goff, of Indiana University-Purdue Indiana, then issued the challenge of the conference: “What we are doing here,” Goff said, “is turning the table 90 degrees, and looking specifically at what scholars often off-handedly use as a metaphor.”

Starting the first panel of the day was R. Laurence Moore, of Cornell University, the author of one of the major works on the subject, Selling God: American Religion and the Marketplace of Culture. Moore examined the way economic standards and values are baptized by religion. Looking at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, Moore noted that prayer is understood as a market strategy, and “the measures of profit and loss remain the same.” Even Osteen’s megachurch itself, Moore argued, is a place both of prayer and commerce without, apparently, any sense of cognitive dissonance. Mark Valeri, of Union Presbyterian Seminar, continued with a look at the way Evangelicalism gave rise to American capitalism, making it possible in the eighteenth-century colonies. Valeri criticized Max Weber’s seminal theory, using more developed idea of markets, which points to the importance of the public sphere. It’s only with the emergence of a public sphere that capitalism is established, as Jürgen Habermas has demonstrated, Valeri argued, and the public sphere in early America was formed by the discourse of Evangelicals.

The full report on "Religion and the Marketplace in the US," is @ American Studies Heidelberg

Nov 4, 2011

Man with hands

Being red

Nov 3, 2011

Harold Camping is not sorry

Harold Camping says "when it comes to trying to recognize the truth of prophecy, we're finding that it is very very difficult," a point he, so far as I can find, never made in any of his extensive, definitive exegeses of prophecy, a qualification and a caution he never offered when people sent him money, sold everything, and staked their hope on the parousia Camping said was certain. Further, Camping notes, "Sometimes [God] gives us the truth and sometimes He gives us something that causes us to wait further upon Him."

This isn't just not an apology, it's a statement that, in a very real way, it's not even possible for Camping to have been wrong. He is, in a sense, hermetically sealed against error, since even when he was wrong, that too was from God. God gives truth, which Camping relays, and God gives lies, which Camping also relays. But they aren't lies, exactly, but a method of teaching God uses.

Read the rest of the essay @ Religion Dispatches.

Here the Devil

"... we improved each moment to get along as if we were fleeing for our lives .... We went down to the Stream but heard no man speak a word all the way for 3 miles but every one pressing forward in great haste and when we got to Middletown old meeting house there was a great Multitude it was said to be 3 or 4000 of people Assembled together.

"... my hearing him preach, gave me a heart wound ... my old Foundation was broken up, and I saw that my righteousness would not save me ....

"Now when I went away I made great Resolutions that I would forsake every thing that was Sinfull ... And at once I felt a calm in my mind, and I had no desire to any thing that was sin as I thought; But here the Devil thought to Catch me on a false hope, for I began to think that I was converted, for I thought I felt a real Change in me."

-- Nathan Cole, Spiritual Travels

Nov 1, 2011

Demons & the function of the idea of demons in America

How strange is belief in demons today?

How obscure is this, in the America we live in?

Not very.

There are, roughly calculated, 150,173,800 American Christians who believe in demons*. That's 150 million-plus self-identified Christians in America, who, when asked by pollsters, said they agreed with the idea there were evil spirits, demons, etc., at work in the world in such a way that they could control or influence a person.

150 million plus is not, it feels necessary to point out, a small number.

That's slightly more than 48% of Americans**.

This, of course, is not even counting people who don't self identify as Christians but who also believe in demons. It's not like demons are unique to Christian theology, after all.

In short, lots and lots of Americans' experience of the world and explanation of the world includes reference to demons. Demons, for them, serve an explanatory function, sometimes, and are part of the furniture of the cosmos, one of the types of entities that inhabit the world.

So: not obscure.

So: while you may think it's strange, and maybe objectively it is strange, and while there may be really good arguments for why people shouldn't believe in demons, maybe shouldn't even be able to believe in demons, what with science today being what it is, people do. Lots of people.

It's actually quite, quite common.

It's also not something to be freaked out about. Not only is belief in demons not that rare, sociologically speaking, it isn't really as freaky as it's made out to be, and, really, the more you know about it, the less important it seems.

Oct 31, 2011

Sunset watching

Oct 30, 2011

The hell you say

Q. Does Kevin DeYoung believe in a literal hell, and does he believe that belief is necessary for true Christianity?

A1. Yes. Kevin DeYoung says "With sober gravity, we must confess that hell is real and people will go there." Further, he says "God's wrath cannot be wished away from the pages of Scripture" and, in allusion to the doctrine of double predestination, "Sin must be atoned for and sinners must be punished" (The Good News We Almost Forgot, 38).

A2. No. Hell can better be thought of in the spiritual sense, as separation from God. DeYoung writes, "Jesus 'descended' into hell as He suffered the pain and torment of divine wrath. 'Surely no more terrible abyss can be conceived,' writes Calvin, 'than to feel yourself forsaken and estranged from God; and when you call upon him to not be heard.' It should be a comfort to us that there is no hell we can face greater than the one Christ endured" (The Good News We Almost Forgot, 98).

Q. What is the difference between the first answer and the second?

A. 60 pages.

Ha ha, white trash

If you google "Heath Campbell," the search engine's autocomplete function will recommend "Heath Campbell white trash."

This, it appears, is all we get in the way of explanation. This is the closest thing I can find to any sort of an attempt at an understanding of Heath and Deborah Campbell, despite more than 80 news stories about the couple.

This story is a perfect, perfect example of the kind of journalism I loathe.

Oct 29, 2011

Are you an angel now, or a vulture?

Oct 27, 2011

... the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Oct 25, 2011


Oct 24, 2011

Orthodox en-COUNTER-s w/ modern America

An interesting snapshot of the ways the Eastern Orthodox in America are negotiating with American culture:
"[T]he OCA Department of Christian Education [DCE] invites all [16th All-American] Council participants to attend a workshop in the Juniper Room on Monday, October 31, at 8:00 p.m., for a workshop titled 'Orthodox Living in a Challenging World.' Archpriests John Behr and Michael Oleksa will offer presentations on 'Being Human' and 'En-COUNTER-ing Culture' respectively. Mrs. Daria Petrykowski will offer a presentation on 'Addressing Abortion,' while Archpriest John Dresko will speak on 'Challenging Sunday Sports.' In addition, Matushka Valerie Zahirsky, DCE chair, will highlight various resources offered by the department."
A group like the OCA is unlikely to understand itself as in-transition, in negotiation and re-negotiation of identity. The emphasis, of course, is on continuity, and being unchanged. For that matter, the emphasis is likely to be on theological distinctives rather than points of cultural contact. Yet, as we see in this programing note, the cultural issues also come up.

There is always contact, and at those points you find either adaptation, or resistance, or both.

What makes the Eastern Orthodox in America particularly interesting in this regard, I think, is the way the immigrants and the converts tend to be at cross-currents on exactly question of encounters with the broader culture. Second- and third-generation immigrants often tend towards assimilation and adaptation, while the converts to Orthodoxy often especially value the ways in which these churches are dramatically counter-cultural.

This is also, though, at the same time, exactly reversed: the converts bring social attitudes and cultural practices and concerns which lessen the alterity of the Orthodox church. They often note, for example, that they're not converting to an ethnicity. Yet the division of religious practices and ethnic and national and even family practices can be problematic for immigrants and their children, whose identity in America includes all these ways of living blended together into a whole, that whole being who they are in this new context, these new encounters.

A great unwelcoming

The disagreement over the new Roman Catholic Missal is set up like this: concerns about theology vs. pastoral concerns.

There's a great middle of Catholics who don't care or are unaware of the pending changes, and then two sides, one supporting and one opposing the new Missal, which will replace the Missal put in place by Vatican II. This is how the sides have been constructed. This is how news accounts of the upcoming changes have presented the disagreement, and how the sides of the disagreement each present themselves.

An illustration from the new Roman Catholic Missal
Bishop Donald Trautman takes the pastoral side, for example, arguing:
"[T]he translation of the new Missal has intentionally employed a 'sacred language,' which tends to be remote from everyday speech and frequently not understandable.... While the translated texts of the new Missal must be accurate and faithful to the Latin original, they must also be intelligible, proclaimable, and grammatically correct. Regrettably the new translation fails in this regard.
"Did Jesus ever speak to the people of his day in words beyond their comprehension?"
Anthony Esolen, in First Things, takes the other side, accusing the translators of the currently in-use English-language Missal of Orwellianisms, and of producing a "thin, pedestrian, and often misleading version" of Catholic prayers. Esolen writes:
"They ignored the poetry. They severed thought from thought. They rendered concrete words, or abstract words with concrete substrates, as generalities. They eliminated most of the sense of the sacred. They quietly filed words like 'grace' down the memory hole. They muffled the word of God. They did not translate .... Those Catholics who grumble about the new translation without looking at the Latin have no idea how much has been lost to us English speakers these last forty years." (Emphasis original).
As US Today summarized:
"Much of the debate within the church is over whether the changes, ordered by the Vatican to achieve more literal translations from the Latin, are good or bad.

"Proponents say the new version is a more precise reflection of the original Latin. They say it is richer in its poetry, more reverent in its references to God and fuller in its allusions to the Bible and church creeds.

"Critics ... call the new version rigidly literal -- difficult for priests to recite and lay people to understand."
This positioning of the sides, however, doesn't explain some of the changes.

It also might obscure the deeper argument going on, the struggle which is the context for the new missal.

Oct 22, 2011


Oct 21, 2011

Tom Waits::

"I have to be willing to look at it like a three-legged table. If you've got three legs, you know it can stand up. Then we can put stripes on its tie or give it a toupee, but you need to have something to hang it on."

"Crows ... they say if you can find a wounded crow and nurse it back to health it will never leave you. I’m always looking for limping crows."

Oct 20, 2011

Mouth organ

Oct 18, 2011

What makes sacred space sacred?

Anthony Santoro wrote himself a note the last day of the conference: is there a good definition of sacred space?

It’s a good question, especially in the context of looking at seemingly secular activities that are maybe better understood as sacred. But are they sacred? Sacralized? And what does that mean, exactly? In a world where lots of people understand themselves to be “spiritual but not religious,” there must be spaces understood and experienced as spiritual, but which aren’t institutions, aren’t religious. What are those spaces, though, and what makes them the way they are?

The question is: what has to happen to a space for it to be experienced as spiritual?

Continue @ American Studies Heidelberg.

Oct 16, 2011

Oct 13, 2011

We're telling the guys there on Wall Street, 'Hey! Look down!'

The human microphone may be the best possible way to hear Zizek. The jokes, especially, are funnier when chanted by a crowd.

That said, he does give a concise account of the Occupy Wall Street protests:

"Beware not only of enemies, but also of false friends who pretend to support us, but are already working hard to dilute our protest. In the same way we get coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, ice-cream without fat, they will try to make us into a harmless moral protest. But the reason we are here is that we had enough of the world where to recycle your Coke cans, to give a couple of dollars for charity, or to buy Starbucks cappuccino where 1% goes for the Third World troubles is enough to make us feel good. After outsourcing work and torture, after the marriage agencies started to outsource even our dating, we see that for a long time we were allowing our political engagements also to be outsourced—we want them back."

Now if only Zizek could rally the Tea Partiers, maybe broker a joint protest.

Oct 12, 2011

Differences of degree

Dr. E. Brooks Holifield, speaking at the University of Heidelberg’s Alte Aula, said the marketplace thesis is problematic because it posits as explanations historical conditions which, when they happened elsewhere, didn’t result in the same sort of religiosity. For example, some have said it’s the democratization of religion in America that made the difference, but Wales, Scotland and England also had such democratizations, with “their share of uneducated populist preachers who drew enthusiastic adherents.”

Holifield said the historical conditions that most likely led to American religiousity are only different from other, similar events in the history of Europe in degree. It’s not that they happened in the US and nowhere else, but that they happened differently or to a greater or lesser degree. Picking this up as his theme and thesis, Holifield said:

“Differences of degree make a great deal of difference.”

Continue @ American Studies Heidelberg.

What Karl Barth said to Francis Schaeffer

"Rejoice, dear Mr. Schaeffer (and you calling your-selves 'fundamentalists' all over the world)! Rejoice and go on to believe in your 'logics' (as in the fourth article of your creed!) and in your-selves as the only true 'bible-believing' people! Shout so loudly as you can! But, pray, allow me, to let you alone. 'Conversations' are possible between open-minded people. Your paper and the review of your friend Buswell reveals the fact of your decision to close your window-shutters. I do not know how to deal with a man who comes to see and to speak to me in the quality of an [sic] detective-inspector with the beheaviour [sic] of a missionary who goes to convert a heathen. No, thanks! Yours sincerely. Excuse my bad English. I am not accustomed to write in your language.

"Sorry, but it can not be helped! Yours, Karl Barth."
 From Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America, by Barry Hankins.

Oct 11, 2011

Billy Graham & the marketplace

The market for Billy Graham studies is likely to boom in the coming years, as scholars attempt to assess and evaluate the complete life of the now-elderly crusader. A share of that assessment will be given over to assessing Graham’s relationship to markets.

That was demonstrated on Friday, as three papers were presented on three different aspects of that relationship.

Continue @ American Studies Heidelberg.

Oct 10, 2011

Oct 8, 2011

r&m 080

Oct 6, 2011

r&m 105

For more on the conference, see American Studies Heidelberg, where I and several others will be blogging the conference for the next three days.

Oct 4, 2011

Fighting w/ St. Francis

St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day is today, is one of those once-powerful religious figures who've been totally domesticated. His radicalness, his weirdness, his challenge -- it's all smothered in quaint-saint gooeyness.*

The power's still there, of course, in potential, but Francis is made safe for the world (Catholic and Protestant, religious or not). We ensure he, the saint of the garden figurine, only ever works to affirm, always so supportive.

I am not saying, here, that it's other people who do this.

I'm saying you do this, unless your first response to Francis is to want to punch him. I'm saying I definitely do this.

I'm saying there's a covered-up part of St. Francis that we cover up that would make you and me go, what the hell...?

Oct 3, 2011

Secularism, secularization, secularity

It's easy to find critics of secularism. Criticizing secularism (and secularists) is a regular move for certain sets of evangelicals and conservative Christians, for example.

Though there's very little clarity on what secularism is, or who holds this ideology and how, there's at least a consideration of it on some level, misconsiderations with which to start.

Academically, there's little analysis of secularism, per se. There's lots, though, LOTS, on secularization. The question is "how did this happen?" and the answer's a bunch of history.

Peter Berger does a lot of this, for example. He looks at the process. The Sacred Canopy is (to over simplify) divided into one part on how it happens in theory and the theoretical structure of the process, and one part on how it happened in history. Almost all of Charles Taylor's A Secular Age is about the historical process, with him going deep into the past and the library stacks to try to answer how this happened.

What I want to know is, rather than "how did this happen," what is the "this"?

What is secularity? How does it function? What is it as a condition, and what are the consequences of that condition? How does it, as an environment, shape and influence those who exist or that which exists within it?

Berger and Taylor both do define it -- and have both been very useful to me in thinking through my project. They're both countering the "subtraction thesis," where the secular is the remainder after the religious is taken away, which is useful and good. But I need to spend more time looking at how it (secularity) works itself out. There are maybe a total of 7 pages in Taylor's 851-page book where he says, "so, secularity is this, and that means, practically, this, this & this."

Which is what I'm trying to ask.

Oct 2, 2011

Late days of summer

Oct 1, 2011

Sep 30, 2011

A thought experiment

There are several maneuvers of thinking I learned from philosophy that have proved to be quite useful. These are tools of thorough thought that have been critical for me. Others may have learned them other places. I don't know that they're unique to philosophy, though they are substantive of philosophy for me, and part of how philosophy continues to have a presence in my life.

One is the inversion. (I don't know what the official name is, though presumably there is one). Thinking things backwards, or in reverse, or upside down. Mutatis mutandis. Slovoj Žižek, for everything that's problematic with him, demonstrates the power of this move all the time.

The second is the thought experiment. My philosophy profs could do these all the time, off the top of their heads, and I aspire to that. One used to sit on the table, swing his legs and say "suppose...."


Sep 29, 2011

'Buying it':
The possible usefulness of commodified authenticity

There are something like a million ways that authenticity has been commodified. From Johnny Cash and Che Guevara to ethnic fiction, from jeans to skateboards to tours of historic recreations, from craft fairs to Christmas tree farms to photographs to concerts, there's the selling and buying of constructions of "the real thing."

Even some of the most artificially constructed things in America -- the most fake fakes out there -- are marketed as authentic. And consumed as authentic. As "real." This has been noted by more than one cultural critic and by many, many college students with an introduction to postmodern theory on their transcripts.

Think Disney's Main Street, vacations in national parks, the news, suburban lawns.

It's almost as if every cultural product was just this packaging of an experience of something real.

Critics of packaged authenticity almost always focus on how the packaging is inauthentic. The proof is evidence of infidelities, misrepresentations, etc., arguments that that which is constructed really is constructed, that which is mediated, mediated, and so on.

In the process, there's an implication that consumers are idiots.

There's the idea that though those who purchase packaged "authenticity" apparently long after this realness, wanting it more than anything else, they are just too stupid to know they're not buying the real thing when they buy "the real thing."

Is it just credulity though?

What to do w/ your hands

I am reminded, every so often in life, how much is really muddling through. Doing the next thing. Doing what seems right, but who knows.

How much of the day-to-day is captured in that brilliant bit from Tolstoy:
"Peter Ivanovich, like everyone else on such occasions, entered feeling uncertain what he would have to do. All he knew was that at such times it is always safe to cross oneself."
That seems to me to be a core religious experience, right there. The awkwardness.

The moral of this is probably that I should read more Tolstoy.

Or old dead Russians in general.

Sep 27, 2011

Accounting for the dominance of contemporary worship music

From the mid '80s to the mid '90s, roughly, there was a struggle in many American evangelical churches over worship music. In some places, it was the most controversial issue. The "worship wars."

It seems like for the most part contemporary music won out. Where there was a struggle, new music won. Choruses and worship bands pretty much predominate evangelical churches, and quite a few mainline churches too. It's not like you can't find traditional Christian church music in an evangelical church, can't find a piano and a hymn book somewhere (or even, on very rare occasions, an organ), but, for the most part, that's not what happens in evangelical churches on Sunday mornings.

The new classics of Christian worship -- the songs that everyone knows -- are "Mighty to Save", "Lord I Lift Your Name on High", and "Shout to the Lord".

What I haven't seen, though, is a good account of why contemporary music won. The sense, at least for those who still sometimes pine for older songs and so still talk about those days of hymns of yore, seems to be that the change was inevitable and inexorable. That it had to happen.

I don't find the Hegelian idea of telologically-determined history satisfying, though, so I'd like to know why contemporary music, which was so controversial for so many, has come to be so broadly accepted.

Some guesses:

Sep 26, 2011

In the afternoon

Sep 24, 2011

The separation of church and taxes

It is not the case that churches are not allowed to support political candidates. They can. There's nothing about the separation of church and state or the First Amendment that forbids it, though these stories always get put under that church-state-separation-fight rubric. Legally, churches can get political and make strong statements of support. Churches are entirely free to endorse candidates.

They just have to give up their tax-exempt status.

Sep 22, 2011

Flowers by the pallet
"Barefoot conducts his seminars on his houseboat in Sausalito. It costs a hundred dollars to find out why we are on Earth. You also get a sandwich, but I wasn't hungry that day."

-- Philip K. Dick, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer

Sep 21, 2011

The two unexplained ideas central to 'dominionism'

In the great dominionist kerfuffle of last month, two important, inter-related explanations kind of got missed.

One, there wasn't a good, solid definition of "dominionism" that domininionists would recognize.

Two, there wasn't a good explanation of why an actual dominionist, who owns and claims the term, would be a dominionist.

Sep 20, 2011

The blue saints

Sep 19, 2011

Prayers against meth, cont.

A follow-up detail to add context to the story about the East Tennessee sheriff and community praying against meth: A new report says that nationwide, the number of meth users decreased by about half in the last four years.

Meth use -- so often called "epidemic" -- appears to be on the wane.

Turning upside down the upside down

Inverting the symbols of Christianity is harder than in looks.

A student of mine just wrote a really good paper on the subject of satanic imagery in Death Metal (a genre that, despite finding interesting, still seems unlistenable to me). In his paper, he looked at the band Deicide, which goes beyond marketing provocations in their use and embrace of anti-Christian imagery and themes. In their 2011 album, To Hell With God, they, according to my student, included album art showing Jesus in contorted, torturous poses. One of the band members has an upside-down crucifix branded into his forehead.

It's possible, though, to read all of these blasphemies as expressions of Christian faith. These three "inversions" -- God in hell instead of heaven, a cross upside down, the savior of the world being tortured -- are all already present in Christianity.

Sep 17, 2011

Germans pretending to be French

I'd rather be the devil

Sep 16, 2011

Sep 15, 2011

Troy Davis & bad agruments against the death penalty

Troy Davis is scheduled to die next week, and probably will.

The board that could grant him clemency has denied it before, and this is Davis' fourth time facing execution by the state of Georgia.

The Supreme Court declined to hear his case in March. In August, a federal judge rejected Davis' claims of innocence, ruling he hadn't proved that he didn't kill Mark Allen MacPhail, off-duty officer shot to death in Savannah in 1989. There have been several stays of execution, but now it looks like the state really will kill Davis, and last-minute, final-days efforts to save him are mounting up, apparently futilely.

More than 3,000 religious leaders have signed a petition on his behalf, for example. This is a lot more than normal in a death penalty case. It doesn't seem like it will matter.

I'm more familiar with Davis' case than I am with others like it,* and I hope they don't kill him next week. I hope he gets clemency, that someone on the board has last-minute second thoughts. Maybe one of the names of the 3,000 clergy opposing the execution will give a board member pause.

I'm opposed to the execution but have actually been really uncomfortable with the movement pushing for clemency.

Sep 13, 2011

It's not about size

Juxtaposing two moments of audience participation from the last two Republican primary debates shows pretty clearly that the struggles of contemporary American politics are not about the size of government. The political scene can't be accurately described as small government supporters arrayed against in big government supporters. It's nonsense to talk about less government vs. more, and think that explains anything about the choices faced.

I, for example, would like the government to be big enough to help keep alive someone who made a bad decision. In contrast to those in Florida last night who would rather someone die that get "welfarism."

I would also, though, like the government to be so small that it can't kill people. A position not shared by the "small government" supporters at last week's Republican debate at the Reagan library.

So do I believe in big or little government?

Well, I support people not dying through the omissions or commissions of the state, and would like government to be that size.

Sep 12, 2011


Sep 11, 2011

It wasn't our good war

I met the man who built the prisons at Guantanamo Bay.

I didn't plan to meet him and didn't know who he was when I did. It was in the Atlanta airport. I was with a group of WWII veterans -- old men, grandpas with medals, memorabilia hats and hearing aids. They were flying to see the monument built to them after all these years in Washington. Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert was passing through and saw me with a notebook and camera and stopped to ask me where all the old soldiers were going. I interviewed him, a one-star general in the "War on Terror," about how he felt seeing the vets of that earlier era.

Later I looked him up. Realized who he was.

Lehnert didn't build the Guantanamo Bay you think of when you hear "Guantanamo Bay." He actually tried to follow the Geneva Convention. He thought he was being sent prisoners of war, who were to be treated as such.

Cluny abby

Sep 10, 2011

9/11 relics

Religion, Peter Berger once said, is the audacious proposal that human activities are cosmically meaningful.

In this sense, some of the remembrances and relics of 9/11 are deeply religious. Curiously so.

Consider "What We Kept," Dan Barry's New York Times piece on the "mundane items" people who survived 9/11 kept from that day. He writes:
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, people everywhere did what people do in disaster’s fresh wake: We wept, prayed, raged, cowered, gathered, hid, drank, questioned, comforted and sought comfort. We also saved things, often little things, and often for reasons just beyond the full grasp of articulation.
Some of the items he features, saved for a decade now, are obvious. It makes sense that they're meaningful. The reasons one would make a relic out of a wedding ring are pretty apparent.

Other objects are more mysterious. Like a mostly-burned piece of paper, an application form never filled out, an application that had nothing at all to do with the person for whom it became a relic.

Sep 9, 2011

Prescribing Describing "evangelical"

C.S. Lewis once complained the word "gentleman" was meaningless now that it couldn't be used in association with an insult. A "gentleman and a scoundrel" was perfectly sensible when "gentleman" designated some member of a specific class, but now the word was vague, an empty compliment. It just meant, "I agree with you, nice person."

Don't let the same thing happen, was his point, to the word "Christian."

The same could be said of "evangelical."

Sep 7, 2011

Conversion as realization

If you stop at a stoplight on parts of Atlanta's MLK Blvd. -- say you come off of 20 and go up Joseph E. Lowery, looking for parking near one of the campuses of the trinity of historic black colleges, Moorehouse, Spellman, and Clark -- you might see one of the proselytizers of the Nation of Islam. They wear dark suits and spotless shirts and bow ties, stationed at the corners of the streets named for Civil Rights ministers, passing out bags of fresh fruit and literature.

If you stop at a stop light they'll walk up the street, looking into the cars, looking for their people.

If you're white, like I am, they pass you by. They don't sustain eye contact or return a smile, don't say anything into the open window of the idling car, but keep on going. Instead a minister stops at the car behind you, giving fruit to the woman in the bondo-colored Chevy Caprice with the muffler and the kids in back. A woman who is black. Another passes pamphlets into the window of and SUV in the next lane. And maybe you can't see who the man is talking to. It's not a white guy, though. It's not an Asian or a Hispanic. The ministers are proselytizing and won't talk to just anyone. They use the time -- just the length of a red light -- to try to convert those who can convert. They look, in a sense, for those who already have, dormant within them, that which the Nation of Islam brothers would wish them to be.

They look for those who are in some way already within the circle, already a part of the thing, to make them aware of what they believe is already the case. It's not a conversion they're after, in the sense of a conversion as a change. They don't want a move, but an awakening, a conversion in the sense of a realization. They want people -- certain people -- to become what they already are, to stop, as they see it, denying the truth, and come into the knowledge of what they already know, but suppress within themselves.

American culture tends to be dominated by a universalist rhetoric. All are created equal, and so forth. Most evangelizing takes the same form as voter registration drives, attempting to get everyone signed up. Universal suffrage. The truth available to everyone. The Jehovah's Witnesses hit every door, e.g. The Bible church invites everyone to the hell house. That's pretty much the model.

There are these other types of proselytization, though, which might provide side way into thinking about conversions aren't experienced as being a choice.

Sep 5, 2011

Taize prayers, Taize silence More photos here, featuring a good group of the beautiful people from Unterwegs.

Aug 29, 2011

To Taizé

Fr. Roger

"There is a state of mind, known to religious men, but to no others, in which the will to assert ourselves and hold our own has been displaced by a willingness to close our mouths and be as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God."

-- William James, Varieties of Religious Experience

Aug 28, 2011

Meaningful ghosts & Darwin's tragedy in Jon Amiel's 'Creation'

Creation, the Jon Amiel film about Charles Darwin's turmoil at the time he wrote On the Origins of Species, presents Darwin as a tragic figure. He is haunted, literally and figuaritvely, by night- and daymares. He hallucinates and dreams of his dead daughter throughout, both as she was in life, and as a pestering presence pushing him to finish writing his book.

He doesn't dream of her as actually dead, though. Under the ground, eaten by worms, etc.

This is curious because death, not the very Victorian hauntings of an absent child but the literal sort, the rot and "red in tooth and claw" relevant to the theory of random natural selection, is the more troubling specter haunting Darwin throughout Creation. The Darwin character is troubled by the death that is rampant in nature, that is deprived of any purpose when nature is nature not creation, not made sensible by being part of a plan. Darwin sees, dreams, imagines and theorizes death: a baby bird fallen from the nest, maggots feasting, a fox with his teeth in the neck of a rabbit, trout eggs eaten by the millions.

"Well," says the parson in Creation, "the Lord moves in mysterious ways."

"Yes he does, doesn't he?" says Darwin. "You know I was remarking only the other day how he has endowed us in all his blessed generosity with not one but 900 species of intestinal worm, each with its own unique method of ... burrowing through to the blood stream. And on the love he shows for the butterfly, by inventing a wasp that lays its eggs inside the living flesh of catapillars."

He has nightmares of this death he cannot domesticate with purpose.

Aug 27, 2011

Aug 25, 2011

Where are evangelicals Sunday morning?

An interesting stat reported in announcements of Mark Chaves' new book: 25 percent of Americans go to a religious service weekly.

The self-reported number is much higher (39 percent in Pew's survey). The problems with such self-reported numbers have been pointed out several times, along with why self-reported religious data is itself a problem.

If this new number is correct -- 25 percent -- it raises an interesting question.

Who's not going to church?

We know that 26.3 percent of Americans are classified as evangelicals. If evangelicals were the only people in a religious service on a weekly basis -- no Jehovah's Witnesses, no Catholics, no mainline Protestants, no Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, etc. -- that still would mean evangelicals aren't all in church on Sunday. But it can't be only evangelicals are in church. There are Catholics at Mass, JWs at the Kingdom Hall, Buddhists at the temple, and so on. Episcopal churches may not be crowded, Unitarian Universalist services may be sparsely attended, but they're not empty.

So, are 80 percent of evangelicals in church weekly? 70? 40? 35?

And how does that change the perspective on what it means to be evangelical in America today?

The problem of distancing in religious identifications

I heard a joke, when I was a kid, with the punchline: sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you.

The joke itself fades, but the punchline stands alone pretty good.

There's another about a matador and a restaurant, which I remember in too much detail, that has the same punchline: sometimes the man kills the bull, sometimes the bull kills the man.

It happens, seems to be the point.

It happens, too, with interpretations of data.

From the way some of Duke professor Mark Chaves' findings in his new book, American Religion: Contemporary Trends, are being reported, it looks like this may be a case where the data has eaten the man.

Aug 24, 2011

Pam and Nathan

Aug 23, 2011

Politically irrelevant questions abt religion for GOP candidates

There are plenty of pointed questions being asked about the religion, the religions, the faith, and the religious commitments of the men and woman vying for the Republican nomination. This is as it should be.

Some of these are really good question. Many should be and need to be asked.

Unfortunately, most of the questions seem to be asked in the spirit of "oh my God -- oh their God -- you won't believe what this crazy person who wants to sit in the oval office really believes!"

Which is fine for partisanship, right and left, but bores me.

So, in a different spirit: a couple of questions each for the top four GOP candidates. On religion. Worthwhile in maybe helping one understand these people and who they are, but not political zingers. Questions that aren't ah-HA!, but, "hey, religion seems to be an important part of your life, and I'm curious about a couple of random, probably irrelevant things..."

Michele Bachmann:
Family surfing

Aug 20, 2011

One reason for looking at Christian fiction

Christian fiction might well rank as the most disrespected of current cultural artifacts.

All sorts of things have been taken out of the cultural trash and studied, in the last decades. Taken seriously. TV's like the pots broken and buried in Thomas Jefferson's backyard. Comic books, not just for juvenile delinquents anymore, are read like Homer.

But not Christian fiction.

Even those one might expect would appreciate the genre are generally pretty dismissive.

Aug 19, 2011

The secular condition & praying against meth

What is one to think of this?
"The Scott County [Tenn.] Sheriff's Department believes there is a connection in the number of people praying for the county and the number of methamphetamine lab busts officers have made since prayers started four months ago."
How does one understand law enforcement officials attributing their success in busting meth labs  to divine help? Not to their leadership, or to the good work of deputies, or the effectiveness of crime-fighting initiatives, but divine help.

Politically, would be the obvious way to think about it.

Isn't it "respecting an establishment of religion," for example, when the sheriff's office organizes an officially "non-denominational" public prayer event that's nonetheless explicitly Christian, and which seems to be led by a rotation of Baptist ministers? The Tennessee State Constitution says "no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship" and "no man can of right be compelled to ... support any place of worship." Presumably this would include via tax dollars going to the sheriff while he, in his official capacity, plans a revival.

Counter the state and federal constitutions, the chief deputy of Scott County's Sheriff's Office and dept. spokesman says, "There’s no doubt that this is still a Christian county." The prayer events were also attended and supported, according to the local newspaper, by a number of county officials, school board members, uniformed officers and EMTs.

One could also ask about the anti-government politics of government officials such as this Tennessee sheriff, who told TV reporters "We seem to look at government for our solutions and a lot of people like myself don't think government can solve these problems.... I think God is the answer." He told other reporters, "We have officers assigned to combat the drug problem, but it's not working. There's probably people in law enforcement who don't want to hear that, but it's not working."

If the sheriff doesn't think the sheriff's dept. is a solution to crime, what is the point of being sheriff? Why have those officers been assigned to combat the drug problem? Are they going to be reassigned? And why do people support officials who not only do not have a plan to solve the problems their department is supposed to be concerned with, but officials who fundamentally do not believe it would be possible for them to solve such problems in their official capacities?

The politics is easy, though. This is the obvious way to think about it.

Think past the politics. Deeper. What's underlying the above?

How should one think of this -- "The Scott County [Tenn.] Sheriff's Department believes there is a connection in the number of people praying for the county and the number of methamphetamine lab busts officers have made since prayers started four months ago" -- not in terms of political issues or points, but, instead, about what it says about religion in American today?

Aug 17, 2011

I Love ya

Aug 15, 2011

Do you really think that Jesus is in this room?
No. I don't think he's in this room.
You dont?
I know he's in this room.
The professor folds his hands at the table and lowers his head. The black pulls out the other chair and sits again.

Its the way you put it, Professor. Be like me askin you do you think you got your coat on. You see what I'm sayin?
It's not the same thing. It's a matter of agreement. If you say and I say that I have my coat on and Cecil says that I'm naked and I have green skin and a tail then we might want to think about where we should put Cecil so that he wont hurt himself.
Who's Cecil?

The 'worldview' boom

"Everybody has some kind of a worldview," Rick Warren said.

But this might be more true than it used to be.

The idea of "worldview," of course, is that one has to have one, and that people have always had them. But the use of the word, the way people conceive of themselves and of others as having worldviews, is a much more recent thing.

Google ngrams show that, in American English, "world view" was used in .00012% of books from 1710 - 1720, and then in about .0001% percent around 1780. These are blips. Stray usages. Several of those cases turn out not to be "world view" at all, in the way we think of it, but, "world, view'd," from the line "This, and the next world, view'd with such an eye," in a then-much-anthologized poem by the poet Edward Young.

Besides that it's basically nothing -- non-existent -- until around 1900, where there's a couple uses of the set of words in the corpus of Google-scanned books, and then more, and then a lot more. By 1986, .0003% of the American English corpus contains uses of the phrase "world view." That's 3x what it was in 1780.

Considering that there are also a lot more books being printed in America in 1986 than there were in 1780, this is more than an uptick. It's a massive increase of "world view."

Aug 14, 2011

Rick Perry & the smart money

My money's on Rick Perry for the GOP nomination.

This is mostly instinct. Mostly my sense that I know conservatives.

He's in, as of today. His has been the best entry, thus far. Compare his announcement to Next Gingrich's (confusion), Michele Bachmann's (erratic), Mitt Romney's (boring), etc. He did it in a way that puts him in the news in the top slot next to whomever wins the Iowa straw poll and presumed front-runner Romney. He's the comparison, the next sentence. The counterpoint. The one to beat, out of nowhere. Which is a pretty good maneuver. He wins the politics in a way that reorients the game, but still seems smooth.

Which is indicative of why he'll get the nomination.