Jun 29, 2011

How to effectively report on a 'cult' murder

Item: Yesterday: 7 indicted in 'cult' murder case
Item: 1994: Third man Emerges at Center of Cult Death Mystery
Item: 1933: 10 Arrested in Cult Death Case
Item: 1933: Daughter of Aged Sacrifice Victim Tells of Slaying

Use the word 'cult' a lot, but don't define it.
Everybody knows it means freaky.

Don't say what the connection is between the religion and the homicide.

They're a cult. It was only a matter of time.

Don't bother with theological distinctives.
Besides the murder itself, obviously. That's pretty distinctive.

Tuesay over the city

Jun 27, 2011

In the shadow of the steeple

Is Hume dead? Does Natural Law live?

There are certain ideas I find I can't really think through without recourse to Hume. I'm not a Hume expert. I've read more second-hand explanations of Hume than I have actual Hume, though I do seem to have collected a virtual pile of his works on my kindle. I think they're important; I think I have to get to them soon. The excerpts and essays I have read had quite a bit of an affect, and certain of his ideas seem indispensable to me. There's some stuff I just can't mentally think through without using some of the Scottish skeptic.

Take two sentences, for example:

1. All crows are black.
2. All bachelors are unmarried males.

What, logically and structurally, is the difference between them? Further: which one is more structurally similar and logically similar to the sentence:

3. All stealing is wrong.

It's not necessary, of course, that one use Hume to think these things through. For me, though, he's been invaluable. Especially with regards to his ideas of a posteriori knowledge, and the is/ought problem.

Which is to say -- especially with rejecting "natural law," the sort touted and assumed in popular discourse all the time (e.g. in the debate over whether homosexuality is "natural"), and of the sort one finds behind certain political philosophies (i.e. some kinds of Conservatism), and that which seems to be necessary for some religious ethics (e.g. how Thomists & Neo-Thomists talk about Catholic ethics).

Some of the places I've been, those ideas were dominant, so Hume has been helpful to me. I often point others to him as well. When students, for example, don't question Sam Harris' idea that there are such things as moral facts, and that they're a species of scientific facts, and that the expanding, increasing knowledge of science will, eventually, make all this clear, giving us a scientifically objective morality that cannot be questioned or doubted*, as we'll have moral imperatives discovered with the scientific method and thus as obviously right as, say, penicillin is obviously useful, I find myself hauling the little Hume I have up out of my memory and recommending his work too, pointing people to Hume for an explanation of why this idea isn't likely to actually work.

This is why I was surprised to find that, for some and in some circles, Hume's thought it considered to be clearly dead, dead, dead.

Jun 25, 2011

Data and ambiguities

Religious data is meant to give us facts, measurable things, things we can know we know about religion in the world today.

And we may well be living in a golden age of religious data -- Try figuring out how many people were optimistic about the future the year C.I. Scofield went to jail or, say, what percentage of Protestants held Calvinistic beliefs about Total Depravity when Charles Finney said humans could make revivals happen, and you quickly learn to appreciate the amount of information we have today.


What I really appreciate is how this data can spotlight what we don't know. The ambiguities.

Jun 22, 2011

Hermeneutics, and the problem of possible viable positions

If you look at the Bible hermeneutics debate in the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies (as my students are doing at the moment), you see that there are two questions, or two parts of one question. The debate mostly centered on just the one, but it should be broken down into parts as the hermeneutics question, as it played out and got answered in early 20th century American Christianity, really did have two parts.

Make it:
A. Is the historical-critical method of reading right?
B. Is the historical-method compatible with orthodox Christianity?

The fight was mostly re: B, but A was there nonetheless. That's not as true today.
And then even the headstone's gone

Jun 21, 2011

And then everything got horrible

Declension narratives are stupid. They're just: nostalgia, nostalgia, nostalgia, fall off a cliff.

What it means if you say you say grace before meals

As a quote to sum up the "God Gap" in American politics, David E. Campbell's is perfect:

"If I know whether you say grace before meals every day, I can probably predict how you vote," said Notre Dame political scientist David E. Campbell.

It's perfect, which is probably why it has cropped up everywhere since Campbell said it earlier this month. It's fast on its way to becoming the quote on this topic, the one always pulled out to bolster the point. All we need now is for it to get misattributed to someone more famous than a political scientist and get repeated in a thousand churches and a million Bible studies.

You can already tell -- this quote is going to be spoken of as simply, obviously and blindingly true.

So it's too bad it's slightly off, slightly but importantly wrong.

What the prognosticator needs is not to know whether or not you say grace regularly, but whether or not you say you say grace every day.

Jun 19, 2011

Jun 17, 2011

Slave tomatos

"South Florida's tomato fields are "ground zero for modern-day slavery" .... In the last 15 years, Florida law enforcement officials have freed more than 1,000 men and women who had been held and forced to work against their will in the fields of Florida, and that represents only the tip of the iceberg. Most instances of slavery go unreported. Workers were "sold" to crew bosses to pay off bogus debts, beaten if they didn't work, held in chains, pistol whipped, locked at night into shacks in chain-link enclosures patrolled by armed guards. Escapees who got caught were beaten or worse. Even though police have successfully prosecuted seven major slavery cases in the state in the last 15 years, those brought to justice were low-ranking contract field managers, themselves only one or two shaky rungs up the economic ladder from those they enslaved. The wealthy owners of the vast farms walked away scot-free. They expressed no public regrets, let alone outrage, that such conditions existed on operations they controlled."
-- Barry Estabrook, The Indignity of Industrial Tomatoes

Jun 15, 2011

Vonnegut and the babies in Dresden

The children's crusade

I like the sculpture, this strange, strange work of art that, randomly, is just on the side of a pillar on an arch from one part of the old city to another, because it makes me think of Vonnegut. I like it too because, where with so much art about violence, there’s a way in which it glorifies the violence. Violence in books, in movies, in paintings, makes violence look interesting, if nothing else. Or, if not that, if not setting up violence as something that’s attractive at least in the sense it says to us, “Watch this! This is cool!,” then it makes it seem OK, fictional, safe.

There’s not a lot of art about violence where you see it and say, in your gut, in your heart, “please stop.” There’s not a lot where you're supposed to respond with compassion for all the people involved, both the violent and the victims.

This does that though. You want to say, stop babies, stop. Don’t hurt each other, babies. There’s too much hurt in this world as it is.

This too

Jun 14, 2011

What is a secular act?

Thomas Tweed's definition of religion, in a talk he gave at Heidelberg today, arguing for his "translocative method"* of religious studies:
"Religions -- note that that's plural, religions -- are confluences of organic-cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering by drawing on human and suprahuman forces to make homes and cross boundaries."
The question, for me, following from this definition, is what would a secular or non-religious act be?

Jun 13, 2011

Playing in the Elbe

Jun 10, 2011

Yeah, but all is good

A moment of balloons

Jun 9, 2011

The odd implications of Christian opposition to yoga

I don't have any personal connection to either yoga or Mark Driscoll, nor do I feel like I have any commitments to either one. A fight between Driscoll and yoga is pretty low-stakes, for me.

Still, I find the theological implications of the New Calvinist mega church pastor's attack on yoga very, very strange.

It seems like Driscoll is saying -- I'm sure he wouldn't agree, but the implications are there -- that the gods of Hinduism are greater than Christianity's Jesus.

Bush's economics and abortion

A recent study* in Obstetrics & Gynecology, the official publication of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, found that abortions increased among poor women during the George W. Bush administration.

Overall rates declined, as they have been doing since the 70s. Among the poor, though, abortions increased by 18 percent between 2000 and 2008, reaching rates of 52.2 abortions per 1,000 poor women. By 2008, poor women accounted for 42 percent of abortions.

The sociologist writing the report suggests the economic policies of the pro-life president contributed to this increase in abortions**. Cuts to publicly funded family planning services making contraceptives less available to poor women, the decreasing availability of financial assistance for the poor, and the impact of the economic crisis are all connected to the 514,040 abortions that happened the last year of Bush's term.

Considering that pro-life advocates consistently support candidates who propose dismantling the welfare state, backing economic policies that correlate with an increase of abortions among those who may feel like it's their only option, financially, it's only fair to ask, I think, if the pro-life movement really opposes abortions per se, or just wants them to be against the law.

*Pro-life organizations routinely denounce the group that supported the sociologist's study as biased in favor of abortions. The facts are, however, facts.
**Pro-life advocates have drawn different conclusions. The Family Research Council thinks the problem is unmarried people living together, assiduously avoiding the obvious economic issue. They themselves have noted that marriage is negatively correlated with poverty, though they mistake correlation for causation, thinking marriage increases wealth. Less tortured conclusions: poor people can't afford to get married, or that the social conditions producing poverty are the same as those causing people to avoid marriage.

Jun 8, 2011

American Religion midterm take-home quiz

1. What are the differences between the First Great Awakening and the Second Great Awakening?
2. Did enslaved Africans in American find Christianity to be oppressive, empowering, or both?
3. What do utopian experiments (e.g. Amana Society, Brook Farm, Oneida, Mormonism, etc.) demonstrate about the religious climate in the new American republic?

Jun 7, 2011

Next semester's classes

Übung: Evangelical Apocalyptic Fiction

Fiction that stages the clash of spiritual forces behind current events, the sudden appearance of otherworldly beings in everyday life, and the violent end of human history in the near future has been wildly popular in recent years. This genre, Evangelical apocalyptic fiction, has sold in the millions, securing a spot on secular and religious bestseller lists and also in contemporary American culture. This fiction has deeply shaped contemporary religious imaginations, and reveals some deeply felt anxieties about the state of affairs at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. Approaching these texts as literature and as cultural objects,

Jun 6, 2011

Why Catholic conversion narratives?

A Catholic is not required to be able to recount becoming Catholic. A narrative isn't needed. One's Catholicism is determined by certain ritual acts -- baptism, confirmation, etc. -- and not a personal moment of choice that needs to be able to be told in story form.

What's interesting, then, is how popular this conversion narrative genre is for contemporary Catholics.

Jun 4, 2011

You smiled at us, floating high above the question

Also Bazan, once a poster boy for young evangelicals seeking more complicated relationship to faith, talks about his unbelief.

Jun 3, 2011

Back in my mind to Atlanta nights


If Peretti had written Left Behind

"Christian fiction" is not fiction that's Christian, though that's a common mistake. Marilynne Robinson doesn't doesn't get counted as a Christian fiction writer, though she is a Christian who writes fiction. James Ellroy doesn't get classified this way, though he's a church-going Lutheran, nor does John Grisham, a Baptist, nor Denis Johnson, nor others.

The name designates not the author's faith, but the market to which the books are marketed. "Christian fiction" is a genre, and the writers are genre writers.

Which is why, most of the time, the writing is what it is.

Examples abound, criticisms multiply: some particularly bad sentences from a best-selling work I'm reading right now: "A distant trill sounded. Oh, crud! There couldn't have been a worse time for her cell phone to start ringing"; "The clement sun mixing with a soft breeze made for a perfect day. An excellent day for a walk ... if only she'd worn better shoes."

This isn't particularly aeshtetically worse than other genre fiction, though -- Left Behind or The Shunning or The Damascus Way ought not be judged against literature, but against mainstream works of genre fiction*.

Still, there are genre writers who worry about their writing, who attempt to push themselves, aesthetically,

This is what interests me, specifically, about the moment when it was possible Frank Peretti would write the Left Behind series.

Jun 1, 2011

When Peretti was offered Left Behind

Of course it's just a bit of trivia, a bit of odd background, that Peretti, who "kicked open the doors" for Christian fiction authors, was originally asked to write Left Behind, the most overwhelmingly successful example of the genre*.

Journalists and scholars generally just bring this up to talk about the broader context of Christian fiction, putting the LaHaye-Jenkins juggernaut into some kind of relationship to the sub-culture market that preceded it, and to talk about the working relationship between LaHaye, who had the idea and did the outlines of major events, and Jenkins, who did the work of coming up with characters, writing the stories, etc.

It's like Peretti is the Pete Best of this situation, and you have to think of this success anew in terms of contingencies.

But, what's interesting too, and probably worth thinking about, is how that turned-down offer highlights some aspects of the series and what made it successful, and shows how they weren't accidental but part of the plan all the time. Both the writes and academics sometimes talk about Left Behind like it's a surprise and like it succeeded how it did completely of it's own accord or because of some unforeseeable chemistry.

But, this little bit of back story and not-important trivia points to several important things which were part of the success that weren't accidents, but part of the plan all along.

There were several commitment, here, in the pre-history, that are important: