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.

Aug 13, 2011

E-reading Christian fiction

The sales of Christian fiction on Kindles, Nooks, etc., disproves two theories explaining the popularity of the genre:

1) People buy Christian fiction to be seen reading it.

2) People buy Christian fiction to give it away.

Neither of those hold up with the boom of sales on e-readers. That's not how e-readers work. I'm sure it was still the case that some people did and do buy Christian fiction for those reasons, but they won't work to explain the popularity of the genre.

Both those explanations, incidentally, were predicated on the idea the genre is crap and people wouldn't actually want to, you know, read it.

Aug 12, 2011

'Christian fiction is fiction from a Christian worldview'

Christian fiction is probably the only popular genre with an identity problem.

Everyone knows what Romance fiction is. No one ever asks, "what is crime fiction?"

But Christian fiction ...

It's the third most popular genre on e-readers, and makes up a large part of the religious market that accounts for 10 percent of all book sales in the United States. Titles from the genre regularly make it to the New York Times best-seller list. Yet, still, people ask what exactly is Christian fiction?

It's not just those who haven't read any, either. Among the authors themselves, sometimes there's this question.

A survey of some authors recently turned up one answer, which is worth inquiring into. Though there was some variety of answers (a couple of which come close to my own), one version of the answer was dominant:

"Christian fiction is fiction written from a Christian world view."

The boy who cried 'foundations'

Al Mohler thinks Christianity is the same as jenga.

His one rhetorical move is "without this, Christianity collapses!" He is always, always talking about some fight that is so important, so crucial, so foundational, that it's vital to the Christian faith itself.

It's possible he thinks about and worries about all sorts of things that are important and yet not the life support of his faith, only blogging about the things that are this critical, but I suspect that, really, this is just his default. His one argument for everything he argues about.

If it's not the "the most central teachings of the Christian faith," it's "a non-negotiable of the Christian faith," or "it is not only the Bible that is subverted, but also the Gospel."

Aug 10, 2011

Aug 9, 2011

The importance of the second paragraph

Best opening sentence of a religion news story this week comes from Nova Scotia:
"A 31-year old man who asked a judge to address him as Jesus Christ in court has been convicted of assaulting and threatening to kill his ex-wife and assaulting his two-year-old daughter."

Then comes paragraph two:
"The case was unusual because Dalton Cornelius Jones represented himself in court."
Um ...

There's some more information at the Herald Chronicle.

Mark Hatfield & Evangelicals' possible progressive politics

This, from the late Senator Mark Hatfield's critique of the Religious Right in 1971, still seems accurate:
"There is a theological 'silent majority' in our land who wrap their Bibles in the American flag; who believe that conservative politics is the necessary by-product of orthodox Christianity; who equate patriotism with the belief in national self-righteousness; and who regard political dissent as a mark of infidelity to the faith."
I first heard of Hatfield from GOP party activists in Washington state who were trying to purify the party and radicalize the base. It was at a Young Republicans group, held in the basement of a pastor's house. Hatfield's name was the name of an enemy: an anti-war, pro-welfare Republican, only ostensibly on the right side.

No one said anything about Hatfield being a liberal Republican because of his Evangelical faith.

Aug 8, 2011

A problem w/ apologetics

Is there any reason the scholarship in Christian apologetics has to be so crappy?

Consider Tim Keller's The Reason for God, which came out in 2008, made the New York Time's bestseller list, and won awards from World Magazine and Christianity Today. This is supposed to be "The best apologetics book of the new millennium," and a book that "takes skeptics in and outside the church from doubt to reason-filled faith." If an Evangelical apologetics book could be good, this one should be.

But Keller -- to put it kindly -- misrepresents arguments. Either he didn't do his research, he misunderstands what he's quoting, or he's wilfully misconstruing things.

It's shoddy work.

Aug 6, 2011

Aug 5, 2011

Social justice in a Pentecolstal cosmology

I once saw a man prayed for, and saw him stand up out of his wheel chair and raise his hands in Pentecostal prayer.

I tried to find something at least that dramatic for my students, when telling them about Pentecostalism today. What I found, instead, were less dramatic healings, healings that, on Youtube, can be hard to believe.

Someone running around, saying her torn ACL was just healed. Someone taking off his glasses. Someone breathing deeply, saying the asthma is gone. Healing for an eating disorder.

There are videos of wheelchair healings, but what you see -- what I could find -- is not the healing itself, but the testimony.

Evidence like this doesn't do much against skepticism.

For my students, as for most people, and for Pentecostals themselves, the pressing question is whether or not these things are real. Can they be proven? Is there evidence, verification?

For me, the question is different. The question I ask isn't "is this real?", but, what kind of God heals a torn ACL for a woman in Kansas, but does nothing about the worms that eat children's eyes in Africa? What does it say about the God one believes in, if one believes in this God who cures short-sightedness in America, but doesn't intervene to stop genocides?

The theological problem presented by these healings seems way more problematic to me than the epistemological questions about how we know if a miracle is a miracle.

I mean, was it because the asthma girl prayed, while the woman who's kid was killed by the stray bullet in Atlanta wasn't begging God for anything?

There's something about the Pentecostal cosmology that makes this make sense, and that idea of reality means practical solutions for practical problems is not going to be a main focus of Pentecostals practice of their faith.

This is one of the reasons I'm very suspicious of this idea there's a "new kind of Pentecostal" devoted to "social justice."

Is there really?

Christianity Today says there is, but that would probably mean a serious shift in Pentecostalism, probably a re-imagining of their conception of the structure of reality. Evidence of that is kind of skimpy.

Aug 4, 2011

On a day

Aug 3, 2011

Prayer that doesn't even want to availeth

To play with the idea of impractical religion, religion that's experienced as being 'just because,' just a little bit more: a thought on prayer.

Or, more specifically, how prayer can be experienced as functional in one way, functional in another way, or as not functional at all, and that all three of those are experiences we want to pay attention to, if we're paying attention to how prayer is in the world.

Praying can be experienced in, I think, three sorts of ways by a praying person. There are three types of frames for it:

1) Prayer for divine intervention.
2) Prayer with naturalistic consequences.
3) Worship.

The last is interesting because it's common -- really common -- and yet it doesn't conform to the idea that religious acts should be therapeutic. It doesn't "do" anything, and isn't aimed at helping or benefitting the praying person. It's kind of pointless.

Yet the pointlessness is exactly the point (which is an excess that may make it “religious” in a way that therapeutically efficacious prayers are not).

Aug 1, 2011

'Hey David,' I say

A story:
I am 11, maybe 12, messing around in our garage with my younger brother in Waco in the winter. It’s too cold to play outside. The garage is full of construction supplies our dad is storing there, supplies we’re not supposed to play with. We are playing with them. There’s a tank — green metal, paint spattered — with a long, plastic spray gun attached.

I pick it up.

“Hey David,” I say, so he’ll look.

Then I shoot him in the face.

My non-review of Tree of Life, Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer Thee?