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
Peter

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.)

America?

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?

DSC_2506

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.