Dec 31, 2012

What we can't yet see

What you can't see

My most-viewed picture of 2012. The photos I have taken since moving to Germany in 2008 can all be seen here

E-books & the changing market for Christian fiction

The data on digital books, the market for e-books and e-book readers, is kind of conflicted at the moment. Prognosticating the future of reading is for the most part futile, anyway, but the tea leaves right now are especially mysterious.

Sales of e-readers dropped by about 36 percent, apparently due to the popularity of tablets and devices that do more than reading, leading some industry experts to predict the waning of the Kindle moment.

The rate of e-book buying has also slowed. The market's soft. About a third of those who read e-books haven't bought one in the last 12 months. This might be because they haven't read the ones that are already on their digital devices. An analyst talking to the New York Times called it the "overloaded night stand" effect: "someone isn't going to buy any more books until they make a dent in reading the ones they've already acquired."

On the other hand, the percentage of Americans owning an e-reader went up in the last year, from 10 percent to 19 percent, and the percentage who owned any kind of device that can be used for reading digital books increased by 15 points, so now more than one third of Americans could read e-books if they wanted.

Which they do: as of November 2012, about 30 percent of people who read had read an e-book in the last 12 months.

I don't know what to make of that. What's happening or what's going to happen. It's not clear whether the whole trend has crested or whether, as others say, the digital book future is just beginning.

The market, however, has already changed the way people read and what people read. The effects can be seen in the market for Christian fiction, which looks different now than it it did in 2007, and different in ways that can be directly linked to digital books.

Most popular posts of 2012

If [Joel] Barlow was America's first atheist, he was tentative about it. "Flirtation," [James] Turner's term, seems to be accurate. He came to his unbelief privately, in the context of his reading and his private notebooks, and he kept it private too. It's significant, nonetheless, that he did go so far as to disbelieve, even if only cautiously. It was, in his notebooks, a crazy thought. And not one without consequences. Barlow hesitated, in the face of those consequences, but still might be rightly understood as marking an early moment in a significant societal shift. 
Barlow's private unbelief, as possibly America's first atheist, is an important moment in that move Charles Taylor describes as "a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood as one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace," the shift from a society in which "it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believes, is one possibility among others." 
In this sense, Barlow is significant to late 18th, early 19th century America. There may have been a historical moment, there, where in the privacy of his notebooks Barlow was the only American anywhere who thought of himself as rejecting all conceptions of God. Where he was the one who thought what was almost unthinkable, that there is no God, and thought it even to the point of tentatively, privately, accepting for himself what to most was an insult, a slur, the name "atheist."
5. On the meaningfulness of books bought, but not read 
Even if one does, eventually, read all the books one owns -- itself a dubious proposition -- there's a delay, a lag. There's no easy, simple link between buying a book and reading it. There's no simple formula by which one could predict readership based solely on sales. 
If this seems obvious, it should. Yet, without fail, cultural critics act as though there's no difference between book purchase and book reading, as if measuring the one were measuring the other. As if the one always and everywhere&nbsp meant  the other. As if there were a simple relationship between the two acts, and the only reason anyone ever bought a book was to read it, the purchase a promise always made good. 
Somehow, this needs to be broken. 
There has to be a way to talk about book purchases as culturally meaningful and yet distinct from and different from acts of reading.

Dec 28, 2012

Interrogating the "nones"

One of the big, big stories in the study of religion in the last few years has been the "rise of the nones." The Pew Forum on Religious & Public Life has documented a shift in religious identifications, and popularized the term "none," a new category of religious affiliation, that of disaffiliation.

At least, that's one way to understand what's meant by "none."

The term has begotten lots of confusions, it seems. When I was last in America, and spent a little time in  an evangelical church in Chicago, I was told by both ministers and lay leaders that atheism and agnosticism was sweeping America. These people didn't know the Pew poll, and but they knew the phrase "nones," and they used that phrase to explain what they thought was happening to the culture around them. They were quite surprised when I told them that while there were some atheists among the "nones," more than 90 percent of them actually say they believe in God.

Others have similarly used the term to reach foregone conclusions.

A recent example of this is a piece at Religion Dispatches, where author Elizabeth Drescher suggests a reading list for those "keen to explore what Nones are up to on their own terms." Those terms, as Drescher understands them, are spiritual but not religious.

Talking about the problems with that interoperation of the "nones" started a twitter exchange that became something of an impromptu internet round table interrogating the term, the category, and consequences of various taxonomies in understanding religious and nonreligious groups.

I've storified the twitter discussion below in the hopes that, as Michael J. Altman says, we might use it a place marker to know where to dig.

Starting the conversation is Chris Cotter of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, who is joined by me, Michael J. Altman of Emory University, and Per D. Smith co-chair of the Secularism and Secularity group of the American Academy of Religion.

What it means to be Mainline Protestant

In 1972, a quarter of young adults in America -- 25 percent -- self-identified as Mainline Protestantism. In 2010, that was down to a mere 6 percent.

That's a 19 percent plummet, apparently.

This bit of data from LifeWays Research is consonant with two major stories that are regularly repeated about religion in America today: 1) that the mainline churches are in decline, and 2) that an increasing number of people are giving up on religion altogether, and now you have these "nones."

A second bit of data complicates both these story lines, though:

Of the quarter of self-identified Mainline Protestants in 1972, only 4 percent said they attended a Mainline Protestant church on a weekly basis. In 2010, that number had declined by half, so only 2 percent of self-described Mainline Protestants also said they attended church every week.

This means that in the '70s, lots of people would say they were Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Congregationalists, etc., but that identification did not connect in their minds to the cultural practice of church attendance. Church identification was not taken to mean weekly church attendance.

It's possible that the dramatic change we're currently seeing is only a change in that idea of what it means to say one is a Mainline Protestant.

That is itself a kind of secularism, as religion's dominance has declined at least in the sense that's it's now increasingly okay to say you don't have one, but this is a lot, lot less than is usually claimed for secularism, and a lot, lot less than is usually claimed for these sorts of statistics.

Dec 27, 2012

'A mode of a priesthood in a church forever'

The poet Charles Olson was born 102 years ago today.

Olson, in a terribly, hilariously cranky interview with the the Paris Review, said of his poetry,
I write a poem simply to create a mode of a priesthood in a church forever, so that a poem for me is simply the first sound realized in the modality of being. If you want to talk about actuality, let’s talk about actuality. And it falleth like a doom upon us all. But it falleth from above, and if that's not straight the whole thing is doodled and if straight then you can modality all you want. You can do anything, literally. Right? That I think is one of the exciting possibilities of the present. Modal throughout -- that's what I love about today’s kids. I like them because I think they’re modaled throughout. I don’t think their teachers are at all. I mean I'm almost like astringent here. I sit back in my lollipop Gloucester and don't do anything. A dirty lousy cop-out. I remember way back when I was young, ten years ago. I was lobbing 'em in. Now it's the Vietnam War. Dig? You follow me? It was marvelous. Playing catch, if I may say that -- with a European audience as well. But I mean catch -- we were playing catch. And he's a goddamn nice fielder. All that Jewish Bronx shit. I don’t mean because it’s Jewish. It’s this late Jewish, late east Bronx literature which to a geologist like me is just uninteresting. A geochronologist geologist. The world machines -- that’s what they got now. The world machines. When will government cease being a nuisance to everybody.
Elsewhere, perhaps in a different mood, perhaps more seriously, he said, "right form, in any given poem, is the only and exclusively possible extension of content under hand."
A day-after Christmas walk in the woods

Dec 24, 2012

Culturally contested Christmas

A curious historical fact: the first people to work to "take the Christ out of Christmas," as it were, were not atheists, or crass materialists, or secularists/pluralists trying to diminish the role of Christianity in American culture. They were Protestants.

Protestants were very conflicted about Christmas in the 1800s.

For one thing, many were opposed to the "mass" part of Christmas, i.e., the Catholicism implicit in the holiday. If December 25 was a religious holiday, that seemed to mean accepting the Catholic tradition of the church calendar and the Catholic idea of tradition, the same tradition that led to the veneration of the Virgin Mary, the authority of the Pope and the church councils, and all the sundry things Protestants argued should be rejected because they're not in the Bible. The Bible which says nothing about a gift-giving solstice holiday.

At the same time, Protestants felt a strong impulse to take the cultural practice of the day -- the Christmas of the tavern, the Christmas of the department store -- and repurpose them as devotional practices.

This meant that they were at the same time critical of the non-religious celebrations of Christmas and leery of the religious celebrations too.

Dec 22, 2012

The variety of Christian fiction

The current variety of Christian fiction is illustrated pretty well in the Library Journal's list of the year's five best.

There's an Amish romance, though the review calls it a "fresh take on an overcrowded genre," two historical romances', one set in Tudor times and the other on the Titanic, a Christian horror novel, and an apocalyptic/CIA novel.

That might still seem rather limited -- Christian fiction authors of more speculative works, such as sci fi and horror, certain complain about the constraints of the market -- but it was only a decade ago that an organization with a name like American Christian Fiction Writers only served romance novelists.

Another year-end list, from a LifeWays Christian Stores' book buyer, shows the variety to be found even in what is still, broadly speaking, the romance genre. via Carole.

Dec 21, 2012

The postmodern technique of the most-sold Christian novel of 2012

The Harbinger begins by addressing its own problem of unbelievability.

It opens by directly dealing with the readers' likely problem of suspending disbelief for this novel. The subtitle is The Ancient Mystery that Holds the Secret of America's Future. The first page begins with that same phrase spoken as dialogue -- a bit of dialogue that could be between the author and the reader, or the author imagining that conversation, acting it out, playing both parts, his and the reader who's going to read this. And it starts by repeating that line:
'An ancient mystery that holds the secret of America's future.'
'What would I think?'
'Yes, what would you think?'
'I'd think it was a plot for a movie. Is that it? Is that what you're presenting ... a movie manuscript?'
'A plot for a novel?'
'Then what?'
He was silent.
'Then what?' she repeated.
It is the plot for a novel, actually, though within the fiction-world of the narrative the "ancient mystery" isn't fiction, as the character named Nouriel Kaplan insists twice on page two. And as the author Jonathan Cahn has also said in multiple interviews outside the fiction-world of The Harbinger.

On a Christian, apocalypse-oriented radio program, he said "the form is a narrative" but "90 percent of it is non-fiction." On a Charismatic TV show, he repeated the message of the book without any reference to narrative or a novel or fictions of any sort, but only to the "prophetic message known as The Harbinger." The host represented the work as revelation from the Holy Spirit, a characterization Cahn didn't dispute. In an e-mail interview with a Charismatic podcast, Cahn said,
[The Harbinger] reveals things that believers have felt in their hearts but without the evidence to back it up. It reveals a biblical mystery of specific template of judgment that is now playing out in America, before our eyes, lying behind everything from 9/11 to the crash of Wall Street, biblical harbingers of judgment appearing in New York City, Washington, D.C., involving some of the highest of American leaders, the replaying of an ancient drama of judgment, even giving exact dates.
This is also all presented in the dialogue in the first few pages of the novel, meaning the author, a messianic Jewish minister from New Jersey, contends that he is presenting non-ficiton as fiction, but within the fiction, the main character is arguing that the story seems like fiction but "it's not fiction -- it's real."

It's a fascinating bit of metafictionality, I think.

A similar thing happened in Left Behind, where criticisms of the book, specifically that it was badly written and unbelievable, were written into the book. Left Behind briefly calls attention to its own status as fiction, predicts the readers' response, and makes that response a part of the narrative, thus re-framing its own problem of plausibility as the readers' struggle with belief. The problem of believing that God is directing the apparently chaotic events of history, and that the Bible is relevant to todays world and to an individuals life, is collapsed into the problem of suspending disbelief to read a novel.

The Harbinger does the same thing, but more so, and more directly. Here the very postmodern technique of self-reflexivity is used, and used aggressively, but to a very different end.

This has caused some deal of controversy among those who, actually, are open to the idea of the imminent return of Christ at Armageddon to reign for 1,000 years.

I wouldn't want to say that this is at all related to that, but that novel, The Harbinger, is the only Christian fiction to make it onto's list of 100 most-sold books of 2012. It comes in at number 23 for the year -- ahead of J.K. Rowling's foray into adult fiction, the Steve Jobs biography, and John Grisham's latest.

Many would likely scoff at that news, a response that's expected by the text and anticipated, written into the story. "I don't expect you to believe me yet," the main character says. "But hear me out!"

Dec 20, 2012

The night watch

The night watch

The obsession with the obsession with the end of the world

The first episode of the reality TV show Doomsday Preppers was watched by 1.29 million people. It is the most-watched show in National Geographic's history. By the time the fourth episode of the second season aired last month, ratings had suffered a little, but still there were more than 700,000 viewers.

It's very unlikely that all those 700,000 viewers were themselves interested in ways to prepare for the end of the world. It seems unlikely even that such a show would make sense, economically, if it catered only to those sympathetic to the ideas of the subjects of the show. And really, the people featured in this show are presented as strange, as freaks, as laughable.

To quote the New York Times review:
Watch [...] for a short while and, unless you’re a prepper yourself, you might be moderately amused at the absurd excess on display and at what an easy target the prepper worldview is for ridicule.
It may be the case that there's a "burgeoning 'prepper' movement," as USA Today claims, but there's little actual evidence of that. Such people do clearly exist, but that's not a new thing. And that's not why such a show exists.

If you want to explain the reason such a show as this exists, you have to look not only at the existence of the people featured in the show, asking why there are so many people dedicating their lives to preparing for the end of the world, but also at the audience.

Why are there so many people so fascinated by people so obsessed by the end of the world?

This is true, too, with the slate of apocalyptic predictions all due tomorrow, the Mayan calendar and the black hole at the center of the galaxy and the hidden planet set to collide with earth. The number of people who take such theories seriously is vanishingly miniscule. The number of people who take seriously the people who take such theories seriously, however, is quite sizable. How do we explain that?

I'm very skeptical, personally, about reports of how widely such apocalyptic theories are believed. A lot of the accounts of belief seem to be very vague or very naive about what it means to believe, and there's also a strong, strong tendency towards credulity when it comes to other people's credulity. However, even if we accept the phenomenon of apocalyptic beliefs without any skepticism, that wouldn't explain the cultural phenomena of obsession with the end of the world. Because that obsession, in American culture at this moment, is not just and not even most basically obsession with the end of the world, but obsession with obsession about the end.

Beyond the matter of "true believers," there's a cultural phenomenon right now of avid interest in true believers. There's a market, here, and it's booming.

It's not enough to just explain the people featured on Doomsday Preppers, the people out there who aren't joking about Nibiru, the people who are violent in their belief in the possibility of zombie apocalypse. If we want to understand this, we can't just look at the obsessed on the TV screen. We have to also look at us looking at the TV screen.

Dec 19, 2012

Beyond theodicy, in the days after Sandy Hook

There are reasons to highlight the horrible theodicies offered by the likes of Mike Huckabee and Bryan Fischer, when a tragedy happens like the one that happened in Connecticut last week. These men lead, and aspire to lead, and hold positions of privilege. Publicizing their comments serves to marginalize them. Everyone, even those who might otherwise find these men reasonable and believable, gets a chance to be horrified, and side with those who are suffering rather than the ideologues' ghastly ideologies. Which is what happened.

Their comments, though, shouldn't be taken for a fair representation of the bulk of those Christians, or even evangelicals, or even conservative evangelicals who listen to the likes of Huckabee and Fischer. These theodicies aren't widely embraced. Even where they are, in theory, accepted, most recoil from that kind of talk when it would actually be applicable, when they're actually a tragedy to be explained.

The more common response, the one you would have heard in most evangelical churches in America last Sunday, was more likely of the character of Ross Douthat's recent column. Evangelicals, like the Catholic columnist for the New York Times, for the most part understand God to be on the side of the suffering, and not the ultimate cause of violence. While that may, in terms of theology, leave violence unexplained, and leave unanswered the very real question of there could be such violence and also exist a totally good and totally powerful God, it nevertheless allows the believers to respond with empathy, and to understand God to respond that way too.

As Douthat wrote:
the only thing that my religious tradition has to offer to the bereaved of Newtown today — besides an appropriately respectful witness to their awful sorrow — is a version of that story, and the realism about suffering that it contains. 
That realism may be hard to see at Christmastime, when the sentimental side of faith owns the cultural stage. But the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild. 
The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.
Others echoed this. James K.A. Smith, himself a Calvinist, responded to the tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary by arguing against a Christian theodicy:

'Some weeping'

From the NPR review of Consuming Spirits:
[Chris] Sullivan's Appalachian Gothic takes us into a convent chapel where the mother superior makes product endorsements part of her tour; a tiny local-history museum where unruly children chatter while being told about the ghoulish, recently found Indian corpse that's been hurriedly taxidermied and added to a display; and into the touched mind of Victor, a depressive, alcoholic man-child who drifts in and out of consciousness behind the wheel of his truck while listening to Gray's radio show.

Dec 14, 2012

The necessity of philosophy

... one might think that a certain degree of philosophical training would be very useful to a scientist. Scientists ought to be able to recognize how often philosophical issues arise in their work — that is, issues that cannot be resolved by arguments that make recourse solely to inference and empirical observation. In most cases, these issues arise because practicing scientists, like all people, are prone to philosophical errors. To take an obvious example, scientists can be prone to errors of elementary logic, and these can often go undetected by the peer review process and have a major impact on the literature — for instance, confusing correlation and causation, or confusing implication with a biconditional. Philosophy can provide a way of understanding and correcting such errors. It addresses a largely distinct set of questions that natural science alone cannot answer, but that must be answered for natural science to be properly conducted.
-- Austin L. Hughes, The Folly of Scientism in The New Atlantis.
Alternative selves

Dec 12, 2012

The contraception coverage argument in a phrase

Perhaps it will ultimately be a matter of phrasing.

A third for-profit corporation has filed suit against the Obama administration's Health and Human Services' mandate that health insurance plans include coverage of contraceptives. In addition to a small flotilla of Catholic charities suing over this rule, there are also these three specific cases, where the question is finally whether or not the First Amendment's protection of religious exercise includes corporations. That is, whether or not corporations have inalienable human rights and whether or not they can in some sense be religious.

The latest suit is from Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation, a woodworking company based in Landcaster Country, Penn. With the suit, the corporation joins and follows the arts-and-crafts chain Hobby Lobby and the Christian book publisher Tyndale House, making the case in federal court that corporations have religions.

The news story in the Philadelphia Inquirer reporting on the suit says the company, which has more than 900 employees and makes cabinets, is owned by Mennonites. Reporter Amy Worden describes Conestoga Wood Specialties as a "Mennonite-owned cabinetmaker." This seems to be a fact that no one disputes.

The headline for the piece, however, says the company is a "Mennonite firm." This is exactly what's in dispute.

Whether or not there's an important distinction between the two phrases is, it seems, basically the crux of this case.

The Obama administration's case is that a Mennonite-owned company is not the same thing as a Mennonite company. After all, there are more than 900 people working there. The religious practices of the owners may include decisions they make in running the company, but the corporation does not belong to any church. That's the argument.

Others disagree. Or, at least, favor the kind of phrasing that takes as fact what's disputed in the court case. For example:
Then, of course, there are those like the editor at First Things whose headline elides  and implicitly denies any meaningful difference between a "Mennonite-owned corporation" and a "Mennonite corporation" and all the Mennonites.

The way one views this argument may be a matter of assumptions, really. Assumptions that come out in questions of phrasing. It just depends on how you put it.

Update (Dec. 13): The Philadelphia Inquirer has updated its headline to read "A Mennonite firm sues over Obamacare contraception coverage." Whether because the reporter or someone raised the issue I mention here or for some other reason, I do not know.

Dec 11, 2012

An interpretive endeavor

Jason N. Blum, "Retrieving Phenomenology of Religion as a Method for Religious Studies," in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Dec. 2012:
Phenomenology of religion is not keyed to offer explanations of religion, and especially not in naturalistic or social scientific terms. However, it is well equipped to offer an interpretation of religion, or of religious experience and consciousness. It is this interpretive function that should define phenomenology of religion, and which sets it apart from social scientific or naturalistic methods that seek to explain religion. The category of explanation is privileged by McCutcheon, Proudfoot, and others, and may be regarded as the style of analysis that characterizes a good proportion of social scientific work. An economist or sociologist may, for example, seek to explain why conservative or fundamentalist types of religious identification tend to increase in the face of economic hardship, globalization, or intecultural penetration. In this sense, “explanation” consists of proposing a causal relationship wherein certain observable, natural factors are identified as providing reasons for related religious phenomena.

By contrast, the phenomenologist of religion attempts to interpret or understand religion, which is to say that he seeks to disclose the meaning or meanings of it as they are constructed, perceived, and experienced within consciousness, or from the perspective of the religious subject. While this interpretive task is distinct from the explanatory one, it is not necessarily opposed to it, and may in fact represent a guide or aid in the explanatory endeavor.

[.... It is] an interpretive endeavor designed to disclose the meaning of religion, as understood and experienced from the perspective of religious consciousness."

Dec 10, 2012

Mark Driscoll on pot: sloppy, lazy, deeply unserious

Full disclosure: I am a public transportation user.

This makes it difficult to achieve or maintain the necessary distance to dispassionately review Mark Driscoll's new e-book, Puff or Pass? Should Christians Smoke Pot or Not. Because, it turns out, Driscoll's big argument opposing the recreational use of marijuana is the same as his argument against taking the train. Bus riders and pot smokers turn out, in Driscoll's understanding, to have the same problem. His message to both sets of "users" is identical: grow up.

I am not making this up, and I'm not stretching to make this argument.

Driscoll, "one of the world's most downloaded and quoted pastors," according to his church's website, explicitly makes this comparison.

He writes that the question of marijuana use comes up in his ministry because he works with "a high (pun intended) percentage of single young guys living typical, irresponsible urban lives." The real problem, the root problem of the issue of marijuana use, is that irresponsibility and immaturity: marijuana is just another example of the spiritual epidemic of boys who won't grow up, according to Driscoll. So even though smoking a joint isn't illegal anymore in Washington State, where Driscoll ministers, and even if marijuana isn't specifically prohibited by his church and maybe won't bring down church discipline, it's wrong because it's another way people avoid maturity.

Driscoll writes:
[...] as a pastor I have noticed that people tend to stop maturing when they start self medicating. Everyone has very tough seasons in life, but by persevering through them we have an opportunity to mature and grow as people. Those who self-medicate with drugs and/or alcohol (as well as other things) often thwart maturity as they escape the tough seasons of life rather than face them. 
[...] when a man acts like a boy, that’s a real problem. A recent article even noted that young men are now less likely than ever to own a car, as taking public transportation allows them to use their smartphone more hours every day playing video games and downloading porn. The last thing these guys need is to get high, be less motivated, and less productive; instead, they need to "act like men, [and] be strong" (1 Cor. 16:13).
The article that Driscoll cites about public transportation users doesn't say anything like he says it says. He links an Atlantic Monthly piece entitled "Why are Young People Ditching Cars for iPhones?" The author writes that economic changes and changes in consumer culture explain the 11 point drop in young people's car purchases between 1985 and 2012. There's nothing in there -- at all -- about a somehow new age of irresponsibility, and not even a single mention of publicaly viewed porn or lives devoted to video games.

I don't know if Driscoll's just making stuff up or what.

I can tell you what people do on buses and trains, though. I commute to work on a train and spend, some semesters, up to eight hours a week on public transportations. I made the decision to take public transportation rather than buy a car for financial reasons, and also to make better use of my time. I read, grade papers and prep classes on the train. I have also slept on the train, had breakfast on the train, and occasionally played computer games on the train. The other commuters I've seen are like me: they read, write e-mails, listen to music, do homework, talk to people, watch TV, and sometimes just stare off into space. Apparently, to Driscoll, this looks like a public health crisis of immaturity. To me it looks like people doing stuff. Maybe Driscoll looks at commuter traffic and sees manliness: I see waste and frustrating boredom.

If car culture encourages adult behavior and car ownership correlates to personal responsibility, I'm sure I don't know how. 

But this is the thing about this little digital booklet. Supposedly the value upheld and advocated is maturity. On a certain level, that's what's happening. However, this work is also itself enormously lazy, and, I think it can be argued, encourages and fosters immaturity.

Dec 9, 2012

Rodney Stark's strange interview w/ Kathryn Jean Lopez

I can't remember the last time I've seen an interview as strange as the one National Review published recently, where Kathryn Jean Lopez asks sociologist Rodney Stark about his new book on the evidence of the benefits of religious adherence. 

This really reads like an interview where something has gone horribly wrong:
LOPEZ: Religion can keep me from mental illness? My inbox suggests it is evidence of my mental illness.
STARK: Several hundred studies are unanimous that frequent church-attenders are far less likely than non-attenders to suffer from mental illness — I devote many pages to the matter.  
LOPEZ: The 'higher the church membership of a city, the lower its crime rates.' What evidence do you have for this contention?
STARK: I cite many published studies. 
LOPEZ: How can you prove that 'religious parents are better parents, who raise better-behaved and better-educated children'?
STARK: I cite a very large research literature.
It continues from there, with Lopez asking strange questions that seem -- best I can guess -- to be bad imitations of the kinds of questions she thinks atheists and/or liberals would ask. The gag, maybe, is that all of these things are obvious, and so obvious as to obviously not need evidentiary support. But now there is statistical evidence ... so, hahaha. Or something.

Stark, who's done some important work in the sociology of religion but has also been sharply criticized for some of his work, and, generally, seems way over-defensive when questioned about the conclusions he draws from his facts, gives answers that equal the questions in oddity. With some answers, he sounds like your standard resentful conservative ("the media are dominated by the irreligious. So are universities". With others, Stark sounds as cranky someone with a toothache listening to a baby cry.

One of his answers, literally, is "See Scandinavia."

I suspect there are serious problems with this book. The whole thing appears to be based on a basic misunderstanding of evidence, and the kinds of correlation-causation confusions that one would hope an accomplished sociologist would understand and avoid. I'm disinclined to read the book and find out if that's the case, though, after this very weird case of book "promotion."

Via twitter, Per D. Smith suggests that it's been hard to take Stark seriously as a sociologist for more than a decade, citing the article "Atheism, faith, and the social scientific study of religion" in the Journal of Contemporary Religion from 1999.

Dec 8, 2012

What happened to Robert Ingersoll?

Susan Jacoby wonders why the 19th century's "Great Agnostic" Robert G. Ingersoll was more or less forgotten to history. One theory she suggests: it was liberals' smug confidence in their victory over fundamentalism after the Scopes trial. 

Jacoby writes:
Ingersoll's collected works were published within a few years of his death [in 1899] by his brother-in-law C. P. Farrell, who owned the Dresden Publishing Company (named for Ingersoll’s birthplace in upstate New York). The Great Agnostic remained a well-known, frequently cited figure into the 1920s, not only because many of his friends and enemies remained alive but also because his writings were still thought to be capable of corrupting American youth. 
The memory of Ingersoll faded swiftly, however, after the famous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, which pitted the leading spokesman for religious fundamentalism, William Jennings Bryan, against Clarence Darrow, the nation’s most famous criminal lawyer and an equally famous agnostic, who had been strongly influenced by hearing Ingersoll’s speeches in the 1870s and 1880s.
Jacoby has a biography of Ingersoll coming out in 2013.

I'm slightly suspicious of the question, here. There's an assumption that it's odd or abnormal for Ingersoll's presence to have faded or have been forgotten, an assumption that goes to support Jacoby's thesis about Ingersoll's significance without making an argument for his importance.

There is an interesting question here, though. To what extent did the "victory" in the Tennessee court house, as understood by those who were critical of religion, as represented by them to themselves, change the shape of skeptical arguments and the development of the atheistic cause?

Dec 7, 2012

Thinking about religious books as commodities

Matt Hedstrom, American Studies professor at the University of Virginia and author of the recently released The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century, talking about his book on Virginia public radio.

Hedstrom starts with a brief, of sorts, for the book markets and book cultures, and why that study is important in the study of religion:
"Religions also always take on the characteristics of their moment, of their surrounding culture. When you think about the United States in the 20th century, and still in the 21st century, I think the most powerful cultural forces we've got are media and the consumer marketplace. We shape our identities so much through what we consume and how we choose to consume all kinds of commodities, and how we consume media in particular. And, for a lot of Americans, over the course of the the 20th century, the most culturally significant commodity that they bought were books."
Thinking about books as commodities and about how faith as currently, culturally understood, is constructed in the context of such market interactions between consumers and commodities has been one of the major developments of my thinking in my dissertation work. Hearing Hedstrom talk at the Religion and the Marketplace conference in Heidelberg, in Oct. 2011, spurred me on in this.

His book, I think, will be a good addition to the growing body of work on religious book cultures.

Dec 6, 2012

Christian book covers

The Evangelical Christian Publisher's association has announced the finalists for the 2012 cover design awards. Most seem to me ... underwhelming. Some are very bad. There's certainly a clear preference for visual puns and over-literal interpretations.

I'm not an expert at these things. Perhaps the above, for example, does what it's supposed to do in a bookstore, catches attention and communicates a basic idea very succinctly. I can't help but feel, though, that such covers communicate also a deep disrespect for the intended audience.

The very worst of the nominated covers:

Dec 4, 2012

Daniel Dennet discovers Erasmus

Daniel Dennett is notoriously horrible at history. It turns out, though, if you give him an award and €150,000, he is willing to do a little.

Here, in an interview with a Dutch journalist about how he won the Erasums award, he discovers Erasmus, and finds he has, at least in one specific sense he'll admit to, been preceeded.

Dennett: "It's a little bit eerie to discover that you're echoing a debate which is hundreds of years old. And some very similar points being made."

Indeed, Dr. Dennet. Indeed.

For an offhand -- and, I'd argue, deeplyunserious -- dismissal of phenomenology and Thomas Nagel's famous paper What Is It Like To Be A Bat?", keep watching to the 11:07 mark.

via 3 Quarks Daily.

Dec 3, 2012

Rob Bell's internal contradiction

Rob Bell's been gone from the Michigan megachurch he founded for more than a year now. When he remembers the church, he often in a sense misremembers it, according to Kelefa Sunnah's piece in the New Yorker.

Not misremembers, exactly, but rather remembers the beginning and not the end, what was overcome instead of what was created. He talks about the energy of the potential, not the extent to which an institution is an institution is an institution. The difference between what's emphasized and what's not is the contradiction inherently internal to the megachurch project, and also to Bell himself.

Sennah writes:
"Because [Bell] vividly remembers the early days, he still sometimes talks about Mars Hill as a gritty, scrappy place: a church with no sign, no steeple, no cross, and hardly any decoration. This is all true, but Mars Hill is also a comfortable, well-run facility, with plenty of parking and age-specific child care. It was just after eight o’clock on a seasonably cold morning, and worshippers were trickling in and stamping the snow off their boots."

Nov 29, 2012

'Christianity is not a religion'

I don't know whether it's really possible to have a meaningful, reasonable debate about the place of religion in public, and about the question of what it means for the government to not "respect an establishment of religion," but a lot of examples like this "discussion" above seem to indicate it's not.

This debate, like so many on this subject, gets very weird very fast, as Bill O'Reilly claims Christianity is actually not a religion (unlike Methodism and Catholicism), and thus not subject to that clause of the First Amendment. "It is a fact," O'Reilly says, "that Christianity is not a religion. It is a philosophy. If the government was saying that the Methodist religion deserves a special place in the public square, I would be on your side." Even attempting to make any sense out of that claim just makes me tired.

And that's before the argument reaches its apex, where these public figures argue about who would have a hypothetical problem with what, and the host launches into accusations of insanity and fascism.


Nov 27, 2012

Teaching: History of American Atheism

I'm in the process of preparing a class on the history of American Atheism, which, as far as I can tell, is more or less uncharted territory. Existing studies and curricula seem to either be philosophical examinations of atheism (e.g.), or much too narrow for my interests (e.g.), or really more hagiographical canonization efforts than I am comfortable with (e.g.). Not to mention the very common whig histories of atheism.

Given the new(ish?) direction of the class I'm designing, it seems some readers might be interested in the shape of the class as it develops. Also, as there's no standard text outlining major figures or movements in American Atheism, I would appreciate readers' help in identifying critical people and/or texts to teach.

Below, I've listed those I have in mind who are important in this history and who I think can be taught fairly well to first and second year students with an interest in religious history and American cultural studies. I've construed "atheist" fairly broadly, to include some agnostics and skeptics (especially if they expand the possibility of disbelief); as well as some who's opposition to specific faith traditions is clear while their own position is more ambiguous; those of the political right as well as the more well-represented left; some who are hostile towards religion and some who attempt to make use of religious rhetoric. I've also tried to work in a fair representation of non-whites, women, and, as far as possible, some from backgrounds other than Protestant.

Are there any significant figures or movements I'm missing?

Anyone who would likely teach particularly well that I haven't thought of?

Nov 26, 2012

The courts' disagreement over corporations having religion

Can corporations practice religion? The courts disagree.

In two different federal courts, in two different cases where for-profit companies with evangelical owners are suing the government over the Obama administration's mandate that health insurance include contraception coverage, two very different conclusions were reached. 

In Washington D.C., a federal court granted the Christian publisher Tyndale House an injunction last week, exempting the company from the daily fines it would accrue starting in January for not following the new health care law. The granted injunction is a ruling that the company has a good case, and should be treated -- at least until the final outcome -- as if it has won. Three days later, however, in Oklahoma, a federal court did not grant the arts and crafts store Hobby Lobby an injunction. The two cases are almost identical, yet the courts ruled in opposite ways. 

Pretty much, too, they ruled opposite ways because of what seems to me to be the core question, which is whether or not corporations can have or exercise religion in the sense indicated by the First Amendment. 

In the first case, Judge Reggie Walton, an appointee of the second President Bush, ruled that "the beliefs of Tyndale and its owners are indistinguishable."

In the second case, Judge Joe Heaton, also a George W. Bush appointee, ruled that corporate exercise of religion is "largely uncharted waters," and said Hobby Lobby's lawyers hadn't cited any legal precedent for the idea "that secular, for-profit corporations such as Hobby Lobby [...] have a constitutional right to the free exercise of religion," despite the fact there's no legal question about the owner's religious beliefs.

Nov 20, 2012

The ignored question of corporations' religious freedom

A federal court ruling handed down in Oklahoma yesterday said that for-profit corporations don't have rights -- constitutional, inalienable, or otherwise -- to freely exercise their religion.

The court case involves a chain of arts and crafts stores called Hobby Lobby, owned by a family-established trust, in a suit with the Obama administration over the Health and Human Services mandate requiring health insurance plans include birth control coverage. This ruling will be appealed. Its not anything like the final word on this. However, the court has made clear that the issue in this case is who or what can have a religion.

Who or what can practice a religion.

The clarification of the issue is appreciated, since the assumptions out there in these claims of "freedom of religion" are actually quite confounding, and since, as far as I can tell, no one from the many many groups or among the many many critics opposing this HHS mandate seem interested in explaining the issues. Apparently it's enough to be appalled that the Obama administration is assaulting our first freedom and obliterating freedom of religion, without ever being clear about the messy matters of corporate personhood and religious practice.

Which this 28-page ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Joe Heaton points out:
"Plaintiffs have not cited, and the court has not found, any case concluding that secular, for-profit corporations such as Hobby Lobby and Mardel have a constitutional right to the free exercise of religion .... The question of whether the Greens can establish a free exercise constitutional violation by reason of restrictions or requirements imposed on general business corporations they own or control involves largely uncharted waters." 
In short, this ruling asks the very basic question that those up in arms over religious freedom have consistently refused to answer: what sense does "religious freedom" have for a corporate entity?

Nov 14, 2012

Nazi racing trophy

Presentation in Chicago

A bit of shameless self-promotion:

Exploratory Sessions (A18-232)
Per Smith, Boston University, Presiding

Theme: Irreligion, Secularism and Social Change
Sunday, Nov. 19 – 1 – 2:30 PM, McCormick Place West, room 178A, Chicago

"Scholars of religion from a variety of disciplines are increasingly focusing their attention on the relationship between the religious and the secular. So what would a sustained discussion of 'the secular' look like within the American Academy of Religion; and moreover, how would such a discussion be relevant to religious studies? This exploratory session seeks to provide modest answers to those questions by example. On the heels of the year of the protestor, the session explores how 'the secular' is implicated in and affected by social transformations. How did social change make the secular possible? How have the demands of 20th century social movements shaped emergent forms of secularism? How do contemporary social movements provide fertile soil for secular theologies of resistance? And how are contemporary irreligious identities evolving within a social context that considers them deviant?

Daniel Silliman, University of Heidelberg
The Possibility of Secularity and the Material History of Fiction 
Petra Klug, University of Leipzig
The Dynamics of Standardisation and Deviance using the Way U.S. Society deals with Atheists as an Example 
Jordan Miller, Salve Regina University
Occupying Absence: Political Resistance and Secular Theology 

Responding: Jonathan VanAntwerpen, Social Science Research Council

Nov 9, 2012

Science wins small symbolic victory in Georgia vote

A bit of a political protest is becoming apparent as the ballots are tallied in one North Georgia congressional district: a protest on behalf of science.

According to the Athens Banner-Herald, Charles Darwin received nearly 4,000 write-in votes in one of the 24 counties that make up the state's 10th Congressional District, where the unopposed Republican incumbent had declared the theory of evolution to be the work of Satan. How many write-in votes went to Darwin in the 23 other counties of the district is not clear, as not all of the counties report write-ins, yet the symbolic protest was sizable enough to attract the attention of national news outlets and, Darwin supporters hope, attract a real challenger to the race in 2014. 

Broun's broad dismissal of science -- from evolution to the Big Band to embryology -- at a political rally in a Baptist church was especially inflammatory because he sits on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. In the viedo released by the church, Broun stood in front of a wall of mounted deer heads, and said that science was opposed to the Bible, which is the "manufacturer's handbook."

Echoing the ideas of Christian Theonomists such as R.J. Rushdooney, who taught that the world is divided into four spheres and that God is king of all four, Broun explained that science is a blasphemous attempt to displace God. He told the audience he doesn't accept the authority of science, but of the Bible, which "teaches us how to run our lives, individually, how to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all of public policy and everything in society. And that's the reason as your congressman, I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions for how I vote in Washington D.C."

The brouhaha that followed the congressman's version of theocratic government was turned into a symbolic protest at the polls, last week, in part due to the work of a UGA professor. 

Nov 7, 2012

Catholics to bishops: never mind our souls

American Catholic bishops attempted to exert their influence on the electorate, but to little effect.

Looking at the Catholic vote the day after the election doesn't reveal any significant shifts or surprises, but the results do indicate the political impotency of a Catholic hierarchy that has become very strongly identified with politics.

The American bishops didn't appear to hesitate in picking political sides in this last election. That has not always been the case, but this time the church's hierarchy leaned heavily on Catholic parishioners, making strong pronouncements about the morality of voting one way or another, clearly indication how good Catholics should cast their ballots if they cared about their souls. Picking up issues such as abortion and mandated coverage of contraception, the church's leaders issued strongly worded statements that, ostensibly, left little room for differences of opinion among the faithful.

And yet they were ignored by significant portions of the church.

One poll in the final days of the campaign put Catholic support of Barack Obama's reelection at 52 percent. An exit poll widely cited had half of self-identified Catholics saying they'd voted for Obama, and only 48 percent saying they'd supported Mitt Romney.

The bishops were spurned by sizable portions of Catholic voters, nationally and locally.

In Illinois, for example, Bishop Thomas John Paprocki wrote that voting for candidates who supported the Democratic Party platform -- which, in contrast to the Republican platform, has planks that "explicitly endorse intrinsic evils" -- puts one's soul in danger. But many, many Illinois Catholics voters just didn't seem to care.

Paprocki's message:
"I am not telling you which party or which candidates to vote for or against, but I am saying that you need to think and pray very carefully about your vote, because a vote for a candidate who promotes actions or behaviors that are intrinsically evil and gravely sinful makes you morally complicit and places the eternal salvation of your own soul in serious jeopardy."
Nearly half of the Catholic voters in Illinois disagreed with or disregarded the bishop's warning. The CNN exit poll shows that 48 percent of the state's Catholic voters cast their ballot for Obama on Tuesday.

This is true other places as well: The bishops simply do not have significant influence over their supposed flocks.

Happy birthday Billy Graham

Billy Graham turns 94 today.

One of the odder moments of Graham's very public career -- though there are many, and many more than one would expect given Graham's image -- from a 1969 interview with William F. Buckley:
"I think that many people have been thrown off by the terrible sufferings and the overwhelming problems that have been created in our generation. But this is precisely a fulfillment of what the Bible itself teaches. Because the Bible teaches that our problems originate from the fact that man, since the Garden of Eden, has been in rebellion against God. Now I personally hold the view that there are beings on other planets and that, I believe, this is the only planet in rebellion against God."

Nov 6, 2012

Nixon butt prints in November beach sand

Nixon went down to the beach and sat in the sand and waited. The waves came in, the waves went out, and he sat there in his suit and waited.

There comes a point, in every election, where there seems like there’s nothing anyone can do. Whatever is going to happen will happen. It has happened already. Sometime during the day, sometime while the votes are cast or after they’re cast but haven’t yet been counted, the candidates can’t do anything anymore except wait. Politicking ends. Maneuvering stops. Everyone waits. They’re as helpless as hitchhikers, at that moment, in that in-between time. As helpless as sinners in that old Calvinist doctrine of waiting for grace.

An old essay on waiting for the foreordained, secularized Calvinism, Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, and the interregnum of election day @ TheThe Poetry. Read the rest: here.

Nov 5, 2012

The diversity of religion in American politics

Two congressional candidates in two very different districts demonstrate something of the religious diversity in American politics today.

In Hawaii, in a district that previously elected one of congress' few Buddhists, Tulsi Gabbard is currently leading in the polls by 52 points. If elected, Gabbard would be the country's first Hindu representative.

As the Religious News Service reports:
"Gabbard, 31, was born in American Samoa to a Catholic father and a Hindu mother, and moved to Hawaii when she was 2. In 2002, at age 21, she was elected to the Hawaii state legislature.

"[...] Gabbard, whose first name refers to a tree sacred to Hindus, fully embraced Hinduism as a teenager, and follows the Vaishnava branch that believes in the Supreme Lord Vishnu, and his 10 primary incarnations. Her primary scripture is the centuries-old Bhagavad Gita, whose themes include selfless action, spirituality, war, and serving God and humanity.

Nov 2, 2012

Dr. Reist

Dr. John Reist once drew me a map to his house when I was a student in one of his classes at Hillsdale College. It started with a circle, which he said was God and he said "There is a God and she's black." "Hey whoa," he said. About 10 minutes of map drawing and jokes later, I realized it was actually a straight line from the college to his house. No turns or anything. But still that map, like all the lessons Reist taught, turned out, kinda mysteriously, to be profoundly useful.

Rest in peace, Dr. Reist. Quack to you too, and rest in peace.

Oct 29, 2012

A political 'evolution' on social conservative issues

Has Mitt Romney evolved?

According to the conservative Christian group Family Research Council, Romney has changed positions on five key issues between the Republican primaries and the general election. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that says candidates tack to the center during general elections, and become more moderate to appeal to independents and swing voters, Romney has apparently strengthened his case with social conservatives since winning the Republican party nomination.

Where once he was squishy, apparently, on the issues the FRC cared about, now he's firm. Where once the FRC judged the Mass. governor to be only 50 percent in line with the positions of "values voters," he now has a perfect score.

Of course it's possible it's not Romney who has changed.

Oct 24, 2012

'We have to forgive him'

Lu Lobello, a former Marine who was involved in the killing of three civilians in the early days of the war in Iraq, approached the family, now American immigrants, asking for forgiveness.

The family is Jehovah's Witness.

As recalled by the journalist who reported the story, that made a difference:

The timeline of future history

The timeline of future history

Matthew Sutton:
Why the antichrist matters in politics.
Was FDR the Antichrist: The birth of fundamentalist antiliberalism in a global age.

Oct 23, 2012

Obamacare prevents abortions

A new study suggests that the Affordable Care Act, i.e., "Obamacare," may be "the single most effective piece of 'pro-life' legislation in the past forty years," reducing abortions by up to 78 percent (!). The study tested the effects of Obamacare by covering the costs of birth control -- particularly more expensive but more effective methods -- for poor and currently uninsured or under-insured women.

The results:
"Between 2008 and 2010, abortion rates in CHOICE [study] participants ranged from 4.4 to 7.5 per 1,000 after adjusting for age and race. These rates are considerably less than the rates in St. Louis City and County for the same years and far below the national rate of 19.6 per 1,000. Using these data, we then estimated the difference in abortion rates and number of abortions prevented each year if CHOICE were available to the entire population of the region. Based on the number needed to treat, one abortion could be prevented for every 79–137 women and teenagers provided the CHOICE intervention.

".... changes in contraceptive policy simulating the Contraceptive CHOICE Project would prevent as many as 62–78% of abortions performed annually in the United States."
In the first year of the study, providing birth control for more than 9,000 women prevented an estimated 3,000 pregnancies that would have likely resulted in abortions. In comparison to women from the surrounding area in the same socio-economic bracket, the number of abortions in subsequent years was reduced by nearly 2,000 per year.

The study -- done by Jeffrey F. Peipert, Tessa Madden, Jenifer E. Allsworth and Gina M. Secura at the Washington University School of Medicine --  concludes that this is a "a clinically and statistically significant reduction in abortion rates," supporting the idea that "Unintended pregnancies may be reduced by providing no-cost contraception and promoting the most effective contraceptive methods."

Providing "no-cost contraception" is exactly what Obamacare would do, if not gutted or repealed by Republicans.

Oct 22, 2012

The religion in the politics of George McGovern

September 1, 1970 saw a moment critical to the history of religion in American politics. A moment that doesn't fit the standard narrative of what religion-in-politics in American means, yet was, nevertheless, an example of one of the important ways faith has spoken in the public square, but is dismissed as being somehow not real, not counting as really religious.

On that day in the US Senate an amendment came up for a vote that would have ended the Vietnam war. It was drafted by two Christian men, two men whose liberal politics were informed by their Christianity: Mark Hatfield and George McGovern.

The Hatifled-McGovern amendment was known as the "amendment to end the war." It linked military funding to a deadline for troop withdraw from Vietnam. It was the strongest opposition to the Nixon administration and the never-ending military conflict at the time, and McGovern made it stronger by giving a speech that could rightly seen as in the tradition of Old Testament prophets. Right before voting started, McGovern said:
"Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every Senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our land -- young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes ... if we do not end this damnable war those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us. So before we vote, let us ponder the admonition of Edmund Burke, the great parliamentarian of an earlier day: 'A conscientious man would be cautious how he dealt in blood.'"
Hatfield's religious commitments have been noted. The late Oregon Senator was called "Saint Mark," and is something of a symbol of the possibility of a religious left. A committed evangelical, Hatfield believed that the pressing moral issues of his day were war, racism, and the unjust distribution of wealth. He believed that evangelicals should rise up to oppose the "Biblical Nationalism" that was being propagated in their name.

McGovern's religious commitments are not particularly a part of the public character, "McGovern."

He, after all, was famously tarred as the candidate for draft-dodger's amnesty, abortions, and acid.

His name, after all, has become a synonym for loony liberalism, and everyone knows that that's the Godless wing of American politics.

A closer look, though, shows that the life and politics of George McGovern, who died yesterday at the age of 90, was deeply informed and rooted in his Christianity.

Oct 16, 2012

Sitting for spirits

Man with a spirit face appearing

More spirit photography at the National Media Museum, which has made many of these photos available online.

Oct 15, 2012

John Bunyan's accident of fiction

"When at the first I took my pen in hand
Thus for to write, I did not understand
That I at all should make a little book
In such a mode; nay, I had undertook
To make another; which, when almost done,
Before I was aware, I this begun.

"And thus it was: I, writing on the way
And race of saints, in this our gospel day,
Fell suddenly into an allegory"
-- John Bunyan, "The Author's Apology for his Book," Pilgrim's Progress

Oct 12, 2012

Biden v. Ryan on Catholicism & abortion

The vice presidential candidates -- both Catholic -- answer the question of "what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion."

Did Billy Graham just try to convert Mitt Romney?

Billy Graham has been challenged, many times, on his relationship to power. The famed evangelist has "met with every sitting American president from Harry Truman to President Obama," as the Washington Post puts it, and has, at least on some occasions, been used politically by powerful figures, made into a  religious fig leaf for presidents without much faith of their own.

His relationship to Nixon, especially, has been criticized. It was said his presence as Nixon's spiritual adviser served to lend tacit if not explicit approval of the administration. His presence implied his blessing.

Graham has, in recent years, admitted he made some mistakes in this regard. He's said if he could do it again, he'd do it differently. Yet, his argument has always been and continues to be that he would go anywhere, talk to anyone, accept any audience, as long as he could preach the gospel.

He told Christianity Today in 1974:
"I have said for many years that I will go anywhere to preach the Gospel, whether to the Vatican, the Kremlin, or the White House, if there are no strings attached on what I am to say. I have never had to submit the manuscript to the White House or get anybody's approval. I have never informed any President of what I was going to say ahead of time. They all know that when I come to preach, I intend to preach the Gospel."
A year ago, he reiterated this, telling the magazine that he was "grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to."

This context of "no strings attached" might inform how one views yesterday's closed-door meeting between the now 93-year-old Graham and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.  Of course there are many reasons Graham might have wanted the 30-minute meeting to be private, allowing only for a few pictures at the end, but one also has to wonder: Did Graham preach the gospel to the Mormon Mitt Romney?

Did Graham ask Romney if he'd been born again, or tell Romeny he needed Jesus in his life, to accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior?

And what did Romney say?

L-R: Romney, Billy Graham, Franklin Graham.

Oct 11, 2012

Partial & elusive truths:
The aestheic values of Ron Hansen's 'Christian fiction'

Ron Hansen is a Christian fiction writer. Except, with him, the sense of "Christian fiction writer" is that he's a Christian who writes fiction and a writer who writes fiction that's informed by and shaped by his faith, not that he belongs to the genres or markets generally referred to by the term.

He has, perhaps to make that exactly that distinction, criticized the genres of Christian fiction with criticisms that are fairly broad, fairly sweeping. Hansen has said he dislikes Christian fiction because it "is often in fact pallid allegory, a form of sermonizing."

In another context, Hansen has expanded that critique, and challenged, even, the Christianness of Christian fiction. In A Stay Against Confusion, he writes: 
"So-called Christian fiction is often in fact pallid allegory, or a form of sermonizing, or is a reduction into formula, providing first-century, Pauline solutions to oversimplified problems, sometimes yielding to a Manichean dualism wherein good and evil are plainly at war, or offering as Christianity conservative politics. We cannot call a fiction Christian just because there is no irreligion in it, no skepticism, nothing to cause offense."
Whether or not that's a fair critique of Christian fiction, it does get at the sense of the aesthetic expression of Christianity that Hansen values.

Or rather, doesn't value: Pallid allegory, sermonizing, formula and over-simplification are the negative terms. On the other side, the positive terms of his specifically Catholic aesthetic measures are more ambiguous. Not that he doesn't or hasn't articulated them, but that they're still pretty vague, even articulated, and it's just not really clear what these values would mean in the context of a novel -- or how they work out in the context of his novels.

'We must disagree with those prophets of gloom'

"In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life. They behave as though at the time of former Councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty.

"We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand."
-- Pope John XXIII, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia (Mother Church Rejoices), the opening speech of the Second Vatican Council, which began 50 years ago today.  

Oct 5, 2012

Cut off my head / and put the black mules there

Accounting for the dominance of contemporary worship music

[Repost from Sept. 2011]
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.

Oct 4, 2012

Fighting w/ St. Francis

[Reposted from Oct. 4, 2012]

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, 2012

A teaching career

The professor, as imagined in children's lit: a tumblr.

Oct 2, 2012

Strategic misremembering

There was a lot of celebration following the Supreme Court's decision in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC. For those who see themselves as defenders of religious liberty, the decision was a victory. A triumph. Religious liberty won, the "current Administration’s audacity" and "an unprecedented aggression" was "repudiated by a unanimous Supreme Court," and the "secularists" were taken to the woodshed.

So why are those who celebrate this victory systematically misrepresenting it?

Oct 1, 2012

The color of the image of God

"Then Sister Rosmarie told us to go back to our work. Which was a perfectly silly thing to say because when Sister Rosmarie was in your class you paid attention to Sister Rosmarie. Even the kindergartners knew that.

"So, our eyes stayed on Sister Rosmarie as she grabbed the chair, dragged it across the floor to the front of the room, then she stood on the top of the chair with her back to the class. In our classroom, just like in every class room, there was a crucifix. The crucifix had a blond wooden cross with a figure of Christ suspended on it. Then, with her back to the class, Sister Rosmarie teetered on her tippy-toes, firmly grabbed the bottom of the crucifix, and took it off the wall.

"By this point, no one was reading or even pretending to pay attention to anything else. She placed the cross aside, reached up, again on her tip-toes, and replaced the old crucifix with a new one.
"And on this cross was a black Jesus." 
A story by Sonari Glinton about his church in Chicago in the 1970s.

Anyone interested in this subject would do well to check out the new book by two scholars of American religion, Paul Harvey and Edward J. Blum, The Color of Christ. 

Sep 30, 2012

The hospitality of saints

With open arms

St. Remigius -- "apostle to the Franks" and the Archbishop of Reims (437-533) -- in a chapel on top of Wurmlingen Berg. The chapel is named after Remigius, though what connection he has to the hilltop church in Southern Germany I do not know.

St. Remigius' day, coincidentally, is tomorrow.