Feb 26, 2013

Things that Žižek says in between saying other things

Notes of confessions, disavowals & affirmations & other asides in Slovoj Žižek's speech, "Das Jahr der gefährlichen Träume," in Heidelberg, Feb. 25, 2013.

"You say: 'Now you are a stupid magician. You go all around, where is your rabbits?'"

"Now I make some crazy steps."

"Of course, I am still a communist and so on."

Feb 20, 2013

Evangelicals so dominate the North American religious scene that 'evangelical chic' may be impending.
-- Bob E. Patterson, in Carl F.H. Henry, published 1983

Feb 18, 2013

What can be learned from repeated misprints in journal citations

Mistakes, misprints, and typos are easy: a transposition of characters can happen with the slip of fingers;  a word can be added or dropped from a quote with a shift of the eye. These things happen.

The way these things happen, their frequency and their patterns, may also be important.

As M.V. Simkin and V.P. Roychowdhury argue in a 2002 paper, "misprints in scientific citations should not be discarded as a mere happenstance, but, similar to Freudian slips, analyzed."


Feb 17, 2013

Church suppers changing lives

Lots of studies have shown that religious people in America are more generous that areligious people. The more people go to church, the more generous they are. As Robert D. Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard, summarizes the research, "people who are involved in religious networks are more likely to be good citizens."

There's something curious, here, though, when you break down the question of what it means to be "religious." The theological content of someone's religiousness has little to do with their generosity. Whether or not someone has faith or believes, or how much they believe, turns out to be rather irrelevant to the likelihood they demonstrate this sort of behavior.

Putnam says the statistics show that faith and belief in God do not correlate with people being good citizens and good neighbors. Religious people, Putnam says, are "nicer," but only when "religious" is taken to mean "people who have denser personal relationships with other people in their congregation or their religious community. It's not faith per se, it's communities of faith that matters for, our data shows, whether people are good citizens or not and whether they're happy or not."

According to Putnam, it's not clear why "church friends" have more of an influence on civic participation that other associations or groups of friends, but research shows that they do.

Turns out, in ways that social scientists can measure, the most life-changing part of church seems to be the church suppers.

Feb 15, 2013

Pope speaks on Dorothy Day

In his Ash Wednesday talk, a few days after his resignation, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement.

In November, the U.S. bishops voted unanimously to move forward with the canonization process that would recognize Day as a saint. Day is most often know for her social justice efforts, her activism, and her political radicalism. On Wednesday, though, the pope emphasized a different aspect of Day's biography:
The ability to oppose the ideological blandishments of her time to choose the search for truth and open herself up to the discovery of faith is evidenced by another woman of our time, the American Dorothy Day. In her autobiography, she confesses openly to having given in to the temptation that everything could be solved with politics, adhering to the Marxist proposal: 'I wanted to be with the protesters, go to jail, write, influence others and leave my dreams to the world. How much ambition and how much searching for myself in all this!' The journey towards faith in such a secularized environment was particularly difficult, but Grace acts nonetheless, as she points out: 'It is certain that I felt the need to go to church more often, to kneel, to bow my head in prayer. A blind instinct, one might say, because I was not conscious of praying. But I went, I slipped into the atmosphere of prayer ....' God guided her to a conscious adherence to the Church, in a lifetime spent dedicated to the underprivileged.

In our time there are no few conversions understood as the return of those who, after a Christian education, perhaps a superficial one, moved away from the faith for years and then rediscovered Christ and his Gospel.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, likewise describing Day's life as a turning-away from the secular, has called her "a saint for our times."

Feb 14, 2013


Coming soon

First official artwork for Left Behind (the remake), which is reportedly on schedule to start production this spring. 

The original book addresses the possibility of the story of the rapture being made into a movie, and is very skeptical of that possibility: "If somebody tried to sell a screenplay about millions of people disappearing, leaving everything but their bodies behind, it would be laughed off."

The question now is: what if they did sell it, twice?

Feb 13, 2013

American evangelicals ♥ Pope Benedict XVI

One of the really fascinating stories of American evangelicalism in the 20th century is how evangelical attitudes towards Catholicism completely changed. In 1926, one of America's leading fundamentalist pastors, J. Frank Norris, attacked Catholicism and warned American evangelicals not to trust them, with sermons and articles with titles like "The Conspiracy of Rum and Romanism to Rule this Government."

Such attitudes persisted even into the 1960s. But things have changed since then. As Religion News Service notes, American evangelical leaders have responded to Pope Benedict XVI's announcement of his resignation by praising the man, and saying how much they will miss him.

Daniel Burke writes:
Just a generation or two ago, such lavish praise might have been unthinkable. During the early 1960s, evangelist Billy Graham — sometimes dubbed the Protestant pope — took heat for inviting Catholics to join his revivals. But after the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), denominational barriers fell and ecumenism prospered.  
Meanwhile, evangelicals developed an appreciation for Catholic culture, and Catholics found ready evangelical allies in the battles against secularism, abortion and gay rights.  
'One of the challenges of evangelical Protestantism as it became a political force was to find a vocabulary to talk about the role of Christian faith in a diverse, pluralistic society like the United States,' said R.R. Reno, executive editor of First Things, an interreligious journal. 'By and large, they turned to Catholicism.'
The other major factor in this cultural shift -- besides Roe v. Wade, which at first was considered just a Catholic issue that evangelicals shouldn't particularly care about -- was the Cold War, and the Catholic Church's opposition to communism.

The American religious historian Barry Hankins has written about the change in the "marketplace of ideas" that brought evangelicals and Catholics together.

Of course, there are still those out there like William Tapley, who talks about the papacy in terms of the antichrist and assorted end times prophecies. That's just an extreme fringe, though. The days of Norris-style warnings about Catholicism has passed.

The North American papabiles

There are only a few North American names floating around in the speculation about the possible next pope, following the sudden resignation of Pope Benedict XVI on Monday. The chances that the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church will be from North America are exceedingly slim. The names that come up in this game of speculation, though, say something about the landscape, about the shape and tendencies and dispositions of the Catholic hierarchy in the United States and Canada, in relationship to the Vatican.

There's little point in speculation, except as a game, but the speculation nevertheless is interesting for what it reveals about the leadership of the Catholic church. It's interesting, for that reason, to look at the three top North American names on the odd-maker's list of papabile cardinals: Marc Ouellet, previously of Quebec, Timothy Dolan, of New York, and Raymond Burke, previously of St. Louis.

There are some differences in style, temperament, and the focuses of their careers, but also some marked similarities, especially with regards to opposition to "secularism" and debates over the correct interpretation of the Second Vatican Council.

Feb 11, 2013

Lecrae and the future of Christian music markets

The Grammy for the year's best gospel album went to Lecrae, last night, the Reformed rapper who had a chart-topping album earlier this year where he rapped about writing "songs for the perishin' and parishioners." It was the second time he'd been nominated for a Grammy. 

Due to Grammy rules, his hip-hop album "Gravity" fell into the gospel category, rather than rap, but the win nevertheless highlights Lecrae's cross-over appeal. 

It's not simply taken for granted that a Christian rap album would be successful in a general market, nor that a Christian rap album with a general appeal would still be acceptable to Christians. But things are changing. Markets are shifting and attitudes are adjusting. The world of contemporary Christian music is very different than it was when Amy Grant stirred up so much controversy, and even since the '90s, when, as Heather Hendershot wrote, there were these ongoing struggles over faith and markets, with "people in the Christian music industry [...] attempting to negotiate between their heartfelt beliefs and a secular marketplace that they realize is wary of both evangelical faith and politics."

Those negotiations are different, today, and seem less tortured, for one thing. 

Lecrae has been on the forefront of a change. His Grammy win is part of that, as is the big big win for a band that started in a Vineyard Church, but last night took home the award for album of the year. 

In a recent interview with PBS, Lecrae talked about the relationship between Christianity and hip hop, and articulates the kind of argument he's been making for several years now. The argument itself is interesting, but what's more interesting to me is the fact, first, that he has to make this argument even though there've now been more than 50 years of continual evangelical adaptations of pop music, and, second, that he's been quite successful at it:

A lot of people will say hip hop, because of what it has been consistently associated with, should have nothing to do with Christianity whatsoever, like you can't be Christian and rap at the same time, but I would challenge them in that. There are things that culturally we have given some kind of cultural connotation to or perspective on, but it doesn't have to be identified with that.  
If I take a butcher knife, you would think 'horror movie.' But, I could just be serving food to the homeless and carving turkey and giving them out. And so, the culture has given this identity to the butcher knife as this evil thing that kills, but really you can take that use that for a whole 'nother purpose that's redeptive and helpful.  
I think rap is the same way. Culturally it's been used as something that's negative, and bad, but I think you can take it and use it for redemptive purposes and helpful purposes as well. 

I'm not sure it's clear why and to what extent Christian music markets have changed, by Lecrae and his Grammy are a good example of how it has.

Feb 10, 2013

Wohl dem, des Hilfe der Gott Jakobs ist; des Hoffnung auf den HERRN, seinem Gott, steht; der Himmel, Erde, Meer und alles, was darinnen ist, gemacht hat; der Glauben hält ewiglich; der Recht schafft denen, so Gewalt leiden; der die Hungrigen speist. Der HERR löst die Gefangenen. Der HERR macht die Blinden sehend. Der HERR richtet auf, die niedergeschlagen sind. Der HERR liebt die Gerechten.

Der HERR behütet die Fremdlinge und erhält die Waisen und Witwen und kehrt zurück den Weg der Gottlosen.

-- Psalm 146, Luther Bible, 1545

Habermas' secular sources

I maintain that we have good reasons to insist on secular sources for justifying the principles of the constitutions our forms of societies fortunately have for constituting the polity. 
I don't think -- it is not necessary to take resource to religious sources for justifying the principles.
-- Jürgen Habermas

Feb 8, 2013

Beyond "religious liberty"

Most of the attention given to the roiling legal fight over insurance coverage and birth control and the limits of religious exercise has come in the form of arguments about "religious liberty."

It is an issue of religious liberty, of course, though the tendency has been for those arguments to obscure more than they reveal. An example of this is Mike Huckabee's advocation for the craft store Hobby Lobby last month. Huckabee encouraged people to shop at the chain in an act of solidarity, a consumption-as-politics act of activism. He said:
They are having to fight in court for the most basic American rights of freedom of religion and freedom of speech .... The Obama administration insists that companies like Hobby Lobby bow their knees to the God of government health care mandates, even when those mandates are a clear and direct contradiction to their personal beliefs of faith.
The conflation that he's making here, between the corporation, Hobby Lobby, and "their personal beliefs of faith," is exactly what's at issue in these lawsuits. The grammatical issue of replacing a singular noun with a plural pronouns isn't an accident; it's the point. In promoting the identification of an individual shopper with the company, Huckabee's not actually making an argument that for-profit corporations can have religion and have the right to exercise religion, but re-casting the issue as a conflict between those who are for and those who are against religious freedom.

For the most part, though, it seems that the people most concerned with these legal battles are only concerned contingent on this confusion.

So it's interesting to see two conservative Christian media outlets approach the Hobby Lobby et al legal battles with Obamacare's HHS contraceptives coverage mandate from a very different direction. This last week, there were two articles where the lawsuits were put into a very different context.


Feb 7, 2013

Francis Schaeffer and the death of Baby Doe

Francis Schaeffer's 1982 message to the Presbyterians at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was pretty simple: the philosophy of modern society is humanism, and humanism means death.

The speech was part of Schaeffer's book tour for A Christian Manifesto, which had been published the year before. That book and tour, along with 1976's book and film series How Shall We Then Live? and 1979's book and film Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, all made a sustained argument about the need for Christian activism. The pro-life movement, as such, can be traced to these arguments; the religious right as a "bloc" and a single, mobilized, political entity, was formed in part by these efforts. Schaeffer made the historical and philosophical case that undergirded the emerging movement.

The argument was about attitudes towards life and death.

Attitudes exemplified by the issue of infanticide.

The case Schaeffer made to the Presbyterians hinged on claims about infanticide, its prevalence and its popular acceptability. His philosophical critique of modern America and his proscriptive solution of Christian action both depended on the accuracy of his cultural analysis. Both were dependent on the question of whether or not Schaeffer was right about the way the world was at that moment. For that reason alone, it's worth inquiring into the question of infants killed by doctors in 1982.

The answer to the question of whether or not Schaeffer was right about infanticide in 1982 will go some ways towards answering the questions of whether or not he was right about the modern world, and right or not about humanism.

Doubt in the library

Megan Phelps-Roper, once thought to be the future of Westboro Baptist's campaign to tell America how very much it is hated by God, has now left her grandfather's church.

As she told journalist Jeff Chu, doubt came, as it so often does, from questions of epistemology and a sense of the expanse of history. Megan's situation is unusual, but this thought process follows a well-travelled route.

Chu writes:
She kept trying to conquer the doubts. Westboro teaches that one cannot trust his or her feelings. They’re unreliable. Human nature 'is inherently sinful and inherently completely sinful,' Megan explains. 'All that's trustworthy is the Bible. And if you have a feeling or a thought that’s against the church's interpretations of the Bible, then it's a feeling or a thought against God himself.'

This, of course, assumes that the church's teachings and God's feelings are one and the same. And this, of course, assumes that the church's interpretation of the Bible is infallible, that this much-debated document handed down over the centuries has, in 2013, been processed and understood correctly only by a small band of believers in Topeka. 'Now?' Megan says. 'That sounds crazy to me.'

In December, she went to a public library in Lawrence, Kansas. She was looking through books on philosophy and religion, and it struck her that people had devoted their entire lives to studying these questions of how to live and what is right and wrong. 'The idea that only WBC had the right answer seemed crazy,' she says. 'It just seemed impossible.'
Phelps-Roper has left the church, and Topeka, and is currently trying to figure out what she does believe.

Feb 5, 2013

God and Mammon and religious liberty

You cannot serve both God and Mammon. At least, you can't if you're a corporation, according to the Obama administration's proposed new rules regarding what sort of organizations will be required to provide employees insurance coverage of contraceptives under Obamacare.

Previously, the Obama administration had allowed for an exemption to the contraceptives mandate that was fairly narrow. Groups were exempted only if they met four criteria: 1) their purpose was the "inculcation of religious values," 2) most of the employees shared that religion, 3) most of the people being served shared that religion, and 4) they were a non-profit organization. This defined the sort of organization the law was considering as "religious."

This definition of "religious" is the fundamental issue in a slew of lawsuits about the health care policy.

One of the main objections to this working definition was the way it deemed religious service groups to be not religious. A Catholic soup kitchen is not mainly about the "inculcation of religious values," nor does it primarily serve Catholics.

With these proposed changes to the rules, released last week, the administration acknowledges that "religion" can mean many things, and doesn't just describe houses of worship. In the proposal for new rules, it says:
The Departments agree that the exemption should not exclude group health plans of religious entities that would qualify for the exemption but for the fact that, for example, they provide charitable social services to persons of different religious faiths or employ persons of different religious faiths when running a parochial school. Indeed, this was never the Departments’ intention.
the Departments propose to amend the definition of religious employer ... by eliminating the first three prongs of the definition and clarifying the application of the fourth. Under this proposal, an employer that is organized and operates as a nonprofit entity and referred to in section 6033(a)(3)(A)(i) or (iii) of the Code would be considered a religious employer for purposes of the religious employer exemption.
In practice, what this would mean is that any non-profit organization can fill out a form stating their religious objections and identifying themselves as religious, and they thus opt-out of the mandate. They can then provide health insurance for their employees that fits with the requirements of their religion and the rules of Obamacare; other arrangements will be made to provide contraceptives for those employees who want it, arrangements that won't involve the religious employer.

This is designed to resolve a good many of the lawsuits while not requiring employees to be disadvantaged by their employers beliefs. Whether it will or not is an open question, I suppose, but that's the purpose of the new rules, to strike a balance between accommodating religious belief and not allowing religious practices to be imposed on or negatively affect those who don't believe. The administration says:
The proposed accommodations would provide such plan participants and beneficiaries contraceptive coverage without cost sharing while insulating their employers or institutions of higher education from contracting, arranging, paying, or referring for such coverage.
The way the balance is struck, here, is by broadening the legal definition of religious organization. Now, to be counted as religious organization, only two things are necessary: the group must considered itself to be and hold itself out to be religious, and there can't be any profit.

This means the lawsuits that have interested me most, which are about the religious rights of for-profit corporations, will go forward. This compromise specifically excludes them. Hobby Lobby, Inc., and other corporations with religious owners will still have to take their case to the courts to argue that corporations have religions and have the right to exercise them.

There have been a variety of responses to the proposed new rules. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops declined to comment for the Associated Press, and said they're studying the proposal. Law firms involved in the cases defending for-profit corporations that have religious objections to insurance plans covering employee's contraceptives have said this is "picking and choosing who is allowed to exercise faith," and that the government should create an exemption for any "moral decision," disregarding anything else. Other responses have been crazier. At National Review, one writer interprets the compromise as a "double dose of authoritarianism" designed to force Catholic nuns to have birth control coverage.

Here's a thought provoking question, though. Matthew Schmitz of First Things asks:
The Obama administration believes that conscientious objections to contraception should prevail in the non-profit sector, but not in for-profit corporations. Why? Do employees of non-profits need contraception less? Do the conscience claims of their leaders matter more? Why are tax-exempt organizations granted more rights than those which pay taxes?
To put it another way, why can't a corporation serve both God and Mammon? What is it about being for-profit that necessarily excludes an organization from being legally considered religious?