Wednesday, August 27, 2014

on ISIS, etc.

I have a friend who imagines that I think ISIS is unimportant since I haven't posted on it. One problem with this standard ("post" = "you care"; "don't post" = "don't care") is that it is incoherent (not applied consistently) and/or insipid (one should comment, even in areas where one does not have expertise or value-added).

So, for the record, if anyone else cares: I believe that ISIS is engaged in evil activity. Also, for the record, I think that killing puppies for fun is evil.

I don't have anything (useful) to say on the former, since I have not invested much in an area that is quite complicated. And I'm not going to rely on a fallacy of authority to say stuff where I don't have expertise-- as, say, Paul Krugman on health care.

I suppose I could repeat some general principles if that would help. Our government has few attractive options-- even if it has the political will to pull the relevant triggers. As we've seen over the past 50 years, government is rarely competent in foreign policy, even with the best of intentions. (See also: domestic economic and social policy.) All of this calls for long-run thinking that looks at both obvious and subtle consequences-- and humility about our supposed powers to manage the world through force. But one rarely sees this among politicians and the partisans who enable them.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

on drinking (and Christianity)...

I had the opportunity to revisit an old, familiar and important topic with one of my high school / bible study students from Providence...

Hey Eric, quick question.  Why is responsible underage drinking sin?  Obviously getting drunk is sinful, but if the goal of the drinking law is to keep kids from drinking too much and making bad choices, then what is the sin in having a beer?  Growing up Catholic, alcohol is something I've grown up around as a very normal part of social events, but as I look deeper into scripture, questions like this have popped up so any insight you could give me would be great. 

My reply... 
Good questions.

-Drunkenness is a sin. Yep!

-Drinking alcohol, per se, is not a sin. Check!

-Illegal drinking (e.g., because of one's age) is more challenging since Paul says we should submit/defer to the State (e.g., Romans 13:1-7). Two angles here: 1.) One can make an argument that I defer to the State's judgments on those matters—if they find me guilty. For example, one might violate the "speed limit", but drive safely, within the spirit of the law. If the police want to write a ticket, then I accept that quietly and move on. 2.) One can argue that I should simply defer to the State's judgment on this and obey the law.

-The State's "drinking age" is arbitrary. Why 18 or 21 or...? (It used to be 18 before the federal govt used highway funds as extortion to force states to move the age to 21!) What's special about 21 vs. a day short of 21 years old? If the State is going to have laws, then it must draw such distinctions. But the distinctions are obviously silly if pushed very far.

-You have freedom in Christ to drink. But you don't want your freedom to lead to bondage (Galatians 5:1.13). Bondage is not worth a beer or three. So, take care, lest you stumble.

-Many times, you'll hear abstainers refer to the "stumbling block" aspect of drinking (Romans 14; I Corinthians 8:1-13, 10:23-31). The principle is that, whatever I do, I should love God and others. Sometimes, using my freedom in Christ to drink might harm other people. For example, if my buddy struggles with alcohol, it would not be loving for me to drink a beer in front of him. But this cuts both ways. Sometimes, people imagine that you can't drink a beer and be a Christian. For them, my abstention might cause them to stumble as they continue to imagine that one can't be a Christian and drink a beer. (This happened to me in grad school. Despite my best efforts to explain that this wasn’t a matter of salvation, I found out years later that a good friend thought that I didn’t drink for that reason!) Or sometimes Christians imagine that you can't drink and be a "good Christian". At times, you let that go (Romans 14's "weaker brother"). But at times, you need to defend others' freedom to drink and/or oppose the legalistic heresy. (Remember our discussion of Paul having Timothy circumcised in Acts 16:3, but refusing to have Titus circumcised in Galatians 2:3?)

Hope that’s helpful!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Horse Whisperer

I've done some research on horses to help with our book on disciple-making, entitled Enough Horses in the Barn. Ann Gillette recommended Monty Roberts auto-biography, The Man Who Listens to Horses: The Story of a Real-Life Horse Whisperer. I got a few nuggets that relate to disciple-making and our book. But beyond that, it was an enjoyable read.

The heart of the matter is Roberts' radically different approach to "breaking" and "training" horses. (Roberts doesn't like the former term, preferring "starting" [244]. "Starting" or "breaking" are negative terms-- getting horses to stop undesirable behavior; "training" is positive.) At least by his account, his efforts were revolutionary and much more effective. By any account I can imagine, his approach would be much more humane than the traditional ways. (He describes his father's general approach as universal and violent/oppressive [39-40].)

In a word, Roberts claims to communicate with horses--understanding them and being able to convey his wishes, to gain their trust, and to get them to do what he wanted.

In Roberts' lingo, the climactic moment is "join-up": when he breached the gap between distrust and trust with the horse (169-171, 244-249). Not surprisingly, he described the moment as always satisfying: as a teacher, it never gets old to get past certain barriers.

I was struck by his strategy of "leaning" on horses (particularly wild ones)-- pursuing them and then retreating-- in both catching and training them. When he retreated, they would follow at a distance. After repeating this process for awhile, they became easier to control (7, 25, 68).

Along the way, Roberts shares his brushes with fame, including doubling in movies as a child for Roddy McDowell, Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney and Charlton Heston (43-44); and working with John Steinbeck, Elia Kazan, and James Dean (who became a close friend) in "East of Eden" (101-104). Chapter 7 is devoted to his time with the Queen of England (including people there trying to mess with him).

Roberts also spends a lot of time on his influential relationship with his father. By Roberts' account, his father was a cruel man-- both as a father, a policeman (killing a man in cold blood), and as a horse trainer. In many ways, Roberts (gloriously) overcame his father's influence. Even so, the scars are still (sadly) evident in his writing.

Two small things: 1.) Roberts is color-blind. Later in life, he realized that it had been a blessing to him, crediting it with his ability to "perceive movement more clearly" and to "see better at night" (105). 2.) Roberts extended his methods to deer-- a remarkable story relayed in chapter 6.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Ferguson and remarkable disparities in people killed by police-- by race and especially by age

Check out the charts toward the bottom of this link. Click on #3-- the bar graph with numbers on "male victims of police shootings by race", divided into White (including Hispanic-- I looked that up at the source of the data), Black, and other. The most interesting part is that the data are also divided by age, using six ranges (under 20, 20-29, 30-39, 40-49, 50-59, over 60).

The data are incomplete, but seemingly not biased in a way that profoundly changes the results. If so, a few, fascinating observations from the data:

-The proportion of blacks killed by the police (vs. all people killed by the police) drops dramatically as age increases, from 56% to 16%.
-The proportion of blacks in the population drops as well, but much more modestly-- from 15% of the population for younger people down to 9% of the people for older folks. (As an aside, this is one way you can infer that Social Security is a particularly brutal kick in the shorts to African-Americans.)

Why are older African-Americans less likely to be killed? Many possibilities:
-Older blacks understand how to negotiate the police better (but are unable to pass those lessons along to the youth).
-Older blacks are less likely to to cause trouble and have encounters with the police.
-Police engage in age discrimination-- perhaps in tandem with racial discrimination. This discrimination could be "personal" (cops don't like young people) or "statistical" (based on perceived or correct stereotypes).
-In any case, race discrimination alone cannot explain these numbers, given that the numbers vary so much with age.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

for supporters and esp. critics of the Bible

Hopefully, all with strongly-held views on the Bible (whether supportive or critical) have gotten those through careful study and reading at least somewhat from those who are supportive and critical of it.

While reading the whole Bible would be quite a load, one would expect a critic to have read a good chunk of it that was representative and/or crucial to its themes and claims. (It's safe to assume that any critics reading this have more dignity and intellectual honesty than to rely solely on snippets, snark, and/or what critics have said about it.)

I think it'd also be appropriate to expect that one would revisit the Bible once in awhile-- say, every 5-10 years. As we change/grow, then our encounters with great, provocative literature can vary significantly. It'd be a shame to criticize that which I would now embrace or respect-- if I were open to giving it a new/fresh reading.

If you haven't read a big chunk, then I'd recommend Genesis and the New Testament.

If it's been awhile and you're looking for a refresher (particularly if you have not already read some of these at all), I'd recommend some of the following:

-Genesis 37-50-- the story of Jacob's family, esp. Judah and his more famous brother, Joseph. Leon Kass taught (still teaches?) a "Great Books" course on Genesis at U. of Chicago for 30 years. He turned the resulting discussions into a marvelous 800-page commentary, The Beginning of Wisdom.

-Ecclesiastes and a handful of Psalms-- e.g., Psalm 2, 22, 23, 42, 51

-Some of the prophets--e.g., Hosea 1-3, Ezekiel 16:1-6 (and read on to vs. 49-50 if you want to see the Bible's definition of "the sin of Sodom"), Isaiah 52-55, Haggai, Malachi

-The gospels of Luke and John

-The book of Romans

-Revelation, especially if you tend toward the more artistic or poetic side of things

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"Why Work?" by Dorothy Sayers

Excerpts from Dorothy Sayers' Why Work?

[Work] should be looked upon, not as a necessary drudgery to be undergone for the purpose of making money, but as a way of life in which the nature of man should find its proper exercise and delight and so fulfill itself to the glory of, made in God’s image, should make things, as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing. 

We should ask of an enterprise, not “will it pay?” but “is it good?”; of a man, not “what does he make?” but “what is his work worth?”; of goods, not “Can we induce people to buy them?” but “are they useful things well made?”; of employment, not “how much a week?” but “will it exercise my faculties to the utmost?” 

Work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.

We should no longer think of work as something that we hastened to get through in order to enjoy our leisure; we should look on our leisure as the period of changed rhythm that refreshed us for the delightful purpose of getting on with our work.

In nothing has the Church so lost Her hold on reality as in Her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation...How can any one remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life? The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables. Church by all means, and decent forms of amusement, certainly – but what use is all that if in the very center of his life and occupation he is insulting God with bad carpentry? No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever, I dare swear, came out of the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth. Nor, if they did, could anyone believe that they were made by the same hand that made Heaven and earth. 

Finally, a quote on work within Creed or Chaos, referring to a Catholic groups ideas for an ideal society: "It contained a number of clauses dealing with work and employment—minimum wages, hours of labour, treatment of employees, housing and so on—all very proper and Christian. But it offered no machinery whatever for ensuring that the work itself should be properly done. In its lack of a sacramental attitude to work, that is, it was as empty as a set of trade union regulations. We may remember that a mediaeval guild did insist, not only on the employer's duty to his workmen, but also on the labourer's duty to his work."

Creed or Chaos by Dorothy Sayers

Excerpts from Dorothy Sayers' "Creed or Chaos"...

We still go on scolding Germany for disregarding the standard of European ethics, as though that standard was something which she still acknowledged. It is only with great difficulty that we can bring ourselves to grasp the fact that there is no failure in Germany to live up to her own standards of right conduct. It is something much more terrifying and tremendous: it is that what we believe to be evil, Germany believes to be good. It is a direct repudiation of the basic Christian dogma on which our Mediterranean civilisation, such as it is, is grounded. 

It is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality, unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology...It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling...It is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealistic aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting and complex doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism. And it is fatal to imagine that everybody knows quite well what Christianity is and needs only a little encouragement to practise it. 

In this Christian country, not one person in a hundred has the faintest notion what the Church teaches about God or man or society or the person of Jesus Christ...Apart from a possible one per cent of intelligent and instructed Christians, there are three kinds of people we have to deal with. There are the frank and open heathen, whose notions of Christianity are a dreadful jumble of rags and tags of Bible anecdote and clotted mythological nonsense. There are the ignorant Christians, who combine a mild gentle-Jesus sentimentality with vaguely humanistic ethics...Finally, there are the more or less instructed church-goers, who...are about as well equipped to do battle on fundamentals against [X] as a boy with a pea-shooter facing a fan-fire of machine guns. 

If Christian dogma is irrelevant to life, to what, in Heaven's name is it relevant?— since religious dogma is in fact nothing but a statement of doctrine concerning the nature of life and the universe. If Christian ministers really believe it is only an intellectual game for theologians and has no bearing upon human life, it is no wonder that their congregations are ignorant, bored and bewildered...

The central dogma of the Incarnation is that by which relevance stands or falls. If Christ was only man, then He is entirely irrelevant to any thought about God; if He is only God, then He is entirely irrelevant to any experience of human life. It is, in the strictest sense, necessary to the salvation of relevance that a man should believe rightly the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Unless he believes rightly, there is not the faintest reason why he should believe at all...We must unite with Athanasius to assume Tommy Adkins that the God who lived and died in the world was the same God who made the world, and that, therefore, God himself has the best possible reasons for understanding and sympathising with Tommy's personal troubles. 

Complicated as the theology is, the average man has walked straight into the heart of the Athanasian creed, and we are bound to follow. Teachers and preachers never, I think, make it sufficiently clear that dogmas are not a set of arbitrary regulations invented a priori by a committee of theologians enjoying a bout of all-in dialectical wrestling. Most of them were hammered out under pressure of urgent practical necessity to provide an answer to heresy. And heresy is, as I have tried to show, largely the expression of opinion of the untutored average man...

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

would you rather...

Eddie got to preach this weekend at So. IN. Good stuff!

His premise started with something near and dear to an economist: opportunity costs (!)-- phrased as a "would you rather?"

The choice he presented: "one new spiritual truth every day" vs. "give one thing away that might change someone's life". Posed like that, the former is the obvious choice, since receiving new spiritual truths will change your life and those around you. (If they don't change you, then they aren't received, spiritual and truth!)

But Eddie played with various angles on the choice, adeptly calling the audience to serving others and gaining truths-- and making the sobering point that religion and religious people often get in the way of people coming to Christ. 

A few other thoughts struck me:
1.) Of the two "choices", I suspect many would be drawn to the latter, because it's sexier and quicker. In contrast, the methods, message, and ministry of Jesus-- the call to discipleship and making disciple-makers-- are messier and require a ton of time and effort...often, one spiritual truth at a time!

2.) You must receive in order to give. All have received at some level, but having received more is preferable-- in order that one can give more. From another angle, mission and vision are essential-- but so is getting "thoroughly equipped for every good work". What are you doing to get more thoroughly equipped? Sermons are necessarily milk-- a nice start, but... Passively sitting in a study won't do much for you. Failing to serve, you miss the opportunity to grow your faith in community. Failing to practice spiritual disciplines, you take a bunch of tools out of the bag God has given you. And so on.

3.) There's a lot more to the Christian life than Bible study. But it's a significant player. And there's a big difference between attending a Bible study and being a Bible studier. At the low end, you have people who regularly and passively attend sermons and studies. (A nice start, but don't get stuck there!) Moving along the spectrum, you have those who actively engage in more rigorous studies. And then, much further along, you have those who actively study on their own. We have a lot of people in churches and in Bible studies, but how many are Bible studiers?

4.) Eddie cited some data on the proportion of attenders who serve. From what I know of the data, I'd guess that Bible study attenders are more likely to serve (and tithe)-- and that Bible studiers are the most likely. Anybody have data on that?

Thoughts on any of the above?