Saturday, April 30, 2011

Bits and Tidbits, April 2011

A bunch of "Cs" for April...

Creatively Funny:
10 disturbingly violent biblical stories depicted with Legos. Maybe this is what my son Jack will do when he grows up...
Challenging: Tax Breaks vs. Budget Cuts. This page/infographic offers a provocative comparison of some of the proposed budget cuts in the coming year, alongside some of the tax breaks included in the extension of the "Bush tax cuts".
Capitulation: Disney: No More Fairy Tale Movies! So, will the next wave of Disney movies feature apathetic, childish leading men and spoiled, self-absorbed leading women?
Chesterton Responds: Chesterton on Fairy Tales (or Fantasy). Okay, so not a direct response to the Disney thing, but pretty close actually.
Commas, Please: The Worst Magazine Cover of All Time. This is a candidate for vol. 2 of Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Privately, I'm hoping this was just a photoshopping prank.
Copyright Satire: News of the Times: Library System Terrorizes Publishing Industry. Funny comic that mocks the fear-speak of the publishing industry. (HT: Gordon)

Friday, April 29, 2011

The latest from "Lutheran Satire"

Here's the latest from the Lutheran Satire guy-- this time, taking on the "myth" of the resurrection.

Facebook folks: go to the blog to see the video.

Monday, April 25, 2011

We're only as constitutional as we want to be...

A little while back, I posted a series entitled "We're only as Presbyterian as we want to be" (see part 1, part 2, and part 3). In it, I sought to expose the selective application of the convictions that we claim define us as Presbyterians; when deference to the larger body and following proper process is at odds with our personal preferences, our presbyterianism often goes out the window!

It strikes me that the same inherent problem is true of our American constitutional adherence.
As Americans, all of us are only as constitutional as we want to be.

This is clear and evident in conversations with those who oppose the actions of the sitting president. With President Obama in office, I've heard people say (or "read" their statements on Facebook, Twitter, etc.) that, "he's not MY president!"

Now by that I think (and hope) they mean that they recognize their own political convictions are starkly at odds with his, or something along those lines. They don't mean that they've renounced their citizenship as U.S. citizens because President Obama was elected! But words like this-- and the sentiment of antagonism that they simultaneously suggest and implant-- betray a spirit and understanding of the U.S. president's authority and office that is, well, unconstitutional.

In all fairness, let me point out that many took a similar tone and attitude toward President George W. Bush. He, too, was not only someone that folks saw disagreement with, and even disapproval of, but outright disdain for. The disrespect shown toward Presidents Bush and Obama by those who disagree with their policies is a clear demonstration that, in our American culture, we're only as constitutional as we want to be.

This is a cultural problem, clearly: the fruit of this approach to politics leads to civic fracturing and philosophical polarization. People can't discuss ideas without the end-result being hate and violence (at least in an emotional/psychological sense). Consequently, we only associate with those who think and believe as we do-- a group that grows ever-smaller as associations advance and nuances are teased out-- and we never have the benefit of having our ideas and assumptions challenged and refined.

It's a political problem, too: eventually this stems out into an abandonment of the core commitments that our constitutional system represent, and that will lead to disorder and kind of circular inefficiency (at best) or chaos (at worst). I think we're already seeing the fruit of the former, after about 20 years of this kind of abject disregard for the inherent respect due to office (I say 20 years because, by my reckoning, the whole cycle began, at least in the open and unvarnished way that we find it today, with Rush Limbaugh's very public disdain for President Bill Clinton): as it is today, the fundamental goals and political aspirations of the challenging candidates will be to
undo the work of their predecessors. That's a very inefficient way to govern.

It's a religious problem as well. As Tim Keller ably pointed out in his book
Counterfeit Gods, the root of this problem is idolatry:

Another sign of idolatry in our politics is that opponents are not considered to be simply mistaken, but to be evil. After the last presidential election, my eighty-four-year-old mother observed, “It used to be that whoever was elected as your president, even if he wasn’t the one you voted for, he was still your president. That doesn’t seem to be the case any longer.” After each election, there is now a significant number of people who see the incoming president lacking moral legitimacy. The increasing political polarization and bitterness we see in U.S. politics today is a sign that we have made political activism into a form of religion. How does idolatry produce fear and demonization?
Dutch-Canadian philosopher Al Wolters taught that in the biblical view of things, the main problem in life is sin, and the only solution is God and his grace. The alternative to this view is to identify something besides sin as the main problem with the world and something besides God as the main remedy. That demonizes something that is not completely bad, and makes an idol out of something that cannot be the ultimate good. Wolters writes:

"The great danger is to single out some aspect or phenomenon of God’s good creation and identify it, rather than the alien intrusion of sin, as the villain in the drama of human life… This “something” has been variously identified as … the body and its passions (Plato and much of Greek philosophy), culture in distinction from nature (Rousseau and Romanticism), institutional authority, especially in the state and the family (much of depth psychology), technology and management techniques (Heidegger and Ellul)… The Bible is unique in its uncompromising rejection of all attempts … to identify part of creation as either the villain or the savior."

This accounts for the constant political cycles of overblown hopes and disillusionment, for the increasingly poisonous political discourse, and for the disproportionate fear and despair when one’s political party loses power. But why do we deify and demonize political causes and ideas? Reinhold Niebuhr answered that, in political idolatry, we make a god out of having power.

I think the solutions for rooting out our tendency to be
only as constitutional as we want to be are the same as they are for being only as presbyterian as we want to be: humility, relationships, and benefit of the doubt. Obviously this will look a bit different in a civic-political arena than it will in the church. But I think identifying the idolatrous aspect is another factor that also applies to both. I'm going to give that some more thought and consider how it applies to our presbyterianism.

Meanwhile, what do YOU think? Are we only as constitutional as we want to be? And if so, how can we address that?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

We need quiet fanatics

Ray Ortlund posted this quote over a year ago, and I came across it when doing some sermon research this morning. Very challenging.

“It is a growing conviction of mine that no parish can fulfill its true function unless there is at the very center of its leadership life a small community of quietly fanatic, changed and truly converted Christians.  The trouble with most parishes is that nobody, including the pastor, is really greatly changed. . . .
We do not want ordinary men.  Ordinary men cannot win the brutally pagan life of a city like New York for Christ.  We want quiet fanatics.”

~ John Heuss, Our Christian Vocation (Greenwish, 1955), pages 15-16.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Friday, April 15, 2011

A little tax nomenclature

For your tax-weekend water fountain discussions...

A Tax Return is what you file with the IRS to report your income, deductible expenses, etc. every year. A Tax Refund is what you hope you will get back after filing your return-- it is a refund of the money you overpaid. Tax Returns and Tax Refunds are not the same thing.

A Tax Deduction is based on an expense that you had which qualifies you for a certain percentage of deduction from your overall tax debt-- they only reduce the amount you owe. A Tax Credit is based on a circumstance that qualifies you for payments from the IRS; they may result in additional funds beyond a refund. Tax Deductions and Tax Credits are not the same thing.

These get confusing, and it's common to hear them being used interchangeably-- but they aren't synonyms.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Dangerous mobile phone use

Every so often I hear stories about how dangerous mobile phones are. The media love to highlight how much more dangerous mobile phones are in cars.

Now, I won't deny that the idea of texting or sending e-mails while driving is a chilling thought. I'm glad that many states have made it illegal to do so, and I hope that the law will earnestly curtail these practices.

But when it comes to mobile phone use in terms of making and receiving calls-- especially using hands-free setups-- I wonder how legitimate these dire warnings really are. For example, one recent report claimed that studies showed that, even with a hands-free arrangement, talking on mobile phones was more distracting than, say, carrying on a conversation with a passenger. As a result, they say, laws should be passed that outlaw ANY use of mobile phones while driving.

Now, I'll grant the premise of the study: when talking on the phone, the person on the other end doesn't know when to stop talking to allow you to focus on traffic, etc. The theory goes that a passenger will sense (even if they don't notice themselves) when driving needs to be the only thing demanding a driver's attention, whereas a caller (who isn't present in the car) won't know and thus will just keep talking. I wouldn't say there is nothing to this.

What I would say, though, is three very-related things in response (that, I think, invalidate the conclusions to some degree):

First, this isn't new. Did they conduct similar studies when the radio was first introduced? Or the drive-thru window at a fast food restaurant? Doubtful, at least in part because we are in search of scapegoats and impersonal explanations more now than then. In terms of the constant demand and distraction potential, the radio is just as bad theoretically as a mobile phone. Yet no one is calling for removal of car stereos for the sake of road safety. Why? Because...

Second, people adapt. I estimate that, in 10 years or so, this will be a non-factor for road safety. By that point, every vehicle will have a hands-free setup included and talking on the phone in the car (if we still call them "phones") will be as commonplace as listening to music or talk radio. People will have learned to simply tune out the distraction and focus when they need to do so, and callers will be used to the occasional pause in conversation or the need to repeat themselves. Drivers will do this when danger is present in the same way that I have learned to tune out the noise of my kids in the back of the van (who are at least as oblivious to present hazards as anyone calling me on my mobile phone). I already notice this happening. The scapegoaters who refuse to demand personal responsibility for safe practices will have moved on, because...

Third, there are plenty of other dangerous practices. Beyond the radio, eating lunch on the go, kids in the back seat, and mobile phones, I've seen/known people to do far more dangerous things. Ever witness another driver putting on makeup, playing harmonica, sorting mail, or reading while driving at speeds of 60+ MPH? I have. Notice, too, that none of these are new concepts or technology. They're just poor driving practices!

I think a lot of this goes back to my ideas regarding fear of technology: once a new technology is mainstreamed into culture, we begin to realize that it might actually have negative implications as well-- and we begin to suspect and blame it, rather than the users, for the problems that might arise.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Very clever

HT to Jon for pointing me to this:

(Facebook folks, check it out on the blog.)

Friday, April 8, 2011

Left is the new right

Confused about politics these days? Maybe this is one reason why.

During my drive this morning, NPR's Morning Edition was covering the stalemate over the budget (again). One of the Congressmen-- a Democrat-- was quoted, decrying the "radical social agenda" of the Republican majority.

What was the radical provision that he so adamantly rejected? A measure that would de-fund abortion providers in the Washington, D.C. region.

Now, this may sound striking to the ear (it certainly did to mine): to have something labeled "radical" that would de-fund abortion. We typically think of an anti-abortion position as hallmark "conservative" issue. And those who promote support for legalized abortions (and the social freedom, and thus implied-ethical freedom, to have them without castigation) are regularly dismissed as "liberals" -- the very word spat out with a hiss of distaste.

However much opposing abortion and like issues are socially, theologically, or ethically conservative, though, they are no longer matters of political conservatism. The word "conservative" means someone or something whose core principles are designed to guard the status quo, to "conserve" against change. Politically-speaking, the issue of abortion is greatly confusing to us in this way.

From a theological perspective, opposing abortion represents a conservative perspective: conserving the status quo theologically means protecting the historically-orthodox view, which is a high view of all human life and the belief that life begins at conception. Ethically, similarly, opposition of abortion is a generally conservative position; while the matter gets a bit more complex because of the more recent introduction of "situational ethics" as ethics determined in part by the relative circumstances, generally the status quo ethically is still favoring the reduction of abortions. (This has been shifting in co-relative degrees to the following points, however.)

Even socially, there is a certain degree of conservatism still wrapped up in opposing abortion. While our society continues to shift in a direction away from general opposition to abortion toward a general allowance of it, questions of degree and circumstance demonstrate a lingering status quo as opposing abortion at least to a point-- and, in fact, the trends of recent years have demonstrated a social shift toward the "center" on this issue. In other words, our society is less and less radically socially-progressive toward open and unrestricted access to abortion, but it is also decreasingly in favor of outright and total elimination of legalized abortion. (For some interesting stats on this, check these articles from The Pew Forum, The Christian Post, The University of Notre Dame, and Wikipedia.)

Politically, however, the status quo is unequivocally in favor of legalized abortion. We are approaching the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that found bans on legalized abortion to be a violation of a woman's constitutional rights. In 1992, Planned Parenthood v. Casey further underscored the tacit legalization that was the result of Roe, though it mitigated some of the open-endedness that Roe had allowed. Due to these and other court decisions, legalized abortion has been the status quo for almost my entire life; I was born not quite two months before Roe was decided. And it is and has been the status quo for nation, which is evidenced in the very regular push for legislation to restrict legalized abortion.

In other words, those who oppose legalized abortion-- or who are in favor of its legal restriction-- are not political conservatives on that issue, but are political progressives, or even liberals! (Okay, perhaps political "regressives" might describe some/many on this particular issue.)

Frankly, I would argue that this is not the only issue for which people who are theologically, socially, ethically, or even fiscally conservative now find themselves on the progressive/liberal end of the spectrum. One thing the Tea Party has made a core part of their identity is open and, yes, radical opposition to current governmental spending trends and policies. This is classic fiscal conservatism, but no one can argue (in light of our national debt figures or the size of the budget they are haggling over in Washington) that it is political conservatism.

This is one of the things that, I think, leaves so many of us a bit bewildered about politics these days. There are many issues where some must take a progressive/liberal political stance in order to be consistent with their theological, ethical, social, or fiscal conservatism. And few, apart from the politicians themselves, know how to parse that sort of disparity.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Merciful Jesus

I attended a conference on worship in St. Louis last week; the whole thing was great, and I simply drank in the content-- salve to my soul.

The highlight of the conference, though (apart from my dear old friend Greg Thompson blowing us all away with his excellent lecture on "liturgy") was the Communion Meal on Wednesday evening. We gathered in the fellowship hall of Memorial Presbyterian Church (a beautiful space) and found our seats. I spotted a friend and classmate from Covenant Seminary to sit beside, and having settled in found myself across from Nickolas Wolterstorff-- one of the speakers for the week, and also a philosopher whom I have long admired and read.

An opening hymn followed by a brief liturgy gave way to a meditation on Scripture, and then we were invited to break bread and serve wine to one another as a celebration of the Sacrament. This was my share of the Lord's Supper meal:


While we partook of Communion together, two of the musicians who earlier had led our hymn sang. The soprano accompanied them on a harp, and the alto simply sang. They did Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Pie Jesu" (from his Requiem) which means, "merciful Jesus." That song-- and that moment-- have been playing through my head for most of the week since then.

We broke bread and passed it, poured one another wine, and shared in the peace of our merciful Savior as we had a foretaste of the wedding feast of the Lamb. Then we had a four-course meal, which-- as far as any of us were concerned-- may also have been a similar foretaste.

It was delightful. If I saw you there, I was so glad to do so. If you missed that, then I pray we will share in a similar feast together in glory!