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« September 2006 | Main | November 2006 »

October 24, 2006

In Time for Halloween

Here's a fun story just in time for Halloween: Flannery O'Connor spooks a fan. (H/T Thunderstruck)

Flannery is buried next to her parents in Memory Hill Cemetery, located at the southern edge of the downtown/college campus district. [My husband and I] consulted the map we’d been given and set to searching for her name amid the scrubby yellow grass and multiple concrete curbed-off sections. After some arguing over how to interpret the directions and numbers on the cemetery diagram, we encountered a section guarded by a low wrought-iron fence. Within this space were three large slabs of granite set horizontally in the ground, covering each grave. ...

Next on our list of attractions was Sacred Heart Catholic Church, which had been Flannery’s parish. ... It was only a couple of blocks away, so we decided to ... [walk] across the green, park-like campus to the church.

As we started across, two dogs appeared from behind the tall Douglas fir and cedar trees standing like stately pillars in the midst of the well-kept lawn. The dogs were tawny-colored, and lean but muscular; one had a woven nylon collar, the other had none. The two of them were about the same (large) size -- almost three feet at the shoulder. The word “boxer” popped into my head as the name for the breed, though I don’t know dogs and I usually wouldn’t know any dog from Adam (or Lassie, in this case). They were friendly with each other, as if they were… hunting pals. ...

Read the whole story, "A Proper Scaring," by Kathleen Lundquist.

The Cure-Me State

Dean Barnett at Townhall.com has an insightful deconstruction of a new political ad featuring Michael J. Fox in defense of embryonic stem-cell research, which is a major point of contention in Missouri's Senate campaigns.

The most distasteful aspect of the ad is the way it exploits Michael J. Fox’s physical difficulties. Fox is an actor, and clearly knew what he was doing when he signed up for the spot -- no victim points for him for having been manipulated by the McCaskill campaign. The ad’s aim is to make us feel so bad about Fox’s condition that logical debate is therefore precluded. You either agree with Fox, or you sadistically endorse his further suffering as Fox accuses Jim Talent of doing....

While Michael J. Fox (like me) has some skin in the stem cell game that most people don’t, that doesn’t give him any special appreciation of the moral issues involved with embryonic stem cell research. Sick people may want cures and treatments more than the healthy population, but that doesn’t make them/us experts on morality.

I was somewhat stunned by the nature of the ad as well -- even though it is simply another version of the emotionally charged appeal that says, "You're either for embryonic stem-cell research, or against the sick." And Fox's plea certainly is effective at driving that message home. Watching the renowned actor struggle with the effects of his illness, one can't help but be moved with compassion. Fox dares you to see his pain and reject the means to a potential cure.

But it is entirely unfair -- if entirely common -- to place such a challenge to our sympathy, as though that were the only question at issue here. However great our compassion, and however seemingly beneficial to the greater number, this cannot be reason enough to cast aside our conscience.

It is of course difficult in the framework of a secular, naturalistic worldview to argue that there could be a price too high to pay for the well-being of humanity. This seems to be the essential claim of Fox and other ardent embryonic stem-cell supporters: that no method should be off limits if it serves to improve the quality of life for the bulk of the populace. Such reasoning would be dangerous even if the disputed research were not destroying embryonic human life.

Taking Mary out of the Icon

Nativity Seems the devil will even stoop to messing with a mere screening of a movie about the birth of Christ. After some fits and starts last night at a local theater -- namely, trouble with the sound system that almost resulted in a "Mystery Science Theater 3000" version of The Nativity Story, complete with someone in the audience creating beating-horse-hoof sound effects -- a group of us from BreakPoint and Prison Fellowship, along with local pastors, educators, and others, watched an unfinished version of this movie about the most sentimentalized story ever told. Only in this version of Luke 1-2 (like The Passion of the Christ and the Titanic, it's impossible for me to give you a spoiler -- psst! at the end of The Passion, guess what? Jesus rises from the dead), the characters are no longer so abstract as those we remember each December. Mary has been taken out of the icon, and Joseph gets more play than the usual -- we see his inner struggle, dealing with cultural expectations of the day, and his faith and obedience, albeit after an angel jostles him from his doubts.

And that is why it's worth it to take a night out with your friends and family this fall and see The Nativity Story, which premieres in theaters on December 1: It will remind you of what we have too often forgotten about the Christmas story -- the "humanity of the holiday," as director Catherine Hardwicke described it in an article by Steve Beard in the December 2006 issue of BreakPoint WorldView. To paraphrase Dickens, it was the worst of times; it was the worst of times for the Jews. In our sugary-sweet notions of the baby in a manger surrounded by sweet lambs and soft mules, angels, gold, frankincense, and myrrh (not sure about those last two, but we think they were really great gifts), we have too often forgotten that, as Bono put it in an interview with Michka Assayas, our Savior was "born in straw poverty, in [excrement] and straw . . . a child . . . Just the poetry . . . Unknowable love, unknowable power, describes itself as the most vulnerable."

Is it a perfect movie? No, but are there any? This one just comes with more pressure because of our reverence for the Word, and Hardwicke was fully aware of that, as was screenwriter Mike Rich. While you can follow along in your Bible during the movie, as Steve Beard notes, to fill in the details we don't get from Matthew and Luke (about personalities, for example), "Rich employed what C. S. Lewis called the 'baptized imagination,' using speculation that is faithful to the spirit of orthodox Christianity, rather than speculation in search of a bizarre tale." (This made for an interesting perspective of the idiosyncrasies of the three wisemen -- on that, I won't spoil it for you.)

If all you have ever seen of the nativity story are Christmas pageants at church or school "with shepherds wearing bathrobes, the three wisemen wearing silk kimonos, and the Virgin Mary lugging around a Cabbage Patch doll," as Steve Beard puts it in his article, it's time to take another look and remember what Jesus was born into in order to take on our burden of sin and usher in His Father's kingdom. He is truly one of us.

As co-producer Wyck Godfrey noted last night, New Line Cinema's The Nativity Story is the first Bible-themed movie to be released by a major Hollywood studio in 50 years (the last being Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments). Don't want to wait another 50 years? Then fill the theaters this December -- go see The Nativity Story. For schools, churches, and other large groups, the movie's website provides group-sale information. (My 5th-grade daughter saw it, and I recommend parental judgment on the elementary set watching it. At the beginning and end, there are scenes of the slaughter of innocents -- though not graphic -- and looks of pain on the faces of Elizabeth and Mary in labor that will have moms once again thankful for anesthesia. But it should definitely be fine for middle-schoolers and up.) And if you think the movie has some flaws or holes? Great conversation-starter with friends, neighbors, and family. Beats talking about this movie or this one.

On God And Superturtles

"Betrand Russell used to tell a story about a 19th century philosopher William James, concerning a lecture about the nature of the Universe. Halfway through the talk, a woman stands up and heckles the lecturer, saying that she knows how the universe is constructed. The Earth, she says, rests on the back of a giant elephant, which stands on the back of a giant turtle. The lecturer attempts to mock this suggestion by asking what the turtle is standing on. “You may be very clever,” the woman replies, “but you can’t fool me. It’s turtles all the way down.”

Paul Davies

What supports the stack of turtles, wonders physicist and popular science writer Paul Davies.

"The thing that supports this stack of turtles -- what Davies calls a superturtle -- can be God or science, but every explanation hits trouble when it reaches the vanishing point. If a beginning to the Universe can be established, what was there before, and what caused that beginning?"

Davies has written a new book called The Goldilocks Enigma. Though I have not read it, I did stumble across an interview with Davies about his new book.

Physicists are confronted with a "Goldilocks" universe where everything is just right. In fact, the physical constants of this mathematical universe rest on a razors edge. Adjusted a smidgen in either direction and we have no life anywhere in the universe. "Why is the world mathematical", asks uber-scientist Stephen Hawking. "What is it that breathes fire into one set of equations and makes the Universe we describe?"

Judging from the interview, I don't think Davies covers any new ground in his latest book.He seems to be intrigued by the speculation-du-jour … aka the multiverse hypothesis. He resorts to hand-waving and goofiness by suggesting that the universe might be like a great cosmic computer with laws that are somehow co-explanatory and co-emergent. He also suggests that there is a sort of "feedback loop between sentient beings and the laws that have given rise to them." Hand-waving.

What I like about the Davies interview, however, is his candor about the role of faith. Davies concedes, in so many words, that every worldview including naturalism requires a faith commitment.

Continue reading "On God And Superturtles" »

October 23, 2006

If You Can’t Beat Them, Embarrass Them

I find it interesting that all the notable reviews I’ve read so far of Dawkin’s book, The God Delusion, don’t mince words about the author’s proclivity to dismiss an argument by ridicule or parody as opposed to dismantling it.

In Jim Holt's review of it in The New York Times, he states:

These, in a nutshell, are the Big Three arguments [for God's existence]. To Dawkins, they are simply ridiculous. He dismisses the ontological argument as “infantile” and “dialectical prestidigitation” without quite identifying the defect in its logic, and he is baffled that a philosopher like Russell — “no fool” — could take it seriously. He seems unaware that this argument, though medieval in origin, comes in sophisticated modern versions that are not at all easy to refute. Shirking the intellectual hard work, Dawkins prefers to move on to parodic “proofs” that he has found on the Internet….

The Publishers Weekly review corroborates the point:

While Dawkins can be witty, even confirmed atheists who agree with his advocacy of science and vigorous rationalism may have trouble stomaching some of the rhetoric: the biblical Yahweh is "psychotic," Aquinas's proofs of God's existence are "fatuous" and religion generally is "nonsense."

Or there’s the debate that Dawkins recently participated in that Wired News describes as follows:

A few months earlier, in front of an audience of graduate students from around the world, Dawkins took on a famous geneticist and a renowned neurosurgeon on the question of whether God was real. The geneticist and the neurosurgeon advanced their best theistic arguments: Human consciousness is too remarkable to have evolved; our moral sense defies the selfish imperatives of nature; the laws of science themselves display an order divine; the existence of God can never be disproved by purely empirical means. Dawkins rejected all these claims, but the last one -- that science could never disprove God -- provoked him to sarcasm. "There's an infinite number of things that we can't disprove," he said. "You might say that because science can explain just about everything but not quite, it's wrong to say therefore we don't need God. It is also, I suppose, wrong to say we don't need the Flying Spaghetti Monster, unicorns, Thor, Wotan, Jupiter, or fairies at the bottom of the garden.”

But perhaps, Dawkins reveals his modus operandi best in his own words when he told Wired News: “At some point, there is going to be enough pressure that it is just going to be too embarrassing to believe in God."

Bullies have always taunted. Look at Goliath. The faithful, however, see their taunts as directed not at them, but ultimately as a fist in the face of the living God. They respond in faith and strength. The challenge for Christians in the coming years, however, is in how we will respond to efforts to embarass and marginalize us. I hope we can respond like Paul, a former scoffer, by underscoring that the Gospel is for all who will turn and believe:

“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” And perhaps, I pray, also for Dawkins.

Atheistic Evangelists, an Oxymoron

There’s a renewed anti-faith fervor these days. We’re seeing it in some of the top titles on the New York Times bestseller’s list like Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Sam Harris’s Letters to a Christian Nation. The top Wired News story today opens with:

We are called upon, we lax agnostics, we noncommittal nonbelievers, we vague deists who would be embarrassed to defend antique absurdities like the Virgin Birth or the notion that Mary rose into heaven without dying, or any other blatant myth; we are called out, we fence-sitters, and told to help exorcise this debilitating curse: the curse of faith.

The New Atheists will not let us off the hook simply because we are not doctrinaire believers. They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it's evil. Now that the battle has been joined, there's no excuse for shirking.

I understand the impulse to suppress faith. Romans chapter 1 talks about it plainly. But what baffles me is why people would actively recruit others to their hopeless position. At the heart of the Gospel, its very meaning is Good News. At the heart of this atheistic recruitment fervor is very bad news: you are evolved from ooze, your life has no ultimate meaning, you are on your own to deal with the evil, the chaos, and the frustration you see all around you. Now that’s a message I can’t wait to go spreading door-to-door! Hello, sir, can I share something with you? Yes, I just wanted to tell you that no one loves you and no one has a plan for your life.

As I look at Romans though, I see that the final verse detailing the spiritual downward spiral of the man who suppresses God is that he goes from practicing evil to promoting it. Romans 1:32 states, “Although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.”

That’s why Dawkins would say: “I'm quite keen on the politics of persuading people of the virtues of atheism.”

It’s worth pausing a moment to think back to the serpent in the Garden. It, too, was bent on recruitment. Why? Does evil want power; does evil want company; does evil want approval; does evil simply want to hurt God by marring what is His own beautiful creation? I’m not sure of the full answer, but I do know we should not be ignorant. This so-called “New Atheism” is perhaps as old as it gets.

Put Off, Put On

...As the truth is in Jesus, [that you] put off your old self...and put on the new self...  Ephesians 4:22, 23

I've been reading medieval Celtic penitentials again. Grim stuff, that. Think of any sin you've ever heard of -- and some you haven't dared imagine -- and one or another of these handbooks for soul-surgeons will tell you how to help your confessor overcome it. This is reading to challenge the seriousness of your faith. The Celtic penitentials appear throughout the period of the Celtic revival -- roughly the fifth through the ninth century -- and give guidance to pastors on how to help the people in their care overcome whatever sin they have come to confess. Paul's injunction not be be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil by good provides the underlying principle for practicing the spiritual discipline of penance (Rom. 12:21). The penitentials -- such as those by Finnian and Cummean -- put it rather differently: contraries are cured by contraries. Behavior contrary to holiness is corrected by taking up, for an appointed time, a regimen of behaviors designed to inculcate holiness.

So whatever the sin, the local pastor, or the confessor's soul friend, was expected to be able to help him get over it and get back on the path of pursuing holiness in the Lord (2 Cor. 7:1). Celtic Christians considered unconfessed, unrepented-of sin to be a detriment, not only to the individual sinner but to the community as a whole. Therefore, they created an environment in which sinners felt free to confess their shortcomings, knowing they would be received with understanding and grace, and counseled as to how they should recover from this setback so that they could get on with following the Lord.

Several things stand out as significant with these handbooks of penance. First is their frequent resort to the Law of God -- in particular, the statutes or case laws of Israel -- for specific guidance in how to counsel restoration. Second is their use of the psalms to cure bad attitudes, sinful speech, and even improper behavior. Celtic Christians recognized the value of praying and singing the psalms as a means of growing the grace of the Lord; singing psalms was often one aspect of a varied prescription of penance.

Third is in the implication that, in Celtic Christian society, the pursuit of holiness was everybody's responsibility. The believers were accountable to one another and maintained "soul-friendships" for the purpose of helping one another to walk the path of righteousness. Sin was not a private matter, and it was nothing to wink at. Sin had to be dealt with, and people had to work together in order to improve the level of spiritual life, both of the individuals and the community. Celtic Christian communities were open, honest, caring, and firm in the conviction that whatever contrary behavior might rear its head, threatening the judgment of the Lord against the community, would be dealt with swiftly and effectively by a prescription of contrary behavior, designed to promote righteousness.

A far cry from our present practice of not talking about sin, of tolerating it because, after all, we're all sinners and God loves us just as we are, and of acting like the pursuit of holiness is not, in the end, the true mark of a "saint."

’Marie Antoinette’ is not about Marie Antoinette

Marie_antoinette_1 After reading this, some may think I've been sampling too much candy meant for the trick-or-treaters next week and am on some sort of sugar high. It's very easy to brush aside Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette as mere fluff, or as some have insinuated, an homage to the 1980s. The latter, as I see it, may be closer -- but not as an homage.

If you were going to the movies to see a period piece on Marie and Louis, forgive me, but why did you choose an interpretation by Coppola? You don't watch Coppola for broad and accurate historical drama. You watch Coppola for her unorthodox view. So, to those criticisms of Sofia's work (and there are many) I can only respond, What did you expect?

I think people love to hate Sofia, dismissing her as nothing more than a fortunate benificiary of her family namesake, rather than a filmmaker struggling to remain true to her own vision, instead of churning out works of studio/audience expectations. I also think some of her fans give her too much of a pass and too much credit too early, despite the Lost in Translation Oscar. I am a fan, but I think we have yet to see her best, and so I'm enjoying the work in progress. After all, she's only 35.

She doesn't say anything in the few interviews I've read to lead me to this conclusion, but after watching the film, I think that Sofia has not so much delivered a brief history of Marie as she has a commentary on ourselves -- and not our 1980s selves, but our culture today. Marie and the French Revolution -- and the indulgent eighties soundtrack -- are but a backdrop for a commentary on our self-absorption and consumption. Perhaps not intentional, but watch the movie with no expectations, without looking for historical facts, and you can see something very different from what everyone thought it would be and wanted it to be. Sofia has shown us ourselves via Marie Antoinette: Our current culture is materialistic and youth-obsessed. Who's running the country? Kids. We've lost the grown-up culture.

And this L.A. Times columnist thinks that Sofia's interpretation of the teenage queen actually isn't that inaccurate (thanks to Roberto for the link):

Coppola's film has to some extent had to face a related bias, unhappiness that it doesn't conform to a tyranny of expectations and preconceptions that the film isn't weighty or serious enough in tone to take on such a fraught historical situation. Which was exactly the point. [emphasis mine] ...

Continue reading "’Marie Antoinette’ is not about Marie Antoinette" »

If it ever rains, he’s going to drown

A hat-tip to Jonah Goldberg for pointing me to the Washington Post's review of Andrew Sullivan's The Conservative Soul, by one Bryan Burrough.

We see right off the bat what we're in for:

The party I grew up in, which stood for fiscal discipline and strong defense and avoided the sloppiness and stained dresses of so many good-hearted Democratic administrations, seems to have been conquered by people who think stem-cell research is murder, who want to ban unpopular sex acts and who have proven incapable of managing such basic government tasks as disaster relief and a war.

More in a moment on the alleged mutual exclusiveness of stem-cell research and a strong defense. We next have this little gem to ponder:

Conservatism is facing a crisis that won't be solved, one suspects, merely by switching presidents. To those of us far removed from Beltway philosophical battles, Andrew Sullivan -- a columnist for Time magazine, a prominent blogger and a senior editor at the New Republic -- might seem an unusual candidate to parse the problem. He's British. He's Catholic. He's gay. But Sullivan is also smart and well read. . . .

As Dorothy Parker would say, I was so deeply pondering the selection of "but" that I nearly missed the next course in this repast of words:

The Conservative Soul, in fact, is one of several similar books issued this fall that collectively serve as a call to arms to American elites to put down their New York Times crossword puzzles and their glasses of Fumé Blanc and wake up to the idea that the fundamentalists most dangerous to our future are not Islamic and foreign but Christian and homegrown.

Well, I have to hand it to Mr. Burrough for keeping his youthful spirit. Rarely does one meet with such a display of snootiness in one over the age of sixteen. But wait, it gets even better:

The Conservative Soul, unfortunately, is not only too polite but too high-minded to galvanize anyone without a graduate degree in philosophy. This is not a bad thing, just a warning. If you belong to the Elks Club, apply catsup to your scrambled eggs or have ever read anything by Ann Coulter, this is not a book for you. It is written by a card-carrying intellectual and aimed at card-carrying intellectuals. Sullivan wades deep into the high grasses here; he is more interested in Hegel, Hobbes and Leo Strauss than anyone you've seen arguing on television, much less voted for.

Let's put aside the fact that Jonah and Co. over at NRO, apparently when they're not busy plying the catsup bottle, spend more time debating Leo Strauss and other dead white intellectuals in a month than Mr. Burrough spends turning up his nose at his inferiors in a year, and that's saying something. Let's get to our money quote:

In the book's second half, Sullivan switches from anger to nostalgia, reaching back to remind us of the things that made Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher's brand of conservatism so appealing and so successful as a mode of governance.

So it's Ronald Reagan who's now the model for the country-club Republicans? Very well, let's take a look back at some of Mr. Reagan's positions to refresh our memories on what this appealing and successful mode of governance looked like.

Continue reading "If it ever rains, he’s going to drown" »

I’m shocked, SHOCKED

From Family Research Council's "Washington Update":

On the latest edition of "60 Minutes," [Tempting Faith author David] Kuo and "60 Minutes" reporter Lesley Stahl visited FRC Action's Values Voter Summit, looking for proof of the indifference of social conservatives. The cameras followed Kuo through the exhibit hall, searching for any reference to poverty and the Christians' responsibility to eliminate it. Strolling past booths, he and Stahl decide there is "no mention of the poor." But, as Marshall Sana of the Barnabas Fund points out, it's a classic case of selective reporting. In a letter to the show's producers, Sana writes, "The cameras . . . missed our display, replete with a large photograph of bright yellow sacks of grain being distributed to impoverished African families and individuals, next to the text 'Hope and aid for the persecuted church.'" He went on to detail several other ministries at the event who work to alleviate poverty.

60 Minutes told a fib about social conservatives? Before an election? Well, I never.

October 20, 2006

Opportunity Lost

I went to see the new movie Marie Antoinette this evening. The story of the fated young royal is one of the best known historical stories. After a disappointing start to her marriage/alliance to the young Dauphin, Louis XVI, the future queen of France became aloof and then became fodder for gossip that turned public opinion against the monarchy. At the same time, political missteps and intrigue set in motion a Revolution that would claim the lives of the King and Queen and a good many nobles (giving us, happily, two of the best novels ever: Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities and Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel).

There is a lot we can learn from the reign and downfall of Marie and Louis, lessons about how we treat others, how we deal with disappointment, how to govern wisely. Sadly, none of them will be learned from watching this new movie. Even more sad, the movie was heavily marketed to a teen audience, who are at the best stage of life to learn such lessons.  With Kirsten Dunst playing the lead and a soundtrack featuring The Cure and other '80s hip-again artists, director Sofia Coppolla turned the doomed monarch into a rock star. And this was the whole story of the movie. (Warning: spoiler ahead.) Beautiful young girl marries rich guy and indulges in shoes and bon-bons, drinks champagne 'til dawn, smokes some unidentified substance, and has an illicit affair. At the end, she has lost all her friends, evidenced by no one clapping along with her at the theater--a real dramatic moment, that one. Finally, we see the Queen at her lowest moment. Headed to the guillotine to be beheaded? No. Driving away from Versailles and bidding a final farewell to her house of excess.

The trouble here is that we see Marie Antoinette at neither her best nor her worst. She and Louis were a young couple ruling a country, trying their best, making mistakes, and finally paying for them with their lives and the lives of many others. The movie Marie Antoinette shows none of that. If the commercials have whetted your appetite--or your teens'--for a Revolution drama, save your $9.50 and go to the library for a copy of A Tale of Two Cities and The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Well-Designed Aliens?

Mrdna2 Chalk another one up for English majors and grammarians. (But please don't grade this post.) Even scientists need good grammar:

Studying potent bacteria-fighters found in nature called antimicrobial peptides, biologists found that they seemed to follow rules of order and placement that are similar to simple grammar laws.

Using the new grammar-like rules for how these peptides work, scientists created 40 new artificial bacteria-fighters. They found that nearly half of them vanquished a variety of bacteria and two of them beat anthrax, according to a paper being published Thursday in the journal Nature.

The paper didn't describe it in terms of "design," but that's what it sounded like to me:

The key turns out to be in the way the peptides are made: stringing together amino acid molecules, which scientists represent with letters. That's when researchers saw a pattern that would make an English teacher beam.

"You have a string of letters and that string of letters reminds you immediately of a sentence, a kind of incomprehensible sentence, and you wonder in that sentence, 'Is that meaning hidden?'" asked Stephanopoulos. He used the example of a sentence: "Dave asks a question." What Stephanopoulos did was the equivalent of substitute different names for Dave and found that the peptide often still beat the bacteria.

Continue reading "Well-Designed Aliens?" »

It’s the End of the World As We Know It

(and I feel fine)

One of my favorite sub-genres, both literary and movie-wise, is post-apocalyptic fiction. A Canticle for Leibowitz is the only novel that, upon completion, I immediately read again. "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars," which contains an homage to Canticle, is my favorite episode of Babylon 5. I even liked Kevin Costner's The Postman, a.k.a. "Dances With Mail."

So I was happy to read James Poniewozik's Time essay about the current "post apocalyptic kick" in both high and mass culture.

Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road is an unflinching tour of an America rendered barbaric by a fiery cataclysm that ends most life on earth. NBC's Heroes depicts Manhattan destroyed; on Sci Fi network's Battlestar Galactica, billions die in a nuclear attack. And the most unlikely fall hit, CBS's Jericho, has more than 11 million people a week tuning in to visit a Kansas town that survives a nuking that has incinerated untold U.S. cities (taking, presumably, your local CBS affiliate with them).

Not surprisingly, I'm currently reading The Road and am hooked on Jericho. Everything you may have heard or read about McCarthy's novel is true: it's grim, unsparing, harrowing and, at the same time, deeply moving.

For the uninitiated, Jericho is about a town on the Kansas-Colorado border named, well, Jericho. One day the town's inhabitants see what looks like a mushroom cloud off in the direction of Denver. Their worst fears appear to be confirmed when they find themselves cut off from the outside world.

Continue reading "It’s the End of the World As We Know It " »

What I saw at the university, part 2

The story gets better. Or worse, depending on how you look at it.

My father alerted me (thanks, Dad) that the section about Kate Bornstein's "lecture/performance" had vanished from view at the cached page to which I originally linked. So I went looking for other links about it and found this.

And then I found this. And this.

From a book, so the cover specifically states, for teens.

Let me sum up for you if you prefer not to go to iffy links: In the space of two pages, the author suggests that teens might like to try "passionless quickies," orgies, masturbation, public sex, "degrading" sex, and prostitution. Yes, prostitution. And some other things that, again, I won't get into here. All justified, supposedly, by the fact that this is an anti-suicide book, so I suppose it's okay to offer teens anything at all in a desperate attempt to distract their attention from the thought of a possible overdose.

And they call George Mason a conservative university. I'd adore to know what the guest speakers at liberal universities are putting out there.

What, Then, Is an Evangelical?

Christianity Today has an interesting editorial about the changing -- or fading -- perception of "evangelicals" in the public square.

Because the evangelical movement has doctrinal, behavioral, devotional, and social dimensions, the E-word has always been difficult to define. It belongs as part of our living language of faith, expressing personal witness of biblical transformation, shared conviction about the person of Christ, sustained commitment to Christ's mission "to seek and save the lost," and the church's vital calling to care for all persons in need.

The news media's relentless focus on controversy makes it difficult to remedy false impressions. But there are steps that evangelicals could take. We should reiterate our genuine respect for people whose beliefs do not give them the kind of Christian hope we have. Second, we should speak with greater clarity and precision about our values and priorities. Third, we should place renewed emphasis on biblical knowledge, personal holiness, and compassionate concern.

It is far more important to keep this movement focused than to rehabilitate a label. We can dream of a day when every evangelical is biblically literate, evangelistic, and engaged in mission. That won't happen until we own the word evangelical with truer commitment and lasting passion to the core purpose of the saving gospel.

CT offers a fair and fundamental definition of what it means (or should mean) to be an evangelical. And the evangelical cause is well served by never losing sight of its central essence, to know and defend Christ's Truth and to share it with all people. To some degree, we should strive to reclaim the label in the public's eye, so as to make clear what we're really about. To some degree, though, I'm not sure it really matters. The media, after all, is undoubtedly going to portray conservative Christians in a skeptical or derogatory light, regardless of the label.

Inherent in the Christian charge is the promise that those outside the Church will not understand the motivation for our calling. Our efforts are bound to be deemed foolish by those who do not accept truth as Scripture presents it. Thus our efforts must not be too focused on gaining favor in the culture, but rather on holding fast to God's message. We can afford to lose the word "evangelical," but we can't afford to give up the heart of our service.

Taxi Driver

I read Dennis Prager's column yesterday on the subject of Muslim taxi drivers’ refusal to pick up airport passengers who are carrying bags of duty-free liquor (also touched on in Mark Steyn's book), or blind passengers accompanied by seeing-eye dogs. This, some commentators say, is an outrageous imposition of one’s religious practices on others.

At first I was outraged (it’s always easy to get angry at Muslims, isn’t it?). But then I thought about those Christian pharmacists who have been fired for refusing, for reasons of conscience, to fill prescriptions for the morning after pill, Christian hospital nurses who get into trouble for refusing to help abortionists kill babies, and Christian medical students who are told they won’t graduate unless they learn how to perform abortions. I reluctantly concluded that the religious rights of Muslim taxi drivers ought to be respected.

But after thinking the matter over at greater length, and talking with others, I changed my mind.

Continue reading "Taxi Driver" »

October 19, 2006

Really?

Because excellence deserves to be recognized, I present you with Matthew Yglesias' take on this blinding insight from the New York Times:

Probably time to stop blogging for a few hours and work on something else, but The New York Times has a can't-miss scoop -- apparently some women use Halloween as an opportunity to wear risque outfits. I'm thinking of pitching them a feature about how for a lot of kids these days Christmas is more about the presents than about Jesus.

I have nothing more to add.

The Pulpit v. Red-White-and-Blue

From Sojourners "Verse and Voice of the Day":

American preachers have a task more difficult, perhaps, than those faced by us under South Africa's apartheid, or Christians under Communism. We had obvious evils to engage; you have to unwrap your culture from years of red, white and blue myth. You have to expose, and confront, the great disconnect between the kindness, compassion and caring of most American people, and the ruthless way American power is experienced, directly and indirectly, by the poor of the earth. You have to help good people see how they have let their institutions do their sinning for them. This is not easy among people who really believe that their country does nothing but good, but it is necessary, not only for their future, but for us all.

-- Peter Storey, former president of the Methodist Church of South Africa

Recess in Peace

A Massachusetts school is apparently attempting to add more tombstones to the cemetery of playground games deemed too dangerous or discriminatory for school kids.

Tag, you're out! Officials at an elementary school south of Boston have banned kids from playing tag, touch football and any other unsupervised chase game during recess for fear they'll get hurt and hold the school liable.

Recess is "a time when accidents can happen," said Willett Elementary School Principal Gaylene Heppe, who approved the ban.

There might be more to this quote than reported, but one has to wonder -- when would be a time that accidents can't happen? Maybe I shouldn't see approach of the fall of civilization due to the prohibition of dodgeball. But then again, these kinds of stories, however absurd, provide a glimpse into a brave new world where kids are only taught little beyond comprehensive sex education and new math Religious issues are outlawed because they might be offensive. Jungle gyms are removed because they might break a bone.

Come on. School can be a rough place these days, but kids are not going to be helped if they are treated as though they are so physically and emotionally fragile. Meanwhile, if a school really wants to protect its students, mind and body, there are plenty of areas of greater concern than recess games. Like this, for instance.

Re: What’s the Score?

Roberto, Bernard Herrmann is an excellent choice for best film composer. His bleak, brooding score for Vertigo is one of the few wholly instrumental film soundtracks I own. It should come with a warning, though: Don't listen when you're already depressed, unless you want them to have to haul you in off the ledge.

I also agree that Steiner deserves better treatment (though Swafford's story about Bette Davis's reaction is funny and contains a grain of truth). So does John Williams, not just for his sweeping action and sci-fi film scores but especially for Schindler's List, another of the few instrumental soundtracks I own (see above disclaimer re: ledge). And I would add to the list Miklos Rozsa for Madame Bovary (or even just for its famous waltz), Elmer Bernstein for True Grit (this seems to be the best version currently available), and Michael Galasso for In the Mood for Love.

We've had a lot of discussions here about the power of storytelling. It's fascinating that when it comes to stories on film, sometimes the music is as important and insightful an element of the story as the narrative itself. One could even say, using the analogy we used before, that the Master Storyteller speaks in more ways than one. Anyone else have any favorites to share?

And as for why I've just named a bunch of favorite soundtracks in minor keys that create an atmosphere of doom (except True Grit) when I was the one who was chirping away about the importance of happy endings, the answer is . . . I really don't know. :-)

Re: Moyers Revealed

Continuing the post I began a few days ago on God and the environment, I wanted to address a comment posted by a reader named Dean under my original post. Dean took issue with my post, and I am addressing his comment below. Other Breakpoint writers, feel free to weigh in!

1) It's important to issue some warnings about groups and films that may be more propaganda than they are complete truth. I would have the same grievance with any propaganda.

2) You said, “Breakpoint folks consist of a bunch of conservatives who want Republicans to maintain control [of Congress].” Actually, writers at Breakpoint have varying political views, and some of our discussion on the blog recently has specifically addressed being careful to not put a political party above our relationship with Christ. See our string of posts called "Fasting from Politics." There is room in the body of Christ for both Republicans and Democrats.

3) Finally, your characterization of the “Breakpoint crew” as being anti-gay, opposing “any type of environmental measures,” etc., and distorting Bible verses for our benefit is grossly incorrect. We are not against homosexuals. Far from it! We believe that all people—including the Breakpoint writers—have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). But we do believe what God’s word has to say about every moral issue. In the case of homosexuality, the Bible is clear that sexual immorality of any kind is not something God wants us to engage in (Romans 13:12-14 and 1 Corinthians 6:8-10).

Also, my post clearly does not say we should write off the earth and pollute it at will. My post pointed out some warnings we need to consider. What does Scripture have to say about caring for the environment? It says we are to care for the earth, but also have dominion over it. I talk about this at the end of my original post. I'm not against taking care of the earth. My complaints with some of the environmental groups out there is that they value creation over the God who created it for us to live off of and to sustain ourselves. For example, in the Is God Green? movie, one woman protests that “the earth is God’s body.” This is a misrepresentation of Scripture. Jesus said that we, the church, are His body (1 Corinthians 12:27).

What I saw at the university

Coming out of my university's Student Union Building yesterday afternoon, I came across a little table set up on the sidewalk to sell items like jewelry and posters. Also for sale, right out there in the open, were "essential oils" with names like Passion, Bump and Grind, and one or two similar labels that I won't mention here.

Not ten minutes later, walking back towards the parking deck, I came across this ad, for a performance/lecture by one Karen Bornstein, chalked on a wall: "Hello, Cruel Desire: Enjoying Sex, Desire & Identity in a Sex-Negative Culture." (Further investigation turned up this link; scroll down for full description.)

I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried.

The Lost Tools of Discerning

Tim Challies and J. Mark Bertrand are having an interesting discussion on discernment at their respective blogs. I encourage you to read the full discussion here, here, and here because I believe it has everything to do with what it means to bring a biblical worldview to all of life. A few years ago, I remember reading Dorothy Sayers’ famous essay "The Lost Tools of Learning." I’d been teaching for three years by that time, and so when I stumbled upon it, I heaved a sigh to have found someone who so plainly articulated those still-wordless experiences of frustration simmering below the surface of my days in the classroom. The core of her argument was this:

Is not the great defect of our education today--a defect traceable through all the disquieting symptoms of trouble that I have mentioned--that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils "subjects," we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning.

As I read Challies and Bertrand, the same idea begins to congeal in my head about what the church has done with discernment. We have tried to teach “subjects”---these books, these movies, these songs are bad, stay away (as if the classification were so simple), and failed to offer tools of discernment.

Several years ago when Christians were taking sides on Harry Potter, a church down the road from me ran a why-you-should-ban-Harry-seminar. I hadn’t yet read the book and so I had no vested interest in the twit-sorcerer, but I felt perturbed that the church would have a whole seminar against one book. I thought to myself, why can’t they have a seminar on reading from a Christian perspective, and talk about general principles of how to think about literature like Gene Edward Veith did in his Reading Between the Lines. Now that would be profitable. At the same time, my colleagues in our teachers’ lounge (who had seen the signs for the seminar on the church marquee down the street) were lambasting this church for the gall they had to ban Harry. I shook my head. Why couldn’t we give people tools to practice discernment, rather than tell people what they should and shouldn’t read?

Easier said than done of course. I don’t claim to have the corner on how you would teach a church body the tools of discernment. And I certainly think there is a place for dialogue, like what happens here at The Point, for how to think biblically about various issues confronting us in the culture today. But part of me, however, thinks there might be something of an answer to teaching tools of discernment in the book of Proverbs.

Continue reading "The Lost Tools of Discerning" »

Protecting Marriage, One State at a Time

Here in Virginia, next month's vote is an important one not just because the House and Senate are at stake, but because the definition of marriage may be as well. As in several other states, Virginia's ballot contains a proposition to seal in the constitution the traditional understanding of marriage as between a man and a woman. William Duncan points out in National Review Online that opponents of the initiatives are focusing not on their fundamental purpose, but on their scope.

This November, eight more states will vote on marriage amendments. The new amendments (like most of those already passed in 20 states) typically say two things: (1) marriage is the union of one man and one woman; and (2) something else about civil unions.

That “something else” has become the subject of increasing political and legal controversy. Gay-marriage advocates realize from hard experience that trying to stop these marriage amendments by rallying support for gay marriage is a losing proposition.

So they’ve employed a new tactic: increasingly focusing their opposition on the civil-union ban instead. In Virginia, Wisconsin, Arizona, and elsewhere, marriage-amendment opponents are telling increasingly lurid legal stories (see) about the harsh consequences that will follow if these amendments pass -- and not just for gay people, but for single people and cohabiting couples.

Such an approach is similar to the tactic used against the abortion ban being voted on in South Dakota, where abortion defenders have largely isolated their case to the argument that the law just goes too far. This is perhaps encouraging evidence that Americans are still quite wary of encroaching upon the sanctity of life or marriage. But if the campaigns are successful, they could serve to further blur the lines being drawn in the sand. As Duncan points out, and experience has shown, if the lines aren't clear, they will be crossed.

Obviously, opponents of the marriage amendments would stand against them regardless of their wording, and critics of the South Dakota law would not truly be assuaged if it contained a rape exception. To add a bunch of exceptions and leave endless loopholes, however, would render the fundamental claims of the statements toothless.

And the claim of the state amendments is that marriage is a sacred entity designed and reserved for a husband and wife. There is no doubt that such a claim has been, and will be, challenged in the media, in academia, and in legislatures and judiciaries. Likewise, to bring real change to the culture, marriage will have to be defended in each of those arenas. Constitutional amendments aren't the final answer by any stretch, but they may be a good start.

October 18, 2006

What’s the Score?

Over at Slate Jan Swafford answers the question, "Who's the greatest film composer of all time?" Swafford's answer is Toru Takemitsu, who is best known for his collaborations with Akira Kurosawa.

I don't know if Swafford is right -- while I've seen some of the films he scored for Kurosawa I don't recall being especially taken with the scores. That's why I'm hesitant to answer the question with any name other than Bernard Hermann. As Swafford writes,

His résumé starts spectacularly with Citizen Kane in 1939, and he died virtually in the saddle in 1976, hours after the last recording session for Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. En route, Herrmann scored Hitchcock films including Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho. Herrmann's most famous moment is also, I submit, the quintessential movie-music cue: the shower scene in Psycho. It's one of those bits (the shark music in Jaws is another) that you only need to "sing," or rather, howl—as in Reeeek! Reeeek! Reeeek!—to conjure up the whole bloody affair. Psycho is as much state of mind as movie, and the shower scene embodies that. The music is utterly expressive of the action: The string glissandi make a nasty slicing sound that equally suggests female screams and the shrieks of predatory birds (recall Norman's little taxidermic hobby). Above all, the cue is perfect because it's nearly invisible, so imbedded in the moment that I suspect a lot of people don't realize there's "music" in the scene at all.

While Max Steiner's output wasn't nearly as consistent as Hermann's, he deserves better than Swafford's dismissal, if for no other reason than his wonderful score for The Adventures of Mark Twain.

Then there's my favorite movie score of all time: Erich Wolfgang Korngold's The Adventures of Robin Hood. At nearly 83 minutes, the complete score is nearly as long as the movie itself and just as much fun. Listening to it, it's hard to believe that the same man who wrote Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City)  also wrote this -- the feelings expressed could not be more different.

As with many works of art, this difference tells a story: Korngold had backed out of a deal to score Robin Hood because he felt that, as a "musician of the heart, of passions and psychology," he wasn't the man to score an "action picture."

What changed his mind was Adolf Hitler. Shortly after Korngold's return to Vienna, what came to be known as the Anschluss, the Nazi takeover of Austria, forced Korngold, who was Jewish, to leave Austria along with his family, on the last day that Austrian Jews could legally leave. Korngold's "no" became a "yes" and the rest was music history made possible by an unfathomable evil.

Pray for the storytellers

A tip of the hat to Roberto for directing me to this post at Nancy Brown's Flying Stars blog:

I'm starting a new novena today, and you're welcome to join in if this interests you. I'm praying a novena for Joanne Kathleen Rowling. Yep, JKR herself. I know she won't mind, and will probably never know that I'm (or we're) praying for her.

Why am I praying for Rowling?

Because here's what I think. Right now, today, this week, this month, she's writing book Seven. . . .

I hope that this book is going to be consistent with the themes and paths of the first six, and that it ends in a way that, well, tells. It will tell that this has been and still is a very true story, a story that echoes the One Story, that there was a perfect world, something went wrong, evil entered in, and we needed to be saved. There is an ongoing war going on between good and evil, but because we know what we know, and we know Who we can call on for help, we know that good is going to win, but not with out pain, suffering and sacrifice. I believe the main theme of book Seven will be consistent with the first six: death, love, and Love's ability to overcome evil. . . .

Never has one person held the attention of so many. So, I pray for her, because she has the chance to do so much good for the world, and that's a lot of pressure. She needs our prayers.

Even though, as a Protestant, I pray differently, I find this a splendid idea. Not just for Rowling, but for all others in a similar culture-shaping position. It's no exaggeration to say that so much of what the next generation believes about "pain, suffering and sacrifice . . . death, love, and Love's ability to overcome evil" is in their hands.

The Road to Ruin

Your prophets have seen for you false and deceptive visions; they have not exposed your iniquity to restore your fortunes, but have seen for you oracles that are false and misleading. Lamentations 2:14

"False and deceptive visions" studiously avoid making people feel bad about such inconvenient matters as sin. The prophets of ancient Jerusalem wanted the people to believe that happiness and prosperity were just around the corner, so they portrayed God as abundantly loving, welcoming, and eager to meet all their needs. "Just believe, and give yourself into His loving embrace." But repent of your sin? Return to the path of God's Law? Not a word of it.

Indeed, so serious had the problem become that the prophet Habakkuk described the Law of God as paralyzed and languishing while worldliness and wickedness rose like an inexorable tide (1:4). Habakkuk was alarmed that the people could so easily have laid God's Law aside, preferring instead whatever fashionable alternative their false and deceptive prophets held out.

The way to ruin lay along the path of antinomianism for ancient Israel. The people really wanted to know the Lord. They earnestly desired to be happy in Him. What they did not want is to deal with their sin, which they could only do in the light of the holy, righteous, and good Law of God (Rom. 7:12). That way lies ruin for the Church today as well. No amount of cheery homilies about the wonderful love of God, or promises of prosperity and happiness for those who take whatever "faith step" may be prescribed, or assurances of forgiveness and new life will get the people of God where He wants them to be. Jesus' righteousness -- His complete fulfillment of the Law of God -- has opened a way through faith for us to follow in that path (1 Jn. 2:1-6). If we refuse to walk it, James reminds us (chapter 2), we have no grounds for claiming to be real believers in God. And we're on a path that leads to ruin rather than riches in Christ.

Easier Said than Done

Did you know that we're in the midst of National Character Counts Week? I sure didn't. (via the inimitable Charles P. Pierce)

As the proclamation reads,

America's strength is found in the spirit and character of our people. During National Character Counts Week, we renew our commitment to instilling values in our young people and to encouraging all Americans to remember the importance of good character.

As the primary teachers and examples of character, parents help create a more compassionate and decent society. And as individuals, we all have an obligation to help our children become responsible citizens and realize their full potential. By demonstrating values such as integrity, courage, honesty, and patriotism, all Americans can help our children develop strength and character.

You're probably not expecting to read a discouraging word about renewing our commitment to character at a place like this but before we set off to renew something it might be useful to see if there's anything left to renew.

James Davison Hunter doesn't think so. His unjustly neglected book, The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil, begins with the words "Character is dead. Attempts to revive it will yield little. Its time has passed.”

By "Character is dead," Hunter doesn't mean than character is extinct on either a personal or even communal level but that "a restoration of character as a common feature within American society and a common trait of its people will not likely occur any time soon."

The reasons why this is true (and it is) have to do with changes in the way we view our selves (the use of two words is deliberate) and the decline of those institutions that nurtured and reinforced character. Not coincidentally, it is faith communities which, at their best, shape the way people see themselves and hold them accountable, that are the mostly likely redoubts of character within American society.

"Most likely" but not close to certain because, as Hunter amply documents, many of the character-extinguishing elements of modern life are firmly ensconced in even the most conservative of religious organizations. That's why no one should be surprised at the neglect of this important book.

Mission Accomplished!

Remember Abdul Rahman? He's the Afghani convert to Christianity who was charged with apostasy. He avoided being on trial for his life because the court, in a resounding blow for religious freedom and human dignity, decided that he was too crazy to really be an apostate. After his release, he moved to Italy.

Well he's back in the news.

The kidnappers of an Italian photojournalist have demanded Italy hand over an Afghan who converted to Christianity from Islam by midnight Sunday in return for the hostage's release, a Web site said.

Gabriele Torsello was taken by five gunmen last Thursday in the violence-plagued south of the country. Afghan police say he is being held by the Taliban, but the group has denied any involvement, blaming criminals.

The kidnappers did not say what they would do if their demand was refused, said PeaceReporter (www.peacereporter.net), which specializes in conflict cover.

They demanded Abdul Rahman, 41, who converted 16 years ago while working with a Christian aid group as a refugee in Pakistan, be returned to Afghanistan . . .

In Rome, the Foreign Ministry said it "took note" of the demands, but would make no further comment.

If you want to understand how this is possible, this is the best place to start.

Just Cornflakes

Cornflakes Ok. It's definitely not a profound movie. In fact, it pretty much got panned. And just because I'm talking about this movie doesn't mean I'm recommending it. (In fact, it didn't have to be PG-13: All the stuff that made it PG-13 could have been cut. So yes, there are jaw-droppers in there, things that make you scratch your head as to why on earth they decided to include that.) So, with all those caveats out of the way ...

Truth will arise in places you never expect, despite the medium, despite the intentions of the messengers, and sometimes served up like that filet mignon on a garbage-can lid. But nevertheless, truth will out. Even in a not-so-hot movie like Click, out on DVD for a week now (so guarantee you, your neighbors are watching it even if you're not, and again, I don't recommend you do, so take the opportunity for a conversation on life).

Click reminded me of a cross between It's a Wonderful Life (apologies to Stewart, God rest his soul -- and Clarence! Walken's Morty is nowhere near as funny as you.) and Bruce Almighty. And aren't our lives kind of like a cross between those movies? We may sometimes think our lives are futile and/or we want to take it all under our own control. We miss the point on both accounts.

Short description: Adam Sandler's character, Michael Newman, in Click takes his life under control via a universal remote control -- i.e. a remote that controls his universe -- provided by "angel" Morty (played by Walken). And the father of two ends up fast-forwarding through his life on his way to chasing a bowl of cornflakes, as Morty put it. When the inevitable problems of skipping the things in life that really matter -- relationships, other people, namely family -- Morty tells Michael that such a chase for the supposed "good life" of promotions and things is like the the leprechaun in the commercial who chases the rainbow only to find a bowl of cornflakes at the end (and, yes, we all know that's supposed to be Lucky Charms, that icky cereal with the marshmallows, but the point still stands).

Basically, the movie is a [very painful] vehicle for getting to the point of "All is vanity." And when I look around at all of us nutcases spending two to four hours on the road getting to and from work (at least that's a northern VA/beltway problem), too exhausted to do anything with family when we are home, and then waking up one day trying to figure out where the years went and who that teenager is on the couch (and where did that 5-year-old go?), well I hope that when they grab this DVD rental off the shelf thinking they're going to take two hours off one night, they'll watch it and get jolted back to what matters: people. Relationships. Our family. Seems so obvious to know that fact. So why is it so hard for us to live it?

No Greater Love

Diane, I’ve long thought many of the same things that you express in your Decent and Indecent post -- we are sending the best men and women this nation produces overseas to fight. And we know, when we send them, a number of these brave and precious warriors will lay down their lives. Let this truth always inspire us to prudence, as we decide whether or not we ought to act militarily.

Over the weekend, I was stunned and inspired by these accounts of SEAL operator Michael Monsoor’s indescribably courageous and loving act of diving on a grenade to save his comrades, while on a mission in Iraq.

From Fox News:

A Navy SEAL sacrificed his life to save his comrades by throwing himself on top of a grenade Iraqi insurgents tossed into their sniper hideout, fellow members of the elite force said. Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael A. Monsoor had been near the only door to the rooftop structure Sept. 29 when the grenade hit him in the chest and bounced to the floor … "He never took his eye off the grenade, his only movement was down toward it," said a 28-year-old lieutenant who sustained shrapnel wounds to both legs that day. "He undoubtedly saved mine and the other SEALs' lives, and we owe him."

Truly, no greater love hath any man than this.

The New Face of Heroism

There was a time in Western society in which universal values like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness engendered optimism that justice would prevail in times of adveristy. It was also accepted that those values would not be secured without personal sacrifice and acts of heroism. But as they say, “The times, they are achangin’.”

Consider comments that Canadian journalist Rondi Adamson received from some high school students in response to a recent pro-US piece she wrote on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks:

"... No matter how advanced we get, the Taliban, and terrorists in other countries ... will find a way around everything we have put in place to protect us."

"Our intelligence is useless today because they are always two steps ahead of us."

"As our technology becomes more advanced, so does Al Qaeda's... no matter how much we spend on precautions ... our lives will always be endangered...."

In other words, the most highly advanced nation on the planet is doomed to fail against a collective of nomadic cave dwellers intent on globalizing their worldview. It seems that two generations of postmodern thought have carried us beyond cynicism about truth to pessimism about the future, and even defeatism in our present situation.

That gloomy outlook is confirmed in a survey Adamson cites in which 59 percent of Canadians deemed that the war is “a cause we cannot win.”

What would have happened, Adamson mused, if that attitude prevailed during WWII when we found ourselves pitted not against turbaned Bedouins, but against the most technologically advanced society in the world? (I think we would be greeting each other with “Guten Tag!”)

Then again, maybe this is the new face of heroism. In a world devoid of objective values, the real hero is the one who faces life’s meaninglessness and grim realities with resignation. The defeatist, it would seem, is the emerging hero of the post-postmodern age.

RE: A Drunken Haven

Zoe, the news of Seattle's Downtown Emergency Service Center is ironically timed. Just a few days ago, the Seattle Times reported that a group of Quakers had to shoo the homeless away from their long-time shelter because of violence and drug use. While some of the homeless are lamenting the decision, the Quakers make no apologies. Their stance is one that balances soft hearts and hard heads, as an economics professor of mine once put it. While they want to reach out and provide a place for hurting individuals on the fringes of society, they refuse to do so when there is no evidence of transformation in process and when others are endangered by that safe harbor.

According to the article, the actions of the Quakers have already brought some good news. One interviewee "noted that one homeless man who left angry...has since found a job and a place to stay. 'Sometimes it can be a good thing to be disrupted because then it makes you make some changes.'"

Now We Know

"God is Not a Republican (or a Democrat)," according to a bumper sticker popular with--well, lefty Christians who tend to vote Democratic. But now it turns out God actually IS a Democrat.

Love Your Body Day?

The National Organization for Women is hosting its annual “Love Your Body Day” today, Oct. 18, on campuses across the country. At first glance, this self-image campaign fighting against unrealistic body image is something anyone might be able to support. In an age when anorexia is affecting girls as young as 7, who doesn’t want to see young women acquire a healthy self-esteem?

But while college women may be aware of NOW’s clear feminist agenda, they might not be so privy to the underground message “Love Your Body Day” is sending. In previous years, the day has been heralded by a week of campus activities promoting contraceptives, Planned Parenthood and sex toy sales.

Since its birth in 1998, Love Your Body Day has grown far from NOW’s public mission statement to free women from media distortions. Today the event is a rally for extreme feminism and a breeding ground of activities that do more to imprison young women than to liberate them.

NOW Publication Coordinator Holly Manning told me that the organization suggests several activities for the national day--including "Indulgence Parties," where college women get together in their pajamas and eat decadent food, or a "Mock Beauty Pageant," which may include a tire-changing competition as part of the talent portion.

What you won't find is an official call to hold masturbation workshops, which is what has happened at Grinell University in year's past. But when I asked Manning about activities--such as sex toy sales--that often coincide with Love Your Body Day, she told me: "I think however our groups decide to celebrate Love Your Body Day is fine." (Manning did say someone else in NOW would need to comment specifically on these activities, but after two requests, I still did not talk to anyone.) Some of this year's Love Your Body Day highlights include free condoms at Colorado State University, a sex toy "workshop" and sex pictionary at Smith College and safe sex seminars across the country that feature Planned Parenthood.

Not only is NOW deceiving college women, but they are trying to get young girls involved too! Their website includes information for elementary through high school students on how to get involved. One suggestion for middle/high school students is to get their peers to sign petitions against advertisers' inaccurate portrayal of women. Fair enough...until you read the petition: "COUNT ON MY VOICE IN THE CHORUS OF FEMINISTS WHO ARE SAYING 'NO' TO YOUR TWISTED BEAUTY STANDARDS."

A Middle School Chorus of Feminists? Outrageous!

October 17, 2006

Bumper Sticker Wars

One of the more illuminating aspects of working at a university is the diversity of bumper stickers I see as I walk through the parking lot. Since I live in a red state, I see plenty of cars with the usual "W the President" stickers, Jesus fish ornaments, "Support our troops" ribbons, and "Marriage: one man, one woman" stickers. Not surprisingly, though, I also see plenty of bumper stickers from the other end of the religious and political spectrum:

  • Re-elect President Carter
  • Sorry, world, we tried (Kerry voters)
  • A bright blue dot in a red-state world
  • A PBS fan in a Fox news world
  • "F" the president
  • Darwin fish
  • As soon as love outweighs hate, we will have Peace.
  • Support our troops: bring them home
  • Born OK the first time [the saddest one, I think]

So what bumper sticker is on my car? "Except for ending slavery, fascism, nazism, and communism, war has never solved anything" (available here). What about you?

Decent and Indecent

All this talk about our right to self-defense sparked a memory of something I read last week, a recent--and sobering--article by Dennis Prager called "The Best Are Killed in Every Generation." Here's a portion of that article:

You have to wonder how long the world can endure the constant removal of many of its finest souls, and the simultaneous survival and reproduction of many of its most vicious. As if this were not bad enough, a major portion of humanity vigorously opposes the decent fighting the indecent. The world's Left increasingly flirts with pacifism--Europe is militarily worthless, and America's elites largely disdain the military. And when the decent fight the indecent--such as when America fights barbarians in Iraq and Israel fights terrorists who advocate genocite--they are pilloried.

Indeed, much of the world is no longer capable of even identifying the indecent--or the decent, for that matter. Moral relativism, multiculturalism and dividing humanity between strong and weak or rich and poor, as opposed to dividing it between the decent and the indecent, have all virtually paralyzed the human conscience.

The net result is that not only do the bad keep eradicting the good, but much of the world actually denies that fact, denies that we can even categorize any people as "good" or "bad," and often opposes the best taking up arms against the worst.

Is the prognosis for good triumphing over bad therefore hopeless? Not yet. The good need to fight not only the bad but also the vast middle of humanity who can't tell the difference between the two. It is a daunting task."

A daunting task, but thankfully, not an impossible one. Blog sites such as this one can certainly participate in a much needed national conversation on right and wrong, good and evil, decent and indecent. Prager's comments have made me all the more thankful for the honorable men and women who are now serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sure, there are some "bad apples" in the bunch, but so many of them are our "finest souls." They and their families deserve our gratitude and our prayers.

Re: Our Imaginary Friends

Catherina, I'll bet this one wasn't on the list -- I never was any good at trend-following -- but I've never quite gotten over my crush on Dickens's Sydney Carton, which started when I was about fifteen. He was the first in a long line of strong sacrifical types that I fell head over heels for in books, movies, etc. (He may not be on the list, but look, he's got a fanlisting! I love the Internet. :-) )

A word about words

It's been brought to our attention that we've used language that some of our readers might consider offensive. I refer to words used here, here, and here.

We used a couple of harsh words to describe a very ugly trend, without realizing that some of you would find these descriptions beyond the pale. Please know that it wasn't our intention to offend anyone, and that while we're committed to sharing with you stories about news and trends important to Christians -- some of which just aren't very pleasant -- we'll do our best not to do it in an unnecessarily unpleasant manner. Thanks for your patience and understanding. And please, as always, feel free to use the comment section to let us know what you think about this issue.

Moyers Revealed

Last week, veteran journalist Bill Moyers debuted his documentary Is God Green? on PBS. The film comes at a time when evangelicals across this country are divided on environmental issues--most notably what is known as global warming. The film takes viewers inside the lives of evangelical Christians who have a deep concern for taking care of the environment and inside the national debate on global warming.

Sometimes we wonder about the hidden political agendas of journalists. Jimmy Akin over at JimmyAkin.org and today Tim Graham over at Newsbusters reported on this in the blogosphere: Moyers openly admitted before the broadcast that as a liberal Democrat, he was hoping to swing the evangelical vote so the Democrats could take over Congress. Moyers said this just minutes before an interview for the film with Dr. E. Calvin Beisner, an associate professor of historical theology and social ethics at Fort Lauderdale-based Knox Theological Seminary. Beisner also is one of several authors of the paper "A Call to Truth, Prudence, and Protection of the Poor: An Evangelical Response to Global Warming" from the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance, a group of diverse clergy that adopt the premise of Genesis 1:28 and believe the frenzied call to address global warming now is exaggerated. The paper is signed by more than 130 theologians, scholars and scientists, including former director of the National Hurricane Center Neil L. Frank.

Read the full transcript of the program here and hear it online here.

The new term for this new green movement among some evangelicals is “creation care,” the notion that as believers we are responsible for being good stewards of God’s property. While caring for the earth is a principle outlined in Genesis 2:15, we can't ignore Genesis 1:28, where God commands Adam and Eve to "fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground." Clearly there is a balance AND an important warning.

This new idea of caring for the environment by supporting a global warming initiative has received criticism from the evangelical community for being the issue that far-left environmental groups push behind a conservative disguise. I'll be blogging about some of the reporting I've done on this topic in the future. But for now, the challenge for Christians is clear: We are not called to worship the creation above the Creator, and we need to carefully examine our alliances.

Re: Fasting from Politics?

I listened to David Kuo on the Laura Ingraham show this morning (along with Chuck Colson), and I judged him to be a sincere advocate for his position, though I don't see anything especially surprising -- or even new -- about the arguments he is making. Evangelicals have always had an uneasy relationship with government and politics, attempting to influence and change society for the better without becoming engulfed "in" the world.

This is an important and necessary tension, I think, for those who place a commitment to Christ above a commitment to party or ideology. Politics must be kept in perspective. It is by no means the end-all of reclaiming culture, as Kuo seems to understand well, but it does serve as the gatekeeper to an important element in the formation of society -- the law. To forfeit our influence in the law will, at the very least, hinder our ability to defend moral values or Biblical justice.

It's not that Christians need to stand back from politics, but rather we need to stand firm upon the principles of truth and life and liberty for which we claim to have been fighting. Politics can be an ugly business. It is a game of compromise, which can certainly be appropriate and practical, but it must never come at the expense of ethics and moral standards. Washington is not known for its unwavering champions of a just cause, but maybe that should be the first goal: righteousness, not retreat.

Freezing the Freak

Since we've had some chatter recently about teenage T-shirts promoting sex and the challenges of upholding moral messages at public schools, I thought this story from today's LA Times was an especially good example of what happens when those in power actually take a stand for what is right.

Times reporter Seema Mehta reports that some California principals, parents and even students are tired of teenagers' provocative dancing--what we colloquially know as "freaking"--at school-sponsored dances, so they’ve come up with a solution. Lights on, no music that compels one’s body to gyrate with abandon and in the most extreme cases--no dances at all.

Principal Patricia Law of Windsor High School, near Santa Rosa, CA, cancelled every single one of the dances for the remainder of this year because so many students were imitating sex while on the dance floor. At other nearby high schools, student council members started a campaign called "Freeze the Freak" and dance chaperones have worn shirts emblazoned with "No Freaking."

It's not a popular move by those who don't care to see dance imitate sex and sex imitate a teenager's life. But it's the best message for the gaggle of young people across this country who think that their peers, their parents and their educators owe them the right to do as they please.

The consequences are significant here. It's the same you-owe-me attitude that allows teenagers to avoid becoming responsible young adults and instead to rely on Mom and Dad to bail them out for the rest of their lives. It's the reason they grow up expecting their parents to debate their teachers on the injustice of a grade, to pay their DUI fines or to raise their out-of-wedlock children.

Some parents are angry that educators would go so far. Their sons and daughters are upset. But parents sadly have missed the point. Teenagers aren't just rebelling by insisting on freak dancing. They are rebelling against everything and anything that comes to mind--against rules, against curfews, against authority wiser than they, as one anonymous student in Mehta's story reveals.

More importantly, those who say freaking isn't a big deal have missed what is at stake. We will know the heartbreak of abusing God's pure and holy gift of sex. Certainly, teenage ladies who freak dance are just as guilty as the guys who do it. But we've got to look ahead and think about what this is opening up to our future men. Unfortunately, we may not know until after it's too late…when the violators of your daughters or my future daughters will answer to a court of law. Why did they do it? someone, somewhere along the way will ask.

We will be able to track it back to this culture that feeds off the cheap exhilaration of the sexual fix and to a dance floor--where teenage boys could thrust their pelvises and grope girls' chests all in the name of dance.

Our Imaginary Friends

Santaclaus Santa. Claus. Was. Real. ... But seriously, here's an interesting new book on pop culture (from USA Today):

Now three self-described "rowdy philosophers" from New Jersey — Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan and Jeremy Salter — have ranked the 101 "most influential people".

With an asterisk.

These cultural icons exist only in the imagination. Folks like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (No. 44), Batman (No. 60), Cinderella (No. 26), Santa Claus (No. 4), Luke Skywalker (No. 85), Mickey Mouse (No. 18), G.I. Joe (No. 48) and Barbie (No. 43). The subtitle to The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived (Harper, $13.95, paperback original) says it all: How characters of myth, legends, television, and movies have shaped our society, changed our behavior, and set the course of history.

'Fess up -- which imaginary friends influenced you?

Go directly to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200….

Ah, Monopoly. Remember how devastating it was as a young entrepreneur to draw the card with those deadly words: “Go directly to jail”? While I was too young to fully grasp the consequences such a move had to my monetary stockpile, I did understand the meaning behind that card: I had to sit quietly and watch everyone else have fun and move around the board without me. Ouch. But maybe not everyone feels that way. Let me paint a quick picture for you through two articles that recently arrived in my inbox.

On the one hand we have "Fall Break in Miami," an article composed by a contemplative Cornell student who asserts the obvious: “prison is no fun." In his opinion the government has taken and should take upon itself “to not only protect society from criminals, but to correct criminal behavior as well.” Too true. He continues that “it would be logical to infer that most people would learn their lesson the first time and maybe rethink their ways." Talk about a no-brainer.

But I would love to hear his take on an article that sings a different tune. Chew on this: "Bank Robber's Wish to Go to Prison Granted." Who knows, maybe one day children will draw cards that say “Go directly to jail… be sure to collect $200!” Yes, I'm exaggerating... but it is something to consider.

Don’t fast from voting!

Speaking of politics, this week Chuck and Mark are delivering a series of radio commentaries on religious freedom and the upcoming election. One topic you will, unfortunately, not hear much about, if at all, on the campaign trails is overseas religious persecution (although you will hear how much Michael Steele likes puppies!). As Mark says below, Christians need to press the issue:

We must make the loss of religious freedom an issue in the upcoming elections. Public officials need to be informed and accountable on this issue, not just for our sake but for our brethren around the world. We need to let them know that they are hardly alone in their hour of trial.

Read yesterday's and today's "BreakPoint" commentaries -- and keep reading this week -- then come back here and share your thoughts on religious freedom, the election, and voting. Need a good resource? Go to Redeem the Vote. And make sure you vote! I know I can't wait for Election Day (it means all those amazingly annoying campaign ads will end ... ).

Re: Fasting from Politics

A few thoughts on the Kuo book: Gina, what I read in ABC News was that Kuo was not proposing Christians not vote:

He proposes a two-year fast from politics -- not including voting -- and urges Christians to instead direct their energies toward practicing compassion and their money towards charity.

Of course, nevertheless, the timing of his book is still significant: It is potentially lucrative for him now as politics is on our minds. (But probably credit that to the publisher, not Kuo ... )

And I second what T. M. said: We need to be involved in politics and public policy, but not be beholden to political parties. Sad it's come to all this, from Foley to Kuo, for evangelicals finally to realize that. (Perhaps, to redefine the cliche, that loud sucking sound on Capitol Hill will diminish -- a little less of something also known as brown-nosing.) So what Kuo proposes goes too far, IMO. Yes, take some of our eggs and put it in other baskets, but still leave some in the politics basket. (After all, and I particularly like how Jim Tonkowich once put it in BreakPoint WorldView, politics is just one avenue of changing the culture, and in fact, should be downstream from a culture that's already changed.) At the least, maybe Kuo's got us rethinking priorities and strategies and allegiances. I think that's a good thing.

(And although his assertions about the characterization of some evangelical leaders is still in dispute, really no one should be surprised. So stop gasping -- they said what?! You should hear the chatter in non-profit offices ... and I'll just leave it at that.)

A Drunken Haven

Where's the line between providing a safe haven and enabling destructive behavior? It seems that one relief center in Seattle can't find that line.

Seattle's Downtown Emergency Service Center spent $11.2 million to house 75 alcohol-dependent individuals without requiring any form of rehabilitation. It hopes to reduce the number of drunks that land in jail by providing a clean place to sleep and eat. Inner change is no requirement.

Is this grace or coddling?

Stupid is as stupid does

In “Making a Family Without a Marriage,” LA Times writer Lee Romney gives us the Cleaver family without Ward: Two nice kids, a pleasant home, a dog, two parakeets—and two June Cleavers.

The children--Gavin, 15, and Baylor, 12--share a sperm-donor dad and the view that it’s unfair that their lesbian mothers cannot “cement their love of two decades” by getting hitched. Laws that prevent same-sex marriage are “stupid,” Gavin helpfully explains.

Clearly, the kids have been taught a definition of marriage only recently invented by gay activists: It is (or should be) a legal contract between any two people who happen to be fond of one another. This Gumby-esque, “whatever you want it to be” definition of marriage is based on a lie.

As Princeton legal philosopher Robert P. George writes in The Clash of Orthodoxies,

Implicit in our matrimonial law is a (now controversial) moral judgment: namely, the judgment that marriage is inherently heterosexual . . . a two-in-one-flesh communion of persons that is consummated and actualized by acts that are reproductive in type, whether or not they are reproductive in effect.

Although not all reproductive-type acts are marital, there can be no marital act that is not reproductive in type. Masturbatory, sodomitical, or other sexual acts that are not reproductive in type cannot unite persons organically: that is, as a single reproductive principle . . . They cannot be marital acts.

Because homosexual acts have no relationship to procreation and cannot unite persons organically, George writes, these acts cannot be marital—which means relationships integrated around them cannot be marriage. Same-sex partners are physically incapable of marriage because it takes a man and a woman to become "one flesh."

Laws that reinforce this reality are not “stupid;” they quite intelligently recognize that “marriage is a reality that people can choose to participate in, but whose contours people cannot make and remake at will” to suit their own desires and subjective goals, George notes.

Which is not to say that people won't try.

If, by the time my own sons wish to wed, same-sex “marriage” has replaced authentic marriage in America, I’m thinking a great wedding present would be to give them “destination weddings”: That is, send them to a country in which they and their brides can actually get married (as opposed to being invited to enter into a legal relationship that poses as matrimony).

More on this later, if I have the energy.

More on a Reformation Day for Islam

One of the main barriers to both an internal reformation within Islam and to Gospel work in Islamic territory are the anti-conversion and anti-blasphemy laws that are so widespread in Islamic countries. Paul Marshall, Senior Fellow at the Center for Religious Freedom, Freedom House, spoke this past June at the Religious Freedom Day on the Hill. His comments highlight just how widespread and ugly this phenomenon is:

You are all aware of internationally documented cases like the killing of Dutch documentary film maker for his making of a film on the status of Muslim women, and the threatened execution of convert in Afghanistan. These are only the tip of the iceberg. Converts have been killed, threatened, and beaten in the last few months in Pakistan, Palestinian areas, Turkey, Nigeria, and Indonesia. It is extremely widespread in Somalia, and now also in Kenya. Last October in Alexandria, Egypt, five thousand people attacked an Orthodox church. The attacks renewed two months ago. In November, in Pakistan, a mob burned churches. In Iran, the government persecutes deviants from Islam. . . . It’s important such laws don’t just apply to people who wish to change their religion; they also apply to Muslims.

Last year Saudi Democracy activitists were released after serving 500 days in prison for charges of using un-Islamic terminology, like democracy and human rights. Last November a Saudi teacher was sentenced to 40 months in jail, 750 lashes for "mocking religion" after discussing the Bible in his class and saying "the Jews were not always wrong." Iran’s most prominent dissident was released in March after serving 6 years on charges, including spreading propaganda against Islamic system. Meanwhile, Iranian Noble Peace Prize Lauraeate has been receiving death threats for defending Iran’s Bahai’s. ...

An editor of Afghan women’s rights magazine was charged in October with blasphemy for articles he had published including questioning death penalty for those who question or leave Islam. He was charged with blasphemy for essentially questioning charges of blasphemy. When you have such a system, it is totalitarian. It is vitally important we address this.

This also affects people in the West. On April 12th an Islamic organization, probably based in Egypt, announced it would kill atheists, polytheists, and other supporters unless they repented. They listed targets and family members by name. On the list, Egyptian sociologist Sandra Dean Ibrahim . . .and California psychiatrist, Wafa Sultan who is with us today.

This is not some marginal religious quirk. Such laws repress religious minorities, and repress debate and discussion within religions themselves. This is a fundamental barrier to open discussion and dissent, and hence a barrier to free societies within Muslim world and beyond. Removing bans on blasphemy and similar restrictions is an indispensable first step in creating the necessary steps for debate that leads to other reforms.

October 16, 2006

Re: Fasting from Politics

I didn't realize The Corner has been discussing David Kuo today as well. (Also slutty Halloween costumes.) This is my favorite comment, from one of their readers:

My only reason to doubt Kuo's claim that the timing of his book is not a political move, occured in the very last part of his interview. He actually calls for Christians to observe a political "fast". Three weeks before the elections, he asks Christians to remove themselves from the political process and reflect. Come ON!

My thoughts exactly.