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« December 2006 | Main | February 2007 »

January 19, 2007

Re: An Unlikely Alliance on the Pro-Life Front

Tying back to my post yesterday, the Washington Post printed a great op-ed last Sunday from a mother of a Down Syndrome child about pre-natal genetic testing. Check it out.

What ’Banged’?

Last year a whiff of smoke from the world’s largest and oldest blast wafted into view. After reviewing data from a satellite probe, a team of NASA scientists reported tiny irregularities in the cosmic microwave background radiation—that faint relic of energy from the primordial explosion that gave birth to the universe: the Big Bang. Although the pattern of the relic was first mapped in 1992, the sensitivity and resolution of the latest measurements provide the map with much finer detail.

Why is this important, you ask? Because it could hold the key to some very puzzling questions, like: What banged? Why does the universe look so uniform in all directions? And why is it “flat,” sitting on the balance between eternal expansion and eventual collapse?—decades-long problems for researchers determined to account for the universe from strict materialistic processes.

Of course the big question is whether this “smoke” came from the Creator or the Quantum. Read more in my BreakPoint article The Word or the Quantum.

Re-entry solutions

An article in the January 11 edition of the Chronicle of Philanthropy (subscription required) highlights the work of a Chicago-area agency that is taking some practical steps to help ex-prisoners get on the right track. The focus of the article is on the honey business the agency runs as part of the program. Part of a special report on charities that start for-profit businesses to complement their social outreach, the piece does a good job of describing some of the challenges that ex-prisoners face and some of the practical ways society can help them.

North Lawndale Employment Network, the group featured in the article, serves a neighborhood with 25% unemployment, due partly to the fact that "more than half of local residents have at one time been on probation, on parole, or in jail." In addition to little or no work history, the skills that inmates use to survive in prison -- keeping to themselves, not trusting others -- are exactly the opposite of skills we use to survive in the workplace -- teamwork and collaboration. The Network uses the honey business to teach former inmates those workplace skills and to help them build a work history.

They don't stop there, however. The honey is made into personal care products, which have a much higher profit margin than honey sold in its raw form. While the group is brokering marketing deals with local business and even national companies, they are also giving back to the people they aim to serve. They are considering putting together "re-entry bags" for people leaving prison that would include some basic toiletries. This seemingly small gesture can mean the world to a man or woman leaving prison with nothing more than the clothes on their back and bus fare in their pocket.

One of Prison Fellowship's passions is seeing the church help newly-released ex-offenders make the critical transition to life on the outside. Meeting someone at the gate, giving them a job, mentoring them in job and life skills, and helping them get on their feet are all part of this process. Maybe half of the residents in your neighborhood aren't former prisoners, but you can be involved, even if it's just by praying for someone. Go to PFM's main website to learn more about how you can help.

The Enemy at Home

Dinesh D'Souza has written a book called The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11. I haven't read the book yet, but I have read a recent interview with D'Souza at tothesource. Essentially, he claims that the reason why so many Muslims around the world hate America is our degenerate culture:

The cultural left has fostered a decadent American culture that angers and repulses traditional societies, especially those in the Islamic world. It is waging a global campaign to undermine the traditional family and to promote secular values in non-Western cultures. This has provoked a violent reaction from Muslims who believe their most cherished values are under assault. The cultural left has emboldened the Bin Ladens of the world to attack us in the firm conviction that "America deserves it" and that they can do so with relative impunity.... Here in America we recognize that there is a difference between American popular culture and the way that Americans actually live. But my mother, sitting in her living room in Bombay, sees some of the stuff on American TV or hears the lyrics to American songs and she says, "What a bunch of perverts these Americans are." To much of the world, American popular culture is America. It's American culture that is spreading into every nook and cranny of the world....

I'm hard pressed to disagree with Mr. D'Souza's analysis of why they hate us, especially since I hear similar stories from missionaries I know who live and minister in Islamic nations. The solution? Mr. D'Souza again hits the mark:

We should show them the other America, which is conservative and traditional America. When Muslims look at America, all they see is Hollywood and family breakdown. They don't see the Americans who work hard, look after their families, and go to church. If traditional Muslims understood that there is a part of America that shares its traditional values, and that there are Americans who are working hard to combat the depravities of American society, then this would go a long way to diminish their attractions to radical and terrorist strategies. They will see, for the first time, that they have potential allies in Americans who share their respect for traditional values, and who have no problem with Muslims living by those values in their own countries.

Thought for the Day

"Life is too short to live a mediocre Christian life." -- Gene Cunningham, pastor and missionary

Michael Shermer Eats Crow

…But displays intellectual honesty.

Last week, an environmental advocacy group, called PEER, sent in a news piece to Skeptic Magazine claiming that Grand Canyon officials were ordered to be mum about the age of the canyon. By whom? And why? By the Bush administration…out of its commitment to creationism. While such outlandish charges should have raised red flags everywhere, Skeptic ran the item with the following lead: “Washington, DC—Grand Canyon National Park is not permitted to give an official estimate of the geologic age of its principal feature, due to pressure from Bush administration appointees.”

After being challenged about the validity of the article by numerous readers, editor-in-chief Michael Shermer (a well-known Darwinist and atheist) doggedly investigated the allegations, found them false, and ran a follow-up entitled "Fact Checking 101: How Skeptic magazine was Duped by an Environmental Activist Group." For all of my disagreements with Mr. Shermer, I found this to be a self-critical piece demonstrating journalistic integrity. It is a good example for those in his camp and ours to follow when we find ourselves caught up in a story and let ideology take precedence over facts and good journalism.

January 18, 2007

Re: Unwed America

Michael Medved takes the Times to task for the article as well, and sees a positive spin in it:

The endlessly repeated lies -- that married people are now a minority, that most women don’t have husbands, that half of all first marriages end in divorce -- exert a real world influence on young people trying to make decisions about their own intimate arrangements. The relentless media portrayal of matrimony as a wounded, collapsing, outmoded, dysfunctional institution discourages prospective husbands and wives from making the lifelong commitments on which societal health and effective childrearing depend.

Despite the journalistic malpractice by Sam Roberts and the New York Times, the real front-page news isn’t about marriage’s disappearance, it’s about the institution’s unexpected and encouraging durability.

I certainly read the claims with one eyebrow raised as well, though I'm not quite as optimistic about the state of marriage as Medved. I give the paper and its reporters enough credit (though perhaps I shouldn't) to be at least making comparisons on the same statistics over time. But the most disturbing part of the report was not even so much the numbers themselves as the very blatant sense that we were supposed to find them beneficial, encouraging, even comforting. The theme was carried through in the letters to the editor published about the story.

Either way, it is the mark of an increasingly difficult battle. This article comes amidst plenty of other troubling data that indicate a shifting cultural understanding of marriage and family -- to the detriment of society. The tragic abundance of divorce, cohabiting couples and out-of-wedlock births speak to an increasingly lax commitment to marriage as a unique and important virtue.

Continue reading "Re: Unwed America" »

Sharing the wealth

In recent weeks I've attended two lectures by two of my favorite speaker/writers. Thanks to the wonders of technology, you can now "attend" them as well. First, click here to hear Chuck Donovan, executive vice president of Family Research Council (and my former boss), give a 2006 Witherspoon Lecture on "The Empire of Emptiness: Planned Parenthood and the End of Romance." (Chuck is co-author of the book Blessed Are the Barren: The Social Policy of Planned Parenthood, so he knows his subject very well.)

Second, Mark Steyn's excellent speech at the Heritage Foundation on his book America Alone can be viewed or just heard, depending on your preference. Go to this page and click either "View Event," "Streaming MP3," or "Save MP3."

An Unlikely Alliance on the Pro-Life Front?

Angela Wu, in her latest blog entry, Eugenics 21st Century Style, drew my attention to an interesting discussion going on over at Get Religion about an article in the New York Times. The Times article, Screen All Pregnancies for Down Syndrome, Doctors Say highlights the widespread ability of doctors today for pre-natal genetic screening for Down Syndrome and argues that all women, not just older ones, should have their babe in utero screened.

But Andrew Sullivan on his blog points out a notable silence in the Times article. Why is the pre-screening being done? Of course, we know the answer. He says:

To kill them in utero, of course. Why leave this out? Isn’t it the crux of the story? And no mention of the 90 percent figure for abortions after DS detection. Do the NYT’s editors believe readers cannot handle the truth?

Good questions. Even more interesting, if you can follow this stream of thought, is this. Of course, we know that homosexual activists believe we are not far from discovering a so-called "gay gene." Sullivan writes about it in a recent piece. But--now put aside for a moment whether you think such a gene could exist--if this discovery happens, you can imagine how homosexuals would fear that they might be the next on the eugenics radar screen. What an interesting ironic twist that homosexuals might be the next opponents of pre-natal genetic testing and the abortions that follow in their wake. Get Religion blogger writes on this, as does Andrew Sullivan, who happens to be a homosexual.

Thanks for linking us in to this thread of thought, Angela. Very interesting!

Here to Stay

Over at the Washington Post's "On Faith" blog, Breakpoint's Capo di tutti capi (I kid because I love -- really), Chuck Colson, answers the question "Was the Iraq war a just war?" His reply is, in essence, "That's the wrong question at this point." As Chuck put it:

For better or for worse, we made the commitment. We made promises and representations to the Iraqi people; we announced policies to the entire Middle East area; and now the question isn’t whether it is right to go to war, it is whether it is morally acceptable to leave.

To do so, in my judgment, would break the promises we have made to the Iraqi people, would lead to massive chaos and bloodshed, and would be an act of moral dishonor . . .

He goes on to compare our leaving to the forced repatriation of Eastern European refugees and Soviet POWs after World War II. The Allies knew that, in many instances, sending them back to the USSR or areas under the Red Army's control was, in effect, a death sentence and for the rest it was a prison sentence. But they didn't want to be responsible for their care and resettling, so back the refugees and POWs went.

Chuck concludes that "I do not believe, by the just war formulation, that America could in conscience withdraw from a war, rightly or wrongly started, until there is some political stability."

Speaking as someone who didn't think that the invasion met the requirements of jus ad bellum, I agree that it would be unconscionable to simply abandon the Iraqis to their own devices, especially when it was we who removed their primary, admittedly demonic, source of stability.

Continue reading "Here to Stay" »

Re: Unwed America

Both James Lileks and Candice Watters have discovered some pretty serious flaws in that New York Times report claiming that 51 percent of women live without spouses. It looks like someone may have let their agenda run away with their accuracy and their judgment. (At the New York Times, too. Excuse me while I faint.)

Great Stem Cell News (in simple language)

Stem cells are those cells that can potentially bring cures and were used to score political points this past November. Stem cells come in two basic varieties: Adult stem cells, which have no ethical baggage. Embryonic stem cells, which are loaded with ethical problems since the human embryo must be destroyed to take its cells.

As explained by Dr. David Prentice during today's FRC Bloggers Briefing, there are two main reasons scientists are so attracted to embryonic stem cells. One is their remarkable ability to morph into different cells (a quality known as pluripotency). The other is their remarkable ability to keep growing and dividing in culture (cancer cells, unfortunately, have this property too; normal cells typically don't).

Though embryonic stem cells have these two remarkable properties, they have one huge drawback besides their obvious ethical problem. Embryonic stem cells almost always create tumors. Adult stem cells do not. This is one reason adult stem cells are already being used for treatment and embryonic stem cells have gotten nowhere.

Wouldn't it be great if we had an alternative that had the best of both worlds and no ethical baggage?

We just may.

Continue reading "Great Stem Cell News (in simple language)" »

LRA Inspiration Dies

Alice_lakwena Alice Lakwena, the inspiration behind Joseph Kony's rebel force--the Lord's Resistance Army--was reported dead today. Lakwena, a self-proclaimed prophetess, formed the Holy Spirit Movement in Uganda in the 1980s. Kony captured the movement and ran with it. Over the past 20 years, the LRA has abducted an estimated 30,000 Ugandan children and forced them into servitude as fighters or sex slaves. Today, peace talks are slowly underway in southern Sudan.

’On Human Hinges’

Catherine has a very good new article up at Common Grounds Online about how God stoops to use human beings -- weak and sinful as we are -- to accomplish what He could very easily accomplish by Himself:

It amazes me how God, so often, hangs history on human hinges. Though He could topple Goliath with a breath, though He could feed the five thousand with manna, instead He chooses to use ordinary people of faith and the ordinary things they bring to Him.

This is a startling mystery. God uses people. Flawed people, small people, weak people, those who come to Him in faith, even those who come to Him with “I believe, help me in my unbelief,” God uses. They come like the widow with their empty jars and Moses with their stammering tongues and God somehow makes oil flow and Pharoahs fall to their knees.

Read more. (I also highly recommend Philip Yancey's new book, Prayer, which delves into the related idea of "prayer as partnership" between God and us.)

Singling Out Condi

Rice Putting aside one's personal feelings of like or dislike for Dr. Condoleeza Rice, one can't help but notice that she's been singled out lately. Catherina posted the other day about the Boxer/Rice exchange. My jaw dropped too when I heard it. I couldn’t believe that singleness now also disqualifies folks from empathy. Last I checked, Jesus and Paul were single and pretty consistently qualified to empathize and show compassion.

Then I also read today, in a December interview with Laura Bush in People, Laura’s thoughts on why Condi won’t run for President. She says: “Dr. (Condoleezza) Rice, who I think would be a really good candidate, is not interested. Probably because she is single, her parents are no longer living, she's an only child. You need a very supportive family and supportive friends to have this job.”

Now perhaps, Laura is saying this because Condi has told her these are her reasons. I’m not sure. They are friends after all. But if it is her personal conjecture, it seems to me to imply (whether or not our First Lady meant it this way) that now singleness not only disqualifies someone from empathy, but now it apparently disqualifies someone from leadership also. Hmmm… funny, I thought Secretary of State was a pretty hefty leadership role in itself. And who was that lady I once read about in my history books? Some singularly successful ruler named Queen Elizabeth I.

Single people can have very supportive networks of friends and church bodies that function like family. Look at how Paul’s friends supported him like family through his time of imprisonment in Rome. Epaphroditus was like a brother to him. Timothy was like a son. Jesus also turned people’s thoughts about family on their head, in one moving scene in the book of Mark. It says,

A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, "Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you."

“Who are my mother and my brothers?" he asked.

Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother.”

Continue reading "Singling Out Condi" »

A Hardy worldview

I've been a huge fan of Thomas Hardy from the time I read Jude, the Obscure in a college English class. The novel was so grotesque, so earthy, so depressing, and yet somehow so utterly fascinating. Hardy's atheism stripped everything down to its barest, rawest element, devoid of redemption or hope.

A review in this week's New Yorker of a new Hardy biography explores some of that theme in Hardy's writing and in his life.

...He was not so much interested in persuading honest believers to abandon their beliefs as in shaming an already agnostic century into admitting the depths of its uncertainty. His novels, and especially his poems, describe a world from which God has already absconded, and for good.

Or rather, we would say, one in which man has absconded from God.

The central fact of [Hardy's] world was the disappearance of God, and with it any reason for believing in providence or justice.

Indeed. All you have to do is read Hardy--any Hardy novel--to feel the depth of the unfair-ness. Time and again, you find yourself rooting for an underdog character, only to realize that there is never going to be a happy ending for this poor sap, just one disappointment and cruel twist of fate after another.

...It is not only the absence of God that Hardy reckons with; it is the way that absence changes how we think about ethics, mortality, and value, the way it challenges all our traditions and aspirations.

And perhaps this, ultimately, is why Thomas Hardy, Victorian atheist, was given a state funeral in Westminster Abbey and declared by his local vicar an "essential Christian." If he didn't believe in God, he at least acknowledged what it was that he was missing.

January 17, 2007

The Fulfilling of the Law

Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.  Romans 13:10

Apart from its role as an icon of evangelical self-righteousness vis a vis intransigent secularists, the Law of God is not all that highly regarded among contemporary Christians (quick: can you name the Ten Commandments in order?).  A certain fear of legalism or "works salvation" keeps us from giving the Law its due.  The Apostle Paul insisted that, given the fact that Jesus' righteousness is the basis for our salvation, and His righteousness is that of the Law, the Law is established as the ground of righteousness in which we as Christ's followers have been planted and can expect to flourish (Rom. 3:31). How many times have I heard some Christian boast, "I'm not under the Law; I'm under grace."  Or, "No Savior but Jesus, no law but love."  Right.

But Paul insists there can be no love without Law. The Law of God, Jesus taught, was given in order to engender and guide love for God and neighbors (Mt. 22:34-40). Paul says the same thing in Romans 13: "Owe no one anything except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law...love is the fulfilling of the law" (vv. 8, 10). The Law of God was given to train us for love. It does not exhaustively define the way of love; rather, the Law marks out grooves in the soul and trajectories of practice for living in love. The Spirit of God, Who dwells in the hearts of all who believe, empowers obedience to the Law and leads us beyond the letter of the Law into its true Spirit, so that the love of God is shed abroad in us as we obey the Spirit, and flows out from us to refresh others in the grace and truth of the Lord (Ezek. 36:26, 27; Rom. 5:5; Jn. 7:37-39). The better we know the Law - meditating on it daily, as the psalmist recommends (Ps. 1) - the more readily and consistently we will obey it, believing it to mark out the path of righteousness and love. The Spirit Himself helps us, both in understanding the Law and in being willing and able to live it out (Jn. 16:13; Phil. 2:12, 13); but He does more than that as well.  He takes our explicit obedience and fashions it into the very image of Jesus, so that we know by nature how we are to show the love of Christ increasingly, in every situation (2 Cor. 3:12-18). And, though we may not consciously be acting in obedience to the Law when we show the love of Christ to others, a little examination and analysis of our behavior will show how such genuine Christ-like love derives from and is anchored in the commandments and precepts of God.

Would you show more of Christ's love to those around you? Spend more time meditating in His Law.

(For a compendium of the Ten Commandments and their accompanying precepts and statutes, visit www.lulu.com/waxedtablet.)

The Beauty of Equations

Gina, your post The Number is God's Too reminded me of a survey a while back that asked: "What makes an equation great?"

According to Dr. Crease, philosophy professor at State University in New York, a great equation "reshapes perception of the universe."

I don’t know Dr. Crease’s worldview, but I resonate with that. Prior to the advent of science, primitive man saw himself as a victim of mysterious forces that ruled the earth and skies. For him, order and chaos, fate and fortune, or warring gods were in perpetual clash, making any detailed, systematic understanding of the world impossible. But with the Scientific Revolution, predictive laws were discovered underlying the phenomena, patterns, and beauty of the natural world, giving it the hint of purpose. Many of those laws were found to be describable by a very simple mathematical algorithm.

For the materialist, each discovery reshapes his previous understanding of his mechanistic paradigm, while bolstering confidence in purely naturalistic answers. He dare not ask why he should expect the universe to behave thus, unless he is ready for a collision with the question of where those laws and mechanistic principles came from. Such a thorn, that thing about origins.

For the theist, new discoveries refine his thinking about the details of the universe; but they also affirm that because of the algorithm Builder, there are algorithms; and because this Builder is not a deceiver, those algorithms are perceivable and real, giving us confidence that, as John Polkinghorne says, “Epistemology models ontology.” (What we can know, reflects what is.)

That said, what are the world’s greatest equations? As reported in the New York Times (subscription required), the top ones for readers of Physics World magazine included:

--Einstein’s E=mc2 (special relativity) for mass and energy equivalence

--Einstein’s equation for gravity (general relativity) describing the fabric of space-time

--Newton’s F=ma (the fundamental equation of force, mass and acceleration)

--The Schrödinger wave equation (of quantum mechanics)

--Maxwell’s four equations describing the working of electro-magnetism

Interestingly, six respondents listed, 1+1=2. One of those remarked, “It is the fairy tale of mathematics, the first equation I taught my son, the first expression of the miraculous power of the mind to change the real world… [it was] perhaps his first … true philosophical wonder, when he saw that the two fingers, separated by his whole body, could be joined in a single concept in his mind."

Hmm,“…the miraculous power of the mind to change the real world?" (I wonder if this one was a graduate from Ramtha's School of Enlightenment?) How about instead, the miraculous reality of a world comprehensible by the human mind and describable by simple equations?

A Corporate Posture of Contrition

I ran across this news article yesterday (HT Angela Wu) that reports the Archbishops of Canterbury and York will lead a "walk of witness" on March 24th, the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave. The purpose of this march is "to express repentance for the Church of England's complicity in the slave trade." So far, so good. The article also mentions that the march "will culminate in a symbolic 'release from the past.'" Huh? That seems a bit arbitrary, especially considering that many countries and people are still feeling the repercussions of this aged evil.

I blogged a while ago about William Wilberforce's speech before Parliament where he said, "I mean not to accuse anyone, but to take the shame upon myself, in common, indeed, with the whole Parliament of Great Britain, for having suffered this horrid trade to be carried on under their authority. We are all guilty—we ought all to plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others." I got a little push-back from a reader who questioned the theological validity of corporate guilt.

To be honest, coroporate guilt is not a subject I've thought a great deal about. But it does seem that the Scriptures acknowledge both individual and corporate aspects to guilt. We have the example of Ezra who tore his garment and ripped his hair for the sins of the exiled Israelites (Ezra 9:3-6). Or Isaiah who when he sees God says, "Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips" (Is. 6). I think also of the letters to the various churches in the book of Revelation. God holds what seem to be individual sins against the whole of the church. He addresses them as a body. I think this goes particularly against the grain of our fiercely individualistic culture here in America. But as I reflect on this more, it seems to underscore certain truths: 1) Leaders and teachers are held to a higher level of responsibility (James 3:1), 2) the church has a responsibility to care for its doctrine and for its members (1 Tim. 1:3; 4:6; Gal. 6:2), 3) when one part of the body grieves, the whole body shares in that grief (1 Cor. 12:26), and 4) the church has a responsibility to exercise spiritual discipline when necessary (Mt. 18:15ff).

But now I'm curious, what do other people think? And more importantly, what Scriptures do you think speak to this subject, especially if you think differently? How should the way God addressed the churches in Revelation as a whole make us think differently about our responsibilities to care for the purity of the church and the spiritual health of our brothers and sisters? Also, does anyone know where the term corporate guilt first appears in theological writing? Is there baggage that goes with this term that I'm not aware of?

January 16, 2007

More on ’Pan’s Labyrinth’

For any who may be intrigued, but unsure whether to see Pan's Labyrinth, here is a great review by Jeffrey Overstreet at Christianity Today. A snippet:

By contrasting the conflict of good and evil in the real world with the dramas that take place in fantasy land, Del Toro reminds us that children's stories—especially those dark and twisted fables from the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen—can give us rewarding perspectives on troubling realities. Sometimes, grownups need fairy tales as badly as children do.

Unwed America

Today's New York Times reports that more than half of American women are now living apart from a husband is somewhat bothersome and somewhat surprising. But more so perhaps are efforts to turn this statistic into a sign of progress. The Times seems to find nothing wrong with the trend and quotes several women experiencing great freedom living spouse-free.

The proportion of married people, especially among younger age groups, has been declining for decades. Between 1950 and 2000, the share of women 15-to-24 who were married plummeted to 16 percent, from 42 percent. Among 25-to-34-year-olds, the proportion dropped to 58 percent, from 82 percent.

“Although we can help people ‘do’ marriage better, it is simply delusional to construct social policy or make personal life decisions on the basis that you can count on people spending most of their adult lives in marriage,” said Professor Coontz, the author of “Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage.”

Besse Gardner, 24, said she and her boyfriend met as college freshmen and started living together last April “for all the wrong reasons” — they found a great apartment on the beach in Los Angeles.

“We do not see living together as an end or even for the rest of our lives — it’s just fun right now,” Ms. Gardner said. “My roommate is someone I’d be thrilled to marry one day, but it just doesn’t make sense right now.”

Ms. Crenshaw said that some of the women in her support group for divorced women were miserable, but that she was surprised how happy she was to be single again.

But if these numbers are accurate, can any good really come from it? Maybe this is the cause of social and spiritual problems in the culture, or maybe it's the result, but when a majority of women are dwelling spouse-free, there comes a cost. That leaves a lot of children living in a home without a married mother and father, and it provides evidence -- as the Times article is quick to point out -- that we are losing the battle to keep the institution of marriage sacred.

The Church in China

I don't know how atheists can respond to this kind of faith (H/T Thunderstruck):

"Church activity completely stopped in Nanping in 1966. They burned Bibles, and the church was closed. The pastors were detained in ox sheds. They had to wear dunce caps and signs hanging from their chests that read, 'Cow ghost snake spirit' (a popular taunt in the Cultural Revolution), and clean the streets," said the Rev. Sun Renfu, the 43-year-old pastor of Nanping's Meishan Christian Church.

Religion didn't die, however. While the Communist Party still controls China firmly, it partially relaxed its grip on religious activity. In pockets of China, such as here, religion thrives. Groups loosely aligned with different Protestant denominations battle for the hearts of followers, again operating social services such as kindergartens and retirement homes. A state-controlled Catholic Church draws new members, as does a parallel but underground Catholic Church that's loyal to the Vatican. Word is that Oriental Lightning, a quasi-Christian cult, also has moved into the area.

The situation here mirrors what's happening in other areas of China. The seeds planted by foreign missionaries took root, surviving only barely through the early years of communism. Now Christianity is spreading again, even flourishing. Many Chinese Christians say they feel relatively free to practice their faith. Only this time, almost no foreigners spread the Gospel.

Read more.

Where have all the movies gone?

Birmingham_8_ext “Direct to video” used to be a disdainful description of a movie. Now, today’s version—direct-to-DVD/Internet-download—increasingly is becoming the aspirational norm.

Brewing Culture’s most recent “Six Posts in Sixty Seconds” e-mail included a link to a [long] New Yorker article on the plight of movies today. From personalized technology, like the video iPod, to niche movies for niche audiences, films have become more specialized. Question is, do the wider availability of movies on various media (iPods, computer screens, TV screens, and traditional theaters) coupled with the more audience-specific focus of films contribute to the wane in box office numbers, or will they help increase the money brought in from movies?

As I mentioned previously, what a movie needs to be considered a good movie—and I would posit, a financially successful movie—is a “good story.” And a good story is one that speaks to universal truth, to the wider human condition. And that truth arises in unlikely or unexpected places at times. For example, The Pursuit of Happyness might be, on a particular level, more poignant to the homeless and those who work with them, but every parent can relate to Chris Gardner. Tyler Perry’s upcoming film, Daddy’s Little Girls, may have themes only African-Americans can personally grasp, but again, it looks like a film that will speak to all fathers. Pan’s Labyrinth might be a Spanish-language film with subtitles about a particular period in Spain’s history, but every believer will gravitate toward that hope of God’s kingdom Del Toro brilliantly brings to the screen—in fact, I believe it will speak to the yearning for redemption and restoration in every person’s heart. Even the unlikely Click—those looking for a cheap laugh from Adam Sandler might be surprised to have their heart pricked about whether they put work before family. (I know I had no expectations of that movie, so I was surprised.)

So David Denby raises a good question in the New Yorker about our technology-saturated world in which the individual is king. Complaints about local movie theaters are valid. (I love the commercial that depicts a man on a long-winded cell-phone conversation, interrupted by a movie director trying to manage the phone call; when the man looks irritated, the director says something to the effect of, “Oh, I’m sorry. Was I interrupting your call?”) Nevertheless, the value of the theater remains: There’s something about sharing a good story with a community, rather than watching it by yourself with your dog on the couch next to you. (Not to mention, as Denby colorfully describes, it’s a lot more comfortable to watch a film on a theater screen than on an iPod screen resting on your belly.) To visually explain what I mean, I think that The Pursuit of Happyness was the first film in many, many years that I had attended in which the audience applauded after the movie ended (besides pre-release screenings, where it’s polite/expected to do so). That, to me, considering the largeness of the theater I was in, spoke to “community”: a wide variety of people who all related to the same universal idea(s). As Denby writes, “To watch ‘Citizen Kane’ on TV for the first time is a half-fulfilled promise; to see it on a big screen is a revelation. If watching movies at home becomes not just an auxiliary to theatregoing but a replacement of it, a visual art form will decline, and become something else.” I don’t think it’s just an aesthetic issue (though that’s huge), but also one of sharing with community. Writes Denby:

The movie theatre is a public space that encourages private pleasures: as we watch, everything we are—our senses, our past, our unconscious—reaches out to the screen. The experience is the opposite of escape; it is more like absolute engagement.

… As Tom Rothman, the chairman of Fox Filmed En-tertainment, said to me, “There is something about the commonality of the experience that is irreplaceable.” … Even people who like going to movies alone don’t necessarily go to be alone. In a marvellous paradox, the people around us both relieve us of isolation and drive us deeper into our own responses.

Continue reading "Where have all the movies gone?" »

’The Number is God’s too’

Writing about Homer Hickam's book Rocket Boys, Amanda Witt shares a story from the book that "delighted" her and her husband, and provides one of the best definitions of Christian worldview I've ever seen.

[Hickam writes,]
I presented my revelation that in the principles and theorems and axioms of plane geometry--these truths that stayed true across the universe--God had sent us a message. The Reverend wasn't buying it. "You're talking about arithmetic, Sonny," he said, and tapped the Bible. "All of God's words are here, in the Good Book."

Undeterred, Homer (aka Sunny, aka Sonny) heads over to see the town's black preacher.

He seemed to bow under the weight of what I was saying.... He grabbed a Bible from behind his pulpit and plumped down on one of the crude wooden pews. I sat beside him while he opened the book and closed it and opened it again.

"The Word is the Word, Sonny," he said, running his finger along a random passage. "But the Number is God's too. Got to be.... I got some prayin' to do. Boy in Coalwood findin' the Word of God in his plane geometry book. Yes, sir. I got a lot of prayin' to do about that."

The story inspires many emotions: Awe, wonder, and gratitude at the realization that, as Amanda puts it in her commentary, "It's all planned . . . everything fits." Admiration for the intelligence and sensitivity of the boy who received the revelation and the pastor who listened. And the deeply sobering thought of what might have happened to Homer's blossoming faith if he'd taken the first pastor's word for it and gone away thinking (as so many others have come to think) that Christian faith and scientific and mathematical fact have nothing to do with one another -- if, in short, he hadn't pursued the subject and found another pastor with a true grasp of Christian worldview. May all of us learn something from that man's faith, humility, and insight.

Still Losers

A while back, I made some folks unhappy when I called the oh-so-cute Giant Panda an evolutionary loser. My opinion of the overall fitness of Ailuropoda melanoleuca was based on the some well-known facts about the beasties:

Unlike their ursine cousins who will eat almost anything, giant pandas—as you probably know—basically eat one thing: bamboo stems and leaves. Okay, two things . . . If that weren’t bad enough, bamboo ranks just ahead of cardboard and Styrofoam on the nutritional scale. To complete the nutritional trifecta, the giant panda is actually a carnivore with a carnivore’s digestive system. So, at best, it’s capable of extracting only 20 percent of the bamboo’s already meager nutritional value.

Then there's the enthusiasm with which the giant panda passes on its selfish genes:

Giant pandas are “notoriously unenthusiastic about breeding" . . . and when female pandas do get pregnant, their bamboo diet leads to a very short gestational period and the smallest infants—as measured by their weight relative to their mother’s, a 1,000 to 1 ratio—of all placental mammals. If mom doesn’t accidentally roll over and crush the infant, there’s still the problem of neglect. Half of all panda births are twins. Almost invariably, the mother will choose one infant and completely neglect the other, resulting in its death . . . It’s as if the species is implementing the recommendations of some prehistoric extinction consultant.

Now comes word out of Bangkok that a very special episode of "Panda Love" has been postponed because the suitor is too fat to have sex.

Chuang Chuang the Panda is just too heavy to have sex. Thai authorities have put him on a strict diet as part of a long-running campaign to get him to mate with female partner Lin Hui at the Chiang Mai Zoo in northern Thailand.

"Chuang Chuang is gaining weight too fast and we found Lin Hui is no longer comfortable with having sex with him," said the zoo's chief veterinarian, Kanika Limtrakul, adding that Chuang Chuang weighed 331 pounds while Lin Hui is only 253 pounds.

As a result, zoo authorities are cutting out bamboo shoots in the daily meal for Chuang Chuang and giving the obese bear only bamboo leaves, Kanika said.

The diet plan is the latest in an unsuccessful and often strange campaign by zoo officials to get the two bears to mate.

They have held a mock wedding, announced plans to separate the two to spark a little romance and even talked of introducing panda porn—videos of other pandas mating—to get the pair in the mood.

Like I said: losers. It's a good thing that people think that they're so cute. If they looked like this, we would probably not bother. Actually we probably would (although nobody would visit them in the zoo, much less line up to seem them), because we're, well, human.

How about a little credit where credit is due?

If you still have a copy of Sunday's paper lying around (okay, I know I'm a slob, but surely I'm not the only one), grab the Parade and tell me if I'm really reading what I think I'm reading on p. 5 (David Wallechinsky, "Is America Still No. 1?").

In terms of equality for women, the U.S. has the fifth-highest percentage of women serving as legislators, senior officials and managers. But when you look at the figure for national legislatures alone, 71 nations have a greater percentage of females.

Really? Why, how very backward of the U.S. And who would some of those other nations be?

In Iraq, for example, the constitution requires that 25% of the legislators be women, and in Afghanistan the mandated figure for the lower house is also 25%.
(Emphasis mine)

And that would be because . . . ?

January 15, 2007

Living Coram Deo

The Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it." And he was afraid... Genesis 28:16, 17

Something about this story of Jacob's dream always makes me chuckle. At Jacob, first of all: "Surely the Lord is in this place"! The Lord is in every place, fully, equally, and at all times (Ps. 139)! There is no place where the Lord is not, in all His full omniscience and power. I just want to say to Jacob as he is rubbing the sleep from his eyes, "Duh!" But then I read on: "and I did not know it." That's when I chuckle at myself. Because I know the Lord is in every place, all the time, in all His omniscience and power, but I don't always act like I know it. I know it as a theological proposition, but not as a practical reality bearing down on, defining, and sustaining my very existence at all times. Who is the bigger dolt? Jacob for not knowing? Or me, for knowing, but not acting on what I know?

I chuckle because I think the Lord chuckles at Jacob and me as well. He is always pressing on us with His glory, revealing glimpses of Himself -- oozing and flashing, to recall Hopkins's brilliant metaphors -- and inviting us to consider and delight in Him and, more, to live in His presence -- coram deo -- with greater conscientiousness and conviction. The Lord parades His glory before me every day, as He did before Moses, concealed in that rock, and He invites me to wonder, worship, and walk before Him accordingly.

Celtic Christians had a particular penchant for meeting the Lord in the things He has made -- lakes, hills, caves, storms, the creatures of the woods. Their poems are filled with wonder and gratitude because of what they encountered of Him in those "thin places" in the creation where, as they saw it, the veil that separates the spiritual world from the temporal is stretched so thin as to allow interpenetration between the two more easily. Their practice of retreating to such thin places for prayer and meditation equipped them to live coram deo more consistently, and with more wonder and power, in the everyday circumstances of their lives. For many of them, every place became a thin place, and they knew the presence of the Lord with greater intensity and glory at all times and in every situation.

"Surely the Lord is in this place." Do we know it? Will we live in His constant presence accordingly?

Re: Holding the Stem-Cell Line

Travis, I read that Krauthammer column in Friday's Washington Post too. And while I appreciate greatly Krauthammer's arguments against embryo-destructive stem-cell research from the different perspective (non-religious) he brings -- not to mention the particular credibility his view brings, as he is disabled -- I couldn't help think that, in this column, the "line" and "slippery slope" arguments he makes are weak because of the pro-choice views he holds. Putting myself in the position of one who believes that embryo-destructive stem-cell research is acceptable, I wouldn't find Krauthammer's arguments strong enough to change my mind.

He goes from making the great pro-life argument:

Once we have taken the position of many stem cell advocates that embryos are discardable tissue with no more intrinsic value than a hangnail or an appendix, then all barriers are down. What is to prevent us from producing not just tissues and organs, but human-like organisms for preservation as a source of future body parts on demand?

To stating about his own personal views:

I have long supported legal abortion. And I don't believe that life -- meaning the attributes and protections of personhood -- begins at conception. Yet many secularly inclined people like me have great trepidation about the inherent dangers of wanton and unrestricted manipulation -- to the point of dismemberment -- of human embryos.

And, all in one breath (as you already quoted):

The slope is very slippery. Which is why, even though I disagreed with where the president drew the line -- I would have permitted the use of fertility-clinic embryos that are discarded and going to die anyway -- I applauded his insistence that some line must be drawn, that human embryos are not nothing, and that societal values, not just the scientific imperative, should determine how they are treated. [emphasis added]

Playing devil's advocate, we're back to the pro-embryo-destructive research position: Well, if the "attributes and protections of personhood" don't begin at conception, and it's okay to use "fertility-clinic embryos that are discarded and going to die anyway," then why place any restrictions on related embryo-destructive research?

I don't find Krauthammer's argument in this particular column helpful to the pro-life, pro-science view (even though he expresses support for the recently discovered source of stem cells in amniotic fluid). If I were on the pro-embyro-destructive research side, I just wouldn't find his argument convincing, but rather supportive of my position (of no restrictions). Again, it all began with the acceptance of IVF.

Thought for the day

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

"A Time to Think," Daily Guideposts

January 14, 2007

’Pan’s Labyrinth’ -- and hope

Pan I saw Pan's Labyrinth on Friday night, and I'm still in awe. That both evening showings on the film’s opening night were sold out speaks well for the northern Virginia audience in attendance—packing out a subtitled movie. (A friend and I missed out on a good seat in the first showing, so we had to trade in our tickets for the late show. We got in line early the second time around, and got great seats, while watching latecomers do what we were doing when we entered the early show: scramble to find two seats together.)

Well, regarding this statement from a December 24 Washington Post article on filmmakers Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo Del Toro:

Although in many ways "Pan's Labyrinth" couldn't be further from "Children of Men," both films share an adamantly humanistic sensibility, distrust of ideology, uncompromising vision and a breathtaking use of cinematic grammar.

I haven't seen Children of Men, and have no motivation now to do so, but from all the comments I have read and heard about it, the first half of the statement above is so true. Now, the next statement, I guess it would depend on how you define humanistic: It seemed to me that (according to description) Children of Men took a "religious" story and made a modern political statement of it, while Pan's Labyrinth took a political story and made a profoundly appropriate religious statement about it.

Regarding this statement from the same Post article mentioned above:

Neither film could be described as a "feel good" movie, but to anyone who cares deeply about cinema at its most fully realized and vital, that's precisely what they are.

So true. Again, I don't know about Children of Men, but as tragic as the end of Pan's Labyrinth seems—it really is not tragic at all. It was probably one of the most hopeful endings I've seen in a film.

There's so much to say about its brilliance. I'll just say, I can't recommend Pan's Labyrinth highly enough—what amazing beauty and wisdom. Worth the non-matinee movie price, and then some. (See also Ann Hornaday's review. H/T Roberto.) The Academy Awards show for films of 2006 has not yet taken place, and already I believe Del Toro's creation deserves multiple nominations for the 2008 awards show for this year's films.

(Warning: Pan’s Labyrinth is rated “R” for good reason. Del Toro in no way shies away from depicting fascism in all its ugliness and evil: from violence to choice words translated clearly in the subtitles.)

January 12, 2007

Holding the Stem-Cell Line

Charles Krauthammer, who is not known as a pro-life stalwart, presents an incredibly thoughtful criticism of the persistent march -- encouraged again by Congress -- to allow biotechnology to tamper with human life, regardless of the consequences.

You don't need religion to tremble at the thought of unrestricted embryo research. You simply have to have a healthy respect for the human capacity for doing evil in pursuit of the good. Once we have taken the position of many stem cell advocates that embryos are discardable tissue with no more intrinsic value than a hangnail or an appendix, then all barriers are down. What is to prevent us from producing not just tissues and organs, but human-like organisms for preservation as a source of future body parts on demand?...

The slope is very slippery. Which is why, even though I disagreed with where the president drew the line -- I would have permitted the use of fertility-clinic embryos that are discarded and going to die anyway -- I applauded his insistence that some line must be drawn, that human embryos are not nothing, and that societal values, not just the scientific imperative, should determine how they are treated.

Congress will soon vote to erase Bush's line. But future generations may nonetheless thank Bush for standing athwart history, if only for a few years. It gave technology enough time to catch up and rescue us from the moral dilemmas of embryonic destruction. It has just been demonstrated that stem cells with enormous potential can be harvested from amniotic fluid.

My reaction in 2001 was that the President was too lenient with his line, rather than too narrow. But I, too, thought it provided an important and necessary stand, creating a firm boundary upon which to base future research. That boundary has been under attack since day one, rejected by the House twice now, but there is much too lose and perhaps nothing to gain by tossing aside our restraint in pursuing the supposed common good.

As Nigel Cameron writes at BreakPoint.org this week: "What’s more, most (though not all) of those members of House and Senate who support overturning the President’s stem-cell funding policy are also in favor of research cloning. So when they speak about the fact they these embryos are 'spare' and 'going to die anyway,' they are being less then honest. They also back research on embryos that do not even yet exist, and whose existence would be entirely for the purpose of their destruction."

The slippery slope here is indeed a steep one. Once we are willing to accept the cost of sacrificing human embryos or "fetuses" for the advancement of the rest of us, it is easy to imagine any number of other moral hurdles being quickly cleared. What is ultimately at issue is not the hope for cures or human progress, but the extent to which we are willing to go to advance some human life.

Jaw-dropping

Playground Not only was this crass, it was also ironic, since normally, Rice's childless career trajectory would be praised by, um, certain women.

Rice appeared before the Senate in defense of President Bush's tactical change in Iraq, and quickly encountered Boxer.

"Who pays the price? I'm not going to pay a personal price," Boxer said. "My kids are too old, and my grandchild is too young."

Then, to Rice: "You're not going to pay a particular price, as I understand it, with an immediate family."

Whereever you stand on the war, such a remark is waaaay out of line. (Were I to capture Capitol Hill in one image, it would be that of a playground -- "Can you believe what she's wearing??" -- such are the childish "politics" of its members.) The White House responded accordingly.

NPR’s ’Ordinary Oprahs’

Forgive me for making this the "Catherina and Gina Show," but I had to share this. NPR's Rough Cuts with Michel Martin yesterday aired a show on "Ordinary Oprahs." (H/T UN Wire)

We were interested in the hullabaloo surrounding the opening of Oprah Winfrey's Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. We stumbled onto a story, actually. We realized that two people we see all the time are doing what Oprah has just done, and let me tell you, they don't have Oprah-sized pockets.

Lidia Schaefer works as a manicurist at a salon in Washington, D.C., but she managed to build schoolhouses in Ethiopia. And Wendy Johnson, an administrative assistant here at NPR, works part time so that she has the time to hand deliver her contributions in support of projects overseas. We thought you'd be interested in meeting them and hearing about what they do. We broaden the story with a conversation with Dennis Whittle from Global Giving, an organization that helps small donors find worthy projects. We also talk with Gene Sperling, a leading economist who tells us why this is good for the world and not just the soul.

Oprah stories are irresistible, but discovering that ordinary people are doing the same thing was too good to pass up.

Listen to the show and share your thoughts there. And if you know of any "ordinary Oprahs," share the stories here too.

Re: More on ’Children of Men’

Catherina -- couldn't agree more with what you say about how Alfonso Cuaron should have started from scratch instead of twisting James's vision into something totally unrecognizable -- in fact, co-opting it with his own vision. There was almost nothing of her brilliant, complex, deeply layered story left except a few character names, and sometimes even those were changed. And it's especially a shame because James's story of the value of life and the destructiveness of our self-centered brand of sexuality is one we truly need to hear right now, whereas Cuaron comes off as just one more petulant Hollywood type whining about the Department of Homeland Security. (All right, so he's a technically skilled Hollywood type. Doesn't make the whining any less grating.)

As for his quote, it was just what I would have expected him to say after having seen the film. To counter it most effectively, I must once again haul out my trusty and well-beloved Sayers. What can I say? :-) The woman knew whereof she spoke. All the way back in the '40s, she wrote this, which today is more relevant than ever:

Christ, in His Divine innocence, said to the Woman of Samaria, "Ye worship ye know not what" -- being apparently under the impression that it might be desirable, on the whole, to know what one was worshipping. He thus showed Himself sadly out of touch with the twentieth-century mind, for the cry today is: "Away with the tedious complexities of dogma -- let us have the simple spirit of worship; just worship, no matter of what!" The only drawback to this demand for a generalized and undirected worship is the practical difficulty of arousing any sort of enthusiasm for the worship of nothing in particular.

In this essay, aptly titled "The Dogma Is the Drama" (available here), she goes on to talk about how very effectively Christian dogma can be presented in drama -- having done so herself with considerable success: "I insisted that if my play was dramatic it was so, not in spite of the dogma but because of it -- that, in short, the dogma was the drama." It's too bad Cuaron never considered such a possibility before turning James's despised "look at Christianity" into his own vaguely Zen-flavored, science-worshiping, hippie- and anarchist-influenced, incoherent mess.

Re: Journey into the Womb

And stay tuned for a "BreakPoint" radio commentary on the National Geographic book In the Womb (a DVD is also available) on January 22, the Roe v. Wade anniversary.

I also saw at The Line this post about YouTube videos of a commercial showing 4-D images of a 16- to 17-week-old unborn baby. Beautiful.

Journey into the womb

Farley Thornsberry, one of our regulars in the comment section, sends this note:

Just a heads-up...The National Geographic Channel is broadcasting "In The Womb: Multiples" on Sunday evening. The synopsis from their website reads:

"The process by which multiples develop in the womb is fraught with complications and dangers. But, it is also a fascinating world where humans first interact with their siblings before entering the world outside the uterus. 'In the Womb: Multiples' follows the development of double-egg twins, sometimes called fraternals, and identical or single-egg twins. We also follow the development of triplets and a very rare set of identical quads in their quest for survival. Using revolutionary 4D scans, we witness unique footage of multiple fetuses interacting with each other before birth: reaching, touching, fighting and even engaging in game-playing that can continue after they are born. Ultimately, 'In the Womb: Multiples' tells us not only about the extremes of human reproduction but the limits of human design."

I just saw a preview on tv, and the images were astounding. This new scanning technology may be the best opportunity for pro-lifers to influence the culture. Further information can be found on their website.

Even if you (like me) don't get the channel, make sure you head over to that website and take a look. The pictures are indeed astounding. Thanks, Farley, for sending this information.

More on ’Children of Men’

I have not seen the film Children of Men (and don't have a desire to after what everyone's saying -- hate it when a good book is ruined), but I thought this "launcher" from Brewing Culture's "Six Posts in Sixty Seconds" was intriguing for those who have seen it:

"I wasn’t interested in making a science-fiction film, and secondly I wasn’t interested in the environment that the book takes place, all this upper-class drama. For me it was more important to explore the thematics that are shaping our contemporary world. The P.D. James book is almost like a look at Christianity [CLH: Ya'think??], and that wasn’t my interest. I didn’t want to shy away from the spiritual archetypes but I wasn’t interested in dealing with Dogma."
-- Children of Men director Alfonso Cuarón (from Filmmaker Magazine)

>LAUNCHER: Does Children of Men still ring true to its original spiritual intent despite Cuarón's shifting focus?

What do you think if you've seen it, or if you haven't, what do you think of Cuarón's approach? I think that if he wanted to produce a different story, he should have started with a blank page and produced a new screenplay with his own visions of "our contemporary world," mentioning maybe that he was just inspired by James -- rather than ransack a respected book and take its title and sort of present this deception of a film to the disappointment of those who expected -- and preferred -- the book.

RE: Why we teach

One reader has asked what the four worldview questions are, so here they are:

(1) Where do we come from?
(2) What went wrong? (How can we account for all the things in this world that we know aren't the way they're supposed to be?)
(3) How can what went wrong be fixed?
(4) How then should we live? 

The beauty of these questions is that they aren't "religious"; they're perennial philosophical questions that are appropriate whether you are talking about literature, history, psychology, political science, etc. Most students understand that the possible answers to (1) are "God, evolution, aliens from outer space who seeded life here," etc. They have more trouble with (2) "what went wrong" -- which allows me to present two traditional answers: people are intrinsically flawed (we sin because we're sinners), so this is why things aren't the way they're supposed to be, or people are inherently good, it's just their society that is corrupt. Obviously, how we answer (3) and (4) will arise from our understanding of the nature of the problem, and what we see as our purpose in life. I spent about 30 minutes in my freshman composition class this morning just letting my students brainstorm answers, with me adding insights only when they were stumped. My goal today was simply to introduce the questions; the literature we read during Spring term will get them closer to the correct answers (correct from a biblical point of view, that is).

Another reader asked about incorporating "religion" into an English classroom. After more than 20 years as an English teacher, I can tell you that it's really pretty simple given the nature of what we teach. Just think of all the great pieces of literature that use biblical concepts, allusions, symbols, etc. For instance, when we exegete Milton's "When I Consider How My Light is Spent," it's just natural to bring up the parable of the talents. You can't understand the poem without it.

My only suggestion is that you balance religious literature with other kinds. Out of ten short stories I'll teach this spring, only three require students to know the Bible: Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," Singer's "Gimpel the Fool," and O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find." And while I dedicate two classes to religious poetry, I spend three classes on other topics. (BTW, Hopkins's "Carrion Comfort" takes one full class, and requires that we consider Job, Jacob, Peter, and Jesus -- it's my favorite poem to teach). Finally, I set up writing assignments so students never have to write on a religious story or poem if they don't want to. Give them other options and it's a little hard for them to claim that you are forcing your beliefs down their throats!

Have I ever had a student complain about the "religious" literature we cover in class? Of course, but they've been pretty rare over the years. You just have to realize that the occasional obnoxious student just comes with the territory. Or, as a friend of mine told me when I first became a teacher, "Just remember that Jesus was the greatest teacher who ever lived, and that even He couldn't reach everyone!" I'd probably add, "... and they crucified Him" to keep those who merely grumble and complain in perspective! Most of the time, I get the opposite response: students tell me they appreciate being in a classroom where Christianity is presented in a positive light. They get too much of the negative in their other classes.

January 11, 2007

RE: Strong Medicine

Gina,

A couple of years ago, I decided it was time for this middle-aged English teacher to finally read Dante's Divine Comedy ... but I was a bit intimidated to try to wade through it on my own. I bought a really good translation with lots of introductory notes and footnotes (sorry, I can't remember which one right now, and since I'm at work I can't check my copy), but then I ordered the lecture series on Dante from The Teaching Company. I would read a portion, then listen to a lecture (usually more than once) to get a better understanding of Dante's text, which is full of historical and political references that make the text nearly incomprehensible if you don't have a guide. It took me about three months to work through it that way, but it was worth it. I would not have been able to truly appreciate the work without the incredible insights I gained from Professors Cook and Herzman. I think the series is currently on sale, so you might want to check it out.

The Scarlet Sex Offender

Maybe Nathaniel Hawthorne would applaud him, but Mark Pantermoller is winning no support from me.

I can understand his desire to protect his family from malicious pedophiles, but what does branding sex offenders with a large cross on their foreheads really accomplish? First of all, why a cross? Why not simply "S" for "Sex Offender"? Or "S" for "Sinner"? Wait! Then, he’d have to brand . . .

Furthermore, throwing all sex offenders into the same category accomplishes more injury than goodwill. Consider a 22-year-old sent to prison for statutory rape for sleeping with his 18-year-old girlfriend. I would venture that the intimidation and possible rape he faces himself are punishment enough.

Why we teach

I ran across an article by Daniel Robinson from the January 3 edition of "To the Source." The title asks, "Why Do Teachers Teach?" His critique of those he calls "the faculty of indignation" and the "faculty of fashion" that inhabit many universities and colleges is sobering; but he grabs my attention when he talks positively about teachers he calls "The Remnant." He reserves this term "for those and only those who entered academic life as a calling, a vocation, drawn to a world of thought and inquiry as moths to the flame; those who needed no lengthly period of reflection to understand that learning is acquired for the express purpose of giving it away."

As a teacher, I love that line because it so nearly mirrors my own thoughts about why I do what I do. This made me wonder how many of our readers are teachers, especially Christians who happen to be professional teachers. Please share with us how you bring your Christian worldview into the classroom. For instance, I use the four worldview questions in my literature classes to give students a systematic approach to understanding the themes found in literary works; and I tell them to remember the four questions because they are applicable to nearly every subject they'll study in college. It works!

Another difference between men and women, fathers and mothers?

Firework Ok, I'm going to go ahead and open this can of worms, at the possible risk of irate women and mothers, simply because I am one. And (she typed shamelessly) to help drum up blog traffic -- go tell your friends about this one and tell them to weigh in.

Is Wesley Autrey's selfless act not only a display of what it means to be human -- but also a display of the difference between men and women, and more so, fathers and mothers? (Which would be an illustration of the value of both parents in a child's life, and ultimately the health of society.) While Anne and I have discussed before the torturous things we, as mothers, would do to anyone who touched our children, a discussion between Katharine Eastvold and me reveals my true colors. (I doubt I could throw myself in front of a train for a stranger, particularly if my daughter were with me.)

Now, Autrey did not make that "split decision" for his daughters, but for a stranger: Nonetheless, does his decision reflect an action that men, specifically fathers, are more likely to take than women or mothers because of their nature as men/fathers, specifically their design by God? Discuss.

Re: Scary Thoughts

Gina, you're absolutely right. Not only that, but the creativity and innovation with which God equipped us would not lead us to such an ethical quandary. Laziness does. And pride and the Frankenstein complex. True scientific inquiry would lead to the more narrow and challenging road of ethical discoveries and answers (including those not involving stem cells of any kind). And in the meantime, compassion for all (looking at the other side of the bargain) should lead our actions. Otherwise, we compromise what it means to be human.

It all began, however, when we compromised on in vitro fertilization. Now, the Church is in the uncomfortable and difficult position of backtracking and damage control. That's a longer post I hope Roberto will weigh in on for us.

Scary thoughts

A follow-up to my last post: I've got the TV going and one ear on the embryonic stem-cell debate as I work. Mariam was right, this is one worth watching if you have the chance. Much impassioned and heartfelt arguing going on.

I was particularly struck just now by the words of one representative (unfortunately, I didn't get his name) talking about his daughter's childhood battle with cancer. He said something like this: "If we have the chance to strike a bargain that will let children live, how can we not strike that bargain?"

Having no children myself -- certainly no sick children -- perhaps I have no right to weigh in on this, but as a loudmouthed blogger, I'm going to anyway. Number one, you cannot speak of a bargain and mention only the benefits to be gained without also bringing up the little matter of the price to be paid. That's how bargains work. To deliberately present one half of an argument like that is such sloppy thinking that it's almost scary. Number two -- with all due respect to his feelings as a father, has this man never heard of a Faustian bargain? (Fairfax County library system and teachers, take note: This is what happens when people don't read the classics.)

The preservation of human life is of utmost importance -- we pro-lifers are more than aware of that. But it must be understood that we have no right to take one innocent, unwitting human life and sacrifice it to preserve another. None of us likes the idea of death, our own or our loved ones'. But as Jesus told us, there are some things that are worse than death.

The true pro-life position??

Mariam Bell, our policy director here, sends along this note:

"Fyi - in case you want to tune in, the debate in the U.S. House on embryonic stem cell research is underway. If you are able you can listen in or watch it on C-span.

"The debate is interesting, with the Democrats now re-framing embryonic reasearch as the 'true pro-life' position."

This I gotta see.

’Strong Medicine’

Jim Tonkowich -- formerly of BreakPoint, now of IRD -- has an excellent article on Boundless providing an introduction to Dante's Inferno:

As a meditation on sin and its consequences, Dante's Hell is a wake-up call. When John Wesley saw a sin-ravaged man on the street, he remarked to a companion, "There but by the grace of God go I." Dante leaves me feeling that way. Lust, gluttony, wrath, hypocrisy, deception, treachery — I'm guilty of every sin from the blustery circle of the lustful to the frigid circle of the treacherous. The architecture of Dante's Hell is the architecture of the human heart. But for the grace of God — his gifts of repentance and faith — the leopard, lion, and wolf will drive us all lower and lower down the pit to suffer the torments we've chosen.

Dante helps me hate and fear sin in a new way just as he helps me love and treasure the Cross in a new way. His meditation is hard reading and strong medicine — medicine that in the feel-good Church of the 21st century, we desperately need to take. For it's only after we journey through the Hell within and "come forth, to look once more upon the stars" (XXIV.139) that we begin to appreciate God's goodness to us in our redemption through Christ.

I've been wanting to read Dante for a long time; for one thing, he was the idol of one of my idols, Dorothy L. Sayers. (Note to self: When reading Inferno, be sure to look up punishment for idolaters.) Jim's piece has encouraged me to act on that desire this year, and I hope it will encourage some of you to pick up this great Christian classic as well. (And Jim, if you read this, I'd love to know where you got hold of that Sayers translation. They're not that easy to find these days, I know to my sorrow.)

The Subway Hero

Autrey No, not the guy who lost a lot of weight at the sandwich chain. Rather, Wesley Autrey, first mentioned here. No doubt, you've read and seen much news about this ordinary joe in NYC who saved a stranger who fell on the subway tracks and shrugged off the hero label. "It ain't about being a hero," said Autrey, "it was just being there and helping the next person. That's all I did." But you may not have heard this angle on Autrey's virtuous act. From today's "BreakPoint" commentary:

Not only did he inspire us, but he also helps remind us of some important truths about being human.

One of these is that materialism can never provide a satisfactory, much less complete, account of human nature. While neo-Darwinism offers a superficial explanation for human evil, it can’t begin to account for human goodness, such as Autrey’s actions.

What we Christians call “altruism,” Neo-Darwinists call “enlightened” selfishness. Thus, a Neo-Darwinist would say that parents care for their children and siblings as a way of ensuring that their “selfish genes” get passed on to the next generation.

Even if this were true, it says nothing about why a man jumps in front of an incoming train for a total stranger, as Autrey did. For that, you need the capacity for self-sacrifice, an utterly un-Darwinian trait.

Autrey’s actions also reminded of what true virtue looks like. As Scott Carson, a philosophy professor at Miami of Ohio, pointed out, people like Autrey nearly always deny that what they did was “spectacular.”

This is more than modesty; it’s what C. S. Lewis meant when he wrote that virtue is “precognitive.” A soldier in a foxhole who jumps on a grenade doesn’t ponder the issues; he acts on instinct: that instinct being the product of believing the right things and living that way—what philosophers call “habituation,” or character. As Autrey himself acknowledged after the fact, his actions seemed a bit foolish. But, happily for the stricken man, virtue always doesn’t work in rational ways.

Read the rest of the commentary and share your thoughts here. Oh, and the film school where the victim attended honored Autrey for his selfless act and awarded him $5,000 and scholarships for his two daughters.

Re: The Darwin Delusion

In The Darwin Delusion, an astute reader noted that a Darwinist proponent would respond with their standard mantra, "absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence,” while holding that, in regards to God, “absence of evidence IS evidence of absence.”

He’s quite right, as I’ve found in a number of dialogues with materialists. When I point out their little double standard the fun begins. The reaction I get is some variation of this:

“Your God hypothesis is just that—a hypothesis, and a superfluous one at that. It is an extraordinary claim that demands extraordinary evidence. Evolution, on the other hand, is so elegantly economical, making just the sparsest number of assumptions. And…as intelligent people everywhere know, evolution is fact, Fact, FACT!” (Uh huh!)

To which I respond with something along these lines,

“Let’s see. Out of nothing, came something, and after billions of years of gradual, unguided and materialistic processes, all of the wonder of consciousness, intelligence, imagination, creativity, aspirations—need I go on?—appeared, all of which are immaterial and rely on the 'economy' of fantastic phenomena like multiverses, emergence, self-organization, not to mention macro-evolution. Like you said, ‘extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.’”

January 10, 2007

After the Magi Departed

Ruebens_massacre As the lights, tinsel, and trees come down and the nativity sets are packed away for another year, it is easy to overlook the end of the Christmas story and its implications. The light of the Gospel, however, shines all the brighter when you consider the great darkness that consumed Bethlehem after the Magi departed. Read my full article online at BreakPoint.

Not what you expect from Glamour

Ring Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Glamour -- what kind of articles do you expect from those magazines? The usual answer would be "the kind from which you want to shield your child's eyes at the grocery checkout line." And "'feminist' rantings about sexual empowerment in any and every form -- and line of work."

Well, Glamour started the year with an unexpected gem about redemption and restoration -- and changing the culture (H/T Thunderstruck). An article about Harmony Dust tells her story from abused child to stripper to a redeemed life in which she now runs Treasures Out of Darkness to reach out to women caught in the stripping industry. (Warning: an instance of profanity, descriptions of stripping.)

And rather than praising stripping as an "empowering" alternative for women "in charge of their bodies," Glamour presents the "industry" as Harmony sees it, which is exactly as it is: a "soul-killing" trap.

Her friends at the club ran the gamut. “They were aspiring actresses, students and single moms,” she says. “Some were drug or alcohol addicts; others used drugs just to help them get through a shift at work. Most of the girls had given up their ambitions outside of stripping. One woman had a beautiful voice, but her boyfriend started beating her, so she forgot about her dream of having a singing career. My friends were not happy women.” …

But beneath her toughness was a despondent woman. While the other girls danced to loud, fast songs, Harmony chose sad cuts by Erykah Badu, Sade and, especially, Rickie Lee Jones, whose forlorn, streetwise air she identified with. Harmony particularly remembers the lyrics of one song she performed to: “It’s OK, it’s not that bad,” and the irony of the words rang true for her. It wasn’t OK, this life of hers. She was in a state of almost constant dissociation—“it was like taking a Vicodin; I was numb all over”—and she was stuck in it. There was always some financial emergency, always a reason not to quit. …

“I was so unhappy. The pain I felt was suffocating. The only way I could wake up in the morning and attempt to function was to daydream about a future in which I would have a normal life, own a home and be married. I just hung on to the hope that one day it would happen.”

That day did happen for her -- with the help of Oasis Christian Center in Los Angeles. “I started to discover my own value, and to embrace the concept of forgiveness, which is so powerful. I forgave myself for things I did wrong, and I forgave the people who’d hurt me,” said Harmony. She married John Duncan, whom she met at church.

“He was funny, loving, positive, respectful,” she says. They dated for three years, and in September 2002 they married. John decided to change his last name to give himself a fresh start. He picked “Dust” because of a quotation from Genesis: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground”—the perfect epithet for a couple in the process of being remade.

[Later] as part of a church group, she volunteered at an orphanage in Mozambique for a month. “Seeing 14-year- old orphans patiently diapering orphaned babies, I thought, look what they’re doing, and they have nothing! I need to do something substantial. I can give back!”

And that's what Harmony does today, at Treasures. It started when Harmony

sat in an airport parking lot one night in January 2004, waiting for her husband to return from a business trip. The neon sign of the Century Lounge [where she once worked] was blazing nearby, and as Harmony watched it, she thought about the women working there. “I just kept picturing myself as a young girl, hopeless and lonely, walking out of the club at the end of the night. I wanted to reach out to the girls still inside.”

She fished around in her purse for something to write on and found postcards she’d gotten at church that said, “Your value is above rubies and pearls,” a biblical phrase. She wrote on the back of each, “Hey, I’m an ex-coworker in your field and I just want to say: You’re loved!” Then she drove to the Century Lounge and placed the cards on the cars parked in the strippers’ parking spaces. …

From that simple action, Treasures Out of Darkness was born. Harmony’s plan soon took more concrete shape: Working with an assistant pastor at her church, she recruited women from the congregation who would go around to strip clubs in L.A. and Las Vegas to drop off gift bags donated by cosmetic companies for every woman inside. …

Although Treasures started with a budget of zero—“all we had was the church’s copier”—today it operates with a $10,000 grant and has 100 volunteers; Harmony would like to take the group national. The Treasures office, located in Harmony’s house, gets hundreds of calls and e-mails each year, and now offers services beyond phone help. “We will go with women to their first drug or alcohol counseling session,” Harmony says. “We have assisted girls with their resumes and provided job referrals. There are times when a caller has driven to my house late at night, just to talk.” Not all the calls are from strippers. “I recently met with a woman who asked me to support her after leaving the porn industry,” Harmony says.

This is what redeeming and restoring the culture looks like.