Saturday’s Stray Thoughts

Another week just about in the books–and in central Pennsylvania it was another week without significant snowfall, which suits this guy very well. But it wasn’t a week without controversy. How else would blogs continue, anyway?

Since I’ve included a note or two concerning the campaign trail in these Saturday entries, I’ll start by noting the sudden emergence of former PA Senator Rick Santorum in the GOP nomination race. With a sweep of three contests this week, he is getting a considerable amount of attention that seemed unavailable to him just two short weeks ago. After listening to his plea before the CPAC crowd yesterday, I came away thinking he is a more than capable spokesman for that position. Whether or not that position, on the whole, is the right one is what we’ll all have to decide. But he did seem a lot more authentic than the front-runner.

While on the subject of politics, there is a series of ebooks available through Christianity Today on the subject, edited by Mark Galli, Senior Editor. How to Pick a President is a short series of essays suggesting what the important issues might be for Christians to consider, rather than the ones which we are told about by various interest groups and/or the press. Faith and the American Presidency is an account of the role of the beliefs of eleven different presidents of our country; another volume is in the works which will look at an additional eleven occupants of the Oval Office. For those interested in the real questions but unwilling to bear the shrillness of the process as it has evolved, these might be interesting reads.

The initial essay in the first of those volumes (Mark McCloskey and Daniel Taylor, “Why Virtue Trumps Policy”) is particularly timely with the revelations this week about a then 19-year-old White House worker in whom JFK took more than a passing interest. But the essay talks about more than a president’s ability to pass the “family values” test, looking at the more classic virtues of prudence, courage, etc. That’s good, because we seem to have a well-developed way of holding the “other” party’s miscreants accountable for their infidelity while overlooking or excusing it when it is one of “our” guys caught in the act. Kennedy’s philandering was widely known, but seldom raised as a concern; then there was Mr. Clinton, through whose misdeeds a definite polarization of opinion was the topic of the his entire presidency–for those of one party, some of whose members find no reason to hold Newt Gingrich’s past failures against him. An objective lot, we are.

One of the continuing conversations among Christians concerns how radically we interpret the instructions of Jesus as applied to believers in our own time. A generation ago Ron Sider raised the issue among conservatives with Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, both an outgowth of and a contributor to the Sojouners movement, spear-headed by Jim Wallis. More recently a new, younger voice is sounding a call to take more literally what Christ commands of those who would be his disciples. David Platt’s Radical was given to me by a good friend. I will begin a series of posts soon to engage some of his ideas; if anyone would like to read along, that would be helpful toward an enriching conversation.

The one perennial question about Christian faith’s viability in the contest with reason and with human experience is why there is suffering in the world that God has made. Most people find it a problem; some find it insurmountable and relinquish belief. It continues to surface, and I suspect it will do so as long as there are human beings with a sense of both morality and compassion. I have had to revamp the course I teach on the subject because of the high enrollment. And this week’s newspaper had questions posed to the experts–Billy Graham and the “God Squad.” The question is a real one; and it is usually asked by those in pain or directly observing it in someone close to them. I was reminded, as part of preparation of this week’s class, of Peter Kreeft’s excellent book, Making Sense Out of Suffering. One of the many sharp points from this gem of a book is to acknowledge that this is a problem that counts as evidence against (belief in) God; but while the Christian must attempt to answer this one question, the atheist has about fifteen hard questions to deal with, all of which argue for the reality of God. Good stuff.

Find a blessing; then spread it.

Pres. Obama: “On Second Thought . . .”

Apparently the president has had a change of heart; or, as some might more cynically state it, he had a change of strategy thrust upon him by political necessity. The following is an excerpt from an MSN/NBC news release earlier today:

“President Barack Obama announced Friday that the administration will not require religious-affiliated institutions to cover birth control for their employees.

Instead, the White House is demanding that insurance companies be responsible for providing free contraception.”

In a post earlier this week we questioned the legitimacy of the initially announced policy which required the coverage which today’s announcement rescinds. Though undoubtedly politically motivated, I think it was the right decision, given the current state of health care payment in this land of ours.

But the second statement harkens back to a comment from a good friend in response to that initial post. Note the language used. The government is making demands on private insurers. That this is happening at all is of significant concern; that it is happening over this particular issue is incomprehensible, unless one recognizes that here, too, political capital is at the center. Specifically, that which comes from a certain segment of the population for whom everything revolves around obliterating any differences between men and women (who really wants that world?). The demand is that contraception–not childhood vaccinations, not absolutely needed medicines for the very young, old, or poor, not various cancer screening procedures (including mammograms)–be provided at no cost. How does that work, other than to cover the cost by adding it to everything else? But we’re not supposed to know that.

My real beef is not specifically about the contraception issue; this matter serves only to highlight the role that we have allowed our governing authorities to take in today’s culture. If health care is the province of the government, even in the limited role of who pays for coverage of which conditions, then it is unavoidable that decisions such as this have to be made. And they will always be made with an eye toward the electorate, or that portion of which is perceived to be most in need of schmoozing. I don’t think the Obama administration is essentially different from any other in this regard: if there is an area in which the government has significant influence, it will exercise that influence with a finger to the wind. A decade ago the concern was homeland security; before that it was education; today it’s health care; in another time it was crime or national defense, housing, or poverty.

The underlying question is that of how we should order our lives together in the day in which we live. Democrats and Republicans have different conceptions of the answer. And so should Christians, but it must be their own, not one adopted from or simply ceded to either of those parties for definition. And that vision, something I have alluded to several times recently, needs to include this matter of health care. For all the faults of the Obama package–and there are many, some of which we haven’t yet found simply because of the size of the bills involved–we should not lose sight of the fundamental problem it sought to address. Too many people cannot pay for adequate care because of sky-rocketing, unregulated costs. Take away “Obama Care” and that problem is still there.

The shaping of that Christian vision might begin by noting the foundational role Christian churches and individuals played in the establishing of hospitals. They were for love and care in the name of Jesus, not for profit. That principle should always be in mind with any aspect of the vision of the good–tempered only as much as necessary by the very real fact that it must all be paid for. That balance will always be challenging to identify, let alone achieve; but this difficulty cannot keep us from seeing and working toward a better way. One that gives second thoughts for other than political reasons.

MIA, Bird Flipping, and Anger

I admit it. I did not see the alleged obscene gesture thrust on America by an “artist” during the halftime performance at the Super Bowl. But enough has been said and written about it to surmise what took place. I was watching, generally, but apparently missed the most controversial moment. Silly me, finding conversation with the friends gathered in my home to be of more significance than a program headed by Madonna. What was I thinking?

What I did catch on the tv between conversations revealed what seemed another instance of how what I can only describe as anger music seeping into the mainstream of American pop culture–of which the Super Bowl itself has been morphed into the iconic symbol. Not sure how that happened; give me a game and a good band–marching variety, please–to fill the time between halves, which by the way should be twelve minutes. But I digress. That’s what sextagenarians do with increasing proficiency.

Anger music was first manifested in hard rock or acid rock, when screaming into microphones overtook actual singing. The rhythm and the drive of the guitars, wailing with dissonance, the insanely raised volume levels have coupled with the protest and culture of rap, together finding their way more and more into what is now mainstream fare in contemporary music. The black, the leather, the draconian make-up, the edginess of it all cannot help but convey one simple, underlying message: anger. One might be forgiven for thinking that much of it is simply an act that has proven commercially successful; to an extent, I suppose that’s true. But the fact is that it is successful for a reason. It gives expression to what a consuming public is feeling, and it’s not isolated among the young. There’s a lot of anger to go around these days.

The gesture mentioned is but another manifestation; in fact, it has become itself the quintessential expression of anger along with its verbal form, the so-called “f-bomb.” That was once, not so very long ago, a word never spoken by men in the presence of women or the young; now it is not only routinely said among them, but by them. People are angry. They may not know why, though most can come up with a few surface items they believe to be responsible; but they are mad at the world, at life, at people, at God.

What is the woman who “flipped the bird” angry about? I don’t pretend to know. Maybe she was simply expressing an “I’ll show her” attitude toward Madonna and her emphatic announcement to the network audience that there would be no wardrobe malfunctions or other bits of provocative material in the show to bring (angry?) responses from the broad viewing public. Maybe she is angry with that American public itself for whatever reason. In general, however, the anger so frequently observed in our culture has to do with an inability to believe that life will come anywhere close to meeting expectations. Those expectations can have many forms and many contributors to their shaping, not least of which is that same media glamorizing the impossible, offering everything that approximates it, and then selling us the musical means to express the frustrations over not meeting it.

The search for meaning is certainly not new. What might be new is the ever-expanding plethora of ways to distract us from thinking deeply about it, deeply enough to ask into the wisdom of the ages. When we do not look there, and into their source, we will continue to be frustrated and angry. Perhaps we owe it to the younger generation for pointing out the many holes in our veneer of satisfaction. Now if only we can point them and ourselves to the Truth.

I’m sounding out some ideas here; I’d like very much to hear some of yours as well as responses to what’s offered here.

Proposition 8 and Its Malcontents

There’s just so much in the news these days to support the idea that the so-called Culture Wars of the 1980s and 90s are not over. According to that narrative, there is a battle between the forces of evil (godless secularism) and the righteous remnant, fighting for the soul of America. The problem some people have in accepting that narrative is that it assumes a black-and-white division on all questions and challenges facing us as a nation; and once one identifies with a particular side, the opportunity to question assumptions within the camp seems to disappear, as anything sounding like what the enemy might say casts one under suspicion of heresy and/or treason.

So let’s take the latest issue on its own, outside of its connection to any other issue, separated from any real or imagined patterns emerging. I write concerning Proposition 8 in California, which has been ruled unconstitutional by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. That ruling was handed down by a 2-1 decision. That’s right, two judges have made a decision concerning so significant an issue as whether gay and lesbian persons have the right to marry their partners–or more precisely, whether the voters of California can decide for them. That was the actual ruling, as CNN Senior Legal Correspondent Jeffrey Toobin pointed out. His explanation follows:

Instead of ruling that there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage in all circumstances, the court issued a narrower ruling. The judges said that the peculiar circumstances in California – a right to same-sex marriage withdrawn by a vote of the public – was unconstitutional.

California voters approved Proposition 8 in 2008, superseding a ruling by the California’s Supreme Court, which had allowed same-sex marriages in California before that.

So the voters of the state unduly attempted to override the prior decision of the state’s Supreme Court. In Toobin’s opinion, this is what will keep the ruling from becoming a matter for the U. S. Supreme Court; if so, it will not have immediate ramifications outside California–except for the significant momentum given to advocates of similar measures in other states.

But what is at stake in the apparent collision between Christian understandings of marriage and what has been declared by the California courts (pending appeal, which will likely fail since it is to the same court that created the perceived need for Proposition 8 in the first place)? On one hand, no one is forcing anyone to “marry” anyone; Christians are not required to give up their cherished views regarding their marriages. On the other hand, it does create problems when married couples of the same sex enter into the church and expect full acceptance of their status–and having the law on their side. The practical side has some sticky matters to it–including the need to extend benefits to any such individuals who may be employed by church agencies.

The theological-philosophical side is the more concerning, however. What we have is a legal body, comprised of very few people, deciding what marriage is. One cannot grant a right to something without, at least by clear implication, declaring what that “something” is. The fact that it had never been defined until Proposition 8’s belated attempt owes not to lack of earlier understanding, to the fact that at the time of any state or federal constitution being written, everyone knew what marriage was. It would have seemed a silly exercising in stating the obvious for those framers to define marriage; they would likely have been ridiculed for their love of unnecessary wordiness. All cultures share a common understanding of a man-woman relationship as marriage, however much they differ as to the roles and expectations, rights and duties adhering to the respective partners. Christians tie this to the order of creation (Genesis 2), culminating in the “one flesh” entity created by the union. At the time the Pentateuch was first received, these words (and whatever oral traditions may have been behind them) only gave grounding for what they already knew and practiced concerning marriage.

If there truly is an ontology (a true and given nature) of marriage, the State of California, along with others who have traveled the same pathway, has granted the “right” for persons to be what they have chosen not to be. Whatever legal status a state or federal body may wish to grant to same-sex couples, it cannot grant them marriage without throwing the very concept of marriage entirely out of meaning. There may be reasons for which such status might make sense (that’s another debate); but they cannot make it marriage. What is at issue here is whether there is a givenness to not only marriage, but to anything at all. And that debate puts us squarely into the postmodern skepticism regarding any claims to knowledge whatsoever. Which is what has spawned this whole matter in the first place. Which reminds me that if God undergirds and reveals anything, we ought to pay attention for our own opportunity to thrive in the world He gave us.

Now We Have an Issue

I have been quite dismayed in recent months about the nature of the criticism coming from conservative Christians toward the cuurent president of the USA. Don’t misread that into a statement of all-out support for the policies and initiatives of the Obama administration. I do think, however, that most of the criticism is ill-informed and inconsistent, given the fact (documentable) that some of the policies now berated were exactly what was promoted by Republicans not so long ago–and hailed as great solutions by the very people now hurling invectives against the same policies when enacted or endorsed by Pres. Obama. Makes one wonder. I’m especially disappointed by the tone of the criticism, which in no discernible way reflects Jesus. If politics trumps our commitment to representing Christ well, we have a problem–and it isn’t a political one.

I also doubt that many of us (if anyone) understands enough about economics to definitvely state that our current crisis/recovery/malaise owes to the current administration or to the debt incurred by our military actions in the Middle East, actions begun (unfunded) by the Bush administration. How can we know this without studying economics thoroughly, especially when those who have done so cannot figure it out? Whether it was right to go there or not, there is a bill to be paid, as there is a bill to be paid for all of the entitlements we have created for ourselves. Yes, ourselves. It’s okay to question welfare, but not social security for example. I’m not an economist; but I know there’s a debt that won’t be paid without more money coming in and less money going out. So don’t soothe my ego with talk of tax cuts.

But that’s not my issue today. What does bother me is the administrations’s inclusion of birth control as a requirement in all health care plans for all employers, including the Roman Catholic Church. No exceptions. This is indeed an instance of serious, probably unconstitutional over-reaching by the federal government. It does, in my mind, comprise a law that prohibits the free exercise of religion. And it is being done knowingly. Well, sort of. I have little confidence that anyone in the administration has taken the time or trouble to actually engage the reasons behind the Catholic opposition to artificial birth control; it is, on the whole, a carefully articulated, well reasoned, and biblically consistent extension of the overall pro-life position. But it is overrun without consideration by the edict to implement the Health Care Reform Act. Why?

There are several factors here that could easily escape our notice. One might be the assumption that “religion” is interpreted as a set of practices, none of which are being threatened by the new rules. That is, since no rites or ceremonies are involved, there is no interference with “religion.” One the other hand, there is a pervading sense in our supposedly enlightened culture that religion is a private matter, according to which one forms one’s own definition of life and its meaning. In that case, it is entirely up to the individual to define what practices, actions, etc., are to be considered morally acceptable; it is not within the purview of any doctrine established by a church. Interestingly, that is very much the line used by the Supreme Court when it struck down major provisions of the Pennsylvania abortion law passed back in the early 1990s. The majority decision declared that it is a fundamental aspect of freedom to decide for oneself the meaning of life. Note that it did not say how one interprets the meaning of life, something that is certainly true; it is the right to determine the meaning itself, which can only mean that no one truly knows.

It can therefore be argued that whether one actually practices artificial birth control is purely a personal decision, and one may choose to follow Catholic doctrine on the matter. But the Church must put aside its reasoned position, built on the premise that God has told us the meaning of life. And what He has told us precludes the artifical birth control that it is told by the government to fund when someone else’s idea of life conflicts with that teaching. If this decree of Caesar does not violate the separation of Church and State so often appealed to, I don’t know what would.

Am I missing something? What are your thoughts?

Pennsylvania To Declare “Year of the Bible”?

It was reported last evening that a Pennsylvania state senator from the Pittsburgh area has introduced legislation to declare 2012 as “the Year of the Bible” in our commonwealth. He claims that it is not a proselytizing proposal, but one intended to recognize the important role the Bible has played in shaping our culture. He also made reference to a hope that the designation would encourage people to read it because it is a source of wisdom, a needed commodity for out time.

If approved, it would not be an unprecedented act of a legislative body in this nation. In 1983 President Reagan gave the designation “Year of the Bible” to our entire country, with predictable but somewhat weak protest from the strongly secularist camp. Today’s climate is somewhat less hospitable to such outright expressions of Christian identification. Maybe that is putting the shift in milder terms than is warranted. The immediate reaction pointing to the “separation of church and state” has, of course, been voiced, to which the erstwhile senator responded by (correctly) pointing out that the First Amendment simply says that “Congress shall make no law . . ..” Congress is not in any way involved. While federal interpretation has seemingly run roughshod over the distinction between what a state may do and what the federal government may do,at the time the First Amendment was ratified several ratifying states had established churches without seeing any contradiction.

But is it a wise or helpful declaration to propose at this time? To answer that one should evaluate several factors. For one, what was the overall impact of the 1983 designation? Twenty-nine years later, do we see the country as more positively inclined toward the reading, teaching, and following of the Bible than would have been the case otherwise? Was that even the case in years closer to the act itself. I’m skeptical. Another factor to consider is, as was asked of the senator, whether this could be followed by designation of, for example, 2013 as the “Year of the Quran?” While he said this would be entirely permissible for someone to propose and for the legislature to vote on, one gained the impression that he himself would not be doing so. Yet in a climate wherein many people are heavily committed to religious plurality, it is not inconceivable that such a measure would follow and be approved in the name of fairness. Then again, maybe it would be a good thing for people to actually read the Quran.

What do readers think? What would be the positive and negative effects of a move such as this in a state, this one in particular? I’m not especially enthusiastic about the idea, but perhaps there are reasons I’ve not thought of. I’d love to read your comments!

Saturday’s Stray Thoughts

Another version of things running through my head from the past week and floating ideas for further exploration in the days and weeks to come.

The final post in the Bad News series (which did not appear) was going to concern gang activity and gang tactics. It’s something we assign to big cities and foreign countries, but should be seen as a growing problem with potential effects everywhere and anywhere. Yesterday a facebook status related the killing of Baptist missionaries in Mexico City, where transforming lives away from drugs does not go down well with those who provide them. Mexico will not be the only place where defeating heavily armed gangs will become a serious challenge for law enforcement. And it may be a real test for those who want to uphold the “power” of the gospel against all other powers. That will require faith, my friends.

I just (finally) read Scot McKnight’s short ebook, Junia Is Not Alone on the subject of women in ministry. A good read, and a powerful point or two is made. But I do wish it had been given in greater depth, including at least an acknowledgement of the troublesome Timothy passages. I suspect that many well intended folks continue to balk at full acceptance of women in ministry, not because of dislike for the idea itself as an outworking of Gal 3:28, but because they want to be faithful to all of the New Testament witness on the subject. There are treatments of Timothy that make this attempt, some of them weak, some of them stronger; but failure to acknowledge even the existence of this stumbling block weakens McKnight’s argument unnecessarily.

These weekly thoughts have generally included mention of the political scene; today is not going to be an exception. How can one ignore the flap over Mitt Romney’s comment concerning his concern or lack of concern for the very poor among us? On first hearing, my initial reaction was that the press and his opponents were indeed misconstruing the comment intentionally. But were they? His comments, on further reflection, very clearly betray the insensitivity Republicans are frequently charged with. The thought is this: as long as there is a safety net for poor people–very poor people–we need not concern ourselves with them. Just make sure the net will hold and everything is fine. If that is coupled with the earlier Romney comments about liking to fire people to make business more efficient, the Democrats have a waiting theme to present and exploit. Be sure that they will. Once again, stay tuned.

Tomorrow is the great American cultural event of the winter. Partying for the Super Bowl has itself grown into a big business, and we as good American consumers do our part, all in hopes of stimulating our economy (oh, that wasn’t what was on your mind?). Churches, of course, are quick to get in on the act by canceling evening services where they are held, or folding them into a viewing event with appropriate (?) inclusion of halftime “devotional” interludes, encouraging people to wear jerseys to worship, and a host of other innovative ways to “reach out” in a “relevant” way. Can’t we just say we want to watch the game and not try to spiritualize what has become a part of our culture? I do think it a good thing that Tim Tebow is not involved in this year’s game. Just sayin’.

We are in an age that has been described with a lot of different terms, many of them beginning with the prefix “post-“. In Christianity, it is among other things a post-denominational time. There are undoubtedly positive and negative effects of this trend. One aspect is that is demonstrates the triumph of pick-and-choose consumerism, applied to one’s spiritual life. It has little to do, that is, with what one has adopted as a mostly-true expression of the faith embodied by a particular denominational position than it does with what “feels” good in a given body of believers and seekers in terms of worship style, friendliness, preaching, or the kind of coffee kiosk found in the entry/lobby (I almost said “narthex”, which would certainly be a turn-off). Maybe, just maybe, it is time to return to a simple statement of faith as one that has defined Christian identity for nearly two millenia, something such as the Apostles’ Creed or (better imho) the Nicene Creed. Think of all the money needed to support denominational structures that could be better invested in gospel work directly on one hand; think of the loss of accountability that inevitably follows independence on the other. I sense the conversation is only going to intensify.

Done straying for the week. And, for the record, I just can’t cheer for a New York team. Convulsions set in when I even try to think of doing so. Happy viewing and safe partying to all.

I’ll Take That (Bad News Week, #3)

The topic of yesterday’s post (prostitution, including children) probably deserves a lot more discussion and even more action. Thanks to those who suggested ways of doing that. Today, however, we are continuing with another type of crime that is undeniably on the increase, often accompanied by violence/assault. Many more examples, including home break-ins, could easily be added to the list below, but it will suffice to introduce the subject.

As the economy has crumbled, thieves all over the country have become increasingly bold and increasingly desperate.
The following are just a few recent examples….
*In Fresno, California the damage caused by thieves stealing copper wire from city street lights is costing the city approximately $50,000 a month. So far, about 2,500 street lights have been stripped of their wiring.
*In northern Alabama, one group of crooks has been using a forklift to pull entire ATM machines out of the ground.
*A while back, a team of ambitious thieves in Pennsylvania actually stole an entire 50 foot long bridge.
Other crimes are committed by members of the government. In Chicago, the bodies of poor people that don’t have enough money to bury themselves are being treated with absolutely no respect at all by government officials. Just check out what Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart says that he found….
“Babies are buried 10, 15 to a box. They’re buried in there with animal remains. They’re buried in there with arms and legs from body parts they found during the course of the year. It is not anything that our county or society should ever sit there and say is acceptable”
Can you imagine that?
What kind of a monster would do such a thing?
Of course I could go on for ages about the sick corruption of our government officials, but that will have to be left for another day.

We’re not talking about petty theft that has always been a bit of a nuisance to many people; what is happening today is thievery on a much larger, more highly organized and technically sophisticated level. On that last note, one has only to think of identity theft and the many financially and psychologically ruined folks left in its wake. Even with due caution, it seems anyone can be defrauded in a variety of ways with just the slightest slip of security measures. The point is that it takes a great deal of time, planning and savvy to pull off the heists cited or alluded to above.

To what do we attribute the increasing mockery of what most of us learned at a very early age: “Thou shalt not steal”? Have we really, as a culture, abandoned this as a principle? I doubt it. One might even argue that of all the Ten Commandments, it is the one most forcefully adhered to by our legal system as well as by public expectations–we want to be able to keep our stuff, both as private citizens and as civic entities. Yet theft happens.

And what of the citing of the Cook County findings? Is there a connection between this and the incidents of brazen thievery? The writer apparently thought so, though it was not immediately evident as to why. Maybe it is simply that the loss of respect for other people, the devaluing we have spoken of in previous posts, cannot help but carry over into a loss of respect for the right of private property. If we don’t value the people themselves, we have no reason to honor their right to their own stuff, regardless of what it is. Maybe it’s the price of living in an impersonal world, where people deal with one another on superficial or digital levels, without personal interaction that builds a sense of commonality, a sense that our prospects rest at least partially with one another rather than at the other’s expense. A respondent to yesterday’s post cited Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, citing a passage highlighting the idea that the image of God we have mentioned frequently is not only, and probably not primarily, an individually manifested quality; it is about life in community, intended by our Trinitarian, relational God. Attempting to find our meaning or success on our own, without regard for community, may in fact lead to the sort of devaluing that makes theft–and disregard for burial remains–understandable.

Any thoughts?