21 April 2007
18 April 2007
When Sea Lions Attack.
A sea lion leaped out of the sea and attacked a 13-year-old girl as she surfed behind a speedboat off Australia's west coast, a newspaper reported Sunday.
A marine scientist said the attack by the sea lion, which can grow to more than 880 pounds in weight but usually stay away from humans, was bizarre and that the sea lion may have been trying to play with the girl.
Ella Murphy had her jaw broken and lost three teeth after the sea lion attacked her on Friday as she was being towed on a surfboard behind a speedboat at Lancelin, a town 80 miles north of the Western Australia state capital of Perth, The Sunday Times newspaper reported.
"This thing just exploded in a full-on, frontal attack," family friend Chris Thomas told the newspaper. "It jumped out of the water at her and hit her head on."
The Family Pew.
The growing secularization of American life—marked by drops in religious attendance, affiliation, and authority in the nation at large over the past forty years—is certainly due, in part, to changes in the larger culture. It owes something, as well, to the theological and moral lassitude of many churches in the face of those changes. But a large portion derives from the declining strength and integrity of the family. The recent history of American religion illuminates what amounts to a sociological law: The fortunes of American religion rise and fall with the fortunes of the intact, married family.
Not all religious traditions are equally affected by this law. A corollary might be that more-churchly religious traditions (such as the Episcopal Church) depend even more on a vibrant family culture than do more-sectarian religious traditions (such as the Assemblies of God) because so many of the churchly adherents make a habit of churchgoing only when they are married with children. This largely explains why the mainline Protestant churches have seen their fortunes fall since the 1950s, the most recent heyday of the American family, even while the more sectarian evangelical Protestant churches have seen their fortunes rise over the same period.
After almost half a century of decline, however, those in the churchly mainline—particularly those on the left, politically and theologically—still cannot see their dependence on strong families. Blinded by their desire to be both “with it” and welcoming, they continue to lend vocal support to the family revolution that is draining their congregations.
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The question, of course, is why churchgoing is so tightly bound to being married with children. One reason is that marriage is one of the few rites of passage guiding the transition into adulthood. Another reason married men and women are more active religiously is that churches and synagogues give symbolic and practical support to family life. In such rites as a baptism and a bris, congregations erect a sacred canopy of meaning over the great chapters of family life: birth, childrearing, and marriage. Rabbis, pastors, and priests—particularly orthodox ones—offer concrete advice about marriage and parenthood. Congregations also have disproportionately high numbers of families who put family-centered living high on their list of priorities. These families offer moral and practical support to adults adjusting to the joys and challenges of married life and starting families. Not surprisingly, men and women who are married with children are more likely to gravitate toward church than are their single peers.
Children also drive parents to church. The arrival of a child can awaken untapped reserves of love, recognition of the transcendent, and concern for the good life in men and women—all of which make churchgoing more attractive. Parents looking to give their children a moral and spiritual compass seek out congregations, Sunday schools, and vacation Bible schools. All the data show that religious attendance peaks in the population among adults with school-age children.
Finally, marriage is more likely to drive men into church than women. Because women are more religious than men, on average, and because they usually take primary responsibility for the nurture of children regardless of their marital status, women’s religious attendance depends less on marriage than does men’s. Indeed, women with and without families are more likely to be regular churchgoers than similarly situated men.
For men, marriage, fatherhood, and churchgoing are a package deal. Men’s comparatively fragile faith often depends on wifely encouragement to flower. More important, fatherhood often awakens in men a sense of paternal responsibility that extends to their children’s religious and moral welfare. Men are much less likely to identify with and be able to fulfill the responsibilities of fatherhood—including the religious ones—if they are not married to the mother of their children. This is why divorce is much more likely to drive men away from church than it is women.
The dramatic demographic changes of the past forty years, coupled with the failure of most churches to capture the attention of adults who aren’t married with children, has led many mainline Protestant leaders to heighten their calls for aggressive outreach efforts to singles and adults in nontraditional families—together with the theological innovations required to match these efforts. Sociologist Penny Long Marler makes the case for this accommodationist strategy this way: “Clearly, while bowing to the critical contributions of traditional families, past and present, congregations must cast their nets farther and more conscientiously. Otherwise, contemporary white Protestantism may be forever ‘lost in the 1950s.’ Given the realities of an aging population and a shrinking traditional family base, it is clear that a future mired in the past is really no future at all.”
14 April 2007
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and the other Pre-Raphaelites were rebelling against the high art conventions of their day. They stood for paintings that were infused with meaning, often through symbolism, and executed with realism and meticulous attention to nature. Their self-chosen name was a deliberate provocation: what if medieval art was in some ways better than that of the Renaissance? (Charles Dickens was sufficiently scandalized to write a satire in which he projected the emergence of a Pre-Galileo Brotherhood which would deny that the earth revolves around the sun.) And yet, the glories of the Renaissance notwithstanding, the way its artists flouted realism was assailable. John Ruskin, a seminal intellectual inspiration for the Brotherhood, objected that the apostles in Raphael's Christ's Charge to Peter were "a faded concoction of fringes, muscular arms, and curly heads of Greek philosophers."
The Pre-Raphaelites admired leading medieval religious painters such as Fra Angelico and Giotto for their earnestness and sincerity: they patently believed the Christian truths that their art depicted. Ruskin observed that art used to be a way of communicating faith, but the great themes of faith were now cynically employed simply for the sake of displaying artistic prowess. He grumbled about the typical modern artist who thought of a picture of the Madonna merely as "a pleasant piece of furniture for the corner of a boudoir." The Pre-Raphaelites wagered their artistic reputations and lives on the premise that it need not be so. In our irony-soaked, "post"-everything age, we need them. Most of all, we need Holman Hunt.
13 April 2007
Call it the "Thighmaster Paradox": Watching people do things on TV--fight it out on a desert island, say, or sweat themselves into shapelier thighs--often replaces the need to do those things ourselves. After a few hours vegetating in slack-jawed stupor in front of the Food Network, do we really end up in the kitchen, whipping up a wholesome meal? Or do we drag the family to Outback Steakhouse?
The Thighmaster Paradox, as it will come to be known, is never more apparent than when it comes to reality television. Right now one of the biggest reality shows is "Dancing With the Stars," but its popularity hasn't ushered in a ballroom-dancing craze, if the past few weddings I've attended are any indication. And for all of the creepy, aggressive ambition on display in an episode of "The Apprentice," do people really watch that show and suddenly get all fired up to outperform their co-workers? Or do they waste a lot of time the next day rehashing the previous night's episode and laughing around the water cooler, as the phone rings and the work piles up and the invoices don't get mailed?
There is reason to believe the Thighmaster Paradox will apply just as much to a new round of shows, in which we're supposed to watch nice people doing nice things. It started with ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" in which a family--often parentless--struck hard by bad luck, weather, medical bills or something else suitably Dickensian, is suddenly beset by remodeling do-gooders who swarm around their house, fixing it up, upgrading the appliances, and showering the family with gifts and cash and the camera's attention. Basically it's the last scene in "A Christmas Carol"--but just the spray of food, stuff and good cheer, without all of the tiresome character development and fear of damnation. In the "Extreme Makeover" universe, Ebenezer Scrooge has been replaced by generous product-placement sponsors such as Home Depot and Sears, and the rest of us are blubbery Tiny Tims.
It's a hugely affecting show, of course. There's something riveting about watching people who deserve stuff get it, in abundance, and it's hard not to watch a whole hour of "Extreme Makeover" without getting a slightly lumpy throat.
It reminded me of one of Bono’s earlier endeavors: the ONE Campaign. Bono titled this “the campaign to make poverty history.” Its strategy was simply to rally Americans to call upon President Bush to allocate one additional percentage point of the U.S. budget to fighting extreme poverty across the globe.
Surprisingly, they never ask for any direct contributions: “ONE isn’t asking for your money, we’re asking for your voice. ONE does not accept donations. Instead, we hope that you’ll take action with ONE by contacting Congress, the President and other elected officials and ask them to do even more to fight global AIDS and extreme poverty. We encourage you to sign the ONE declaration and help by spreading the word about the ONE Campaign by talking about it with your friends, family and co-workers. Additionally, you can show your community that you support ONE by purchasing ONE merchandise on our website.”
Just sign our petition! Just call President Bush! Wear our wristband! That’s all it takes to make poverty history! You don’t even need to give a dime!
What a bizarre method. Why not appeal to our consciences directly and ask every American to donate 1 percent of our personal budget to the poverty-fighting charity of our choice? The ONE Campaign made significant inroads with the religious communities—having them demand more from the government. Why not ask for a tithe? Why not call for personal contributions instead of political noise-making?
But that would require sacrifice. And that wouldn’t sell. Nor would it be trendy. It’s so much easier to say we can fight AIDS by buying Armani and Gap. It’s so much easier to say we’ll end world poverty by telling Congress to do something about it. My “good-looking” “fine self” sleeps so much better at night knowing that my (RED) purchase has bought pills for someone in Africa, that my signature on the ONE declaration means I’ve done my part.
10 April 2007
Hyper-Caffeinated Crunch Con.
It is an occasional convention in conservative literature to talk about the “real split” in the world that animates contemporary political and cultural disagreements, a split deeper than the more pedestrian divide of Republicans versus Democrats. Russell Kirk liked to quote Eric Voegelin’s remark that the “great line of demarcation in modern politics...is not a division between liberals on one side and totalitarians on the other.” Rather, it is between materialists who recognize only a temporal order and those who admit to a higher, transcendent order. To Voegelin, liberals and totalitarians of various stripes were essentially alike in their progressive materialism, the price of which was “the death of the spirit.”Kauffman describes himself as ‘the love child of Henry Thoreau and Dorothy Day, conceived amidst the asters and goldenrod of an Upstate New York autumn.’ In this he concurred with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who in his famous 1978 Harvard Address, referring to Western liberalism and Eastern communism, said that, “The split in the world is less terrible than the similarity of the disease plaguing its main sections.” For Solzhenitsyn, the disease plaguing both sides was the belief that man’s chief task was to “search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most out of them.” More recently John Lukacs described the real split in America as being between “progressives” (more often than not misnamed “conservatives”) and “conservationists.” “It is the division between people who want to develop, to build up, to pour more concrete and cement on the land, and those who wish to protect the landscape (and the cityscape) where they live.” It is the divide between those who cultivate a “true love” of their country and those with only a “rhetorical love of symbols such as the flag, in the name of a mythical people,” between ahome-loving domesticity and a wandering nomadic life, “between the ideals of stability and those of endless ‘growth.’”In Look Homeward, America, Bill Kauffman offers a detailed and often idiosyncratic look at the “real split” underlying American society and politics. To paraphrase Gore Vidal, one of Kauffman’s unlikely heroes, that real split lies between those who love the old American republic and those progressive dreamers who would sell their patrimony for a bowl-full of the centralized, mechanized American Empire. Be forewarned: this is not a book for those seeking confirmation of their already accepted political stereotypes. Rather, Look Homeward, America is Kauffman’s quest through American history and its living landscape to find those he lovingly calls “reactionary radicals and front-porch anarchists.”The coin of love? Is he crazy? He probably is: all God’s children are. The result is, by design, impossible to categorize. Kauffman’s collection of throwbacks and throwaways, retreads and retrofits, hillbillies and hell-raisers, poet politicians and insubordinate patriots is a stinging rebuke to political categorizers, taxonomers of the soul, and those who reduce humanity to the talking heads and soundbitten ghosts of American punditry. Kauffman describes himself as an “outsider even among outsiders” and “the love child of Henry Thoreau and Dorothy Day, conceived amidst the asters and goldenrod of an Upstate New York autumn.” His is a Middle American, profoundly un-imperial patriotism based in love of American music, poetry, quirks and commonalities, historical crotchets, holy fools and eminent Kansans. ...I celebrate, I affirm old-fashioned refractory Americanism, the home-loving rebel spirit that inspires anarchists and reactionaries to save chestnut trees from the highway-wideners and rural schools from the monstrous maw of the consolidators, and leads along the irenic path of a fresh-air patriotism whose opposition to war and empire is based in simple love of country.This is what binds Kauffman and the subjects of Look Homeward, America together: their unbought love of home, of their own patch of ground, of their communities and the heritage of their region.
Atheism As Elitism.
And yet the Dawkinses and Graylings, the Hitchenses and the Parrises, seem somehow to be missing the point. What they say is dry and unnourishing. I think one reason for this lies in their underlying conception of what it is to be human - they think that the highest quality is to be clever.
I hasten to say that I am not arguing against cleverness. Intelligence is a great gift, and should be cultivated, if possessed, by all possible means. All these atheist thinkers I have mentioned are conscious of possessing big, bulging brains and I share their admiration for them. They are the mental equivalent of bronzed body-builders on the beach, kicking sand in the face of us seven-stone weaklings.
But what are we to make of Richard Dawkins's point, in The God Delusion, that Mensa, the society for people with high IQs, has published an article concluding that, of 43 studies of the relationship between intelligence and religious belief since 1927, all but four have found an inverse relation? Or of his statistic that only 3.3 per cent of the Fellows of the Royal Society believe that a personal God exists?
You probably know some people with high IQs. You may even have met members of the Royal Society. Does it strike you, brilliant though they are, that they have a deeper understanding of truth, beauty and all that you need to know about life than the rest of us?
Dawkins also tells us that "there are very few atheists in prison". He suggests that "atheism is correlated with higher education, intelligence or reflectiveness, which might counteract criminal impulses".
What begins to emerge - and it lurked strongly behind the anti-religion side of the Intelligence Squared debate - is the idea that atheism is an elite state, a superior order of being, a plane of enlightenment denied to thickoes.
This seems to me to present certain problems. A religious faith is not, primarily, a set of propositions, although it will contain such propositions and must use all human intellectual resources to understand and explain them. It is a belief about what governs the whole of life, indeed the whole existence of everything.
It therefore matters not only how we reason, but how we feel, how we act towards others, how we speak, sing, dance, laugh, cry, eat and wash, how we die, how we pray and how we love.
Does anything in our actual human experience tell us that clever people do these things better than anyone else? It is surely what people call "clever-silly" to argue that they do. In fact, in all this I hear the voices of a university high table - and almost invariably male voices at that - proving something to their own satisfaction while other people cook the lunch.
The Victorian Prime Minister Lord Salisbury once criticised Roman Catholicism for being "an excellent religion for peasants and women". But what sort of a religion would it be which was not excellent for peasants or women (who made up about 90 per cent of the world's population in Salisbury's day)?
And what sort of a belief system is it that asserts the superiority of Richard Dawkins, Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford, over the woman who toils in paddy fields, or the child who begs in the dirt, or the prisoner in his chains?
The Crucifixion and the Resurrection are just as distasteful for Richard Dawkins as for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, because they subvert the idea that man is at his greatest when he is most strong, masterful and clever: " 'Tis the old history - Truth without a home, Despised and slain; then, rising from the tomb."
1 John 1.1-3
The Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – present a conundrum that is probably unique in the annals of literary research. On the one hand they display similarities which are sometimes so close that it has been thought impossible they should have occurred had not the author of one had access to at least one of the others (and the reigning but not the only possible hypothesis is that Matthew and Luke both made use of Mark). On the other hand they have differences, mainly of verbal expression but sometimes also of content and arrangement, which generations of scholars, brought up in the tradition of historical criticism, have assumed is due to the use of different sources – so much so that the notion of “source” (Quelle in German) has given rise to the reconstruction of a document (“Q”) that is assumed to be the “source” of material that appears in similar form in Matthew and Luke but is absent in Mark. The consequence is that a Gospel writer must be imagined, no longer as a serene recipient of inspiration from on high (as envisaged in so many ancient works of art) but as a sometimes puzzled, sometimes creative, editor, using scissors and paste to weave together several different narratives or “sources”, and (according to more recent scholarship) compounding the complexity of his task by introducing theological interpretations of his own.
For this improbable scenario – the task would be difficult even with modern filing systems and computers, let alone with the limited resources available at the time – there is of course no ancient evidence whatever. Yet it has been unquestioningly adopted by scholars for a century and a half, mainly because, on the assumption that there is a literary relationship between the three Gospels – that is, that one writer had access to the work of another and could physically incorporate it in his own – it has seemed the only plausible explanation of the extraordinarily complex relationship that exists between these three documents. But is this assumption correct? Can the close verbal similarities be explained only by one writer’s having faithfully reproduced (with his own minor amendments) the exact words of a precursor? Are the differences best explained by the use of different sources at certain points in the narrative and by the manipulation of those sources carried out by an “editor” anxious to impress his own theological understanding on the raw material lying on his desk?
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But now a new approach altogether has been proposed by Richard Bauckham, a scholar who already has an impressive record of research into Christian origins. In a previous book – Gospel Women (2002) – he was able to show, by a close study of personal names both in our texts and in the records of Palestinian culture, that a particular group of individuals in the New Testament, and their relationships with one another, have a striking internal consistency with regard to names and provenance and also reflect accurately the naming and family connections that were customary in their culture. In the face of such evidence, it is hard to believe either that these names could have been fabricated or that there was any serious loss of accuracy in remembering and recording them by the time the Gospels came to be written. In Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Bauckham continues his investigation into named individuals, and shows that the same conclusion holds for all. We have every reason, therefore, to assume a faithful and unbroken link between the original witnesses of Jesus’ life and death and the record of these things in the Gospels.
Following this clue, Bauckham then suggests we should take seriously the testimony of two second-century churchmen, Papias and Irenaeus – the first of whom has usually been dismissed by scholars as unreliable. Carefully examining the relevant texts – including the famous statement of Papias that Mark’s Gospel is derived from anecdotes heard from St Peter – Bauckham concludes that these writers gave absolute priority to eyewitness accounts of Jesus, many of which are likely to have been given by his closest followers; indeed, he argues that the fact that some minor characters in the Gospels are named, while others remain anonymous, strongly suggests that it was the named ones who were consulted for their personal recollections and that the Gospel writers, or those whom they consulted, were drawing on first-hand evidence that was inherently reliable and consistent, though with the inevitable variations and slight lapses which attend the exercise of memory in any age or culture – hence both the close similarities and the sporadic divergences exhibited by the Synoptic Gospels.
02 April 2007
Better Of Without Religion?
Richard Dawkins was among the speakers at the debate sponsored by The Times and organised by Intelligence Squared at Westminster Central Hall in London last night. More details on The Times Faith Page, and you can also listen to the podcast. There is also an entertaining blog just up, summarising this post and some of the comments.
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The motion was: 'We'd be better off without religion.' On his side were Professor AC Grayling and Christopher Hitchens. Against were Baroness Julia Neuberger, Professor Roger Scruton and Nigel Spivey. The incomparable Joan Bakewell was in the chair. At these debates, styled along the lines of Oxford and Cambridge debates but disappointingly less hecklesome, a vote is taken at the start and another at the end.
The first vote was 826 votes for the motion, 681 against and 364 don't knows. By the end, the voting was 1,205 for the motion, 778 against and 100 don't knows. And would you know, so thrown into confusion was I by being almost convinced of the case by Dawkins that I actually voted for the motion at the end. Is God - I have no doubt that such a being exists at least - trying to tell me something I wonder?
On the subject of religion's scientific despisers (particularly with regard to the difficulty of pinning down a definition of "religion"), and not to be missed, is Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart's review highly entertaining essay, "Hunting the Snark."
The irony is that in rejecting the Primate's attempts to help the Episcopal Church find "an American solution to an American problem," the liberals in the House of Bishops may have advanced exactly what they fear: a creeping curial centralization.
For years, Church officials from across the political spectrum have lamented a creeping centralization within the Catholic Church. The Roman Curia has been accused of being overly interventionist and power-hungry, dipping into local problems that could be better handled at a lower level. At the same time, Curial officials have insisted that they don’t want to have to rein in every maverick theologian and doctrinal dissident, and only do so when the local church authorities either ask them to intervene or simply fail to do their job.
As Cardinal Walter Kasper wrote in the April 23, 2001 issue of Jesuit-run America magazine, over-centralization in the Catholic Church cannot be blamed exclusively on the Roman Curia. The local churches themselves promote centralization, he wrote, “whenever they abdicate their responsibility and turn to Rome for a decision — a ruse to evade their duty and find cover behind a superior order.”
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Prior to his election as pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger himself spoke out on several occasions regarding the need for local Church authorities to take responsibility for church teaching within their dioceses. In the fall 2001 meeting of the synod of bishops, for example, Ratzinger asked bishops to crack down on doctrinal error. “If at times it may be just to tolerate a lesser evil for the sake of peace in the church, let us not forget that a peace paid for with the loss of the truth would be a false peace, an empty peace,” he said, drawing the most sustained applause of the synod.