Sunday, April 29, 2012

Let's Talk about Sex

I recently watched the 2009 documentary Let's Talk About Sex. The stated purpose of the film is to examine adolescent sexuality and to try to understand alarming trends in American culture, such as rates of teen pregnancy and teen STD contraction significantly above that of any other "developed" Western nation. In truth, the documentary is a forthright apology for comprehensive sex education in schools and a frank criticism of abstinence-only education as an alternative. Everything else which is discussed is done so more-or-less as a footnote. This is not intended as a criticism; the filmmakers do very little to hide this motivating intention. Why should they? The nature of sex education is a matter of intense debate because it has real and dramatic consequences. When we realize that 7% of all women in America will become pregnant before they turn twenty and that, of those pregnancy that might otherwise be carried to term, 30% will end in elective abortion, it is hard to imagine anyone not concerned. The documentary rightly concludes that everyone wants the same thing: fewer teen STDs, fewer teen pregnancies, and fewer teen abortions.

To that end, the documentary offers at least three suggestions which, though by no means novel, warrant constant reiteration until they come to fruition:

  • Comprehensive sex education in schools:  The film cites studies which have shown there to be no correlation between abstinence only education and decreased rates of pregnancy or STDs.  While this alone is not enough to commend comprehensive sex education, it is hard not to look over to Western Europe with the remarkably low rates of teen pregnancy and STDs and wonder what our public education system is doing wrong.  The government has a legitimate public interest in preventing teen pregnancies and STDs, and the filmmakers rightly point out that the health hazard created by (or at least correlated with) teen ignorance costs the government multiple billions of dollars annually.
  • Greater involvement and candor from the religious community: Sex education is not simply a public health concern.  It is a moral and existential concern as well, and because of that it is imperative that the faith community take an active role in educating America's youth about sex.  At its most compelling, the film displays ministers earnestly seeking to balance moral truth with the pressing needs of adolescents in their congregations.  One commenter rightly points out that there was a time when the church was engaged meaningfully on social issues in a way not so readily reduced into the kind of moralizing which is only profitable for an audience to whom it is not applicable.  Preachers preach hellfire and abstinence, parents nudge their young children into purity pledges, and adolescents are swept along in ignorance.  The church needs to stop teaching teen classes on Song of Solomon and then washing their hands of their youth.
  • Parent centered solutions:  The church is not and should not be the most directly formative influence on an adolescent's life, and the state infinitely less so.  A great deal of the blame for the culture surrounding sex and particularly adolescent sex in America falls on parents.  Particularly guilty are those multitudes of parents who deflect responsibility onto the schools and churches, refusing to bring the issue of sex into the home except for a single, awkward, trite "birds and the bees" talk at the onset of puberty.  Surely parents haven't forgotten adolescence; surely they remember that sex is not something their teenagers think about once at thirteen, make a decision about, and then are never troubled again.  Sex pervades society, and even if it didn't, sex would still dominate the hormone addled mind of teenagers.  If parents really cared about their teen, cared more than they care about their comfort, they would be engaged regularly and openly.
While I wholeheartedly embrace the above as legitimate steps to be taken to mitigate the fall out from inevitable teen sex, there are problems with the way they are often presented and with the way the documentary presents them.  One of the reasons the issue has become so charged and why people who agree on the ends cannot unite on any common means is because people from both sides have too thoroughly draped their solutions with their peculiar ideologies.  It is no wonder that comprehensive sex education smacks of libertinism much in the same way that abstinence only sex education smacks of fideism.  Correctives are needed:

  • The public interest is a health interest: The state does have a legitimate interest in educating teenagers about sex, but the legitimacy of that interest does not legitimize the state offering up a normative ideology through the education system.  The very fact that comprehensive sex education is being used for this ought to raise deafening alarms in the Orwellian corners of our brain.  Comprehensive sex education needs to be comprehensive only in terms of its factual, scientific information and only as far as is prudent for preventing unwanted pregnancies and STDs.  Teach teens about diseases: how they are contracted, how they are treated, and how they are prevented.  Teach teens about pregnancy: how it happens and how it is prevented.  Demonstrate contraceptive use, offer resources for obtaining those contraceptives, discuss issues of consent (e.g. what constitutes "date rape"), and the importance of being assertive in demanding that you and your partner practice safe sex.  The legitimate concerns of the state end there, but for some reason that hasn't stopped some programs from tacitly or even explicitly passing qualitative judgements on sexual behavior.  They want to teach an ideology that homosexuality is good, that sexual experimentation is good, that anything is good provided it is done safely and consensually.  The documentary shows over and over sex education material that uses terms like "good," "healthy," "beautiful," and "fun."  The state should not be making those qualitative determinations.  Their job is to define what is legal; it falls to others to debate what is good.
  • The church does not need to abandon ideology:  The church, unlike the state, has a duty to make qualitative and moral judgments, and it is not the place of the government to restrict or direct those judgments.  Unfortunately, however, most of the churches that were shown actively participating in rigorous sex education were churches of a unabashedly liberal bent.  This leaning showed through clearly in the way they approached sex education, and the viewer might get the impression that the only way a church could be involved in sex education in a way that would please the filmmakers would be if they were conferring divine approbation on the secular sex agenda.  This need not be the case, however.  Churches, even conservative churches, can legitimately engage in rigorous and thorough sex education while continuing to make the argument that premarital sex is a moral evil and promoting heteronormative sexual ethics.  It is the ridiculously shallow "sex is bad if you do it before your married" line, coupled with vacuous purity ceremonies, that has made the church culpable in the crisis of teen sexuality, particularly the startling number of devout teens engaging in para-intercourse sex acts with impunity because "technically" they are still virgins.  A comprehensive, faith based sex education plan can make great strides in alleviating not only social, but moral and existential ills.  Begin with the truth that human sexuality, like everything else, is God-created, wonderful in its appropriate context, and devastating when improperly employed.  Acknowledge the intensity of temptation and the universality of human frailty.  Create an environment of accountability that minimizes shame and maximizes the edifying value of confession.  Most importantly, make the commitment ongoing.  Youth ministers and their congregations need to be thinking about sex as often as their teens are and devoting a proportionate amount of time and energy to their sex-related efforts.  Just because a church is seriously committed to sex education does not mean that they need to adopt the value judgements of liberal sexual ethics.
  • It isn't enough just to shift the blame to parents:  Everyone knows that parents need to be more involved.  The government has said it.  The churches have said it.  Even many parents, often hypocritically, have said it.  But just as parents are too often guilty of shifting the responsibility onto schools and churches, society seems largely uninterested in actually equipping and encouraging parents to talk to their children about sex education.  It is time that schools and churches made a greater effort to ensure that parents had both the tools and the motivation to be active in the sex education of their teens.  The documentary made a positive exhibition of a number of very progressive parents (e.g. parents who gave their teens condoms for their birthdays, who let their teens' significant others spend the night, who joked around the dinner table about their teens' sex life) but what was most striking is that many of the parents on display were just as ignorant as their teens.  They didn't know the statistics about sex or the myths that were floating around among teenagers.  There are some parents, paradoxically (and we shift out of the documentary and into personal experience here), who aren't even entirely sure of the mechanics of sex, pregnancy, and STDs.  Parents would benefit from programs offered by schools and churches specifically designed to educate parents about adolescent sex issues and about how to talk to teens about sex.  Small, interactive gatherings with teachers, counselors, and members of the clergy have significant advantages over whatever thirty year old "How to talk to your kids about sex" book that a parent might buy off Amazon.
Whatever its obvious biases and deficiencies--particularly in terms of proposing concrete, unifying solutions--Let's Talk About Sex is a documentary worth watching.  It is probably one even worth watching with teens, be they your children, your class, your youth groups, or your friends.  The film is informative yet entertaining, remarkably clean given the subject matter, and has tremendous heuristic value.  If nothing else, it can function as a great launching point for the conversations we all ought to have been having all along.  The issue is obviously too pressing for Americans to stick their heads into the sand and hope it goes away.

    Friday, April 27, 2012

    Evolution is a Myth!

    That is the incendiary and intriguing claim of physicist Hugh Henry and biblical scholar Daniel J. Dyke in their joint 2010 article "Evolution as Mythology." The purpose of their paper is not to call into question the factual accuracy of evolution (as the colloquial definition of "myth" might imply), and both authors accept evolution as a valid scientific theory (without any of the tentativeness that the colloquial definition of "theory" might imply). Henry and Dyke do not examine evolution primarily with the aim of evaluating whether or not it is true, and when they critique the science of evolution it is never with the purpose of debunking it in favor of a more religiously palatable excuse. Instead, the authors are interested only in examining whether or not evolution functions in Western culture as a myth in a sociological sense.

    It is prudent here, and the authors recognized the need, to define more clearly how myth is used so as to avoid any confusion which the everyday use of the term might provoke. Henry and Dyke begin simply with a dictionary definition of myth: "A traditional, typically ancient story dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that serves as a fundamental type in the worldview of a people,
    as by explaining aspects of the natural world or delineating the psychology, customs, or ideals of society." They refine this further by appealing to a definition out of comparative religion: "Myths [are] the symbolic stories that communities use to explain the universe and their place within it. . . . Myths are not falsehoods or the work of primitive imagination; they . . . [form] a sacred belief structure that supports the laws and institutions of the religion and the ways of the community." Finally, they expand further on these ideas to complete their own definition: "Mythology serves an important sociological purpose. It explains the world-view of a culture or peoples. It validates the thinking, practices, and ideals of a culture. A creation myth explains existence; without a creation myth, a culture or people are without roots and without purpose." In short, myths are those sacrosanct narrative through which a society orders itself.

    With this definition in mind, Henry and Dyke attempt to offer a number of characteristic features of myth which may offer parallels to the way the theory of evolution functions in society. They begin with the most common unifying feature, that of a inexplicable or transcendent guiding force. With its tendency to foster atheism, naturalistic theories of evolution would seem to preclude any deity which might fulfill this criteria. Yet, the authors see in the process of natural selection--all-determinative and yet never fully grasped--the kind of godlike entity that gives evolution its mythic character. The authors observe that "whenever something cannot be explained, natural selection is cited with reverence, as if an omnipotent miracle worker." Lest this seem like a polemical exaggeration on their part, they offer up this quotation from evolutionary zoologist Pierre-Paul Grasse: "Chance becomes a sort of providence, not named but which is secretly worshiped." And another from the venerable godfather of abiogenesis, Harold Urey:

    All of us who study the origin of life find that the more we look into it, the more we feel that it is too complex to have evolved anywhere. We believe as an article of faith that life evolved from dead matter on this planet. It is just that its complexity is so great, it is hard for us to imagine that it did.

    Henry and Dyke suggest a number of other parallels with varying degrees of success. They suggest that, like many other governing myths, the theory of evolution has a profit an Charles Darwin. More convincingly, they note that belief in evolution functions in our society as a social and intellectual shibboleth, distinguishing the orthodox from the heterodox in American culture. While the parallels to the Catholic persecution of Galileo are strained (particularly since those stories are themselves more myth than history), they offer more potent allusions to political or academic disaster resulting from criticisms of evolutionary theory, not to mention a broader fear of being ostracized that accompanies even everyday doubts about evolutionary theory. The authors add, from science historian Marjorie Grene, "It is as a religion of science that Darwinism chiefly held, and holds, men's minds. . . . Darwinian theory has itself become an orthodoxy preached by its adherents with religious fervor, and doubted, they feel, only by a few muddlers imperfect in scientific faith."

    Somewhere between the credibility of the argument that evolution has a prophet and that it is a social creed is the authors' suggestion that professional evolutionists function as a kind of intellectual clergy for Western culture with a "secret-knowledge-known-only-to-a-select-few."

    When inconsistencies and problems with naturalistic evolution are raised, they are frequently countered with ridicule, giving the impression that the scientific aspects of the Theory of Naturalistic Evolution are highly complex and can never be understood by ordinary people: not by a physicist like the author and not even by a Nobel laureate such as astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle. The terminology sometimes seems deliberately incomprehensible as if to emphasize that the fundamentals of neo-Darwinism can be understood only by a few great men and women of science.

    Pierre-Paul Grasse states: "We rarely discover these rules [which govern the living world] because they are highly complex." Probability arguments such as those outlined below, which seem compelling, are often countered with flip comments such as "Biologists don't find that a problem"—as if to cite a higher authority. Fundamental questions, such as the evolution of the eye, are answered with speculation but with scant supporting facts. (One example is the PBS documentary on that topic, which is available in the PBS online library.) Such attitudes are more appropriate to clerics than to scientists; inconsistencies and problems in other branches of science are countered with scientific evidence, not mere rhetoric. Scientists are taught to distrust nebulous calls to higher authority and distracting arguments; as Hoyle once said about the Theory of Naturalistic Evolution: "Be suspicious of a theory if more and more hypotheses are needed to support it as new facts become available, or as new considerations are brought to bear."

    Having shown the ways the theory of evolution conforms to the sociological notion of myth, the remainder of the article attempts to illustrate how evolutionary theory falls short by science's own self-imposed strictures. Not being a scientist, and not really caring whether or not evolution is good science, I will leave those arguments for anyone who wants to track down the article. What is striking to me is how compelling the overall thesis of the article is, regardless of the strength of the individual arguments. It is hard to look at evolution and not realize just how thoroughly it functions in our culture much in the same way that creation myths have in all cultures previous. It has become "an article of faith and a test of orthodoxy" from which no one in our society can escape. The myth of naturalistic evolution is a necessary construct, whether factually accurate or not, for justifying the naturalism and materialism that prop up Western notions of politics, science, and ethics.

    Many of the parallels Henry and Dyke draw are strained, many will find suspect their assertion that evolution is more myth than science (which is really unnecessary to the claim that evolution functions sociologically as a myth), and it is hard not to be critical on a number of levels of the conclusion that "the existence of a Creator-God has much more evidence than the Theory of Naturalistic Evolution." Yet, these deficiencies notwithstanding, Henry and Dyke make an important contribution to Western self-understanding with this article. "Whether it is right or whether it is wrong," naturalistic evolution has proved a powerful myth--arguably the governing myth--in Western culture. This ought to allow us not only to open evolution to more careful scientific critique, which seems to be the authors' aim, but also to cultural critique. Understanding evolution as myth and embracing the iconoclastic postmodern programme, it is paramount that contemporary society begin to reevaluate evolution as a test for orthodoxy in politics, academia, and culture at large. The time has come to consider again the claims of philosopher of science Wolfgang Smith and to actualize their implications:

    The doctrine of evolution has swept the world, not on the strength of its scientific merits, but precisely in its capacity as a Gnostic myth. It affirms, in effect, that living beings created themselves, which is, in essence, a metaphysical claim. . . . evolutionism is in truth a metaphysical doctrine decked out in scientific garb.

    Wednesday, April 25, 2012

    Imperialism in the Imperialized South

    Historian Joel Williamson wrote of William Faulkner that he had been "born into and reared among an imperialized people...IN writing about their plight, he met the plight of the imperialized people of the world, the people whose land had been raped and labor taken to supply raw materials for the factories of the industrial powers." It is a too often forgotten, ignored, or suppressed truth of American history that the South is in fact a territory of the imperialistic North. That sounds reactionary, superficial, and tribalist. I'm aware. Nevertheless, on purely empirical grounds, it is difficult to contest that the Civil War--without commenting on the justness of its motivations or outcomes--was the exaltation of national interest over regional autonomy such that a territory and its population were nationalized by force of arms rather than consent from the governed. That is the essence of imperialism, and its effects have been felt in the South for more than a century and a half. It was the context that produced Faulkner and it is the silent force that is at work in shaping southern identity still.

    Consider Eugene Genovese's account of the intellectual imperialism which dominates the history of the South as a discipline:

    The northern victory in 1865 silenced a discretely southern interpretation of American history and national identity, and it promoted a contemptuous dismissal of all things southern as nasty, racist, immoral, and intellectually inferior. The northern victory did carry out a much too belated abolition of slavery. But it also sanctified northern institutions and intentions, which included the unfettered expansion of a bourgeois world view and the suppression of alternate visions of social order. In consequence, from that day to this, the southern conservative critique of modern gnosticism has been wrongly equated with racism and white supremacy...

    The history of the Old South is now often taught at leading universities, when it is taught at all, as a prolonged guilt-trip, not to say a prologue to the history of Nazi Germany...To speak positively about any part of this southern tradition is to invite charges of being a racist and an apologist for slavery and segregation. We are witnessing a cultural and political atrocity - an increasingly successful campaign by the media and an academic elite to strip young white southerners and arguably black southerners as well, of their heritage, and, therefore, their identity. They are being taught to forget their forebears or to remember them with shame...It is one thing to silence people, another to convince them. And to silence them on matters central to their self-respect and dignity is to play a dangerous game - to build up in them harsh resentments that, sooner or later, are likely to explode and bring out their worst.

    Genovese's picture is convicting primarily because it speaks so directly to the experience of all Americans who have, at some point, sat through a variety of academic courses and participated in a public discourse which sees the South as the ideological punching bag of the dominant cultural and intellectual forces. But my interest here is not to bemoan the ongoing cultural, intellectual, and economic marginalization of the South. It is, instead, to draw attention to the hypocrisy which the realization that southerners are an imperalized people brings to light. In spite of more than a century of being told that its systems of power, its culture, its values, and its economic models are inferior and even evil (and in some cases they assuredly were), it is now the South which has taken up the baton and is leading the charge for ever greater pursuits of American imperialism overseas.

    Certainly, America is no longer acquiring new territory by force as it did a century ago at the height of the Age of Imperialism, but our imperialism is nevertheless as vigorous as ever. It is now commonplace to justify our foreign wars (and various other interventionist efforts) as attempts to spread freedom, democracy, and capitalism. Freedom, of course, is understood only in terms of American individualistic libertinism, and alternate theories of freedom are not considered. Democracy, even as it throws countries into fits of political turmoil, war, and mob violence, is never questioned as a universal imperative. After all, it works here--except that it seems that everyone agrees it isn't working at the moment. There is no need to even consider how often a jingoistic devotion to capitalism has brought the world to the brink of annihilation in the past seventy years. During recent decades and in contemporary discourse particularly, it has been the Republican Party with its primary base in the South which has promoted this brand of cultural and economic imperialism.

    So be it, if that's what Americans want. After all, the essence of almost every great civilization in history is the ability to devise a culture, economy, and government that is easily and profitably exported by coercion for the benefit of the originating state. The problem with that model is that the South is not the origin of these ideas. It is within living memory that the last Civil War veteran died. Southerners remember that war, right? That is the one that was fought because Southerners rejected New England concepts of the scope and nature of freedom, the balance in republican democracy between central and regional interests, and the virtue of "Mammonism." The ideas that Southerners are now attempt to violently export these values internationally after having them violently overwhelm their own culture would be comical if it weren't so unsettling. The deepest irony comes when we realized that--just as once Southerners opposed government involvement in marriage laws--the original anti-imperialists were Bourbon Democrats, the Redeemers who had saved the South from Northern domination during Reconstruction. How quickly we forget.

    If only the South would stop to remember what it felt like and what it continues to feel like to be forcibly conformed to foreign modes of thinking, southerners would be more reluctant to make American imperialism an ideological pillar in the new architecture of southern thought.

    Saturday, April 21, 2012

    Regarding Cyborgs and Demagogues

    Nearly a decade before the publication of his book, American Demagogues: Twentieth Century, Columbia professor of history Reinhard H. Luthin penned an article for The American Historical Review entitled, "Some Demagogues in American History." The purpose was to review the way mass popular appeal had been commandeered into the service of politics throughout American history, from the early republic up to Luthin's own days. The term demagogue has a very obvious connotation, particularly in political rhetoric, and has for centuries. "The tendency to hurl the derogatory epithet indiscriminately at politi- cal opponents has perhaps led to confusion as to just what it is that constitutes a demagogue," lamented Luthin. Instead, he offered this comparably less vitriolic definition to be employed in the service of history: "the influential party chieftain who, by vigorous personality and noisy appeal to the crowd, made gross political capital by waging warfare against the affluent minority." It is this kind of politician which Luthin suggests has dominated the American political scene since the advent of universal, white manhood suffrage.

    EVER since the late eighteenth century and particularly since the Jacksonian era, American political history has been colored in part by the campaign opportunism of the "demagogue," the professional "man of the people." With considerable histrionic variety and always noisily, he has sought to whip up and intensify the emotions, the prejudices and the passions, of the voting public. And not infrequently his tactics have won out over his more sedate rivals in the political arena.

    What would this definition and this evaluation of demagoguery look like if applied disinterestedly to the American political climate today? Who would be labeled a demagogue? Who would be considered among the demagogue's sedate rivals? I cannot help but immediately call to mind the rhetoric which dominates the most popular media of every stripe regarding Mitt Romney, the cold, detached, disengaged, mechanical, affluent robot. In a bygone era, when "gentlemen of birth, wealth, and education, not the "lower orders," monopolized elective office" and when "a government office was a prerogative of the "upper" classes, not a paying job to be sought by flattering the voters," the epithets attached to Romney's name would have been quite different. In fact, in many respect with regard to his person, he is something a relic, a nostalgic throwback to a period in American political history when office was sought by men of leisure who did not need public positions to afford them all the privileges of rank and power.

    That is not to say that he would make a good president. It isn't even an attempt to call into question Barack Obama's credentials simply by virtue of his mass appeal and demonizing of affluence. (After all, Luthin formed his definition of a demagogue with no less storied of a figure in mind than Andrew Jackson.) History will evaluate Obama. He may be deemed a good president--as so many political scientists and Norwegians seem to have decided in haste--or a bad one--as so many radio talk show hosts decided just as hastily. It is even possible, though anathema to most, that he may just be an average president, more historically noteworthy for the color of his skin than the contours of his policy. Regardless, the purpose here is to suggest that whatever history has to say about Obama's qualities as a president, it is safe to declare now that he is one of presidential history's greatest demagogues. With Luthin's criteria of mass appeal, self-deprecation in service of populism, impassioned rhetoric, and antagonism toward affluence, Obama is set to ascend into the pantheon of American political demagogues alongside Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan.

    This coming election may very well give Americans a chance to evaluate and make decisions about what they want from their most powerful politicians. Will Americans choose the "hopelessly disengaged" plutocrat, who is channeling the Old World notions of a successful business man, a Cincinnatus, who will set aside his wealth and his leisure in service of his country? Would they rather have the young, attractive political superstar, who knows just what to say to whip the masses into a frenzy against the oppressive elites? It will be interesting to see how America's self-discovery and self-determination play out on the national stage (much as it has been interesting to watch Republican self-discovery and self-determination play out on a smaller scale as Romney is pitted against lesser demagogues like Santorum and Gingrich). This election, however it ends up, will be one more chapter in the ongoing saga of America's waxing and waning love affair with her demagogues.
    As usual, when I comment on politics, I feel compelled to add this disclaimer: I am not in any way attempting to endorse any candidate nor do I intend to encourage Christian participation in politics in any way. The above is offered merely in an attempt to bring the past to bear on the present, which is the purpose of history. It is my firm and longstanding belief that Christians have an ethical obligation to abstain from participation in politics.

    Wednesday, April 18, 2012

    Why Aren't We Killing the Abortionists?

    Hilter was not a nice man. I think we can all agree to that, and if for whatever reason you are unwilling to admit that, you may have to accept that premise arguendo. After all, Hitler started a war that ultimately resulted in the death of 2.5% of the world’s population, perhaps as many as 75 million people. When you add to this his most notorious atrocity, the systematic extermination of socially marginal groups like Jews, homosexuals, Romani, the disabled, and political dissidents, it is no wonder that Hitler has become the quintessential evil. The greatest—or at least the peskiest—argument that pacifists face is, “So are you saying we shouldn’t have stopped the Holocaust?” Of course there are countless reasoned arguments to make against this, but, as is so often the case (and I am not intended to bemoan this fact), what is reasonable has difficulty triumphing over what seems right.

    Meanwhile, in the United States alone, well over one million abortions occur every year. In fact, between 1973 and 2008, some fifty million abortions occurred in the United States. These numbers reflect the world in a microcosm. Worldwide abortion statistics show that the number of abortions per annum stays consistently above forty million with no significant signs of long term decline in total abortions. This is by no means merely a third world problem either; the number of abortions per capita between developed and developing is comparable (24 and 29 per 1,000 women respectively). So my question is, why aren’t we killing the abortionists?

    Clearly my point isn’t actually to suggest violence towards abortionists or even to suggest (and so defeat my own argument) that every doctor who performs abortions is the equivalent of Hitler. There is a comparison to be made, however, between the Holocaust and abortion statistics, one that ought to be telling. Consider that every year in world five times more abortions are performed than people were killed during the Holocaust. In fact, in America alone the death rates among the unborn and Holocaust victims is the same (if we date the Holocaust from 1933-1945). More startling still, when it is considered that six years of global warfare claimed almost 80 million lives, we cannot help but realize that abortions are occurring globally at three times that rate.

    I wonder then why those who believe that Hitler was so evil and the Holocaust so atrocious (and I don’t dispute either of those analyses) that they needed to be countered with lethal violence and also believe that abortion is murder are so slow in taking up arms and opposing doctors who perform abortions with the same verve that they laud in our opposition of the Third Reich. After all, with 53% of Americans believing that abortion is morally wrong most of the time (and less than ten percent of abortions are therapeutic, eugenic, or as a result of rape or incest), there ought to be a significant portion of the American population who, if they consistently applied their beliefs, would be opposing abortion not with rallies, petitions, and grumblings from their living rooms but with the righteous use of deadly force.

    With any luck, this farcical call to arms will have the effect of causing people to reevaluate the way they approach justified uses of violence. After all, I would hope that as many people who look at Hitler and feel icky at the thought of not having opposed him by force will feel just as icky about the idea of picking up a gun and shooting up the local Planned Parenthood. The problem is not with pacifists, who know never to pick up guns and shoot our co-bearers of the divine image, but with fair-weather militants who would gladly take a gun and shoot the guards at Auschwitz but to whom it never occurred to take the same action against the statistically more offensive abortionists.

    If nothing else, the next time someone unthinkingly attempts to shut down pacifism by asking me “So you wouldn’t have killed Hitler?” I will be able to just as blithely respond, “So why haven’t you killed Cecile Richards?”

    Tuesday, April 17, 2012

    The Wisdom of Parley Pratt

    From a historical standpoint, the following obviously needs to be read in the context of Pratt's ardent Mormonism, which brings to the quote a subtle endorsement of the divine authority of Joseph Smith generally and the Book of Mormon specifically. In a strictly inspiration context, however, one can view Pratt's sentiment as a bulwark against the perennial temptation of bibliolatry; in it can even been seen a hint of the Orthodox notion that all things good and true function as icons directing a person toward God who is Goodness and Truth. In "The Fountain of Knowledge," Pratt argues:

    The scriptures are sacred and true, and useful in their place. Although they are not the fountain of knowledge, nor do they contain all knowledge, yet they point to the fountain, and are every way calculated to encourage men to come to the fountain and seek to obtain the knowledge and gifts of God.

    Monday, April 16, 2012

    Orthodox Teased with The Promise of Union

    The issue of jurisdictional unity in America is a hot button issue in certain circles. Even though I don't run in those circles, it is something of a pet issue of mine as well. Once upon a time, when I was but a wee lad, my interest in Orthodoxy was piqued through correspondence with a priest of the Orthodox Church in America. He expressed his disappointment, even shame, that there were ongoing divisions (albeit primarily administrative ones) among the various ethnic Orthodox churches in the United States. He admitted, with candor and sincerity, that it was one of the greatest barriers to growth and evangelism for the Orthodox in the States. I have since asked several more priests to explain it--typically in more public venues and under the guise of genuine ignorance. Their tendency has been to brush off the issue as inconsequential.

    The Holy and Great pan-Orthodox Synod in Constantinople (1872) didn't see it that way. In fact, it condemned ethno-centrism, or "phyletism," as a heresy. Churches should not, cannot (ideally), cannot be divided or organized along ethnic lines within a single jurisdiction. It amounts to nationalistic idolatry and racial discrimination. Yet, 140 years after the Constantinople decision and fifty years after the Civil Rights Movement initiated the downfall of racial segregation in America, the churches in the United States are still divided on ethnic lines, with Greek, Antiochine, and Ethiopic congregations all coexisting in the same jurisdictions, at times even occupying the same city.

    Now, after decades of trying to sort out the problem, it appears there may be some hope:

    On orders from patriarchs in Constantinople, Russia, Serbia and elsewhere, all Orthodox bishops in this country are working on a plan for one American Church.

    The patriarchs say they want to approve such a plan at a yet-unscheduled Great and Holy Council of global Orthodoxy. The last such council was in A.D. 787. In 2010, 66 American bishops formed the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America, to devise the plan.

    "This has great potential," said Bishop Melchisedek of the Diocese of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania in the Orthodox Church in America, which is self-governing but has Russian roots. He cited existing differences on matters such as divorce or re-baptism of converts.

    "The canon law of the church allows for only one bishop of a city, but here in Pittsburgh we have four. It's a situation that can create unnecessary conflict. Now we have the potential for the church to speak with one voice."

    ...There are now 13 Orthodox jurisdictions in North America, with 800,000 members. The Pittsburgh region is a stronghold, with perhaps 25,000 adherents.

    In 1994, when all of the Orthodox bishops in the Americas gathered near Ligonier and called for unity, the ecumenical patriarch accused them of rebellion.

    "When we started this work 20 years ago it was anathema to talk about the possibility of administrative unity. Now we're not only talking about it, but hopefully the hierarchs will be looking at what is necessary to accomplish it," said Charles Ajalat, a retired lawyer from Southern California, chairman of the pan-Orthodox social service agency FOCUS.

    Of course, the Orthodox have made noise about unity before and to no avail. The best anyone can hope to do is wait and see if a centuries old bureaucracy can be nimble enough to respond to the troubles of the twenty-first century. I'm hopeful. After all, the Patriarch of Russia knows how to use Photoshop. Will wonders never cease?

    Yvonne is Headed to the Big Screen

    Who can forget Yvonne, the brilliant bovine who just last year daringly and cleverly escaped slaughter, evaded capture, and charmed her way to permanent safety at the Gut Aiderbichl animal sanctuary? I certainly couldn't, and children everywhere won't be able to either, once Yvonne's movie hits theaters:

    Now the tale of the runaway cow, who captivated the nation last year when she bolted from her farm to escape slaughter and roamed free in the Bavarian countryside for three months, will provide fodder for a Hollywood animated film.

    Cow On The Run, based on the daring dairy cow's escapades in the wild, will be produced by Munich-based film company Papa Loewe and American film producer Max Howard, whose previous credits include Walt Disney's The Lion King.

    Sunday, April 15, 2012

    Christos Anesti!

    With all the eggs found, all the chocolate bunnies devoured, and all the peeps microwaved, most of us have allowed the resurrection of Christ to pass from our minds (if it was ever there at all). It would benefit Western Christians, however, to remember that there are still hundreds of millions of Christians around the world who are celebrating the central moment in the Christian narrative today. Let me offer, for your consideration, a selection from the paschal encyclical of the Ecumenical Patriarch:

    If Christ’s Resurrection referred to Himself, then its significance for us would be negligible. The Church proclaims, however, that, the Lord did not arise alone. Together with Himself, He also resurrected all people. This is how our predecessor, St. John Chrysostom, proclaims this great truth in thunderous language: “Christ is risen, and none are left dead in the grave; for in being raised from the dead, he became the first-fruits of all who were asleep.” This means that Christ became the first-fruits of the resurrection of all who have fallen asleep and who will fall asleep in the future, as well as of their transition from death to life. The message is a joyful one for us all because, with His Resurrection Christ abolished the power of death. Those who believe in Him await the resurrection of the dead and are accordingly baptized in His death, rise with Him and live on in life eternal.

    The world that is alienated from Christ endeavors to amass material goods because it bases its hopes for survival on them. It unwisely imagines that it will escape death through wealth. Deceived in this way to amass wealth, supposedly to extend their present life, human beings disperse death among others, too. They deny others the financial possibility of survival, often even violently depriving others of life, in the hope of preserving their own life.

    How tragic! What a huge deception. For life is only acquired through faith in Christ and incorporation in His body...This means that it is no longer necessary to search for the “fountain of immortality.” Immortality exists in Christ and is offered by Him to all.

    There is no need for some nations to be destroyed in order for other nations to survive. Nor is there any need to destroy defenseless human lives so that other human beings may live in greater comfort. Christ offers life to all people, on earth as in heaven. He is risen, and all those who so desire life may follow Him on the way of Resurrection. By contrast, all those who bring about death, whether indirectly or directly, believing that in this way they are prolonging or enhancing their own life, condemn themselves to eternal death.

    Friday, April 13, 2012

    Transgressing the Boundary Between History and Myth

    The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement is, in fact, not a history. Douglas A. Sweeney's rather liberal use of the term "history" in the subtitle ought to fool noone. It is, at a point approaching the critical mass of generosity, a historically themed apology the purpose of which is to offer a palatable rendering of evangelical history intended to make the term invoke a pleasant warming sensation rather than the rancor the politicization of "evangelical" now produces. In truth--insofar as the book is a narrative construction by evangelicals, for evangelicals, about evangelicals in an effort to define and order evangelicalism--Sweeney's work is a myth, in the most neutral, academic sense of that term.

    Part of my (hopefully obvious) disappointment with this offering is that it was recommended to me as a scholarly work for history, a fact which the title and the author's own preface seemed to reenforce. Sweeney purports to present the reader with a serious but brief introduction to the history of evangelicalism which avoids "the sins of the worst scholarly texts" by writing in an accessible, narrative style. The deliberately nonacademic style, however, only serves to accentuate the nonacademic content of the work.

    The first and personally the most grating, though by no means the most serious, flaw in Sweeney's work presented as a history is the constant and undefended (because it is indefensible) presentation of God as an agent in history. The reader need not wait long before encountering, I hope with shock and incredulity, this explanation for the Great Awakening:

    In a work of amazing grace and by the power of the Holy Spirit, untold numbers of Protestant leaders began to join hands across these [denominational] boundaries and to collaborate in the work of Gospel ministry.

    I wonder if it ever occurred to Sweeney that non-Christians, non-evangelicals, or even evangelical historians with a firm grasp of academic standards might shy away from the belief that it was "amazing grace" and the intervention of the "Holy Spirit" which were the primary causes of the Great Awakening. That is, after all, the problem with appeals to the historical agency of God. As a Christian, I believe (and struggle with the reasoning of those who do not) that God is an active agent in the movements of history. The problem in an academic history arises in trying to lay claim to what events are the products of His machinations and which are not. That is why historians, even Christians historians, restrict themselves to historical agents who act within history rather than those (i.e. God) that act on history from without. Sweeney, not having received that memo, goes on to make various other historically untenable assertions: God elected George Whitefield, Charles Wesley, and John Wesley for a special purpose, God used George Whitefield's fame to spread the Gospel, God provided an "amazing outpouring of the Holy Spirit" at Cane Ridge, and more.

    Coupled with this minor hermeneutical faux pas of baptizing his particular history in special providence, Sweeney offers up several historical "imprecisions" (because "errors" would seem incendiary, which is clearly not my intention). For example, he mentions in passing that the Southern Baptist Convention was formed for the purpose of more effectively coordinating Baptist evangelism. He never seems bothered by the fact that the Southern Baptist Convention actually organized in reaction to the more racially egalitarian, anti-slavery position of northern Baptists. Again, he mentions that Jonathan Edwards split with his church over his revivalist tendencies, when in fact Edwards was forced out of his church because he took a much stricter view on formal membership than had Solomon Stoddard. The biggest issue with these types of inaccuracies is not that Sweeney could have avoided them with even a Wikipedia level education (though, one has to wonder about the fact that Sweeney is an Jonathan Edwards specialist), but that in each case they seem to be glossing over historical realities which do not accord with the author's purpose.

    In fact, the entire text reads like a hagiographical rendering of the Great Thinker model of history. One wonderful evangelical man (and token woman) after another is extolled for his virtue, evangelistic excellence, and furtherance of the movement as a whole. (I was particularly struck by the decidedly subjective and ahistoric pronouncement that Charles Wesley was the "greatest writer of hymns in all of history," an honor I reserve for Fannie Mae Crosby.) Add to this the not-at-all-subtle, but duly disclaimed, suggestions that evangelicalism has been a champion of racial equality, women's rights, global missions, and social reform. His bias and willingness to downplay features of history that do not accord with it are thinly veiled, if at all. He seems to have no qualms showing his marked preference for Pentecostalism (and its spiritual relatives)--which he prophesies "those who walk the privileged corridors of worldly power" will soon be forced to take note of--over against fundamentalism and neo-evangelicalism, which he stops just short of depicting as a self-defeating drag on evangelicalism as a whole.

    The worst feature, however, the most unforgivable sin (so to speak) is that Sweeney never accomplishes what he sets out to do. After outlining the contemporary debate over the scope of evangelicalism--one of the few bright points in the entire work--Sweeney offers his own definition of evangelicals as orthodox Protestants with an eighteenth century twist. The rest of the book, he promises, will be outlining what precisely that definition means. Only, the meaning of the "eighteenth century twist" proves to be as vacuous as its wording is flippant. The reader searching for a historically rooted, taxonomically sound understanding of evangelicalism (as I was) is left no better off than for having read the work. It ought to go without saying, but I cannot imagine any circumstance in which I think it would be prudent to recommend this book to anyone. In fact, my only recommendation is that scholars with any social conscience find this book at their local or university library and reshelve it in a dark and dusty corner where even the librarians never venture. That way, anyone who is looking for it will be saved the mental anguish of finding and reading it.

    Thursday, April 12, 2012

    In Other News

    Last fall, I relayed an argument that I had been having about whether or not raising one's children to be religious constituted "indoctrination," and, if it did, whether or not it was possible to raise them in a state of neutral irreligion in an effort to promote choice. I concluded, and was delighted to later find my argument mimicked by Stephen Prothero, that there is no neutral state of irreligion, that the very act of raising children is a process of "indoctrination," and that proponents of "choice" for children were constructing their argument on an anthropological fallacy. Unfortunately, people still seem to be deluded by the fantasy that children can be raised as blank slates with regard to religion:

    Ontological anxiety is the anxiety created after realizing the overwhelming number of choices one can make as a free individual. Most people choose the path of least resistance and allow the choice to be made for them by their parents or other social pressures. Thus, shrinking of consciousness occurs, as a simple way to relieve the ontological anxiety is to eliminate the vast number of choices. I believe the majority of people who label themselves as Christians do so during their childhood because it is comfortable and easy for them to conform to their family's atmosphere, not because they have any sort of intrinsically strong faith or spirituality. In contrast, children with parents who do not offer a clear path of least resistance must deal with ontological anxiety as an individual. They are forced to pick through many choices and understand their choices more as a result. Thus, shrinking of consciousness does not occur to such a high degree and their more conscious choice is usually atheism (those who never overcome the issue of ontological anxiety are agnostic, as they do not make a choice).

    NYU student Joseph Rauch certainly dresses the argument up in fancier language (something he probably zealously picked up in a recent seminar), but the window dressing can be ignored. (We should also probably ignore his amusing misappropriation of agnosticism which is in fact more likely to be a positive theological position--the belief that knowledge is impossible or inaccessible--than atheism, which at its most basic merely describes the absence of a particular belief.) The argument is ultimately the same and the conclusions just as flawed. Children who are raised as "blank slates" have no greater or fewer choices available to them than the children of religious adherents, and parents who "do not offer a clear path" are in fact offering no less clear a path than a Christian parent who takes their child to church. Irreligion, whether in the form of religious pluralism, religious apathy, or positive irreligion (what Rauch likely means in his grossly overnarrow use of "atheism"), is not a neutral position in childrearing. The act of raising a child, which is by definition active, has no passive positions. I don't know what they are teaching you at NYU, Mr. Rauch, but around here we call that low-effort thinking.

    In Arkansas, however, low-effort thinking is being linked with conservative politics. (Speaking of issues we've tackled here before.) Researchers at the University of Arkansas got some Razorbacks drunk and were delighted to find that the probability of holding conservative positions increased with each shot of corn mash:

    Bar patrons were asked about social issues before blowing into a Breathalyzer. As it turned out, the political viewpoints of patrons with high blood alcohol levels were more likely to be conservative than were those of patrons whose blood alcohol levels were low.

    But that's not all:

    But it wasn't just the alcohol talking, according to the statement. When the researchers conducted similar interviews in the lab, they found that people who were asked to evaluate political ideas quickly or while distracted were more likely to express conservative viewpoints.

    "Keeping people from thinking too much...or just asking them to deliberate or consider information in a cursory manner can impact people's political attitudes, and in a way that consistently promotes political conservatism," Dr. Eidelman said in the email.

    Maintaining all the high standards of journalistic excellence discussed in the previously linked article, this report closes with the clearly innocent string of interrogatives: "What do you think? Are conservatives less intelligent than liberals--or more intelligent? And is conservatism a matter of lazy thinking?" It never occurs to anyone to ask whether or not sobriety or concentration might actually be correlated to political correctness rather than drunkenness and distraction to social conservatism. More insidiously, it automatically labels the motivating factor in conservatism with a derogatory epithet: "lazy thinking." Would it not be just as accurate to interpret the results thus: tests show that social conservatism is the default response of uninhibited individuals. If anything, the heuristic value of the study as reported in the article is to question whether or not social progressivism is actually furthered primarily by cultural pressures and fear of social marginalization more than anything. After all, the study doesn't indicate what way people lean who are more intelligent or more thoughtful, only which way they lean when they are less inhibited and less guarded in their responses. Rejoice conservatives; your views are instinctive (at least in Arkansas).

    And while we argue about how to not raise children to not be religious and what it means when drunks in the Ozarks sound off about gay marriage, twelve Christians in Iran were anxiously awaiting a verdict in their apostasy trial. It's almost as if the Middle East has an actual war on religion.

    Tuesday, April 10, 2012

    Cow News

    And speaking of new births, the elusive panda cow has been born to farmers near Springfield, OR. I was skeptical at first, assuming that a "panda cow" was something that the local news media had made up to compensate for a dearth of legitimate news stories in southwestern Oregon. It turns out, much to my surprise, that a panda cow is a real breed of cattle. Extremely rare, the panda cow is a miniature breed distinguished by its white band around the midsection and, in ideal cases, black patches over the eyes on an otherwise white face. In 2010, a panda cow in Colorado generated some press. Now it's Oregon's turn:

    "I was coming out to check on the cows. I normally do that when I get the newspaper in the morning and I noticed we had an addition to the family," said Bernie Perkins.

    ...Bernie and Theresa Perkins say what's really remarkable is the breeding. The calf's mother is a panda cow, but without true markings and she was mated with a tan Belted Galloway. "It's like winning the bovine lottery. To get what appears almost perfect panda to me. I can't even explain the odds," said Mr. Perkins.

    Sunday, April 8, 2012

    John of Damascus for Easter

    Come, and let us drink of that New River,
    Not from barren Rock divinely poured,
    But the Fount of Life that is for ever
    From the Sepulchre of CHRIST the LORD.

    All the world hath bright illumination,—
    Heav’n and Earth and things beneath the earth:
    ’Tis the Festival of all Creation:
    CHRIST hath ris’n, Who gave Creation birth:

    Yesterday with Thee in burial lying,
    Now today with Thee aris’n I rise;
    Yesterday the partner of Thy dying,
    With Thyself upraise me to the skies.

    Saturday, April 7, 2012

    John of Damascus for Holy Saturday

    Into the dim earth’s lowest parts descending,
    And bursting by Thy might the infernal chain
    That bound the prisoners, Thou, at three days’ ending,
    As Jonah from the whale, hast risen again.

    Thou brakest not the seal, Thy surety’s token,
    Arising from the Tomb Who left’st in Birth
    The portals of Virginity unbroken,
    Opening the gates of heaven to sons of earth.

    Thou, Sacrifice ineffable and living,
    Didst to the FATHER by Thyself atone
    As GOD eternal: resurrection giving
    To Adam, general parent, by Thine own.

    Friday, April 6, 2012

    Gregory the Theologian for Good Friday

    O Thou, the Word of truth divine!
    All light I have not been,
    Nor kept the day as wholly Thine;
    For Thou dark spots hast seen.

    The day is down: night hath prevailed:
    My Lord I have belied;
    I vowed, and thought to do, but failed;
    My steps did somewhere slide.

    There came a darkness from below
    Obscuring safety's way.
    Thy light, O Christ, again bestow;
    Turn darkness into day.

    Thursday, April 5, 2012

    Andrew of Crete for Holy Thursday

    O the mystery, passing wonder,
    When, reclining at the board,
    “Eat,” Thou saidst to Thy Disciples,
    “That True Bread with quickening stored:
    “Drink in faith the healing Chalice
    “From a dying GOD outpoured.”

    Then the glorious upper chamber
    A celestial tent was made,
    When the bloodless rite was offered,
    And the soul’s true service paid,
    And the table of the feasters
    As an altar stood displayed.

    CHRIST is now our mighty pascha,
    Eaten for our mystic bread:
    Take we of His broken Body,
    Drink we of the Blood He shed,
    As a lamb led out to slaughter,
    And for this world offered.

    To the Twelve spake Truth eternal,
    To the Branches spake the Vine:
    “Never more from this day
    Shall I taste again this wine,
    Till I drink it in the kingdom
    Of My FATHER, and with Mine.”

    Thou hast stretched those hands for silver
    That had held the immortal Food;
    With the lips that late had tasted
    Of the Body and the Blood,
    Thou hast given the kiss, O Judas;
    Thou hast heard the woe bestowed.

    CHRIST to all the world gives banquet
    On that most celestial Meat:
    Him, albeit with lips all earthly,
    Yet with holy hearts we greet:
    Him, the sacrificial Pascha,
    Priest and Victim all complete.

    Monday, April 2, 2012

    Pray for the Church in Syria

    Making all the necessary allowances for skepticism considering the source, there are ongoing reports from Syria that the anti-government revolutionaries are taking every opportunity to seize property from and execute Syrian Christians. At the very least, this sort of behavior is consistent with the general trend in the much lauded march toward free and democratic societies in the Middle East.

    Armed Islamist rebel groups in Syria supported by the Obama administration and Western governments seeking to oust “President” Bashir al-Assad are engaged in “ethnic cleansing” of Christians, according to news reports and human rights organizations. And as the conflict escalates, the persecution of the once-protected Christian minority is growing as well.

    The Syrian Orthodox Church, which represents over half of Syrian Christians, issued a statement saying revolutionary fighters had expelled some 50,000 Christians from the embattled city of Homs. That figure is estimated to account for about 90 percent of the Christian community there. Hundreds more — including women and children — were slaughtered, according to charitable organizations operating in the area.

    The Orthodox Church referred to the persecution as the "ongoing ethnic cleansing of Christians" by Muslim militants linked to al Qaeda. According to its report, the so-called “Brigade Faruq” is largely to blame, with Islamic extremists going door to door and forcing followers of Christ to leave without even collecting their belongings. Their property is then stolen by rebels as "war-booty from the Christians."


    "Christians are being forced to flee the city to the safety of government-controlled areas,” noted a spokesman for the Christian relief agency Barnabas Fund, which reported that over 200 Christians had been murdered by insurgents. “Muslim rebel fighters and their families are taking over their homes."

    Sunday, April 1, 2012

    Andrew of Crete for Palm Sunday

    Jesus, hastening for the world to suffer,
    Enters in, Jerusalem, to thee:
    With His Twelve He goeth forth to offer
    That free sacrifice He came to be.

    They that follow Him with true affection
    Stand prepared to suffer for His Name:
    Be we ready then for man’s rejection,
    For the mockery, the reproach, the shame.

    Now, in sorrow, sorrow finds its healing:
    In the form wherein our father fell,
    CHRIST appears, those quick’ning Wounds revealing,
    Which shall save from sin and death and hell.

    Now, Judaea, call thy Priesthood nigh thee!
    Now for Deicide prepare thy hands!
    Lo! thy Monarch, meek and gentle by thee!
    Lo! the Lamb and Shepherd in thee stands!

    To thy Monarch, Salem, give glad greeting!
    Willingly He hastens to be slain
    For the multitude His entrance meeting
    With their false Hosanna’s ceaseless strain.
    “Blest is He That comes,” they cry,
    “On the Cross for man to die!”