Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Wisdom of Mark Noll

I had some familiarity with the first edition of Religion and American Politics, a volume of essays edited and introduced by Mark Noll. I enjoyed the apology for the continued scholarly interest in the interplay between American religious and political life. Yet, as Noll points out in his introduction to the second edition, such an apology has become unnecessary in the years since the book's initial publication. Americans are not thoroughly aware of the substantial, if not dominant, role of religion in American politics. In an effort to reorient the book, Noll suggests that a new argument must be made to the American people:

[Contemporary Americans need] to incorporate a little bit of historical distance when tempted to extremes of approbation, condemnation, or bewilderment in the face of current events. The religious-political agitations of the recent past are, in fact, far from novel. Beginning with the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and going on to the rise of politically conservative evangelical Protestantism, American politics has returned to the normative situation that prevailed for most of American history...

Against the fuller sweep of American history, the political-religious interactions of the last few decades represent no new thing. From arguments over religious freedom during the Constitutional Convention and antebellum sectional division accompanied by learned public debates from Scripture about the morality of slavery, through religion-infused experiences on the home front and with armies during the Civil War, and imposition of racial segregation after the end of Reconstruction, the rise of populism, the national campaign for prohibition, and the arguments used for entrance into World War I (and against entering that war), to the presidential election of 1928, when the Catholic faith of Democratic candidate Al Smith loomed large, religion was an ever-present if also constantly evolving fixture in American politics.

Attention to this wider history shows, for instance, that religious vitriol was spread around more widely during the Thomas Jefferson-John Adams presidential race of 1800 than with Bush versus Kerry in 2004; that public debate over the morality of slavery reached a depth of intensity beyond what has been experienced in debates over, first, African-American civil rights and then abortion and gay marriage; and that Jews and Catholics experienced levels of discrimination into the twentieth century that far exceed discrimination against Muslims that has been documented for the early twenty-first century.

Noll's purpose is obviously not to trivialize the seriousness of modern religiously infused debates, particularly not, for example, civil rights or religious discrimination. His is simply a plea to contextualize these discussions historically and to resist the urge to particularize the modern mindset. Americans are, unfortunately and by no means uniquely, a people who delight in bringing their religion to bear on statecraft.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Wisdom of Harry Stout

In the course of an article about the rhetorical world of the Federalist clergy, Harry Stout offers this delightful observation (which I have deliberately decontextualized so that you might take it however you like):

America is a disproving ground of logic.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

In Other News

Death, as usual, abounds in the news, and, what's more, it never seems wanting for unusual ways to strike at us. Consider the unfortunate death of the one week old panda cub at the National Zoo today:

"Panda keepers and volunteers heard a distress vocalization from the mother, Mei Xiang, at 9:17 a.m. and notified the veterinarian staff immediately," the statement read, in part. "The panda cam was turned off and the staff were able to safely retrieve the cub for an evaluation at 10:22 a.m. Veterinarians immediately performed CPR and other life-saving measures but the cub did not respond."

Dennis Kelly [elaborated,] "[Mei Xiang] got up and moved from where she was holding the cub and made a honk. The keepers and scientists tell me that a honk was an unusual sign to make, and we surmised that it was a distress call."

"It was just beautiful," said the zoo's chief veterinarian, Suzan Murray. "Beautiful little body, beautiful little face, the markings were beginning to show around the eyes. [The cub] could not have been more beautiful."

The zoo believes that it may have a cause of death pinpointed by Monday. On Tuesday, Cleve Foster is scheduled to die. For the third time.

[T]wice over the past year and a half, Foster has come within moments of being [executed by the state of Texas], only to be told the U.S. Supreme Court had halted his scheduled punishment.

On Tuesday, Foster, 48, is scheduled for yet another trip to the death house...

Pal’s relatives haven’t spoken publicly about their experiences of going to the prison to watch Foster die, only to be told the punishment has been delayed. An uncle previously on the witness list didn’t return a phone call Friday from The Associated Press. Foster, however, shared his thoughts of going through the mechanics of facing execution in Texas — and living to talk about it.

The process shifts into high gear at noon on the scheduled execution day when a four-hour-long visit with friends or relatives ends at the Polunsky Unit outside Livingston.

“That last visit, that’s the only thing that bothers me,” he said.

Giving death row inmates four hours in which to say goodbye to their loved ones face to face is an inadequate but humane gesture in an otherwise inhumane process. Making them relive that trauma for the third times very nearly approaches what should be universally recognized as torture. Cruel and unusual though it is to be brought repeatedly to the brink and then snatched back, all totally against one's will, it is hardly the only form of cruelty humanity has devised and mastered.

Poachers are escalating their assault on Africa’s elephants and rhinos, and conservationists warn that the animals cannot survive Asia’s high-dollar demand for ivory tusks and rhino horn powder. Some wildlife agents, customs officials and government leaders are being paid off by what is viewed as a well-organized mafia moving animal parts from Africa to Asia, charge the conservationists.

Seeing a dire situation grow worse, the animal conservation group WWF is enlisting religious leaders to take up the cause in the hopes that religion can help save some of the world’s most majestic animals.

...The poaching numbers are grim. The number of rhinos killed by poachers in South Africa has risen from 13 in 2007 to 448 last year, WWF says. Last year saw more large-scale ivory seizures than any year in the last two decades, it said. Tens of thousands of elephants are being killed by poachers each year.

There is nothing quite like slaughter for profit to get humanity back in touch with its roots. Thankfully, conservationists are trying "new strategies." Long recognizing that poaching is a moral problem, apparently the WWF is only just realizing that religious leaders should be part of the solution. "Faith leaders are the heart and backbone of local communities. They guide and direct the way we think, behave and live our lives," Dekila Chungyalpa, the director of WWF’s Sacred Earth program, said, adding later: "I think this is the missing piece in conservation strategies. ... WWF can yell us much as we want and no one will listen to us, but a religious leader can say 'This is not a part of our values. This is immoral.'"

As far as death goes, this is just the tip of the iceberg.




Thursday, September 20, 2012

An Apology for Louisville

It has been well over a week now since I read Dan Wetzel's analysis of the new marriage between Notre Dame and the ACC. So much of what Wetzel offers strikes me as true, though I find myself stopping short of declaring this move the great stabilizing moment for all of college football that Wetzel wants it to be. More definitively, I object to his analysis of how this effects the prospect of expansion for the Big 12:

The Big 12 could still come after the Big East's Louisville, Cincinnati or someone else, but that league is adamant, both on and off the record, that it is excited about having just 10 members right now. Everyone from commissioner Bob Bowlsby to Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds has spoken of the advantage of playing a true round robin in football and basketball and avoiding the additional challenge of a conference title football game, which can knock a team out of national title contention.

Besides, the league just signed a huge new television deal. With Notre Dame and any ACC powers now no longer a possibility, there isn't any program out there that would make economic sense to add. Everyone else just waters the league down.

For someone who just expended a great deal of energy arguing that the Big East had just been saved as a major league, Wetzel sure doesn't seem all that impressed with its top teams. His most basic claim that adding Louisville would water down the talent pool of the conference is easily debunked. Since joining the Big East, Louisville has posted a 72-42 record, one that becomes more impressive if you exclude the deeply unfortunate years under Steve Kragthorpe. Sure, that was a record achieved in the Big East, but it is nevertheless better than Iowa State's record during the same period. Better than a resurgent Kansas State as well. Without even doing the research, I'd be willing to wager it is notably better than Baylor and Kansas's records as well (maybe combined). Not all of that success is attributable to being in a weak conference either. Just before joining the Big East, Louisville would finish its season ranked sixth in the AP poll, a feat it would achieve again two years later after beating the ACC champion Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl. Undefeated and well ranked again already this season, I think it is indefensible to suggest that their addition to the Big 12 would just be a watering down of the conference.

But I had a problem with Wetzel's analysis even before I sat down this past weekend and giddily watched the Cardinals handle the Tar Heels, and I will still have a problem with it even if by some miracle Louisville is upset by Florida International (1-2) this weekend. There are at least two reasons beyond football prowess why the Big 12 should continue to keep Louisville in its sites. The most obvious is basketball. While college basketball certainly isn't the money machine that college football is, it is hardly something to scoff at either. Louisville's basketball credentials are familiar and impressive. Even just a quick perusal of some reputable sources would have taught Wetzel that Louisville has the 9th best winning percentage in college basketball all time, two national championships, nine final four appearances, and 38 tournament appearances with 64 tournament wins. All in all, they are variously ranked either the seventh or sixth best men's collegiate basketball program in the modern history of the sport. With the obvious exception of the Kansas Jayhawks, no one in the Big 12 even comes close. In fact, the rest of the teams don't have a national title between them, unless, of course, you want to count the two noteworthy championships of Oklahoma A&M in the forties. Adding Louisville would dramatically improve the basketball profile of the conference.

There is an even greater contribution the Cardinals could make, though we may be loath to admit it. Adding the University of Louisville to the conference would substantially improve its academic profile. The Big 12 is constantly fighting with the SEC for the title of the toughest conference in football. The two are equally determined to squabble over which can have the poorest academic standing. With the departure of Texas A&M for the SEC, the Big 12 is pulling ahead (maybe in both categories). While adding Louisville is not likely to replace A&M and it certainly won't be like adding another Texas, it will represent a substantial improvement over the present academic state of the conference. (And the same would be true of adding Cincinnati, but I am less taken with that idea.) Louisville has a much better track record of producing substantial research, particularly in the field of medicine, than most of the Big 12 schools and a much larger endowment to student ratio. With schools like Texas Tech and Baylor on the cusp of pulling their universities into the Tier 1 category, adding a school like Louisville can only aid the academic standing of the conference.

There are, of course, more if less compelling reasons. For example, it might be nice if poor West Virginia was floating off on a veritable island east of the Mississippi. It would also be great to start to develop a fan and recruiting base in the South, particularly now that the SEC has its claws into Texas. It is also almost too delicious to bear to imagine the Louisville-Kentucky rivalry being an annual weekend for the Big 12 to gloat over the SEC.

So no, Mr. Wetzel, I will not be content with ten teams, or at least not the ten teams presently in the Big 12. I don't think the powers-that-be in the conference should be either. While Wetzel's vision of the future is more probable than my own, I would like to continue to naively believe that the Big 12 is run by people who are capable of seeing beyond mere football in the decisions that they make. It is not too much to hope that the Big 12 can be the SEC in football, the ACC in the classroom, and still entertain bored fans in the spring while we wait for colleges to start playing a real sport again in September.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Breaking News: Text About Jesus' Wife Prompts Zero Controversy

There is breaking news coming out of Boston:

A Harvard professor has identified what appears to be a scrap of fourth century Egyptian papyrus that contains the first known explicit reference to Jesus as married, a discovery that could fuel the millennia-old debate about priestly celibacy in the Catholic church.

Of course, journalistic pot-stirring aside, this discovery will actually generate no controversy and will likely go entirely unnoticed in the debate about priestly celibacy. Why? It's not because the document is already facing serious scholarly doubts about its authenticity. It's also not because even the professor in question admits that the content of the papyrus in no way constitutes evidence that Jesus was actually married. This discovery, even if it is authentic, will mean absolutely nothing to the question of clerical celibacy because it isn't news to the Catholics. They, like everyone else remotely versed in the issues, already knows that numerous late antique heterodox sects believed that Jesus was married. They, probably rightly, lump them in with the people who thought Christ was a phantom and the people who thought, as a boy, he turned clay into pigeons.

If the Catholic Church can find a way to cope with the fact that Peter, ostensibly the first pope, was married, they can certainly ignore the fact that some fourth century fringe groups speculated that Jesus was too. And they will ignore it. And so should you.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Wisdom of Mark Twain

The following quote from Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi has a tendency to appear in a variety of contexts, from discussions of mathematical principles to misguided attempts to defend creationism. I recently encountered it employed by Anna Green and Kathleen Troup as part of a critique of some of the possible excesses of quantitative history. Regardless of the context, it is simultaneously humorous and thought provoking as only Twain is:

Therefore: the Mississippi between Cairo and New Orleans was twelve hundred and fifteen miles long one hundred and seventy-six years ago. It was eleven hundred and eighty after the cut-off of 1722. It was one thousand and forty after the American Bend cut-off (some sixteen or seventeen years ago.) It has lost sixty-seven miles since. Consequently its length is only nine hundred and seventy-three miles at present.

Now, if I wanted to be one of those ponderous scientific people, and "let on" to prove what had occurred in the remote past by what had occurred in a given time in the recent past, or what will occur in the far future by what has occurred in late years, what an opportunity is here! Geology never had such a chance, nor such exact data to argue from! Nor "development of species," either! Glacial epochs are great things, but they are vague--vague. Please observe:

In the space of one hundred and seventy six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old O├Âlitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Beware the Boogeyman

The still striking teachers of Chicago have raised the possibility of continuing their strike in spite of new concessions by the city and a fresh deal on the table. What could possibly justify this? It is the possibility that, because of declining performance and enrollment, the city may be forced to close as many as 120 schools over the next year. The real enemy here, though, is not school closures but that now familiar bugaboo of charter schools.

"The mayor and his hedge fund allies are going to replace our democratically controlled public schools with privately run charter schools. This will have disastrous results," union president Karen Lewis wrote in an opinion column in the Chicago Sun-Times on Saturday.

Disastrous indeed. Never mind that 12% of Chicago schools are already charter schools "run by philanthropists." Never mind that, on a national scale, charter schools' "academic performance record compared with community schools is mixed." Never mind that the charter schools have never been responsible for the prolonged absence of 350,000 students from the classroom (and have, in fact, done what they can to pick up the slack during the strike). If empty or malfunctioning schools are closed down and replaced with charter schools, the ground may very well open up and swallow Chicago whole. God knows, it's happened to less corrupt populations.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Religious Freedom, American Style

Here is a wonderful example of American religious freedom in action, in ways which don't center on ancillary disputes with theoretical Christians fringes and which present a direct and powerful contrast between the way Americans and Europeans treat the "eccentricities" of religious minorities:

California employers face new restrictions against shunting Sikh and Muslim workers out of public view for wearing turbans, beards and hijabs, under a bill signed Saturday by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The measure could affect workplaces from Disneyland to San Quentin Prison.

"This bill, AB 1964, makes it very clear that wearing any type of religious clothing or hairstyle, particularly such as Sikhs do … is protected by law and nobody can discriminate against you because of that," Brown told some 400 Sikhs and supporters at a rally of the North American Punjabi Assn. on the steps of the Capitol. Brown also signed SB 1540, which requires the state Board of Education to consider a new history framework for schools that the governor said will include "the role and contributions of the Sikh community in California."

Unfortunately, California has also proved its ongoing and incomprehensible commitment to reduce the history classroom to an instrument for producing political capital.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Inter-Generational Gay Kissing Causes Distraction

Now there's a headline for you. A former junior college freshman has taken to the media to protest his dismissal from the football team at North Dakota State College of Science. The dismissal centers around this curious incident:

Kuntz, 18, had been injured much of fall camp and had only practiced a couple days prior to the trip. So, the coaching staff asked him to film the game from the press box. While in the press box, Kuntz invited his 65-year-old boyfriend, who lives in Colorado, to join him to watch the game. During the second half of the 63-17 blowout, Kuntz took a minute away from the camera to kiss his boyfriend. The kiss was caught by some of Kuntz's teammates and word started to spread.

Kuntz believes homophobia is at the root of his dismissal. He had kept his sexual orientation secret prior to the incident and, consequently, lied to his coach about the relationship with the man he was seen kissing. Admitting that he had shared a passionate kiss with his grandfather was apparently less embarrassing than admitting he was homosexual.

In any case, if you read far enough down in the article--farther than the average reader will go--you will find this tidbit floating between the long examinations of theoretical homophobia and Kuntz's speculation: "The football team rules state that lying to coaches is a dismissible offense." Which invites us all to ask, why is this newsworthy? A member of a team with full knowledge of the team rules commits a dismissible offense and is dismissed. Maybe the coach is homophobic, maybe not, but Kuntz ought to have a tough time garnering sympathy when he gave the coach an ironclad reason for dismissing him. Sure, raising the specter of institutional discrimination is easier than admitting any kind of personal failure. We all understand that impulse. Next time, though, if you want the world to be righteously indignant on your behalf, you can start by not making out with your significant other in full view of your superiors and peers while you are supposed to be engaged in official team activities.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Chicago Strike

It is day three of the Chicago teachers' strike, and I had sincerely hoped that it would come and go before I needed to comment on it. There is too much to be frustrated about here to condense into a few short sentences. Certainly the false sentiment that "both sides have the best interests of the students at heart" never fails to amaze. Obviously they don't, otherwise the teachers never would have considered striking and the school board never would have allowed a strike. At any cost. More frustrating to me, however, is this nonsense:

The board proposal would leave some 28% of teachers in danger of dismissal within two years, he said, calling that "an insult to our profession."

Do you know what's really insulting? That teachers think theirs is the only job you can suck at without getting fired. I realize that isn't the most eloquent argument I have ever constructed, but my reactions to 350,000 students being refused the already deficient education the state is offering them because teachers who are already making twice what my wife does have undertaken a self-righteous quest for a self-serving "educational justice" prompts a reaction in me more visceral than intellectual. At the end of the day, the problem with education is not the possible lack of continuity that comes from a higher turnover rate for teachers but the motivational impotence of an entrenched tenure system. We don't just need to pay teachers less, we need to fire more of them. Trim the fat, as it were, and let fresh blood in. It is time to treat teaching like other occupation: perform or find another profession. It's that simple.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Nigeria: Problems and Solutions

Government officials are also servants of God aren't they? Well, they should be. Because in this modern world, they hold the key to making life a bit more enjoyable for God's people. They share budgets, they are the ones who have seized the public space.

So begins Tope Fasau's plea for state solutions to the ongoing religious strife in Nigeria. As the title of his article, not to mention his opening salvo, suggests, Fasau's solutions revolve around the need for the government to more fully regulate the religious experience in Nigeria. He calls for all religious groups to be forcibly registered with the state. He suggests that they should be understood, for political purposes, as charities and evaluated on the basis of how charitable their distribution of funds is. He wants all ministers to be on set salaries, subject to audit by the national government. He believes the government should outlaw the use of incendiary rhetoric in the public sphere, removing posters that show ministers in camo or using "crusade" language. He even wants to eliminate certain forms of public preaching in an effort to reduce "the angst in people."

For Americans, most if not all of this suggestions will seem repugnant. As we continue to be embroiled by our own apparently critical religious "conflicts," the possibility that the state might force all religious societies to register, might abridge their ability to express their beliefs when, how, and where they want, and might take a very direct and invasive interest in how their money is spent is unthinkable. It would be shocking if Fasau's suggestions carried much more currency with the native populations he is hoping to sway. Certainly, one cannot expect Boko Haram or its substantial constituency to submit to these kinds of measures, not in the midst of their own very violent, very public crusade. Nigerian Christians, in all likelihood, will be equally unwilling to throw open their doors for a government to "regulate" them who has thus far proved incapable even of protecting them. To all of these objections, I add my own negative evaluation of Fasau's logic.

Most people see their government officials - president, governors, local government chairmens, councilors - more than they see their pastors or Imams. So, we ought to redefine the linkage between God and man, and that linkage should necessarily include our government officials. Perhaps that will scare them into doing the right thing. For as it is, many of them profess God, but act as if they think God is dead.

It is hard to be too dismissive of this reasoning if only because it has dominated Christian thinking in the post-Constantinian West and Islam throughout it history. At the same time, it is impossible not to highlight the total and incontrovertible failure of this kind of thinking. In both Islam and Christianity, the more definitively the government has functioned as a "linkage" between God and humanity, the more we all have cause to make apologies for the excesses of our faithful leaders. A beloved history professor from my undergraduate days imparted to me this wisdom, shared here before, "When the church and the state get into bed together, it is the church who plays the whore." The force of this aphorism lies in its simplicity and obvious truth, a truth which has played out at every level of history to the great detriment of human society everywhere.

For Fasau's argument, the same logic might be expressed differently: when the church and state are merged, it is the church who has cause to fear. Fasau wants religious believers to apply pressure on their leaders to "do the right thing" by appeals to their place as a link between God and man. Yet, this very linkage has been the means through which the state has oppressed people throughout history. The analogy between "pastors or imams" and "presidents and governors" ought to frighten more than it inspires, as it extends the reach of the state beyond merely the body into the very soul of the believer.

What's more, far from being a perversion of what he wants, such an extension and potential oppression accord exactly with what Fasau is proposing. The pressure to "do the right thing" has as its ideal result a crackdown on the uninhibited expression of religion. "Extreme" manifestations of religion, to be sure, but a crackdown nonetheless. It is precisely so that religious groups will begin to fear the state that Fasau wants Christians and Muslims to join together to invest sacred significance in the work of government officials. I believe that Christians everywhere and faithful Muslims with them want to see an end to Boko Haram. It is equally clear, and forcefully stated, that faithful Christians and Muslims everywhere want no more retaliatory violence from Christians. But even Fasau cannot leave the implications of his argument implicit, looking forward to a time when the government will "curb the noise pollution caused by Mosques and Churches" by doing away with the public morning call to prayer and Christian midnight vigils.

Boko Haram is extreme. Christian retaliation is extreme. Inconveniently timed prayers are extreme? Christians and Muslims should be careful to remember that, in the ideal world of theory, states exist for their citizens. In the gritty world of reality, they exist for self-propagation. In either case, their quest is for stability not truth, their defense is of borders not of "rights," and they are guardians of wealth not of faith. Fasau may be right, and they may "hold the key to making life a bit more enjoyable for God's people." But I suspect even Nigerian Muslims and Christians can come together and agree that, for God's people, there are higher priorities at stake.

Friday, September 7, 2012

"The Christian World" and Its Shortcomings

Martin Marty is, unquestionably, one of the giants in Christian scholarship and publishing. Consequently, and perhaps unfairly, there is a heightened level of expectation when consuming any of his work and, if that effort should prove lacking, an exaggerated sense of disappointment. Such was the case when I expectantly picked up his The Christian World: A Global History. Published as part of the Modern Library Chronicles, The Christian World is purposefully brief and its treatment deliberately shallow. Instead, the book sets out to give an overview of Christianity from the perspective of it's global presence, purporting to correct a typically euro-centric reading of the majority of Christian history. Instead, Christianity for Marty is a narrative best seen through its various continental episodes by which he organizes the larger work (e.g. "The First Asian Episode," "The Latin American Episode," "The Second African Episode").

Unfortunately, this methodology, which should be the primary draw for the work, manifests in ways more artificial than informative. Marty admits early on that when defining what is "Asian," "African," and "European" that he will be using modern continental distinctions. The problem with this approach is that the modern continents do not reflect the outlook of ancient peoples. In the Mediterranean world in particular, Marty's segregation of the Roman empire into Asian, African, and European contingents proves nothing short of willful anachronism.

The initial chapter beyond Marty's retelling of the Gospel is supposedly about Christianity in Asia, though in fact it focuses almost exclusively on the Levant and Asia minor. That the Levant is technically in Asia according to modern line drawers says nothing of its essential orientation at the time of Christ or the centuries that followed. It faced—ideologically, commercially, and politically—to the West, which is why the end of Paul’s earth, a fact which Marty earlier notes, was Spain and not China. Meanwhile, calling the Byzantine “episode” Asian only creates the impression of global focus. The majority of the “story” narrated is one included in Western-centric retellings and intimately involved, though he is loathe to mention it, interaction between Constantinople and Rome. The same is not true of Constantinople and any truly Asian Christian centers, great or small.

Unfortunately, the same complaint holds for the first African episode, which focuses on North Africa to the exclusion of the rest of the continent (in spite of a thriving Christian community in sub-Saharan Ethiopia). The central "African" figures are Tertullian and Augustine. Never mind that Tertullian spent most of his time indulging in Phrygian heresies and arguing with Rome about them, or that Augustine's most influential teaching revolved around a British heretic. The story, rightly told, is a single Mediterranean episode, and any continental scheme to the contrary reflects, rather blatantly, a modern understanding of what it means to be global.

Marty realizes, if never fully admits, how problematic his scheme is, and he is forced to abandon it on several occasions. For example, having nowhere else to put them, most of the major late antique heresies find their way into a catalog of error in the first African chapter. The fact that Montanism and Manichaeism are Asian heresies, and Pelagianism and Novatianism European ones, does not warrant their removal to their respective chapters. Instead, through scholastic sleight of hand, Marty talks about them as imports to North Africa, never bothering to stress that they were equally if not more fully present in Europe or Asia as well. Perhaps most amusingly of all, Marty apologetically includes much of Eastern Europe in his first Asian chapter because to treat it where it technically belonged would be to put the European Orthodox in an episode with Rome rather than the with Constantinople. Then, in a radical about-face, all the Orthodox find themselves lumped into the second European episode “for convenience’ sake” and because they have “location and interests in Europe.” Had he been honest from the beginning, he would have made his divisions on the basis of where "interests" lay throughout the work.

Even as he moves into Latin, North American, and later Asian and African chapters where the focus is truly on continents and those continental divisions represent real cultural orientations, Marty's system remains an overemphasized organizational tool rather than a means for enriching the readers understanding of Christianity. Very little effort is made to link what makes, for example, Asian Christianity Asia or European Christianity European beyond merely their locations. The exceptions here are with Latin American Christianity and modern African Christianity, which Marty gives the kind of local flare necessary to a better understanding of Christianity as a global movement. Unfortunately, Marty's attempts to parrot this effort in North America fall into the old traps of too often artificially dividing the Atlantic world in the way he divided the Mediterranean one. The final Asian episode is the least fruitful, as the narrative told is less about Asian Christianity than about the failures of European Christianity in Asia. Even leaving aside that his tour of "all continents" neglects Oceania for all but one short paragraph near the end of the concluding chapter, there is a thriving indigenous Christianity in Asia that warrants further study.

The other major shortcoming of Marty's work--which I hope I can treat more briefly--is his never very subtle apology for inclusivism as the cure to Christianity's ills. In the Introduction, Marty has already begun, arguing that Christianity's greatest atrocities have been committed where exclusivist claims exist. Christianity has been an agent of love, he insists, but when it isn't, exclusivism is to blame. Assuming a causal relationship of necessity between exclusivism and evil misunderstands the connection. Exclusivism is only necessary for religion to function as a justification for evil. That it does not cause evil is evidenced by the persistence of evil even in the absence of religious exclusivism as a stated cause. Other exclusivist motives gladly take up the slack to justify what is ultimately a deeper impulse to evil: racial, national, and ideological exclusivism have all been marshaled to justify greater atrocities in the last century than religious exclusivism.

Of course, Marty never engages the issue that directly, preferring to let it hover beneath the surface, bubbling over in only slightly more subtle ways. His eulogistic praise of little known inclusivists like Bardesanes or the the “adventuresome” theologians after Vatican II who wanted to dialogue between Buddhists and Catholics until the fearful, censorious exclusivists silenced them. Marty contrasts Enlightenment figures who saw the “moral and humanitarian equivalence” of the Abrahamic faiths with “militant dogmatic Christians” who opposed them. He brings to the forefront as often as manageable and in the best light possible any movement which tended toward ecumenicism, inclusivism, or inter-faith dialogue. It is only in his concluding notes that he formally recognizes this bias, answering his own "so what" with a plea to allow interfaith dialogue to ameliorate conditions between rival religions. It is an interesting issue which warrants attention, but it is, nevertheless, grossly out of place in a condensed survey of Christian history. More to the point, the furtive way that Marty weaves it into the narrative, allowing it to color his reading of history only to pretend at the close that history has independently led the reader and writer both to a common conclusion, is, for lack of a more diplomatic and academic word, sleazy.

Yet, for all that, Marty's The Christian World is not a bad book. As noted from the outset, many of the complaints arise from heightened expectations based on the author's status. If the totally uninitiated reader picks up this text and reads it cover to cover--and it is a remarkably easy read, if a bit dull at times--he will emerge on the other side with substantially more hard data about Christian history. As a survey, there are better texts, ones not so hampered by the author's political agenda or marriage to an artificial, often distracting, methodology. As a look at Christianity's global character, it falls short in that it fails to recognize and study along real lines of cultural, political, and ideological distinction. The reader might have been better served--at least in this particular goal--by dropping the Mediterranean and Atlantic stories altogether, instead giving exclusive focus to India, Mongolia, Ethiopia, indigenous African and South American Pentecostalism, and Korea (among others). Of course, with its primary purpose being to survey all of Christian history, Marty clearly should instead have dropped the flawed methodology.

Though it may come as a shock, I do recommend Marty's book, to a limited audience and for perhaps more venal reasons. For those who have no concept of Christian history or have only a rudimentary grasp of post-Reformation Protestant history, the book is an acceptable survey to begin with. There are others, certainly, but to have a scholar of Marty's trustworthiness--and there are no grave errors in the book, other than interpretive ones (which are, of course, subjective)--as the author of a book that Amazon will let you have in hardcover for less than ten dollars (free shipping) is a blessing.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Sinus Infections and Antibiotics

I have been telling my wife for years that she needs to stop going to the doctor for sinus infections. It is, in the overwhelming majority of cases, no more effective than seeing a physician when you get a cold. Most sinus infections are viral and merely need to run their course. As with a cold, you can simply treat symptoms with over-the-counter medications and suffer through it. Meanwhile, her doctor--and so many other doctors removed from my merely anecdotal experience--continues to prescribe her, with assembly line efficiency, antibiotics and a decongestant. Every time. Never mind the unnecessary cost. Never mind the proliferation of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria. If you give someone a drug, regardless of how ineffective it is, that's all that counts.

Finally now, after years of domestic discord, I finally have an advocate in Ohio State University:

As many as 45 million people in the U.S. suffer from chronic sinus infections each year. After decades of overprescribing antibiotics, at a cost of billions of dollars, physicians are being asked to reconsider their treatment approach. According to the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the reasoning is simple. Up to 90 percent of all sinus infections are caused by a virus, which antibiotics can’t treat and can actually make worse by killing healthy bacteria and strengthening the immunity of dangerous bacteria found in the sinus cavity.

So consider this a public service announcement. The next time you have a sinus infection and your doctor wants to prescribe you antibiotics, look the physician right in the eye and ask, "Why do you hate me?" Because malice is the only excuse, except of course for laziness. Which do you suppose is worse?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Adrien Brody Speaks for Horses

Actor Adrien Brody is speaking out on behalf of the horses of New York City.

The Pianist star was shaken when Oreo, a black and white carriage horse, sprinted through midtown Manhattan last month (Aug12) and collided with a car, spilling two tourists and his driver, who suffered a broken leg, out onto the street after being spooked by construction noise...

An excerpt of the Oscar winner's letter [to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn], written in partnership with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, reads, "A horse and carriage belong on a deserted country road or in a small village, not in a big city filled with blaring noise, throngs of people, air pollution and fleets of taxis - where accidents are inevitable."

He's absolutely right and, moreover, good for him. Getting horses off the streets of New York has none of the self-gratifying character of so many celebrity causes, though this particular effort seems to have substantial backing. If we're being honest though, I think its inhumane to make taxi drivers work on New York streets too. What are you going to do?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Another One Bites the Dust

By which I mean that another priest in the Orthodox Church in America has been removed as part of what appears to be a broader effort to shake the dust out of the hierarchical rugs, so to speak. Says the Chicago Tribune:

The local bishop of the Orthodox Church in America has been placed on administrative leave amid allegations of "inappropriate" behavior with a woman...

In a letter to parishioners, Bishop Matthias, 63, denied the accusations, which he said came to light in a formal complaint submitted to the church last week.

"The allegations are that I made unwelcome written and spoken comments to a woman that she regarded as an inappropriate crossing of personal boundaries and an abuse of my pastoral authority," he wrote.

Metropolitan Jonah, of course, was ousted not so very long ago over allegations that he protected another priest on an even more serious charge, rape. Jonah, curiously enough, is a Chicago native.

There are a number of ways to interpret the broader trends at work here in light of this latest high profile discipline. The first--most amusing and least substantial--is to make lighthearted note of the perennial corruption that is as essential to Chicago identity as wind and cursed baseball. More seriously, and more dangerously, it is easy to allow ourselves to slip into the assumption that this is indicative of widespread corruption in the church, sexual deviancy on the scale of, if of a different type than, was seen in the Roman Catholic Church. That's possible, of course, and the faithful should be careful not to let pious devotion interfere with a serious consideration of that possibility.

It is just as likely, if not more consistent with the facts thus far, that what is being seen in the OCA right now is exactly the kind of diligence and constructive transparency that the public as well as parishioners want from their clergy. This is not a witch hunt; the bishop is question is on leave pending further investigation. There certainly has been no rush to rash judgment. The wheels of bureaucracies, and church bureaucracies in particular, spin slowly. Nevertheless, the OCA seems to be making a concerted and public effort to clean house, an effort which can and should be met with a cautious and measured optimism. Maybe, just maybe, when they say they have learned from the mistakes of others, they mean it.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Damn the Torpedos, the Country, Etc.


Karl Rove recently--in real terms, not in time measured by how quickly the news media chews, swallows, regurgitates, and masticates its stories before finally letting them pass--suggested that Mitt Romney, if elected, would be a president like Polk. James K. Polk is something of an obscure figure, as far as the general public is concerned, and undoubtedly no small number of "news" anchors needed rapidly to resort to Wikipedia to get up to speed. For my part, the initial thought that crossed my mind was "Oh? What does he intend to annex?" A colleague of mine playfully suggested that the Republicans have had their sights set on Iran for some time now. In turn, I wondered if--given Romney's family roots there--whether or not he would scoop up the rest of Mexico and finish what Polk started. It would certainly be a novel way to solve the illegal immigration problem.

With a more serious tone, the same colleague expressed confusion about why anyone would want to associate themselves with a president for whom a simple and direct causal link could be drawn between his actions and the American Civil War. He asked whether or not we were supposed to interpret the comparison to mean that Romney presidency foreshadowed another civil war. Certainly that was not the intent on Rove's part, but it is a dangerous line of inquiry to invite.

Meanwhile, with a Lubbock County Judge speculating that an Obama reelection might prompt another civil war, should Americans be left wondering whether they're damned if they do, damned if they don't?