Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Coretta Scott King

I tuned in the radio this morning to hear NPR talking about her life. That's a sure sign that someone is dead. I gather NPR was caught flat-footed: they next went to an interview with someone (didn't catch the name) who "knew her." All he could think of to say was that her training in music hadn't prepared her for a life as widow of a great civil rights leader.

That's rather telling: he thought only in terms of training in skills, not training in character. I think she could have taught him better, if he'd really known her.


Madison is one of the shrill centers for anti-Alito panic. I suppose it's good for fund-raising. Fund-raising was undoubtedly the purpose of the week's delay--I doubt that anybody changed his voting plans. And I doubt that he'll actually ever vote to repeal Roe vs Wade: unfortunately.

Even if the Supreme Court did repeal it, and also the disastrous Doe vs Bolton, it'd not be a cure-all. We've trained up two generations of lawyers to believe that women have an ancient Roman paterfamilias power of life and death, and it will take a long time to work that poison out of our system.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Democracy and Christianity and Policemen

Monarchist Christians have it easy compared with democratic ones. They don't have the burden of deciding justice—Caesar can do it for them.

The first order of business of any government is to protect its people, and since there's no shortage of enemies outside and criminals within, a government must not “bear the sword in vain.”

An army's job is to “kill people and break things;” and however much he may try to keep the peace, a policeman's ultimate backup is deadly force.

How soft and pleasant it must be to pretend that crime will vanish with just the right program, and dream on that it isn't a problem because you didn't see it in your neighborhood; or to imagine that an interlude of peace and plenty is eternal and that the divine millennium has come.

For those who let reality break through and see that violence must be done on their behalf, it is comforting to fob off responsibility on a “king.” But democrats must suck it up and say, however sorrowfully “Yes, I authorize this violence.” “Yes, a cop may need to beat the crap out of a man raged-out on angel-dust.” “Yes, bomb that refinery.” When does it end? Never as soon as our simple models of the world predict. And there are no perfect rules, except the promise that there is a time for war and a time for peace.

Those called to pacifism should never sneer at those called to fight. Somebody's got to be Martha. And Caiaphas was also a prophet.

And those called to fight should not sneer at those called to pacifisim. Perhaps that's a problem in some sections of this country.

It is a real dilemma: To fight isn't exactly loving, but neither is to abdicate.

And yes, my angel-dust example was provacative. But in real life the options are a bit limited: let him go on his rampage, try to back off enough to unlimber your gun to kill him, or whack him with a club. Want to pick?

Forever and Always

Quantum mechanics allows a little fuzziness in time, but on any sort of human time scale, the past is done. We each know our life as a little point riding and guiding the arc of our years. Our moving finger writes, and having writ . . . the curve of life we wrote on the world and on each other is indelible, timeless, fixed in eternity. We don't perceive it that way, but the past is now always, and perhaps our knowledge will change and we will see it so too.

Forever and always—that glorious picnic and the baby's smile. And also forever furtively reading your sister's diary. And forever the horror in the village when the raiders came. If God erased the evil He would have to remake the world entirely—our lives, our choices, everything—we'd no longer have been.

Some of you may think it worth it—the ones who endure the burden of broken self hood in a ruined world. “Let it all have never been and I can find oblivion!” God had a subtler idea, and He offers the chance to redeem us.

Does He then redeem the past too? Or do only a new nature of grace and the works of it survive, with all the evil ripped away into the abyss? Can good works exist without context? If not then perhaps the past will be redeemed—occasions for grace covered by the sacrifice of Jesus. Perhaps we will be able to look at our anguished history and praise God for the great good revealed.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Belvedere Oasis

Odd how 7pm on a Thursday has a 1am feeling there. The west-side McD's stand was closed, and the Doghouse was closing. There was country music in the air: "Nothin' on but the radio." I bought a gyro combo from the Hispanic family running the place. A rotund black man in superbaggy pants bought the same thing, and wandered off looking for a newspaper for 5 minutes before coming back for his order--that's how quiet it was. (Don't order the combo unless you really like french fries.) The advertising kiosk announced that their firm could "reach over 3 billion motorists annually." Another rejoiced in "the passion of shopping" and the "satisfaction of saving."

Sometimes I have to pinch myself to see if I'm awake and on planet Earth. Perhaps they meant "passion" in the old sense of pain?

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Church History in Plain Language, second edition, by Bruce L Shelley

The book is what is says: a history of the church, and well written. I learned quite a bit.

I'm not going to summarize it. OK, actually I did, but the result is about 14 pages and is for a church class.

The book leaves some things out--it is only 500 pages long, after all. And there were a couple of small points I thought were almost but not quite right. But, as I discovered when writing my own summary, that's inevitable when you're summarizing.

Its a fun read. Go read it.

Emerging Churches by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger

It may seem odd to start with this book, rather than one of the manifestos about Emergent Churches, but this one is overdue at the library. Of such mundane concerns are schedules made . . .

The subtitle is creating christian community in postmodern cultures. And that, I think, explains the purpose rather nicely. The interviewees, on the whole, seem to be trying to create either missions among the “Generation X” or Christian communities among the “Gen X.” The research methodology is biased towards finding these kinds of “churches” (Appendix B), but I’ll assume that their approach gives an accurate picture.

The authors interviewed dozens of leaders of such groups, trying to find out where they came from, what needs they were trying to meet, whether evangelism is important, the role of creativity, and what leadership is like—among other questions.

The results are all over the map. Some are in love with spontaneity and creative worship while others found the hard way that some order and accountability are critical. Some have “club scene” churches and others try to make room for quiet and meditation. Some have happy links to denominations and others are so bitter against the organized church that you can taste it. Rachelle goes so far as to say “I came to realize that artists ought to function as the main leaders of the gathering, setting the tone for worship. Artists intuit the truth through their art.” And the Greek poets were the spokesmen of the gods.

Spokesmen for the “movement” have said that our culture is changing from a “modernist” philosophy to a “postmodernist” philosophy, and that this is a big change. I’ll not go into all that just now (check the references: you’ll be little wiser than you were before). The gist of their point is that churches accommodated themselves to “modernism” and aren’t equipped to deal with the new “postmodern” culture, which deals more with stories and images than teacher/student relationships. (The whole “postmodernist” cult is afflicted with worry about hierarchy and sources of power.)

Let’s stipulate that the groups described in the book are representative, or maybe even definitive, of the emergent movement. It saves time, and I’m in no position to say for sure. They are, on the whole, trying to address two rather grave problems:

  • The usual evangelistic approaches aren’t coming close to where a huge fraction of the lost actually are. The culture has carefully trained the young to find common expressions of Christianity silly or stupid; only a novel or obscure Christianity (Celtic or Greek Orthodox) is “authentic.” Most people in Britain apparently can’t imagine entering a church to worship.
  • Churches are often boxed-in affairs: Sunday-only and with only a restricted amount of community. This shows up dramatically in what happens to youth: they get involved in youth groups, but not in the life of the church. When they go to college, “goodbye youth group” and since they’re not used to community with the rest of the church, most fall away from active participation.

The problem with creating a mission to “clubbers,” for example, is that they represent a particular age group, and with time members age out of the target group; and the group winds up as “boxed-in” as the church they tried to extend. Quite a number of the mission groups in the book have this problem; most admit it. I’ve not got any good solutions either, but at least the gospel is getting out there.

Some groups have been trying to create holy community by working to become part of each other’s lives, meeting frequently, praying together when they meet, and so on. The obvious problem is that there are only 24 hours in the day, and the number of brothers and sisters we can become deeply involved with is relatively small. The not-so obvious problem is that when we try to make every part of our lives sacred, we wind up with everything partly secular. We don’t seem to have enough attention to God to make every moment sacred, so the best of a bad situation is rhythm: sacred times and non-sacred times.

And, of course, when you try outreach by welcoming nonbelievers into this community, it can lose distinctiveness and become a “group of friends” rather than a holy community. What is Holy Communion/Lord’s Supper if half the participants aren’t Christian?

Still, the problem of unredeemed time is big enough that some experimentation is worthwhile.

Another big feature of these groups is “creativity.” Some use DJs in clubs, some create special artwork for the service, some experiment with liturgies: all sorts of things.

We sat each week surrounded by some of the brightest talents in film, TV, art, social work, and politics who were made to watch in virtual silence because they did not play guitar or preach. . . . We saw that if worship is about gift, then what we bring to worship has to be integral to us, something meaningful from who we are.

I’m talented in mathematics, but I haven’t found that bringing mathematical operations into the service enhances the worship of others, no matter how integral my gift may be to me. pun intended

Several groups found that they had to temper the enthusiasms of their artists—the services were supposed to be about God, not about novelty.

This isn’t a book to read for fun; it feels scattershot and the prose isn’t scintillating. But it is useful. And I haven’t touched on half the things the authors cover.

Thursday, January 19, 2006


Let me see if I understand this Illinois IPass . I buy the pass and use my credit card to add $$, which debitted each time I pass through a toll booth. So far so good. If I commit some violation, such as using the IPass on a different car, they can assess fees which can be drawn from my credit card. And they reserve the right to change terms merely by sending me an email. And they get a timestamp every time I pass through the gates. So all they have to do is ship out an email and they can start printing money by deducting traffic fines (double if there was a work zone) from my credit card if I happen to travel at the prevailing speed. Hmmm. I don't think I drive that way enough to make it worthwhile.

Sunday, January 15, 2006


Sometimes I wonder if people do things like this deliberately. The sign for a gas station read
Unleaded 235.9
PLUS 243.9
PREM 251.9

I'm glad their beer is unleaded.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


Fermilab has a sufficiency of geese. An abundance. A superfluity. An avalanche. Sidewalks full. "Oh me, oh my--you wanna buy a goose?"

Though it is kind of fun to see a flock taking off in front of a car, trying to clear the road before the car crawling through hits them. (Not that you dare hit a goose; they're are a protected species and you'd be in the soup if you squashed one.)

Friday, January 06, 2006


I was reading Emerging Churches by Gibbs and Bolger on the bus this morning. They aren't the finest apologists I've ever run across. Their approach is rather scrambled, they use the usual "define the best as the stuff we've got" approach, and they overstate (to the point of misrepresentation) problems with traditional churches. I'm not happy with myself when I do things like that; and if I get annoyed with good-old-me, imagine how I regard folks misrepresenting me!

I looked up and the woman in front of me was reading a printout titled "My Initiation into the Goddess Hecate" by Rev Greg Crowfoot.

I looked down at the book, and thought "Hi, brothers!"

Sunday, January 01, 2006


My father was a missionary accountant. He did the mundane grunt work that let the preaching types do the church planting. And the hundreds of sympathy messages my mother received show that even the laborer in the back room touched many lives.

He valued precision, as I suppose an accountant ought to do. This showed up in some unexpected ways.

My shoes are New Balance sneakers, and when untied each lace provides over 14 inches free on each side. (I measured them. One day I'll buy some shorter ones.) Dad's dress shoes had 3 inches free. To tie those things takes more finicky precision than I could stand, but he preferred it.

Fear Less by Gavin de Becker

Gavin wrote the famous The Gift of Fear about how fear is supposed to be used to keep you safe, and how to understand risks. We have used this with a couple of our kids with Aspergers to try to explain how to analyse behaviors, something Aspergers folks don't learn automatically. This book is an application of those same principles to the fear of terrorists post-911.

Some of what he writes about is common sense. The world has never been safe. If your enemy threatens you, he isn't attacking you. Try to understand what the real risks are, not just those things that worry you. Learn how to trust your fears. Don't feed your fears; you want to be able to trust your instincts and you can't do that if you try to worry about everything. Don't demonize your enemy; you can't defeat a demon.

His analysis of airline security is scathing: most of the "security" precautions are designed to make people feel confident, not address the real risks: which aren't that hard to address. He calls in the experts to explain how to survive chemical or biological attack--and it isn't nearly as hard as you think. (Don't panic, keep stuff off your skin, breathe slowly and get away from the area. You've now got an excellent chance to exagerate your story to your grandkids.)

And he devotes two chapters to explaining why you shouldn't watch TV news reports. Their stock in trade is exageration and fear-mongering, and you want your fear sense tuned to real risks. "Anytime you hear the word possible, it's probably not happening right now." "Almost always when you hear the word link, there is no confirmed link." On experts: "Imagine being challenged by a difficult illness and finding that your doctor's compassionate and complete thirty-minute presentation had been edited down to twenty-three seconds."

The chapter on the enemy and compassion seems more or less sensible, though it isn't quite clear what measures he supports during a war. FWIW, I can't recall anything in ancient or modern history that resembles the care we've tried to take to protect civilians in Iraq, except similar measures in Kosovo and the first Iraq campaign. I don't know if that's what he's talking about or not.

He offers resource pointers in appendices, and advice about how to talk to kids about terrorism and how to keep them from excessive worry. Roughly, this is: Explain that parents protect their kids. Don't watch and rewatch terrifying scenes (network TV again), and don't talk about worst case scenarios when the kids are around.

Read it. And get ahold of The Gift of Fear while you're at it. You probably won't need his company's services, though.