Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Evangelical Crackup Considered . . .

I suppose I should start by saying that my claim to being an evangelical will depend on how the term is defined. To the extent that being an evangelical means "conservative Protestant": yes, I am a very conservative Protestant in a Calvinist niche denomination. And our goals have always been to get the theology both specific and correct.

But the broader evangelical movement, as represented by such as Hybels and Warren, have always had way too much postmodern sloppiness about what passes for their theology, and if this article is to be believed, that sloppiness is spilling over to their approach to public affairs:

Meanwhile, a younger generation of evangelical pastors — including the widely emulated preachers Rick Warren and Bill Hybels — are pushing the movement and its theology in new directions. There are many related ways to characterize the split: a push to better this world as well as save eternal souls; a focus on the spiritual growth that follows conversion rather than the yes-or-no moment of salvation; a renewed attention to Jesus’ teachings about social justice as well as about personal or sexual morality. However conceived, though, the result is a new interest in public policies that address problems of peace, health and poverty — problems, unlike abortion and same-sex marriage, where left and right compete to present the best answers.

A few thoughts:

1. I wasn't aware that evangelicals had ever been uninterested in "spiritual growth", although I will say that this particular formulation lacks specificity.

2. "Social justice" . . . somehow I doubt that the people using this phrase are complaining about the Kelo decision, for instance, or confiscatory taxation. No, social justice invariably means spending more of other people's money. So we're already in politically loaded territory.

3. "Problems where left and right compete to present the best answers" . . . So, basically, you want to run where everybody else is already going, yelling "Me too!" The temptation to be liked, expressed as the desire to appear socially relevant, this is what David Wells nails below:

Ever since they broke with the mainline Protestant churches nearly 100 years ago, the hallmark of evangelicals theology has been a vision of modern society as a sinking ship, sliding toward depravity and sin. For evangelicals, the altar call was the only life raft — a chance to accept Jesus Christ, rebirth and salvation. Falwell, Dobson and their generation saw their political activism as essentially defensive, fighting to keep traditional moral codes in place so their children could have a chance at the raft.

But many younger evangelicals — and some old-timers — take a less fatalistic view. For them, the born-again experience of accepting Jesus is just the beginning. What follows is a long-term process of “spiritual formation” that involves applying his teachings in the here and now. They do not see society as a moribund vessel. They talk more about a biblical imperative to fix up the ship by contributing to the betterment of their communities and the world. They support traditional charities but also public policies that address health care, race, poverty and the environment.

Older evangelical traditionalists like Prof. David Wells of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary near Boston argue that the newer approaches represent a “capitulation” to the broader culture — similar to the capitulation that in his view led the mainline churches into decline. Proponents of the new evangelicalism, on the other hand, say their broader agenda reflects a frustration with the scarce victories in the culture war and revulsion at the moral entanglements of partisan alliances (Abu Ghraib, Jack Abramoff). Scot McKnight, an evangelical theologian at North Park University in Chicago, said, “It is the biggest change in the evangelical movement at the end of the 20th century, a new kind of Christian social conscience.”

More thoughts:

1. Here again the tendentious language: "contributing to the betterment of their communities and the world." There is a whole lot to unpack here about what a Christian's role in society should be, but let me pause to point out that those who campaign to, say, rid their communities of porn shops and strip clubs have at least as much claim to having "contributing to the betterment of their communities" as someone who simply votes for higher taxes imposed on other people.

2. "Abu Ghraib, Jack Abramoff" Let's count the conservative votes in favor of Abu Ghraib? Zero! How about Abramoff? Wow, same number! So . . . unless you already believe that somehow these were the deliberate policies of conservatives or the Bush administration, as opposed to one-offs where the perpetrators were punished, where is the moral entanglement?

Here's my problem: I have no idea who these people are! I go to church and see a lot of political conservatives and a handful of liberals. I do NOT see anyone advocating "a new kind of Christian social conscience". I do not see a groundswell of concern about "health care, race, poverty and the environment" as if nothing had happened since 1900. Yes, there are plenty of people disappointed in Bush -- I am among them -- but it is not because anybody believes that he is TOO pro-life or too pro-war or insufficiently committed to "social justice".

The reasons for the for the frustration is:

1. The sense that the Bush administration is going down in flames and taking us with him. The whole enterprise has acquired the stench of failure because of the Iraq war, and failure doesn't win many friends. The article pretty much acknowledges this, but doesn't give it sufficient weight.

2. Bush's commitment to the liberal worldview regarding the true nature of Islam.

3. Any number of other issues that are not specific causes of the religious right but are nonetheless important to conservatives, eg. immigration.

So it might be true that Hybels and Warren are attempting to lead their flocks toward a "new social conscience" . . . but eventually, the Iraq war will end, a Democrat will be elected president, and then we will see how many Indians the chiefs still have.

There is nothing to prevent the new evangelical churches from going the way of the mainline protestant denominations; indeed, with shallower institutional support, they are unlikely to last as long.

Question on Halloween

Every year, somebody wears a halloween costume that the media pronounces "controversial." Last year, it was a college student dressed as a suicide bomber; two years ago, Prince Harry came to a party dressed as a Nazi. This provided the occasion for much puffery amongst the bien pensants.

I don't get it. It's Halloween, fer Pete's sake! You're supposed to dress like something scary. Well, don't Nazi suicide bombers, um, fit the bill?

It's ridiculous to argue that dressing up as a suicide bomber on Halloween makes you a supporter of suicide bombing. Should we infer from all the witch costumes a broad support for witchcraft?

I am reminded that several of the churches I have attended have hosted alternative non-Halloween Halloween parties: Harvest Festival, Reformation Day, etc. At one of these, costumes referencing dark spirits (ghosts, goblins, witches, and the like) were specifically discouraged. These alternatives are motivated by the belief that dark spirits are nothing to mess with, even in fun.

But I would bet that the same people who would denounce our church as a bunch of fundamentalist ninnies are the very ones now denouncing these costumes. I smell somebody's PC orthodoxy at work.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Legacy of Jihad

Very often I find a reference to an article that I bookmark with the intention of reading later--in this case, eleven months later. The article is in the November 2006 Policy Review by the always thought-provoking Lee Harris, reviewing the book, The Legacy of Jihad, by Andrew Bostom. The money quote:
For the Arab philosopher of history Ibn Khaldun, the conquest by the warlike Arabs of more advanced yet weak and decadent empires represented a deep historical pattern. When a civilization becomes too sedentary, too decadent, too forgetful of the struggle for existence that originally put it on top, it becomes ripe for conquest by those who are still warlike and driven by a fanatical sense of mission. Thus, he noted, superior wealth and superior civilization were no guarantee that those who possessed them could hold on to them in the face of small but determined bands of fanatics united by a sense of what he called “group feeling.” In short, for Ibn Khaldun, jihad can be devastatingly effective even when it is waged against a civilization that, in material terms, is far in advance of the jihadists.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

"Deeply Christian"

I recently discovered the online debates between Jonah Goldberg and Peter Beinart hosted on NRO. In the course of a debate about Larry Craig, Peter made the obiter dictum that religious conservatives greeted Hilary Clinton's recent claim that she was "deeply Christian" with reactions ranging from skepticism and scorn. Peter's criticized this reaction as flowing from our belief that being a Christian ontologically entailed our particular political platform. Jonah countered that religion was largely creedal, and would therefore tend in that direction, although he was not specific.

Let's leave aside, for the moment, the demonstrated character of the Clintons and their policy positions. I want to focus on the phrase, "deeply Christian."

Jonah is correct that Christianity is creedal: "If you believe in your heart that Jesus is Lord, and confess with your lips that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Rom 10) It is in these terms that Christians (or Protestants anyway) perceive themselves and others. But it goes further than that. By making a statement of faith, we are making a statement about something that forms the core of our identity, something that we are; it is only secondarily about something that we do.

This understanding drives the language that we use to talk about it. Ask us about our religion, and we will reply, "We are Christians," or "I am a Christian." Although we might describe behavior as Christian or un-Christian, I struggle to think of a context in which we would describe ourselves as "Christian" in an adjectival sense.

So the reason I am skeptical of Hilary's claim to be "deeply Christian" is that it rings false. (This is assuming that the quote is what it appears to be; I was unable to locate a source for the story or the context in which the quote was said to be made.) Hilary is lying out of ignorance (which I doubt) or she is choosing her words carefully to send an important cultural signal: she is avoiding making a declaration of her ontological identity or, more specifically, a statement of where her religious loyalties lie. And in that avoidance, she is communicating to her largely secular constituency that she is NOT one of the enemy.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Rod Dreher caps off a back-and-forth between himself and a number of other writers about why people leave home with the following observation:

I spent my last two years of high school at a public boarding school, where they taught advanced classes. The place was a godsend for small-town kids like me. So many of us had been marginalized, and even bullied, for being good students interested in books and suchlike. It's a very old, very common story, I know, but many of us who were fortunate enough to go to that school felt like we really had been saved. Our classmates who'd come from schools in Shreveport, Baton Rouge, Lafayette and New Orleans -- the big cities in Louisiana -- had none of that anxiety and release that we small-town kids did. I finally figured out why: because they'd gone to schools big enough, and lived in cities big enough, to find their own place in a larger society. Peer pressure didn't matter as much, because there were so many people around that you could find a place for yourself. In many ways, it's easier for me to raise my kids in Dallas than it would be in a small town, because it's not that hard to construct a social community of people who share our family's values (the trick is geographical proximity, which is very hard). It's interesting to reflect on how much easier it is for me, living in this big city, to put together a meal more like the kind of fresh country food my folks grew up eating than it would be for my folks to do that today, back home.

This resonated powerfully with me. I, too, spent five socially awful years of my boyhood in a small town in the South. Like Rod, I, too, was bookish, a good student, and lived in fear of physical attacks by Neanderthals. It probably didn't help that Presbyterians were a tiny minority. It certainly didn't help that the parental figures who purchased my clothing were indifferent if not actively hostile to whatever happened to be in style. But . . . moaning about my childhood is not why I'm writing this post.

Rod's article recalled to my mind a condescending piece by Air Force Academy professor Barry Fagin that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and which their fool of a political general trumpeted as a "balanced perspective" on the convulsions that a handful of Jews foisted on the Air Force a few years back. The money quote:

We who teach at the Air Force Academy face extraordinary challenges. Our student body possesses a geographical diversity most universities would envy. But many of our cadets come from small towns with homogeneous populations, and they have never been exposed to a faith tradition outside their own. When Christianity is all you know, and when you have been taught to bear witness to the Truth ever since you could walk into church, some overzealous evangelizing is inevitable. Not excusable, but inevitable.

Um . . . no. It is precisely living in a small town or rural area that forces interaction with a religiously heterogeneous mix of people. Carving out a community of like-minded people is a luxury of us urban dwellers.

Why are Vaccinations Mandatory?

From an AP story:

"When you choose not to get a vaccine, you're not just making a choice for yourself, you're making a choice for the person sitting next to you," said Dr. Lance Rodewald, director of the CDC's Immunization Services Division.

This. Makes. No. Sense.

I thought the whole point of getting a vaccine was that it made you immune to the illness. If this is true, then it shouldn't matter that the person next to you has measles. Because you can't catch it.

So what collective purpose is served by mandating vaccinations? I don't have a lot of sympathy for religious objections to vaccinations on the merits, but according to the article, the present wave of vaccination opt-outs are driven by a rational calculation of the relative risks. Sure, those calculations may be wrong, but I do think that if the government is going to substitute its judgment for theirs, the government ought to show a better reason than this.

Update: Colin comments:

The issue is that a vaccination doesn't always work. The person sitting next to you may have been vaccinated, yet is still susceptible.

Childhood vaccinations are an example of the prisoner's dilemma. If one parent defects, his child gains and the other's don't lose much. However, if all parents defect, then we have outbreaks.

Makes sense up to a point. Mandatory vaccinations reduce both the risk of exposure and the risk of infection given exposure. If these probabilities are independent, then they multiply, and so become smaller.

However, it seems that this would put a "natural" ceiling on the number of defections, since as the defection rate goes up, so does the risk of exposure, which makes the value of the vaccination all that much higher.

It should be straightforward matter to construct a probabilistic model for the "optimum" participation rate, assuming voluntary participation and given the probabilities involved. (By optimum, I don't mean socially optimum necessarily, only individually optimum, which might not be the same.) I'll try to have a go at it in a future post.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Chinese Toys

Via an article by John Derbyshire, I became acquainted with the huge number of safety-related recalls of Chinese-made toys:

China by far leads the list of countries making products that are recalled in the United States, accounting for 65 percent of all the recalled products in this country this year, according to CPSC. In 2006, China accounted for 233 product recalls -- nearly double the rate from the previous year, with lead a recurring cause among the recalls.

Who pays for this? Virtually all of Chinese manufactures are marketed and distributed in the U.S. under domestic labels. So when Thomas the Tank Engine has to be recalled because the Chinese painted him with lead-based paint, I expect RC2 Corporation (American) has to issue the refunds. Can RC2 then recoup this money from the Chinese factory that made the toy? What is RC2's legal recourse? To sue in American courts? Against what attachable assets? To sue in Chinese courts? Ha! "Sue in one hand, crap in the other . . ."

No foreign company can own property in China directly; it can only do so via joint ventures under Chinese control. So American money flows into China to build the factory, American money flows into China to buy what the factory makes, and the U.S. gets . . . poisonous toys.

Maybe someone can explain to me a scenario where America doesn't get screwed.

On prayer

Outstanding post over at Bobvis:

Look at this well-known prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

That is pretty much the secret. I learned it from the Hindus though. They stress the difference between outcomes and duty. The Gita-practicing Hindu attempts to live a life detached from outcomes. Attachment to outcomes (also known as desire) ultimately makes life miserable by making you look for happiness to be delivered to you by the benevolence of the outside world. Instead, Hindus attempt to focus on fulfilling their duties. Duties are performable actions. Outcomes are influenced by these actions, but they rarely are determined completely by actions.

I had no idea that Hindus were proto-Calvinists!

I did take issue with this:

I never pray for outcomes. I find it humorous that Hinduism (and Christianity) are replete with examples of people praying for outcomes and getting them and yet Hinduism advocates indifference to outcomes and Christianity advocates a trust in the outcomes G-d provides.

I responded in the comments:

Let's look at an example from the life of King David found in II Samuel 12:

15 After Nathan had gone home, the LORD struck the child that Uriah's wife had borne to David, and he became ill. 16 David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and went into his house and spent the nights lying on the ground. 17 The elders of his household stood beside him to get him up from the ground, but he refused, and he would not eat any food with them.

18 On the seventh day the child died. David's servants were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, for they thought, "While the child was still living, we spoke to David but he would not listen to us. How can we tell him the child is dead? He may do something desperate."

19 David noticed that his servants were whispering among themselves and he realized the child was dead. "Is the child dead?" he asked. "Yes," they replied, "he is dead."

20 Then David got up from the ground. After he had washed, put on lotions and changed his clothes, he went into the house of the LORD and worshiped. Then he went to his own house, and at his request they served him food, and he ate.

21 His servants asked him, "Why are you acting this way? While the child was alive, you fasted and wept, but now that the child is dead, you get up and eat!"

22 He answered, "While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, 'Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me and let the child live.' 23 But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me."

My thoughts:

1. By the time David is praying for the life of his son, prayer was the only duty he had left with respect to his son's illness.

2. David's prayer for a specific outcome in this case represented a worshipful acknowledgement of God's sovereignty: God did, in fact, possess the power to save his son's life. Likewise, we who pray for specific outcomes should hold to this understanding. Yes, we should avoid the attitude that God is somehow a celestial gumball machine and our prayers its quarters; however, we must also avoid the attitude that our prayers are irrelevant.

3. David's response to the news of his son's death likewise recognized God's sovereignty.

Monday, October 15, 2007


I saw the movie Transformers on DVD this weekend (or at any rate, the first half of it). A few thoughts:

1. The geek gets the girl. He wins her attention even before it turns out his "new" car is a Transformer. I'm a sucker for this storyline, even though it never happens in real life. Much more realistic was that, until he gives her a ride home, she had no idea that they had been in the same classes since grade school.

2. The combat sequences. These are just what we would expect from Michael Bay. I'm not an expert on military operations, but this movie's portrayal feels realistic. From the special ops team in the desert, to NSA's signal analysts, to the National Command Authority: these folks are portrayed as courageous, resourceful, and dedicated . . . just like we would expect them to be in the face of a Decepticon-magnitude threat.

This compares favorably to 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Here, the military appears incompetent and self-important, and serve only to get in the way of the heroes.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Sex and Status (again)

Steve Sailer republishes his 2001 review of the Ashley Judd / Hugh Jackman romantic comedy Someone Like You. The money paragraphs:

The sociobiologists may have the last laugh over the plot, since they argue that much of what we call the War Between the Sexes is really a War Within the Sexes. Kinnear's behavior turns out not to be driven by novelty after all. He merely left Judd and returned to his old girlfriend, played by Ellen Barkin. But that revelation makes Judd dislike him even more, since it shows Kinnear preferred another woman to her.

At the fade out, Judd falls into the manly arms of Jackman, who really has been living out the [playboy] lifestyle. Yet, his years of promiscuity make him all the more desirable to her, since snagging his love means she's triumphed over all the other women he dumped.

This reminds me of an observation I posted over at Bobvis:

Here is an anecdote from one of those "date-off" shows whose name I forget, but it features a girl interviewing two guys who want to go out with her. Unbeknownst to the guys, the girl has a female friend secretly listening to the interviews and feeding her advice through a hidden earpiece. The guys have been prescreened for their attractiveness and photogenicity.

So one of the questions she asks the guys is, "When was the last time you had sex?" One guys says a couple of months. The other guy says, last Wednesday. Both girls are horrified that a guy who had sex so recently is here pursuing another woman.

At the end of the episode, the girl picked the guy who had sex Wednesday.

Observation: it is fairly apparent to me that, while the girls may have disliked the fact that he had sex on Wednesday, this fact indicated to them that he was the type of man who could have had sex on Wednesday, and this they liked very much.

I think this observation could be generalized to all kinds of behavior that women complain about, but yet serve as proxies for qualities they desire.

Now, sho'nuff, another commenter came along and said, well, the girl must have really picked him because of the same qualities that got him laid. (These qualities did not appear, to me, obviously superior to his competitor.) But while I would not insist that these are uncorrelated, I will insist that the attractiveness alone does not account for all the variation. The sex life served as a proxy for status, and women respond to that independently of attractiveness.