Desperate Houseflies: The Magazine

Feel free to pull out your trusty fly swatter and comment on what is posted here, realizing that this odd collection of writers may prove as difficult to kill as houseflies and are presumably just as pesky. “Desperate Houseflies” is a magazine that intends to publish weekly articles on subjects such as politics, literature, history, sports, photography, religion, and no telling what else. We’ll see what happens.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Here's Some Controversy For You

Check out this Washington Post article from yesterday (I think you have to register, but it's free). It's about social psychologists who study bias, and the findings of a new study that purports to show that biases influence political views.

Whew, doggie.

I encountered this topic and researched it in more detail than the average bear last summer when I was preparing to second-chair a deposition of an expert witness for a company my law firm is suing. It's a race-discrimination case involving claims about compensation and promotions. The thing about all employment discrimination cases these days is that they're murky. There are no blanket exclusion policies anymore, and there usually are no smoking guns (i.e., written documentation that a person was fired, not promoted, or not hired because of a forbidden characteristic like race or sex). So we rely on social scientists who analyze the "social framework" of a workplace and elucidate how discrimination can come into play, often because of what we call "excessive discretion" and "subjective decisionmaking." This is necessarily overly simplified, but suffice it to say that discrimination is largely unacknowledged and even unconscious on the part of decisionmakers.

Dr. Philip Tetlock, a professor at the Haas Business School at Berkeley, was hired as the expert for the other side in this case. He has made part of his career (he's too prolific for me to say all) out of trying to maintain the classical definition of prejudice -- hatred, malice, conscious bias -- and arguing against fellow social psychologists who have done extensive work on how the nature of racial prejudice has changed in the late 20th century because the public mores about acceptable levels of prejudice have changed. Tetlock particularly hates the test discussed in this article -- the Implicit Association Test -- for various reasons too complicated to delve into here. And he even more particularly hates the proposition, which the test purports to show here, that, not to put too fine a point on it, Republicans are more likely to be racists than Democrats.

I'm agnostic on the scientific merit of the Implicit Association Test and on what the relationship is between racial prejudice and being a Republican. I'm interested to hear others' thoughts on this issue. Go forth and engage!

Moving Forward

Some of you may remember that there was an unpleasant incident on this blog a little over a month ago that I unfortunately and unwittingly caused. I shared my story of having had an abortion a few years ago, and one of the responses on the comment board completely sent me over the edge. In retrospect, I probably overreacted slightly, although the response in question was harsh and unkind. But at the time I also thought that my reaction (my e-mail to Al) would be private – i.e., that only my husband, close friends, and Al would know about it. I’m not upset with Al for making it public, necessarily, just pointing out that I didn’t expect that.

Time has passed, I kept posting, but now no one will engage anything I write, probably for fear that I will sic Al on them again. (smiley face) Or maybe no one finds my stuff engaging, who knows. But I wanted to just say that I hope people take something from my rambles, and should feel free to challenge me or ask questions. I’ve tried to be present on the comment boards to facilitate that, and I have been impressed with the respectfulness of the conversations I have been part of. The internet, unfortunately, often frees people to say things that they wouldn’t say to someone face to face. I mostly see that in other forums and only occasionally here. But I recognize the difference between reasoned debate and personal attack, and I have no problem engaging in reasoned debate.

Okay, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way ... I will try to get another post up today or tomorrow.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Mourning or Feasting?

We have been discussing, at least in a minor way, the subject of death for awhile now, and rather than fight it, I thought I'd quote this passage of Scripture for reflection:

A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death, than the day of birth.
It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting; for this is the end of everyone, and the living will lay it to heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
(Ecclesiastes 7:1-4)


I'm not trying to be morbid or anything, but death has been on my mind lately due to the death of my grandfather recently. Rather than trying to pontificate at length about this proverb, I'd rather ask a question and see what everyone thinks. What is the writer getting at here? Is there something we can learn for life by contemplating our death? If so, what?

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Picture of the Week


A pelican at Inner Harbor Park in Ocean Springs yesterday afternoon.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

First day on the job

What follows passed my desk yesterday. I'm often handed things for mass distribution and usually my toughest job is making any one care about the administrivia we're touting.

Not this time.

I don't know the fellow's name that penned the narrative below. I feel comfortable sharing it here since it was intended for public dissemination.

I'm not sure if fits the mold of Thursday's intended topic -- inspiration, but it was written by a Chaplain. However, there's not much religion ... just one person's reality.
_______________
Friday, January 20, 2006

Just 14 hours after my arrival at Kirkuk Regional Air Base in Iraq, I was awakened and startled to hear the rapid bursts of 50 caliber machine guns. It was 0430 and pitch black in my pod and I laid awake, suddenly realizing the gravity of the situation I had been thrust into.

A few hours later, I was grateful to discover that the gunfire I heard was the sound of soldiers going out on patrol testing their weapons. Serving at a Forward Operating Base alongside the 101st Airborne would definitely be a stretching experience for me, but I was relieved to know that our perimeter had not been attacked that morning. My relief was short-lived. A few minutes later a call broke out on the radio indicating that there were casualties inbound. Chaplain Mark Barnes, Chaplain Bob Gallagher, TSgt Trish Winters and I rushed over to the Expeditionary Medical Squadron just in time to witness SSgt Bill Spencer, one of our chaplain assistants, helping transport two patients off the UH-60 medevac chopper.

As I watched the scene reminiscent of the television show, MASH, the adrenaline flowed and prayers for stamina and courage screamed upward as I entered the emergency room and stood by as our valiant medical professionals attempted to save the soldier’s lives. They were partially successful. One lived, one did not. The deceased soldier’s right leg had been blown off and the blood spilled generously onto the starkly white emergency room floor. They tried for what seemed like an eternity to resuscitate him, but were unsuccessful. Just 10 months earlier, the USAF sent me to Wilford Hall Medical Center, San Antonio, for a Professional Continuing Education designed to expose students to “Crisis and Trauma.” I honestly believe that if I had not had that training, I would have been totally unprepared for the graphic nature of what I was witnessing. But God, in his providence, knew that I would need His strength and all the training I could get for what lie ahead.

The mood was somber as the doctor pronounced the soldier dead and medical technicians placed him in a black body bag. Chaplain Mark Barnes, a familiar face around the medical tent, was flying to Qatar next day after over 130 days of phenomenal ministry at Kirkuk. He confidently stepped forward and offered a prayer for the victim, his family and the troops he served with. He demonstrated a confidence I didn’t feel, and inspired me to put my feelings of discomfort aside and to focus on the patient and the staff. Little did I know that I would need that level of confidence just a few minutes later.

A rumor that there was a third victim was whispered around the emergency room tent, but we quickly discovered that it was tragically false—there were three other victims—all three “KIA.” As details emerged, we discovered that they had been blown up by an Improvised Explosive device (IED). I joined a seasoned captain and a young lieutenant from the mortuary affairs team and we drove over to the mortuary together.

Like many of the bases in Iraq, Kirkuk had served Saddam Hussein’s air force before we took over, and remnants of his influence pervade the base. The mortuary was a tiny stone building with two-toned paint peeling off the walls, naked lights hanging from exposed wiring and a variety of stainless steel carts lining the walls. As I arrived I quickly met the senior installation Army chaplain, Ch, Major Scott, and we walked in together. We stood and watched as eventually four bodies were carried in. I saw images too awful to describe that afternoon as soldiers and Airmen removed the personal effects from their fallen comrades. A family picture with a young wife and child, blood soaked dollar bills, ID cards, “dog tags” and pocket knives were removed and placed in clear plastic bags. Each soldier had to be positively identified by a member of his unit and one young identifying soldier took one look at the body and stormed out of the morgue with tears and rage in his eyes. Chaplain Scott hurried out the door after him, obviously delivering crucial ministry in a time of desperate need—precisely what chaplains are called to do…

As they finalized the preparations of the first body, I placed my hand on the body bag and prayed over him in the presence of the joint mortuary affairs team. I thanked God for the soldier’s faithful service and prayed that God would grant divine peace and comfort to his family as they soon heard the dreaded knock on their door from a US Army Casualty Notification Team. While serving in Washington DC, 6,085 miles from Kirkuk, I ministered at the Army’s national casualty notification center in Crystal City, Virginia, and remember my heart sinking as I looked at long tables filled with neatly stacked manila folders bearing the names of soldiers who had perished. The notification center had probably already received the call about this incident and would soon dispatch teams to the soldier’s homes. Those same heart-sinking feelings were coming back to me now with a vengeance…

As I concluded my prayer with a plea that the soldier would rest in peace, “Amen’s” echoed through the small room and the body was lifted onto a cart. Within 24 hours, it would leave Kirkuk and would be transported to Kuwait, then Germany, on to Dover AFB, Delaware, and finally home to meet a grieving family.

When it was all over, the entire mortuary affairs team walked somberly across the street to a run-down building identified by the Army now as the “Bastogne Chapel.” Chaplain Scott and I informally debriefed the team and told them what sort of psychological, emotional and spiritual reactions they might expect in response to what they had just witnessed. The brigade surgeon, Doc Henry, shared about the physiological dynamics of stress and then talked about his own feelings following the incident. His openness encouraged a few more comments from the team and then we shared a moment of silence and prayer together.

It suddenly occurred to me that I had been on the ground in Iraq less than 24 hours. What did God have in store for me this tour of duty? What would the ministry of a chaplain look like in a combat environment? I can’t explain it, but I know now that the power of the “ministry of presence” in times of combat crisis is phenomenal. This is what the chaplaincy is all about and I am honored to play a tiny role in this heroic institution.

At 0315 the next morning I watched a blacked-out C-130 Hercules from Pope AFB taxi and park in preparation for a 45 minute “Ramp Ceremony.” Over 400 Airmen and Soldiers stood facing each other in formation and saluted as four flag-draped body transport cases were loaded onto the plane in before their eyes. As the C-130 lifted into the night sky, our prayers were lifted with the brave men who paid the ultimate price today while securing freedom for a people halfway around the world. And, mercifully, our first 24 hour duty day ended. May God guard and guide us all as we serve here and may God bless “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Coming Soon

The thing I love most about life in the academy, other than teaching, is the breaks. Contrary to what most people think, most professors actually work during the break. I happen to be one of the ones who enjoys the work I do during breaks, which is read. And I love it that I get to go home and have my reading interrupted by my nephews. I successfully taught them to tell everyone that "Michael is Handsome." They added "and burpy" to the end of it at some point, which makes it even better. Joshy, the 4 year old, is apparently worried about my not being married, which led to a few interesting conversations. Finally we decided that he would marry Elastigirl from The Incredibles and I would marry Syndrom's helper, whose name I can't remember, but the platinum blonde girl. That seemed to settle his worried mind. So, I read quite a bit, but I didn't finish much. I started five or six books and finished only one. It's hard to read after playing construction all morning.

But here's some of what I've been reading and will try to review soon.

John Crowley's Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land. I bought it last summer but just got around to reading it, and I might try to do a proper review of this at some point. The skinny of it is that an encrypted copy of a novel written by Lord Byron was discovered and un-encrypted. It had been encrypted by Byron's daughter, a daughter he had never seen and who had been raised (or reared, to be grammatically correct) to hate her father. The novel is discovered by a young woman in the 21st century who had also been raised to hate a father she never saw. Crowley is an amazing writer. He is able to write distinct voices in astonishingly well. In this novel, he writes in the voice of Byron, Byron's daughter, and then a few modern characters. Crowley does a great job of creating Byron's novel. That part of the book is great. The surrounding story (the modern one) is less interesting. This is a slow reading book, and it's not Crowley's best (Little, Big is a classic), but it's worth browsing through in the bookstore.

Neil Gaiman's American Gods: This is a very popular novel. My students even read it without someone telling them to. I've been itching to read Gaiman's work. But I was very much let down. It's a book of cliched conversations. The story is interesting, and if I review this book later, I'll focus on that, but the dialogue is horrible. And the characters are cliches as well.

Bill Flanagan's U2: At the End of the World: For U2 fans, I'd say this is a must read. It chronicles their lives during the recording of Achtung, Baby, which is my favorite album of theirs, and then the tour that follows. There is a lot of insight into the creativity of the band, but there is also a lot of insight into the intelligence of the band. This is a band that does their homework in literature, music, politics, art. They aren't just some guys who happen to play good music. It's also just a fun read for people who have dreamed of being a rock star.

Jack Finney's Time and Again: Buy this book. This book was written in the early 70s. I have no idea why I picked it up, but it is incredible. I will do a review of it soon, so I'll just say that Finney is an incredible writer. He's easily accessible (talks about Einstein's theories in a way that I'm pretty sure anyone could understand) and the story is great. It's a book about time travel, but in a way that is completely different than other treatments of time travel -- no machines involved at all.

Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo: I somehow managed to go through my graduate studies without reading this book. It is an absolute page-turner. Of course, there are 1400 pages to turn. I'm a third of the way through it and it makes me stay up late and get up early just to read more of it. Of all of the "classics" I've read, this is probably the one I'd recommend to people who don't like to read.

Dan Chaon's You Remind Me of Me: Chaon is a very good writer. This is a story of several "white trash" people and the ways some of them try to break the cycle of poverty and the ways others try to find ways to be content with their lives. So far, it's good stuff.

Monday, January 23, 2006

I am just SHOCKED...

that President Bush took a picture with someone at a White House event.

It's scandalous I tell you. Bush should have just turned his back upon being placed face-to-face with such a nefarious character as disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. These photos demonstrate beyond the shadow of a doubt that a close personal relationship between the two must have existed, and that the President must have been privy to Abramoff's illegal dealings.

Of course that's how Bush opponents are spinning the situation now that TIME magazine claims to have proof that Bush and Abramoff have been within 5 feet of each other.

The article is disingenuous at best, and more likely intentionally misleading. The first three paragraphs read like a major expose, while the rest of the article goes on to explain how the Bush/Abramoff relationship really raises no red flags. It's just another "gotcha" piece in a never-ending string.

I doubt that Bush will get much as much of a pass on these photos as the Clinton Administration got on these.

Uppity Cultural Prudes Unite!

[Hi all -- I'm publishing a day early because I have jury duty tomorrow and will be nowhere near a computer.]

One of the more effective conservative tricks of the last couple of decades is the accusation that progressives are in bed with Hollywood and the purveyors of popular culture – the movies, television shows, music, and video games whose graphic violence, profanity, and explicit depictions of sexuality are causing the moral decline of our nation. It is probably fair to say that almost anyone who is a parent is concerned about the quality of the entertainment her children consume. And it is unquestionably true that a lot of what’s out there is negative and potentially harmful. But is it true that progressives, and “liberalism” in general, are to blame for the race to the bottom in popular entertainment? Or, alternately, that progressives don’t care about the harm that this stuff may cause?

In my view, it’s no on both counts, the second a bit more qualified than the first. This is an issue that crosses party lines, and on which trying to divine a person’s position based on how they vote is imprecise at best.

Progressivism as I know and understand it could not possibly be responsible for the rise of trash culture, which is so bound up in backlash against feminism that it’s impossible to mistake it for being left-anything. (Exhibit A: Howard Stern; Exhibit B: The Man Show; Exhibit C: Maxim, FHM, Stuff, and the fifteen other soft-core porn magazines competing for the 15- to 30-year-old male market). No, if anything, the rise of raunch is driven by the love of money, and the protection of the right to make money, above all else. This is a value that I associate with the right. The desire to objectify and dehumanize women is certainly not at all progressive. Reality tv, as I read it, promotes competition over cooperation and takes pleasure in publicly humiliating people. This is antithetical to the values that I hold as a progressive. These are just a few examples of the ways in which toxic culture does not scream "Liberal!" to me.

But the way in which the left (and I use the term advisedly, as there is no left to speak of in the United States outside of universities and the Bay Area) has screwed this up royally is to equate speaking out against bad entertainment with censorship. For example, I am mostly horrified by pornography – and even more horrified by the fact that men who consume it daily walk by me on the street each day. That the stuff must contribute to misogyny and general moral rot cannot be any clearer to me (see Pamela Paul’s recent book Pornified for reflections from real men about how porn affects them – it was eye-opening reading). But when I have asked friends on the left about their views on it, all most will say is, “I don’t believe it should be censored.” End of story. And these are people who, mostly, would never consume pornography themselves! But they have bought the pornographers’ lie that saying something is morally wrong is tantamount to saying it should be subject to prior restraint, that those two things cannot be separate questions. This fear of (right-wing) government intervention has caused the left to be silent on a lot of things about which it might have something to say.

On the other hand, I can’t say that the fears of government intervention are wholly ungrounded – and I lay the blame largely at the feet of the right for dumbing down political debate to the point at which any view that takes more than 30 seconds to voice goes unheard, and distorting it so that any word can be twisted, taken out of context, and used to slander its utterer with no regard for honesty, integrity, or the principles of fair dealing. (That some Democrats have started to emulate this technique does not make it right, nor change the fact that it originated in its current form in the Republican party). So some on the left have felt that they had no choice but to say, “no censorship,” because what they might like to say is too nuanced for much of the public to be able to understand. Or that it might be called “inconsistent,” or, God forbid, “flip-flopping.” Which is not to say that there are not those who call themselves Democrats who could care less about, or even embrace, the coarser aspects of our culture. This has been facilitated by Democrats’ waltz to the center on economic issues, allowing libertarians to feel at home in the party. These folks are not progressives in my view. Which is why it is impossible to pigeonhole people on this issue by party affiliation or self-proclaimed place on the political spectrum. I can't count on people who otherwise generally agree with me politically to agree on this issue, and the Religious Right can't count on much of their party to feel exercised enough about it to do anything concrete.

Another thought: this issue is a divide between people who have kids and people who don’t. It’s easier to filter the bad stuff out or understand it on a sophisticated level when you have more years of life experience and education behind you. But kids are more prone to take entertainment literally, and therein lies the problem. Some people would say that parents should exercise more control over the entertainment their children consume. That’s an admirable goal, but difficult to achieve when both parents work 50 hours a week and children go to school, where they learn of things from friends with more permissive parents. Short of not having cable and never allowing your child to visit friends’ houses without having done a full background check on the parents first (which I have considered!), it’s almost impossible to totally shelter your child from toxic entertainment. Parents understandably want some help with this. People who don’t have children, or whose children are now grown, often display little sympathy for their plight.

In short, this is only a “left” and “right” issue in a very attenuated sense of those words. The popular understanding of the divide is not really accurate, but persists. On the left: the First Amendment is a good and important thing, and free speech is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy. On the right: filth purveyors are filling our children’s heads with immoral ideas and poor values. Both of these things are true. Both of these things are believed by a majority of people on both sides. The question is, what are we going to do about it?

Saturday, January 21, 2006

A Photo For the Week



A picture taken on Front Beach of Ocean Springs back in October of 2003 with the sun setting over the old Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge - back when it was able to be used!

Thursday, January 19, 2006

A Word From Dr. King

On a blog day set aside for "inspiration," and in a week set aside to remember him, I thought I'd give some time to Dr. King. It's a little long compared to normal blog entries, but if you'll imagine his voice, it will fly by just as it would if he were right here with us. I'll just post this speech and let us all - including me - post any thoughts on the comment board.

Martin Luther King's Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech
December 10, 1964
Oslo, Norway

I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when twenty-two million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice. I accept this award in behalf of a civil rights movement which is moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger to establish a reign of freedom and a rule of justice.

I am mindful that only yesterday in Birmingham, Alabama, our children, crying out for brotherhood, were answered with fire hoses, snarling dogs and even death. I am mindful that only yesterday in Philadelphia, Mississippi, young people seeing to secure the right to vote were brutalized and murdered. And only yesterday more than 40 houses of worship in the State of Mississippi alone were bombed or burned because they offered a sanctuary to those who would not accept segregation.

I am mindful that debilitating and grinding poverty afflicts my people and chains them to the lowest rung of the economic ladder.

Therefore, I must ask why this prize is awarded to a movement which is beleaguered and committed to unrelenting struggle; to a movement which has not won the very peace and brotherhood which is the essence of the Nobel Prize.

After contemplation, I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time -- the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression.

Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts. Negroes of the United States, following the people of India, have demonstrated that nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation. Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.

If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love. The tortuous road which has led from Montgomery, Alabama, to Oslo bears witness to this truth. This is a road over which millions of Negroes are travelling to find a new sense of dignity.

This same road has opened for all Americans a new era of progress and hope. It has led to a new Civil Rights bill, and it will, I am convinced, be widened and lengthened into a superhighway of justice as Negro and white men in increasing numbers create alliances to overcome their common problems.

I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the "isness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts him.

I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.

I believe that even amid today's mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men.

I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive goodwill will proclaim the rule of the land.

"And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid."

I still believe that we shall overcome.

This faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born.

Today I come to Oslo as a trustee, inspired and with renewed dedication to humanity. I accept this prize on behalf of all men who love peace and brotherhood. I say I come as a trustee, for in the depths of my heart I am aware that this prize is much more than an honor to me personally.
Every time I take a flight I am always mindful of the man people who make a successful journey possible -- the known pilots and the unknown ground crew.

So you honor the dedicated pilots of our struggle who have sat at the controls as the freedom movement soared into orbit. You honor, once again, Chief (Albert) Luthuli of South Africa, whose struggles with and for his people, are still met with the most brutal expression of man's inhumanity to man.

You honor the ground crew without whose labor and sacrifices the jet flights to freedom could never have left the earth.

Most of these people will never make the headlines and their names will not appear in Who's Who. Yet when years have rolled past and when the blazing light of truth is focused on this marvelous age in which we live -- men and women will know and children will be taught that we have a finer land, a better people, a more noble civilization -- because these humble children of God were willing to suffer for righteousness' sake.

I think Alfred Nobel would know what I mean when I say that I accept this award in the spirit of a curator of some precious heirloom which he holds in trust for its true owners -- all those to whom beauty is truth and truth beauty -- and in whose eyes the beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace is more precious than diamonds or silver or gold.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

A Response to Linda Hirshman on SAHP

Are You In, or Out?
by Judith Warner

Linda Hirshman had a very thought-provoking article in The American Prospect last month on the phenomenon of wealthy, highly educated and once-ambitious women of the post-baby-boom generation leaving work to stay home with their kids.

Hirshman argues that the “failure” of 1970’s feminism wasn’t that it was too radical and ended up alienating younger women, who reacted by embracing the traditional sex roles their elders had rejected, but that it wasn’t radical enough. Over the decades, she says, feminism left the basic gender patterns of the nuclear family untouched, and when it began to pander to the clichés of mainstream society by subsuming all larger goals to the easily palatable idea of preserving women’s “choices” (wherever those choices might lead them), it completely lost its revolutionary potential — and women have been left holding the bag.

That’s a thumbnail simplification of an intellectually complex argument, but I want to get quickly to the point at which I will add my two cents to the debate, which has, since the article’s publication, been kept alive by David Brooks , Judith Stadtman Tucker and others.

Hirshman is ideologically opposed to stay-at-home motherhood. The crux of her argument is as follows:

The family — with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks — is a necessary part of life, but it allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government. This less-flourishing sphere is not the natural or moral responsibility only of women. Therefore, assigning it to women is unjust. Women assigning it to themselves is equally unjust. To paraphrase, as Mark Twain said, “A man who chooses not to read is just as ignorant as a man who cannot read.”

My problem with this is that not all women — or men — are the same.

Some women — and men — find “repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks” mind-numbing and stultifying; some don’t. Some thrive on the competitive effervescence of the marketplace; some feel crushed by it. Many, in fact, now feel exhausted and, perhaps, dehumanized by the increasingly crushing, competitive and nonstop demanding marketplace of the turn of the 21st century, where Americans work the longest hours of any people in the industrialized world yet have less and less job security, shrinking benefits and essentially stagnant wages.

Given the nature of work today, I don’t think it’s all that surprising that women who don’t take any particular pleasure in their work or have a particular sense of a professional calling or a particular need to make money should choose to opt out. I think that many men in similar circumstances would love to do the same thing. In fact, the very real phenomenon of men resenting their wives for choosing to stay home has, to date, been consistently underreported.

Work stinks for most people. Given the financial opportunity to Opt Out, a great many men and women alike, particularly those outside the upper middle class, would gladly do so.

The sociologist Philip Slater once put in a very funny way what I’m trying more flat-footedly to say here. This is from his 1970 book “The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point’’:

Many people would object that most women don’t want careers. I suspect that women themselves would agree, but I also wonder if deep inside they don’t feel the kind of puzzled uneasiness that we always experience when obliged to accept a formulation that makes us lose either way … When we say ‘’career’’ it connotes a demanding, rigorous, preordained life pattern, to whose goals everything else is ruthlessly subordinated — everything pleasurable, human, emotional, bodily, frivolous … Thus when a man asks a woman if she wants a career, it is intimidating. He is saying, are you willing to suppress half of your being as I am, neglect your family as I do, exploit personal relationships as I do, renounce all personal spontaneity as I do? Naturally, she shudders a bit and shuffles back to the broom closet. She even feels a little sorry for him, and bewails the unkind fate that has forced him against his will to become such a despicable person …

A more effective (revolutionary, confronting) response would be to admit that a “career,” thus defined, is indeed undesirable — that (now that you mention it) it seems like a pernicious activity for any human being to engage in, and should be eschewed by both men and women.

This quotation basically sums up the attitude that both my husband and I have to work — which, as you might imagine, has led to a certain amount of tension over the years. (Health insurance must be secured, and, by God, it isn’t going to be by me.)

It’s my belief that, with the exception of people with extreme Type A sensibilities, “full human flourishing” requires a certain kind of slowness in life, a certain kind of stillness, a great degree of relaxation, time for reflection and, at the risk of sounding downright nauseating, for meaningful human connection. Those things, however, are now a luxury for most people, given the nature of life and work in our time.

Whether Opting Out is ultimately good for women in the long term (after all, Divorce Happens) or good for their sons and daughters or good for the gender is another matter entirely. Hirshman’s article is primarily focused on the latter concern. My concern here is more purely human.

What's Wrong With The F-Word? Part One

Hi all, I apologize for not posting last week. I had an insane week at work and a busy weekend before that. If I was only the type who could write a short post (of the sort that Al has been posting lately)...

Anyway, I have been trolling Salon and Slate for material in lieu of drawing from books I have read recently, and today I hit pay dirt. Salon posted an interview with Kate O’Beirne, who I had never heard of before today, but apparently she’s the big-shot editor of the National Review who has a new book out about the ways in which feminism has ruined all of our lives. More specifically, she names individual feminists who have wrought catastrophic changes on the previously-idyllic balance between men, women, and the universe.

The most interesting thing about the interview is that in many ways, O’Beirne is not really anti-feminist. Rather, she just attributes all social changes of the past few decades that she doesn’t like to feminism, seemingly without regard for whether “feminism” (assuming that there is any such unitary phenomenon) actually caused those changes or whether “feminists” as a group can fairly be said to hold any of the purportedly canonical “feminist” views she abhors.

Because Salon is a pay site and because the interview is long, I went through it and wrote down the main topics of discussion and the views that O’Beirne espouses during the interview and reproduce them here. Of course, the link to the article is above in case anyone wants to check my accuracy. You can get free access to Salon by getting a “day pass” that involves watching an advertisement. Because this is a blog post rather than a book, I will just briefly voice my objections and qualifications to O’Beirne’s views (not all of which I disagree with, incidentally). And, because of my verbosity and the length of the interview, this is going to have to be a two-parter. Here’s part one:

1. O’Beirne hates being called “weak-minded,” a “tool of the patriarchy,” or “self-loathing” for making decisions that others disagree with. I see her point here, but one caveat: the implicit notion that these kinds of accusations come solely from feminists, or that they come from all feminists, is just wrong. (Okay, maybe the "tool of the patriarchy" one, although I don’t think anyone has actually used that phrase since the 1970s).

2. O’Beirne trots out the ubiquitous “equal pay” statistics that are, arguably, misleading, in order to bash feminism. Everyone has heard them, you know, women make 72 cents for every dollar men make? The misleading part is that people hear that and assume that employers are hiring women for the same jobs and paying them less. But the data is aggregated, and what is hidden inside of it is massive job segregation according to sex. Professions that have more women than men are not as highly paid, in general, than professions that have more men than women. Even within what is arguably the same profession, like for example working at Wal-Mart, women are concentrated in certain departments (jewelry, clothing) and men in others (automotive, hardware, electronics). And employees in the departments women work in are paid less than employees in the departments men work in. When women enter a field in large numbers, the prestige and pay in that field is diminished. Primary and secondary education is a good, though not particularly recent, example of this. But, what the data show still indicates that there is a problem regarding workplace equality for women. Attempts to explain it away (“women choose to go into lower-paying fields,” “women choose to work fewer hours when they have children and that’s why they are paid less”) simply beg more questions rather than providing answers. But people have trouble with blame that they can’t lay at the feet of one person or one entity. If it’s more diffuse than that, it makes people’s heads hurt and they say “the hell with it, there’s nothing we can do.”

3. Next, O’Beirne picks up on the second of the explanatory attempts from the previous paragraph and asserts that women want to stay home with their children because they are biologically programmed to do so. According to O’Beirne, this is not a result of social conditioning because she did it (stayed at home and worked part time), and she didn’t feel socially conditioned. Moreover, she says, women are better than men at caring for children – it’s all men can do to keep the children alive while the woman is out of the house. (And they say feminists hate men??) Feminists, she says, have always judged women harshly for being SAHM, have denigrated motherhood, and say that the only responsible choice is to work full-time.

Now, I could write a whole book on this topic, and, for obvious reasons if you've read my prior posts, it is one that has been very much on my mind lately. But, just to quickly address O’Beirne’s points: if I’ve come to any one conclusion in my thirty years of life, it’s that the nature versus nurture debate is not an either-or proposition. The answer to the nature-or-nurture question is always “both.” There is research to be done and conversations to be had about the relative weight of these things with respect to various issues, including sex differences. However, I think these conversations are largely academic, because no matter what science discovers about predetermination of outcomes based on biology, it’s not going to change my feelings about morality one iota. The probability that this kind of research will change people's views about how we should treat each other in this world is why every time a new study comes out (like the monkey one from a few weeks ago), it makes me grimace and make gagging noises.

Second, this is one instance where assigning all feminists one viewpoint is truly misguided. The debate about SAHP versus working (versus various other options) is very much alive within the ranks of women who call themselves feminists. There was an article in The American Prospect last month (December 2005 issue) about the issue by a feminist professor, Linda Hirshman, lamenting that SAHP was something that many young women today want to do. I was surprised at how strongly I disagreed with some of Hirshman’s prescriptions for women (go for the money over meaningful work, for example). Hirshman absolutely does not represent all feminists. As a young professional woman and a feminist who has “meaningful work,” I can tell you that the idea that working is more fulfilling than spending time with your family absolutely mystifies me. I can’t believe that anyone feels that way. Now, granted, I have not yet experienced any of the trials and travails that come along with parenting, so it’s possible that my perspective will change somewhat. Maybe it’s just that I often find my job stressful and unrewarding (as I sit here writing this instead of working) and SAHP seems like a lovely escape. But I know myself, and I know it’s not just those things. I honestly believe that people who view the world as Hirshman does are devaluing children, devaluing parenting, and devaluing caretaking in general ... are so brainwashed by the capitalist view that non-producers are a drag on society and that more money and status automatically means “better” that they can’t see how ultimately inhuman and, yes, antifeminist, that view really is.

4. On the same topic, while O’Beirne doesn’t personally have a problem with it, she says that society will never validate men who care for children full-time. Ever, ever, ever. To want to change this is “baying at the moon.” The next thing she says is that whatever men do is the high-status job. The interviewer points out that this is exactly the problem and that saying that “things have always been this way” does not make it okay. O’Beirne’s answer to that is that men are more concerned about status than women – they want it and we don’t.

To the extent that this is true (which I think is dubious), then I think men are the ones who have a problem that needs to be solved. Caring about “status” is a fool’s game, as far as I’m concerned. The old adage that there will always be somebody better, smarter, more attractive, richer, younger, whatever quality is considered desirable in a society at any particular time, is repeated often for a reason. Until our society learns to place a higher value on caretaking and the bonds that human beings form with each other, we are going to continue to make ourselves unhappy by spending too much time pursuing things (like money and status) that don’t matter much in the grand scheme of things. And, to demonstrate that this is not a product of my chromosomal makeup, let me add that my husband agrees with me on this point.

All right, this is already pretty long, so I’ll stop here. I hope that discussion of these issues stimulates some interesting and, as always, respectful, conversation.

A Question of Political Theory

I promise I'm not trying to take over the blog and post every day.

(Sorry, Sandi. I hope you post a column today and just knock my little question here down a notch. I was just reading and thinking and want some feedback to a question of politics.)

I have a question to which I'd like to hear some opinions. It seems that all political parties agree that there are many things that qualify as "bad" in our world. Democrats focus on a few as the most outrageous issues, Republicans on others... And both sides offer solutions of course, at least on some level (even if it doesn't go much beyond Elect us!). Both sides disagree with each other's solutions.

I'd like to peel back the onion and ask the readers' opinions on the root causes of all these bad things in the world around us. It seems to be a fundamental question of political theory. If there are solutions to problems, then they must not be band-aid solutions, but solutions that strike to the root of those problems. As my American hero, Barney Fife, would say, "Nip it in the bud."

What do you guys think? From where do the major problems in the world around us stem?

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Odd Combinations



The review said, “Finding Forrester is a movie about a most unusual and unlikely friendship between two people coming from two very different worlds.”

In the movie, a friendship develops between a reclusive, alcoholic, angry, paranoid writer (William Forrester, played by Sean Connery) and an intellectual, high school student-athlete (Jamal Wallace, played by Rob Brown). The young Wallace is given an academic scholarship to a prestigious private prep school, but it is only slightly veiled that their interest in him comes mostly from his potential contribution to their basketball team. He is taken from a mostly Black world and put into an almost exclusively White world. Forrester, on the other hand, is a caricature of J.D. Salinger. He wrote "the Great American Novel" following the War, but never published another book. For the last few decades, he's been living in his apartment in the Bronx while the world around him changes.

One night, on a dare, Jamal breaks into Forrester's apartment where the odd recluse scares him to death (imagine James Bond coming after you!), and in his flight he leaves his backpack with his writing notebooks. The next day, Forrester has the backpack hanging in his window in a bit of a taunt. Eventually, the pack falls to the street, and when Jamal gets home, he sees that his notebooks have been critiqued. He slowly develops a special relationship with Forrester, who he eventually discovers to be a famous writer.

Once again, the review said it “…is a movie about a most unusual and unlikely friendship between two people coming from two very different worlds.”

It is my proposal that this makes this a movie that reflects the kingdom of God.

1: There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2: And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. 3: And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4: but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. 5: Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist, and faithfulness the girdle of his loins.

The text of ISAIAH 11 begins with a picture of a stump, something seen at every turn in South Mississippi these days. It represents destruction. Something has been cut down. And in Isaiah’s prophecy, it is his people destroyed by God for their unfaithfulness, their inattention to justice.

The stump has a name. Now Jesse is a fine name for a stump I suppose, but the connection it seems is that from Jesse came King David. In this passage, something reminiscent of King David arrives in the form of a shoot. A sign of life emerges on this sign of destruction, but not just a shoot; instead, this sign of life grows to the point of producing fruit where there was once only desolation.

I believe this to be Jesus.

In the verses that follow we see the description of this sign of life in the midst of ugliness. God’s Spirit is on him, which gives him remarkable wisdom, allows him the pure and delightful fear of the Lord, bequeaths power to punish evil, but also a commitment to bring justice to the oppressed. I say, Jesus.

In the New Testament, Jesus doesn’t shy away from this metaphor in the least. In JOHN 15, Jesus teaches his disciples that in his Kingdom his followers would bear fruit, too, but only if they stay connected to him. By extension, we become branches of that tree, too, if we do what God commands, and it is vital to notice the command Jesus emphasized: LOVE EACH OTHER. This is important. It must be key to fruit production.

Back to ISAIAH 11.

6: The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7: The cow and the bear shall feed; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8: The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. 9: They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. 10: In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwellings shall be glorious.

If the first five verses explained the hope of Jesus and what he would be, then the next five offer a description of what would be seen in this kingdom. And what is seen? Predator/prey relationships, odd combinations that, instead of their natural tendencies to attack and destroy, now enjoy peace and reconciliation.

Now it doesn’t take us long to see that this world is not reflective of this today, but I propose that if we open our eyes – like in Finding Forrester – we can see instances of kingdom life. Of God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. And we can see that the obeying of Jesus’ command to love each other can bring this kind of fruit.

It is “…a movie about a most unusual and unlikely friendship between two people coming from two very different worlds.” Does that sound like the world Isaiah describes?

In ROMANS 15, Paul brings this point home by in fact quoting ISAIAH 11 at the end of his lengthy letter to teach his most valuable lesson, that no one on earth can claim superiority in a relationship with God based on pedigree or anything else, but that God has made a way through Jesus to bring the shalom to the world that had long since been missing. He makes the point that Jesus came to bring people together – predator/prey people together – unlikely people together - and that we bring about this kingdom dream when we continue to learn how to love each other.

Here’s my thesis: It is my belief that the Church of Jesus Christ exists to break down walls that the world has constructed by our ability to learn how to love each other.

Where our world constructs racial walls, even though maintained most fiercely in many instances by organized religion (“…the most segregated hour in America is on Sunday morning…”), the kingdom Jesus proposed breaks through anyway and brings people together.

Where our world constructs economic walls, even though neighborhoods are built to keep certain people out, the kingdom Jesus proposed breaks through and brings people together anyway.

Where our world constructs political walls, with a clear 50% on each side of the chasm, and in the face of organized religion that apparently caters more to one side of the aisle, the kingdom Jesus proposed still seeks to break through anyway to bring people together.

And where any separation exists between “insiders” and “outsiders” in this world on any level, either with the sanction of religion or without (remember the Pharisees?), the kingdom Jesus proposed finds a way to break through and offer peace and reconciliation.

In an article for Christianity Today titled, “Why I Don’t Go To a Megachurch,” Philip Yancey wrote the following, “Given a choice, I tend to hang out with folks like me: people who have college degrees, drink only Starbucks dark roast coffee, listen to classical music, and buy their cars based on epa gas mileage ratings. Yet, after a short while I get bored with people like me. Smaller groups (and smaller churches) force me to rub shoulders with everybody else. Henri Nouwen defines "community" as the place where the person you least want to live with always lives. Often we surround ourselves with the people we most want to live with, thus forming a club or a clique, not a community. Anyone can form a club; it takes grace, shared vision, and hard work to form a community. The Christian church was the first institution in history to bring together on equal footing Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and free. The apostle Paul waxed eloquent on this "mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God." By forming a community out of diverse members, Paul said, we have the opportunity to capture the attention of the world and even the supernatural world beyond (Eph. 3:9-10). In some ways, the church has sadly failed in this assignment.”

The kingdom won’t fail, however. So my overarching question becomes less Do you go to church? and more, Are you a part of the kingdom of God?

Some think that war will bring peace on earth, goodwill toward men. That’s a theory, but not the theory offered by Jesus. Some believe that if a society passes the right laws or adopts the correct economic system that peace will result. Once again, not the path offered by Jesus. Still others give up on peace and do their best to build walls and form clubs of people they find most palatable. It’s a common practice, this broad path, but not the narrow path offered by Jesus.

Instead, he offers “love one another” as the path toward the realization of peace on earth, of a place where people who hate each other learn to live in harmony.

I’m not defending him necessarily. I’m just a witness. What do you think?

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Photo for the Week


Inside our piano this past week...

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Fear

[Note: Since Duane is allowing me to post this Sunday, and since that post will be a little lengthy, I'll offer a short "inspiration" day today.]

No Fear was a stupid slogan.

On Pudd’nhead Wilson’s calendar (Mark Twain), you’d find the following passage: Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear. Except a creature be part coward, it is not a compliment to say it is brave; it is merely a loose misapplication of the word. Consider the flea! – incomparably the bravest of all the creatures of God, if ignorance of fear were courage. Whether you are asleep or awake he will attack you, caring nothing for the fact that in bulk and strength you are to him as are the massed armies of the earth to a sucking child; he lives both day and night and all days and nights in the very lap of peril and the immediate presence of death, and yet is no more afraid than is the man who walks the streets of the city that was threatened by an earthquake ten centuries before. When we speak of Clive, Nelson, and Putnam as men who “didn’t know what fear was,” we ought always to add the flea – and put him at the head of the procession.

The lofty principle of courage is not life lived without fear, but involves the observation of choices made in the face of fear.

Eleanor Roosevelt said it this way: “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.”

So the questions of the day become: What are you really afraid of? And in that light, how do you choose to live?

Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Power of Photography


My wife and I watched the documentary "Born Into Brothels" last night, and it reinforced in my mind the power of photgraphy. In my former life, an Oscar-winning documentary would not have been high on my "to-see" list, but maybe I'm changing as I get older. I'd recommend it to the blog-contributors (note: rated R for strong language, but the language is in the subtitles).

I'm submitting a picture I took in December 2004 today of one of the (what used to be) typical street performances in Jackson Square of the French Quarter. The embarrassed little girl in the brown jacket about to receive a balloon animal is my daughter.

I like the picture because it captures a little of the color and diversity that used to be evident in New Orleans. And I like it because my little girl is the center of attention in such a wonderfully diverse place. It makes me dream that she will live her life in the center of something that alive, and though that may be embarrassing at times, it is the sort of embarrassing that makes you smile.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Woe Nelly! You make my head hurt

The Rose Bowl was quite a game. It had drama, stars, controversy and some really bad commentary. Keith Jackson’s pitiful sportscasting during the game inspired me toward today’s topic.

Some rarely consider the sportscaster. A good one doesn’t stand out, but draws a viewer in to the sporting event, provides background and perspective. The best ones accentuate each moment the way an HDTV accentuates the picture.

There have been many a great sportscaster in the past century on both radio and television. There was no specific style to being a great sportscaster. Some would be subtle and say exactly right things at the right times, some would become a bigger spectacle than the game itself. Which one is the one that best suits you?

Its hard to define what makes a good commentator, but its easy to know a bad one when you hear it. I give a pass to athletes that sit in the booth. They can be very bad – see Bill Walton, George Ravling or Sean Salisbury. They aren't journalists, they're the meat heads that can say "I know how it feels to..."

For what its worth, I submit my top and bottom five. There have been other rankings in other places, but these are mine. Enjoy.

My top five
Marv Albert, minus the biting
Mike Patrick, must have the patience of Job to regularly tolerate Vitale. A little Dicky V goes a long way, but I credit Patrick with changing “annoying” to “energetic.”
Bob Costas, can be cheesy, but I don’t mind.
Jon Miller, just makes every game better.
Steve Stone He calls a baseball game like he’s already seen it. Pinpoint analysis is almost eerie, and completely shatters the former-athlete stereotype.

My bottom five
Keith Jackson – As good at his craft as Brett Favre will be at his … in 10 years.
Tim McCarver
Harry Caray
Chris Berman - He deserves special recognition.
Reason 1) His “WHOOP!” noise
Reason 2) Lack of preparation. He’s ad-libbing half the time and doing so poorly, stuttering and stammering while barely concealing his head-tracking read of the teleprompter.
Reason 3) Nicknames
Reason 4) He calls himself “The Scwham”
Reason 5) The “BACK BACK BACK BACK BACK BACK” call

And now for the worst sportscaster of all time… This guy.

SILVER LININGS



LAW & ORDER

It was Monday night, August 29. Hurricane Katrina had come and gone, but barely. It was, to quote Snoopy, a dark and stormy night. With no power, the church building evacuees were homeless, stunned, and when my two elders and I returned from checking on a few folks who had stayed in their homes, we discovered that they were the least bit scared.

The story I was given before I made it into the building was that there was a man inside who had shot his fiancé in the back and needed someone to pray for him. I, on the other hand, needed to be on another continent. Now I am one who has the capacity for sympathy for an armed man in need of prayer, but this had been a rough day. Everyone there had had a rough day. And there were the children.

So I sat down with my elders and the self-announced gunman to have a little talk. He looked, without my telling you, like it had been a rough day for him, too. Splattered across the roughness, he sported a brand new “I Love OSYG” shirt, with the “love” represented by a heart (and OSYG standing for our very own Ocean Springs Youth Group). He had arrived shirtless and scared, and the least bit desperate, so some nice member gave him the only shirt we had around.

The facts of his story were a little suspect, but if it were true that he woke up to a hurricane storm surge in his bedroom, waded to his girlfriend’s house where the gun accidentally discharged and blasted her in the back, and if it were true that they miraculously made it to a hospital where she was in surgery while he was whisked to a makeshift police station where they decided to let him loose to wander the dark hurricane-ravaged streets based on lack of evidence, then I suspect my facts might have been a little iffy too.

But I did not need him in our building at this specific moment in time. You can condemn my lack of compassion at some later date. I was stressed.

When we made it clear in the nicest possible way that he could not stay there, he mentioned that he would wander back out to where his day had started. Which had spent the day underwater. Eleven miles away. And it was a dark and stormy night.

So I had a better idea. I walked into the dark highway with a flashlight and began waving it like I intended to land a jet on that specific spot of the road. It seemed like a better idea at the time. And it worked. In spite of many other things on their plate at the moment, I caught the attention of a few policemen who came to see what the maniac (read: I) was doing out in the middle of the road.

When I shared our plight, a radio call determined that our formerly-armed friend was telling a story that had some truth to it, at least somewhere in there. The police agreed to take him away, however, to a makeshift shelter where he could spend the night.

Before he left, someone thankfully reminded me to pray for him, the very reason he claimed to have stopped in that night. I don’t know what I said, but it probably included the word “help” in there somewhere. It probably said help several times actually.

I don’t know what happened to the young man or his wounded girlfriend since August 29, but maybe more than us, I’m sure that is a day they will never forget. I do know I won’t forget that night, most specifically the odd feeling that standing in the middle of a highway and waving a flashlight like a madman was the only way I could get some help.

God’s seen me like that before August 29, 2005. Maybe that’s why it came so natural.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Biblical Inerrancy: The Search for Certainty in an Uncertain World

I had originally planned to do something else this week, but there wasn’t enough support to pull it off. Instead, I thought I’d focus on a broader topic that I hope will bring discussion on both sides, that being biblical inerrancy combined with a few thoughts about postmodernity.

First, biblical inerrancy. I had an interesting conversation with an older lady from our church today having to do with a Bible class where I mentioned the topic of inerrancy. She did not like what I had said about it, but wasn’t even sure what the word I used was. Since then, she has not been back to any of the classes I taught, but she jokingly said that was not the reason. I tried to explain something about what I had said, but she just ended the conversation with something like, “I’ve just always believed God preserved his word in that way and there’s nothing you can say that will change my mind.” This is a typical response from many in Churches of Christ. I have always believed this and I won’t even consider the possibility of things being otherwise.

Let me define my understanding of what the current belief is among Evangelical Christians regarding inerrancy. It primarily concerns the New Testament, but could by extension be applied to the Old Testament. It is the belief that at least for the books regarded as Scripture, whatever the original author wrote in the original manuscript was inerrant, i.e. there were no errors as regards facts, truth claims, spelling, or anything else. They were pristine and perfect. For a fuller definition see this link. This was primarily a response to the fruits of a few hundred years of Textual Criticism, which is the study of the thousands of copies of portions of the New Testament written in Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written, as well as many more copies in translations such as Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Georgian, and Old Slavonic, to name a few. I choose not to go into detail here, but I have had both an introductory graduate course in the field as well as an advanced graduate course in the field, which was a guided study under the tutelage of a well-published expert in the field. I say all this just to let you know that if you have questions, I can most likely give you a sufficient answer.

The results of this field of New Testament study showed that there were thousands of differences in manuscript copies of the writings of the New Testament, and this just in the Greek copies. Although the vast majority of these can be reconciled as minor spelling problems, unintentional errors, etc., there are plenty of significant ones. In fact, though for a long period, the purpose of the field was to establish what was the “original text” as written by the author, the move recently has been more toward understanding how the various manuscripts functioned in their historical church settings, realizing that the history of the text is so complicated that establishing the “original text” is not an achievable goal.

All of this is background to why the need for such a belief. For most evangelicals, as well as Churches of Christ, not to believe this is tantamount to not being a faithful Christian. However, one of the main problems I have with this belief is that it is not based in fact or reality. Before you are turned completely off, try to hear me out. The belief is focused on how God must have (or even should have) preserved his word, though no Scripture supports this belief—the Bible does not say this about itself. Even the facts of history do not bear out this belief. The belief is based on documents that we do not have. We do not have the original manuscripts from the original authors' pens. If it were so important to God for us to have the original text, surely he would have either preserved these originals or he would have preserved an exact copy of them if what we need was the original text as it came from the hand of the authors. We have no such originals or exact copies; every manuscript we have contains at least a few errors, or at least a few uncertainties, even in the shorter books like Philemon, 2 John, 3 John, and especially Jude. The belief is in a phantom text for which we have not a shread of proof. We cannot prove that Paul did not misspell a word here or there. We cannot prove that one of the gospel writers did not get a placename wrong or a detail mixed up. We don’t know exactly what Jesus taught on divorce (for more on this see a previous posting). What we have is thousands of copies of manuscripts, all with a certain amount of differences and errors. We don’t have an inerrant text. So why do we need to believe in something we don’t have? From the evidence, it is clear to me that God does not work to preserve his text in the way that this belief suggests. Instead, he relied on us clumsy, imprecise humans to copy his text down through the ages. Why is this such a problem for us? For me the heart of the matter is a need for certainty.

Let me explain. From my understanding of church history, part of the problem came up during the evolution debate and the “monkey trials” in the last century. This was part of a larger problem of “liberal” biblical scholarship that tried to challenge the credibility and reliability of Scripture, especially regarding certain beliefs such as creation and the resurrection. As a generalization, Evangelical Christianity, rather than attempting to give a serious argument to the questions, entrenched in their beliefs and made them a test of faith rather than trying to explain them and deepen them. So, rather than deal seriously with the criticism, we felt threatened and just decided we wouldn’t play anymore; we would create our own rules. Part of this was the need for certainty when it came to Scripture. If people were challenging its credibility and reliability based partly on the results of Textual Criticism, let’s just refuse to deal with the questions by pushing back to a time when nothing can be proven, i.e. the time of the original writings, and say that they were inerrant. Any scholarship, without the original documents in hand, could not prove otherwise. So if there were problems in the text, that was the result of copying errors and none could be attributed to a problem in the original manuscript. It was a great move in some ways as there was nothing that could challenge it.

The problem occurs when you have people of intelligence, who did not grow up as Christians or left the Christian faith for some reason, who know there are problems and are unwilling just to believe something that is unproveable, and perhaps unnecessary. Is there another, more satisfying explanation that could answer critics and accord with faith? I say, “yes.” The original documents could have contained errors, but could still communicate truth. Let me illustrate by way of analogy. We have, since the invention of the printing press, been able to make countless identical copies of writings. We have come a long way from the time of individual people handwriting copies of the Bible or anything else. Yet I would challenge anyone to show me any recently published book, that has used all the modern technology of spell check, grammar check and numerous editors, that does not have a single typographical error, grammatical error, or for that matter, factual error. My own experience has proven that the first two are in evidence in every book I have ever read and postmodernity has taught us that the latter one is true because every “fact” is still told from a certain point of view and is not unbiased. This includes science textbooks, history books, novels, and many other varieties of literature. And yet no one would deny that these published works communicate reliable truth.

In my opinion, it is the need for certainty, on both sides of the issue, that drives our beliefs. On the Christian fundamentalist side, it is the need to believe in a certain, inerrant text, which seems to amount to idolatry, that is a belief in the text more than a belief in God so that the Bible supplants God as the ultimate object of faith. On the other side, that of unbelief, perhaps as a result of Evangelical Christianity’s belief in inerrancy, nonbelievers are certain that if the text does contain errors, it cannot be a source of truth and so cannot be said to accurately portray God, Jesus or the like. I will reiterate that this is a standard up to which even contemporary publications have failed to hold. Yet we rely on them nonetheless as sources for truth and learning.

A final note on certainty, to open this discussion up even farther, is my observation on the current political divide in the United States. We are uncertain about so many thing in this age of postmodernity that we seem to want to grasp onto whatever we have that is certain. I think that many of our bitter fights have to do with this grasping for any certainty we can find. It is in the thought that drives us, on both sides, namely, “I may not be completely correct in what I know or believe, but I am certain that you are wrong.” And so we home in on that certainty that the other person is wrong, all the while refusing to grapple with the uncertainties in our own position. It is so much easier this way, yet it is so much more detrimental. We don’t grow and we grasp for something that will not satisfy. And so we attack and so we dehumanize and we fail to ever really try to learn from others and see the merits in what they are saying.

These are just some of my thoughts. Let me know yours. It is through genuine dialogue that we all grow.

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