22 December 2008

Ho-ho-holy night!

Good news for last-minute shoppers. While Googling "the greatest gift of all" in order to find some good foils to use in my 12/28 sermon, I came across this wonderful figurine, portraying "a respectful and reverent Santa" approaching Jesus in the manger. Take a moment to read the full product description on this website; pretty much every sentence has something funny in it. ("I've never seen [Santa] this handsome"; Santa "secretly longs to hold the precious baby"; the figurine "will remind us of the true meaning of the love and warmth we share during the Christmas season".)

09 December 2008

Things Rod Blagojevich would never do.

This is pretty cool. In the interest of transparency (and announced a day before the FBI arrested Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich), the Obama transition team is going to post all the memos it receives from outside groups trying to influence the incoming administration's agenda.

The opposite of this would be the way Blagojevich has apparently executed his office. Take a look at the indictment (PDF). It's 76 pages, but you can pretty much open up to any one and be shocked. There's this gem, in which he uses the F-word to express just how monetarily valuable he believes a Senate seat is. At the bottom of page 74 is this surprising paragraph:
In addition, in the course of the conversations over the last month, ROD BLAGOJEVICH has spent significant time weighing the option of appointing himself to the open Senate seat, and has expressed a variety of reasons for doing so, including frustration at being “stuck” as governor, a belief that he will be able to obtain greater resources if he is indicted as a sitting Senator as opposed to a sitting governor, and a desire to remake his image in consideration of a possible run for President in 2016, avoid impeachment by the Illinois legislature, make corporate contacts that would be of value to him after leaving public office, facilitate his wife’s employment as a lobbyist, and assist in generating speaking fees should he decide to leave public office.

Blagojevich was defiant in a press conference yesterday. Makes you think that he really didn't have any idea this would happen today. "If anybody wants to tape my conversations, go right ahead, feel free to do it," he said. I guess the guys in the flower van across the street got a good laugh about that one.

Back again

It has been two weeks since my last post, which is unsurprising since those two weeks have spanned a round trip to NJ (hours and hours in the car), Thanksgiving (hours and hours watching football and basketball), and final exams (hours and hours reading and writing). All that is behind me now, with the exception of my Christian Theology final, which is Thursday. We already have the exam questions. Chew on this one:

In the early stages of the course we spoke of contextual theology as being an attempt to address two large problems of Christian theology in the West -- its narrowness as a white, male, European/Euro-American enterprise and its complicity in oppression. However, new problems arise through contextual theology; namely, (1) theology continues to be understood as disembodied knowledge that may be dropped into various cultures, and (2) theology has no ability to transform identity. In effect, Christian theology becomes simply the religious expression of various cultures. We’ve gone out of the way to say in this course that the problems of contextual theologies, the benefits of such theologies notwithstanding, must be located within the broader ways in which Christian theology in the West has operated. In other words, rather than seeing contextual theologies and the broader problems of Western theology as two discreet sets of problems, what must be understood is that contextual theologies are children of Christian theology as it has come to be practiced in the West. They are, in the main, in architectural and infrastructural continuity -- not discontinuity -- with Christian theology as it has come to be practiced as an essentially white, male, European/Euro-American enterprise. With this as your backdrop, how might considering the starting point of theology in our identity as Gentiles who overheard the gospel of Jesus Christ to Israel offer a corrective to both the two large problems of Christian theology and the newer problems of contextual theology?

In other blog news, I looked back and realized that my previous post was the 100th post at With the Grain. Hope you're enjoying it.

24 November 2008

You actually COULD "eat this book."

A couple weeks back, the winter Cokesbury catalog arrived in the mail. As I was perusing it over at Heather's house, I was caught by the new Green Bible from HarperCollins. The Bible is made of biodegradable, 100% post-consumer recycled material, soy ink, et cetera, and they went ahead and highlighted all the verses about the earth in green ink. According to the Bible's website, "With over 1,000 references to the earth in the Bible, compared to 490 references to heaven and 530 references to love, the Bible carries a powerful message for the earth."

Fair enough.

But do we really need this? Well, Rich Cizik says "This is exactly what the church needs at this critical time." But he's probably wrong. After all, those verses were already in the Bible; the only person who would buy a Green Bible already knows that the Bible carries a powerful message for the earth. This seems to me like the Green Bible is much more about the half billion dollar Bible niche-marketing industry than it is about ecological theology.

So, I was making fun of the Green Bible pretty comfortably; then today I came across this interview with Duke Old Testament professor Ellen Davis, in which she explains why she is excited about the project. Now, she doesn't really offer up any different rationale for making a Bible like this, but I respect her judgment, so I'll probably hold my tongue a bit more.

All the same, here's a great point: The Green Bible may be a good gesture towards ecological responsibility. But rather than editing and publishing a "green" product, the true demonstration of a biblically based Christian recommitment to the earth would be to make "green" the entire Bible industry, or even all of Christian publishing. Here's hoping the Green Bible is just an inroad to bigger changes at HarperCollins, Zondervan, IVP, Abingdon, et al.

23 November 2008

Yes We Might!

With President-elect Obama bringing quite a few "old hands" into his cabinet, some are starting to wonder what Change looks like. Of particular note is Eric Holder, Obama's rumored choice for Attorney General. A guest column in Saturday's Times shines a light on Holder's role in Bill Clinton's pardoning of billionaire fugitive Marc Rich, "one of the most unjustifiable pardons that an American president has ever granted." It is definitely worth the read, especially if you're like me and don't know anything about that pardon.

The larger question of whether Obama can concretely change America's economic fortunes or international standing will have to wait; it is premature to judge his administration based on these cabinet picks. The Holder thing seems unwise, but other choices are encouraging. If it's Gov. Napolitano for DHS, she might bring some sanity to immigration enforcement; Peter Orszag has to be one of the smartest people in Washington; Hillary Clinton is the right kind of high-profile, internationally respected individual to lead the State Department. Looks like we may also get Tom Daschle at Health & Human Services, and Bill Richardson as Commerce Secretary. I still think Richardson should be the VP.  Or the Secretary of State.

Other names floating around include Howard Dean, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, and Tom Vilsack. That's a lot of high-profile Democrats. Whether having a star-studded cabinet is a good idea or not remains to be seen.

22 November 2008

Catch-up reading

Though I've got three weeks before I'm totally clear of this semester, I am thinking ahead to winter break, and looking forward to reading a couple good books: Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament; Michael Gorman, Reading Paul; Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew; Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition; Rainer Maria Rilke, Stories of God

(I am starting to wonder if I have lost all capacity to read things not pertaining to God or politics, and if that's bad.) In all likelihood, I won't make it through all of these books. But they're the ones on my shelf that I keep staring at, longingly, while I trudge through my final assignments. Speaking of which: if anyone wants to read a riveting 19-page paper about Howell Harris, the 18th century leader of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism, just let me know.

16 November 2008

Welcome to the postracial America!

It is rarer than it should be that I feel convicted about the academic bubble in which I live my life. One stark reminder that I need to pay more attention to the world: major stories only manage to penetrate my conscience once they hit the New York Times or The New Yorker. That was the case with last week's female ordination and excommunication story.

Today comes another one. I'm just staggered that I hadn't heard about it until now. Arsonists burned down the future home of the Macedonia Church of God in Christ, an African-American congregation in Springfield, Mass.,  on the night of November 4th. The building was still under construction, and therefore unoccupied, but it is just the kind of thing that takes your breath away. While we were all celebrating American progress...

The story is particularly jarring to me since it happened in Massachusetts. This is a state whose very name epitomizes liberal values. 62 percent of the state (and 59 percent of the white people) voted for Obama. It will always be important for Americans (and especially Northeasterners like me) to remember that racism wasn't invented in the South and overcome in the North. Another good reinforcement of this point comes in the form of the new documentary, Traces of the Trade (which Liz has been somehow involved with, when she's not farming). I haven't seen it yet, though I know the Anglican House of Studies here at school watched it a few weeks ago and I heard positive reviews. It tells the story of a prominent Rhode Island family who made their money trading rum for slaves in the late 18th century.

15 November 2008

A high-profile excommunication

I missed this during the week, but the Vatican has notified Fr. Roy Bourgeois that he is to be excommunicated for participating in the ordination service of a Roman Catholic woman. This is a big deal: Bourgeois is a huge figure in the American peace movement. He's the founder of SOA Watch, an organization committed to shedding light on the military assistance that the United States gives to repressive governments. The Church will be excommunicating a man who has given his entire life to honor the memory of the six Jesuit priests killed by SOA graduates in El Salvador in 1989.

The excommunication is also significant because it is part of a bigger issue: the increasingly vocal mobilization called "Womenpriests". Sojourners ran an article in 2006 about the ordination of 8 Roman Catholic women on a riverboat in Pittsburgh (so as not to be "in" any certain diocese). The Times article says that Janice Sevre-Duszynska, the individual in whose ordination Fr. Roy participated, is the 35th American woman to be ordained in this movement. 

Rose Marie Berger hasn't written anything about Fr. Roy yet, either on her blog or at God's Politics, but we might expect something soon.

06 November 2008

Letter from Peter Storey

This letter circulated around the Divinity School on Monday. Always good to hear a word from Bishop Storey. (And it's a good reminder of how partisan you can be when you are retired and not American!)

Dear Friends in the United States,

Warmest greetings to you on this momentous evening. You have been much in our minds and on our hearts over these past few months as we have avidly followed the progress of your Presidential election campaign. As we've said before, what happens in your election profoundly affects us all.

And what a campaign! I recall a dinner table conversation in Atlanta way back in May, 2007, in the home of good friends Jim and Fentress Waits. Those around the table were talking with a deep sense of interest and hope about an exciting young Senator named Barack Obama. Back then, the possibility of Obama's even gaining the nomination of his own party appeared so remote that it seemed more the stuff of dreams than reality.

Yet here you are, on the eve of an even more 'impossible' breakthrough tomorrow! Think of it: the nation whose original sin was to to buy and sell Africans like chattels, that legislated them less than human, could well elect an African-American tomorrow to be its First Citizen! I wonder if the people of the USA have fully realized what a liberating moment this could be? For African Americans, who hold their breath, not yet quite believing what might be possible tomorrow, this may be a step beyond even what Martin Luther King Jr saw from the mountain-top, but it is also more than that: it will be a day of liberation for all Americans: whether deeply conscious, as so many thoughtful people are, of this great burden of historic guilt, or defiantly denialist as too many on the shrill right wing remain. All - the good, the bad and the ugly - will take a giant step toward liberation from one of US history's most burdensome shackles.

I say this because that is the experience we discovered the day Nelson Mandela took the oath of office as the first black President of South Africa. Millions of his exploited compatriots danced with obvious joy at their new freedom, but less expected and perhaps more amazing was the sense of liberation that came upon their erstwhile oppressors. White South Africans testified in large numbers to a new lightness of being, as if some invisible, dragging weight, was gone, and something new could be born.

Now I know that the USA is not South Africa, and your story is not identical with ours, but there are enough echoes for me to assure you that if the voters of America break this barrier tomorrow, you will experience what I'm talking about!

Of course, like so many of you, we are anxious as well as excited. Having seen how deep are the currents of fear and prejudice that still run across the length and breadth of the United States, we too hold our breath. Be assured that the hopes of the vast majority of the people of the wider world go with Senator Barack Obama. There is no question about this. I doubt that even 5 percent of South Africans of any race group have any desire to see anyone of George W Bush's party near the White House. However, we have seen how easily US elections can be stolen and we are praying, as so many of you are, that tomorrow, the American people will march to the polls in greater numbers than ever before, determined to expunge eight of the most shameful years in US history. President Bush has brought America's reputation so low, that from our point of view, another such blow from the US electorate would be almost impossible to understand. Eight years of arrogance and ignorance have been done deep harm in the rest of the world and to the image of a great nation. Surely they will be declared as enough by the people of the US?

But let us be hopeful! Just as tomorrow offers the opportunity for a great sense of historic liberation in the US, so it also offers a chance to radically alter the world's current perception of America, and to open the door to new possibilities of healing and transformation for US foreign relations. If Obama is announced as your President-elect, there will be great rejoicing all around the globe. We will see new hope of the might of the United States being bent to works of justice and compassion and cooperation. We will see new possibilities for the poor of the earth: for the first time, Americans will have elected someone who knows what it is like to be on the outside as well as in the circle, who has actually worked among the poor, who has lived , however briefly, outside the American bubble, and who has the blood of the world's most oppressed continent in his veins. Everyone of these factors speak of change.

You will recall that the day following September 11, 2001, France's most famous newspaper ran the headline: 'Today, we are all Americans!' Well, please know that around the world there are so many people whose hopes ride on what you will do tomorrow, that I guess we wish we were all Americans! What a privilege it will be to vote in this election!

Our prayers are with you.

Warm regards,

Peter Storey

05 November 2008

Post-election potpourri

Some have noted how the McCain we saw concede last night reminded us of the old, moderate, actual-maverick we knew before this campaign began. I wish that guy could've beaten Bush in the 2000 Republican primary. Think how differently things might've transpired.

Though I wish the Bush presidency had never happened, you've also got to wonder whether Obama could've ascended so quickly if people weren't so dissatisfied. This is just a serious consideration of what someone else already pointed out in jest.

Speaking of the 2000 election, get this: the way things look right now, Ralph Nader might actually have won enough votes to span the difference between McCain and Obama in the very tight Missouri race.

Ted Stevens possibly WON? A week after he was convicted on seven felony counts? And Stevens isn't the only 84 year-old who was reelected to the Senate. This was a good year for very old Senators not named McCain.

In my home district, NJ-07, the Republican won with no incumbent in the race. He defeated Democrat Linda Stender, who also lost when she challenged for the seat in 2006. Stender pulled 48% of the vote in '06 and only 41% this year. I'm not sure where to look to do this research, but I am curious: could she be the only Democrat to fare worse in a congressional race in 2008 than she did in 2006? What happened there? I guess a rising tide doesn't always raise all the ships.

On a celebratory note, here's a bunch of videos of people dancing in the streets in DC, and a couple newspaper covers from historically significant cities.

04 November 2008

My prediction

Electoral Votes: Obama 344, McCain 194. I think Obama will take Florida, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and even North Carolina, but I don't think he will win Ohio or Indiana. Even though he's polling higher in Ohio than he is in NC. I'm just going with the gut here.

Though 344 to 194 seems like an unbelievable landslide when compared to 2000 and 2004, remember that Bill Clinton won 366 EVs in '92 and 376 in '96. Bush won 420 EVs against Dukakis in '88. And Reagan won every state but Minnesota in 1984.

I'm going to miss this kind of stuff.

Without the campaigns, where will I find joy in my life?

Here's a final "gotcha!" aimed at the liberal mainstream media, who had been pestering the McCain-Palin campaign for Sarah Palin's medical records ever since the Convention. The campaign was happy to provide Palin's medical information to the public ... forty-five minutes before Election Day. Now, the health records aren't that big of a deal to me, especially when we're talking about a 44 year-old candidate. That's why I find this such an amusing move by the Republicans, and that's why I'll be just a little sad to see the 2008 presidential election draw to a close.

31 October 2008

'Tis the season?

I guess Halloween and historic elections bring out the best in people. In the last day I've come across interesting homemade videos by a couple friends that I figured I'd post, in case you've got a few minutes to spare over the weekend:
  • Matt Newell-Ching, whom I followed to Duke and to Sojourners before I'd ever met him, playing the role of "Joe the Regional Organizer" and explaining why he'd vote for a candidate who's going to give tax breaks to people richer than he is.
  • Julian 'J.Kwest' DeShazier, an FTE Ministry Fellow at the University of Chicago, just posted the very professional music video for his track "I Am (Obama)".
  • A guy I know from back home made a kind of quirky music video about the New Jersey Devil as a Halloween present for his fans. It's sort of like "Thriller", but for white people who like the blues. 
Finally, here is the pumpkin that Jill and Dan carved:

The Good Old Days (pt. 2)

"Whitefield preached at Cardiff, where attempts were made to interrupt him by placing a dead fox in their midst and setting hounds to hunt it."
-1739 account of Wm. Seward

30 October 2008

My prison is a series of tubes.

One of my favorite things to read on the web is Slate's Explainer column, in which they take up provocative questions that are tangential to the news of the day. Questions that would never be answered by news articles themselves. Questions like, "Why does Quinnipiac University have such a respected political polling operation?" or "Where did the government get $85 billion for AIG?"

Today's Explainer asks: Now that he is a convicted felon, can Alaska Senator Ted Stevens vote for himself in next week's election?

This was the first thing that popped into my brain when Stevens' conviction was announced, and right then, I emailed my question to Explainer. That's right, they answered my question! Now, they don't provide attribution for the questions, and I'm sure they get lots of duplicate questions from different people. But I'm just going to enjoy this one for me.

P.S. He can vote for himself, because Alaska's division of elections ruled that Stevens will not technically have been "convicted" until his February sentencing. Right now I guess he's just sort of a "felon-elect," and therefore he's allowed to vote.

27 October 2008

The Good Old Days.

From the journal of Howell Harris, an 18th century Welsh revivalist who was a close associate of Rev. George Whitefield:
23 Aug. 1743. London ...[Went] to hear Bro. Whitefield preach to little children, many hundreds of them, in their infant language. There was such a cry as I never heard before. They cried with united cries so loud that his voice could hardly be heard.

25 October 2008

On Campaigns, and Telling the Truth

We all know that the currency of a presidential campaign is not reality, but perception. The most important way of measuring the time between now and election day is by counting down the remaining news cycles. The whole goal of a campaign is to put out a persuasive message that will be amplified in the echo chamber of 24-hour news networks.

Something peculiar happens, though, when someone speaks an actual, uncomfortable truth that people don't want to hear. If you disrupt a narrative that is already being stitched into the conventional wisdom, the response seems to be, "Don't distract me with the facts." This has happened at least three times during this long campaign, when surrogates for Obama have spoken the truth, but have either chosen poor words or spoken too bluntly for America to actually consider what they'd said.

Wesley Clark, June 2008: "I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president." Translation: "Wesley Clark has criticized John McCain's patriotism!" His real point: military service is not the same thing as command experience, and does not entitle one to the presidency.

Jeremiah Wright, 2003 sermon: "The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme." Translation: "He said God damn America!" His real point: in the Bible, the prophets pronounced God's damnation on Israel when they did not care for the widows and orphans, or when the rich would grind the poor beneath their feet.

John Murtha, October 15, 2008: "There is no question that western Pennsylvania is a racist area." Translation: "How dare he accuse his own constituents of being racists!" His real point: Ummm, actually, most parts of the country are racist. Perhaps all areas. Murtha might've been speaking more truthfully than he imagined when he made this comment. The point is, let's not kid ourselves about the incredible uphill battle that Obama has been waging to win the confidence of working-class whites in rural areas.

So the next time there's a big media dust-up over someone's crazy comment - and you know it'll happen again soon - just pause for a second, and try to think through whether there might be any truth lurking beneath the surface-level outrage.

24 October 2008

Every President is a War President

"Christian Anti-War Movement Must Prepare for an Obama Presidency," via Steve's shared items. Long, but an important, sobering consideration of what might await us in 2009 and beyond.

23 October 2008

Look not to your own interests...

From the Department of Tooting My Own Horn:

On Tuesday, I preached a sermon in preaching class on Philippians 2:1-13. I opened by talking about the present financial situation, and showed how in a sense, what we have is not a market malfunction but a natural product of the system we have. In a free market, we are all expected to be "rational, self-interested actors," and all the people who might've been at fault in causing this mess were being just that: they were trying to do what was in their own best interest. I then went on to contrast that sort of self-interest with the humility which Christ exhibited, and to which Paul exhorts the Philippians.

So I felt more than a little vindicated when I read that the Maestro himself, Alan Greenspan, backed up my reading of things when he testified with remarkable candor before Congress this afternoon.
“I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms,” Mr. Greenspan said.

Referring to his free-market ideology, Mr. Greenspan added: “I have found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I have been very distressed by that fact.”

Mr. Waxman pressed the former Fed chair to clarify his words. “In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right, it was not working,” Mr. Waxman said.

“Absolutely, precisely,” Mr. Greenspan replied. “You know, that’s precisely the reason I was shocked, because I have been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.”

Palin and Disability

In the Vice Presidential debate, Sarah Palin said that she and McCain have agreed that her policy portfolio in the White House will include energy policy, government reform, and issues facing families of children with disabilities. That last issue, of course, is one of personal importance to the Palins, and it's encouraging to hear it raised for the first time at such a high level in the public square. (I assume it is the first time someone anywhere near the White House has said that issues of developmental disability will be a part of their work?) As several L'Arche friends have said, you gotta give her credit for that.

I also had a hunch that Sarah Palin's noble interest in helping disabled children & their families might end up becoming a policy bludgeon to be wielded in the campaign, because that tends to happen with just about everything in our elections. (Think of body armor for troops, or prescription drug benefits for the elderly.) Such a development would seem particularly tragic with something as tender as developmental disability. The last thing we want to see is the replacement of "Joe the Plumber" with "Trig the Happy Down Syndrome Kid".

So, here I am voicing my fear about what might happen, in hopes that I will somehow jinx it into not happening. That being said, Palin will deliver her first policy address of the campaign (!) on Friday, and it will be about her commitment to families of children with special needs. Do good, Sarah.


I'm hoping this is the tipping point that sends North Carolina blue:

19 October 2008

Can a Good Christian be a Good President?

Back at the beginning of the month, I attended a panel discussion that was put together by the Duke Pathways Program. They're the religious vocational discernment program at Duke, funded by the Lilly Endowment. The provocative title of the program was "Can a Good Christian be a Good President?" I missed the name of the panel's moderator (an English professor) as well as that of one of the panelists. The other four on the panel were Peter Feaver (evangelical; Political Science; served as an adviser to the Bush NSC from 2005-2007), J. Kameron Carter (National Baptist; Christian Theology; author of a new book), James Joseph (UCC; Public Policy; U.S. Ambassador to South Africa under Bill Clinton), and Sam Wells (Anglican; Christian Ethics; dean of Duke Chapel).

Because people from different academic disciplines speak in different languages, the panel seemed to have a bit of a difficult time engaging one another. Nevertheless, the individuals on the panel made a lot of interesting points. Ambassador Joseph spoke out of his experience as a civil servant, a liberal mainliner, and a Democrat. He also won the award for "Most Alarming and (Arguably) Least Christian Statement of the Night". When a student asked a question about the inherent compromise of voting as a Christian ("both candidates have policies that are diametrically opposed to what Jesus says..."), the Ambassador bristled. "Jesus lived in a very different time," he said, "and I don't know how you know what he would've said in these times ... I don't know that Jesus would comment on strategies." Ouch.

Dr. Feaver was, as usual, very engaging. He took a couple swings at Jim Wallis, lumping God's Politics along with the later Moral Majority platforms as "blasphemy".

I'll wrap up just by posting paraphrases of a couple of the things Sam Wells said, because they're worth relaying:
  • "There is the presumption that politics is about how to deal with our problem of scarcity. Politicians are a type of theologian who deal with the hole we're in since God didn't do a good enough job of creating and redeeming us."
  • "There are two broad strands in American religious history: one that seems to think of the Bible as a sort of constitution, and another that sees the Constitution as a sort of bible."

10 October 2008

I may still be ignorant, but I'm also hip.

You may recall that NPR's This American Life did an extremely informative program explaining the subprime mortgage thing back in May. Well, good news: they came back with another really helpful program on the financial crisis this week. It's available for free streaming or download here. It's certainly still confusing -- most of the story takes place in a part of the economy that I had never even imagined might exist -- but they go to great lengths to make it accessible. I get the feeling that we are going to be hearing about all of this (or feeling its impacts) for a long time, so if you're tired of not understanding the news, this show is really worth an hour of your attention.

Who is the real Barack Obama?

You may have noticed that things have gotten a lot more dicey on the campaign trail the last week or two. If you haven't heard about some of the anti-Obama vitriol that's been bubbling up at McCain events (or if you have, but are still in the mood to be alarmed) check out this article and watch the video. To McCain's credit, in this video we do see him forcibly take the mic from a woman who said she was concerned about Obama because "he's an Arab." Although he came back with the typical, vaguely racist reply that knows no party boundaries: "No, no, he's a decent man."

I don't know if it's the proximity of the election (25 days) or the total economic upheaval that has people skittish, but it seems like the "foreignness" of Barack Obama is returning to the surface. No real indication of whether this is the kind of thing that will influence undecided voters, or whether it's mostly at play among people who are already decidedly pro-McCain.

Along these lines (but digging into a lot of different issues) is George Packer's article in this week's New Yorker: "The Hardest Vote: The Disaffection of Ohio's Working Class".

07 October 2008


Nadia sent along this disconcerting article: Supreme Court lets stand death sentence after Bible reading

It's an interesting circumstance: in the sentencing phase of a triple-homicide trial in Texas, the jury initially votes 10-2 in favor of execution. The foreman stands up and reads Romans 13:1-6 aloud. Several hours of deliberation followed, and the jury eventually reached unanimity in sentencing Jimmie Urbano Lucero to death.

It doesn't seem too surprising that the Supreme Court would decline to consider this case. I don't know anything about what kinds of jury behavior qualify as "misconduct" of the sort that renders a trial or sentence unfair. But I imagine that the Bible has surely been invoked (if not read aloud, or if not explicitly cited) by countless jurors trying to persuade their peers over the years. When you put twelve regular folks in a room and ask them to make a decision, they're going to use the tools at their disposal to do their duty. Let's just add that to the longer list of reasons why the death penalty has no place in our society.

So I don't doubt the legality of what this jury foreman did. Nor do I doubt the sinfulness of it. It's a real shame, and it is perfectly legal.

06 October 2008

This place keeps getting better.

Today, Bishop Gene Robinson is doing a bunch of events at Duke. Frankly, I'm probably not going to make the time to go to any of those talks, but it seems like a big deal to people here that he's coming to campus. Tonight, there is an event I really wish I could go to, but I have a meeting that I have to attend. It's a movie screening and discussion with Adam Hochschild, author of two really excellent books: King Leopold's Ghost and Bury the Chains. Of course, in a month or so, we'll have the real blessing to host l'Arche founder Jean Vanier for a few days at the Divinity School. 

But none of that is as exciting as this morning's announcement: WE GOT OPRAH!!!

29 September 2008

The Crap Sandwich Act of 2008

So the House defeated the Wall Street bailout bill this afternoon, in a vote that crossed party lines more than I thought it would.

John Boehner called the bill "a crap sandwich," and Rep. Paul Braun of Georgia called it some gross kind of s'more. I don't know about all that, but I do think that a lot of the people who loved Ron Paul (but didn't understand what he meant by abolishing the Federal Reserve) are probably feeling like he was right (though still not understanding what the Fed is or does).

Somewhere in the swamps of Jersey...

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band will be playing at this season's Super Bowl. I feel kind of ambivalent about this news -- it's pretty much guaranteed to be a lukewarm performance (unless the performer is Michael Jackson). On the other hand, a Bruce performance might be fitting for this year's Jets-Giants Super Bowl.

27 September 2008

Hip aesthetics = electoral votes?

Go to http://www.pentdego.com/obama.aspx and you can make an Obama poster that says whatever you want it to say. I'm just waiting for someone to program a utility that will take a picture of me and make it look like this iconic high-contrast, tricolor poster.

26 September 2008


Remember how when I'm not reading political news, I go to seminary? Me too. Since being a student doesn't seem to lend itself to blog posts as well as working at a church does, I haven't really been posting as much this Fall.

I'm going to try to do a better job of spotting good nuggets that come up in reading or lectures, and pass them along. Today, from the first thing I've ever read out of Barth's Church Dogmatics:

"Be it noted that this determination of God, this content of predestination, is already grace, for God did not stand in need of any particular ways or works ad extra. He had no need of a creation. He might well have been satisfied with the inner glory of His threefold being, His freedom, and His love. The fact that He is not satisfied, but that His inner glory overflows and becomes outward, the fact that He wills the creation, and the man Jesus as the first-born of all creation, is grace, sovereign grace, a condescension inconceivably tender." (Church Dogmatics II/2:121)

24 September 2008

Bring it.

Due to the financial crisis, McCain is suspending his campaign for the week, and calling on Obama to do the same. This includes Friday night's debate.

The Obama campaign needs to release a statement like this right now: "The current financial crisis makes a conversation between the two men vying for the presidency even more necessary -- not less. We look forward to seeing Senator McCain for our scheduled debate on Friday, and in light of recent events we are prepared to spend the entirety of the debate addressing the current financial situation and our plans for the future."

I'm hoping for an exchange like, "Let's clear up a couple of things. First of all, 'unfunded mandate' is two words, not one big one."

23 September 2008

Let me just say ...

...that I have absolutely no concept of what would happen if Congress didn't bail out Wall Street with the giant cash infusion they are currently debating. (Nor do I really understand where the $700 billion comes from or goes, or how it helps.) This is one of the downsides of being a grad student -- I really don't feel like I have the time or bandwidth to try reading enough to understand all this.

Slate said that the money for the $85 billion loan to AIG earlier this month came from the Federal Reserve selling off some of its securities reserve. Those reserves are now down to $200 billion, from $800 billion nine months ago. It seems to me - and I'm more than willing to be wrong on this one - that it's probably investors in other countries that are buying all those assets. Meanwhile, the Treasury is buying the bundles of high-risk mortgages that are at the epicenter of this mess, and for which they're never going to get payment. I'll just assume these losses will find their way into the national debt somehow.

Congress has been reluctant today to let such an expensive plan sail through. This is funny, since one of that body's specialties is signing half-trillion dollar blank checks.

16 September 2008

Luckier than Lou?

Jeter breaks Gehrig's Yankee stadium hit record; also steals boy's bike, runs over puppy.

Sorry the posts have been lame lately; blame school. Look for some posts soon about early Methodist history or some crap like that.

11 September 2008


There's a lot of curious stuff happening in the campaign these days:
  • In the bastion of logic and erudition that is The Late Show with David Letterman, Obama explained that, if his pig metaphor had anything to do with Sarah Palin, she would be the lipstick and the pig would be McCain's policies -- not, as McCain and the echo chamber supposed, that Palin was the pig and the lipstick was ... lipstick, or something?
  • The National Journal went and found a politician who actually HAS been called a pig during a political campaign.
  • I do miss the freewheeling Lincoln Chafee ever since he was voted out in 2006.
  • To those of you who live in DC, an ABC reporter spotted this car on the streets. If you see it, pop an extra quarter into the meter; just be sure to report it to the FEC.

06 September 2008

Changing Whom We Believe In

I only occasionally read the Sojourners blog, but I was pretty pleased with Jim's post on Friday about the "Country First" language that prevailed in St. Paul last week (and was just as explicit in Denver the week before).
The high-powered and, frankly, militaristic rhetoric kept telling us that "country" should be put above everything else -- including family and friendship. But what about faith? Should country be put ahead of faith, too? I kept wanting to yell back at the people yelling at me about putting the country first and say, "No, not me, I'm a Christian."
In the spirit of putting "faith first," in Jim's words, Heather is talking about starting a group at school called "Duke Divinity students for Jesus (and in the meantime, for Barack Obama)". I predict that this will appall some of our colleagues, but it's at least an effort to explicate the nuanced position of a politically engaged Christian in America.

It's important that we continue to imagine and practice ways of working for good through the political system while making clear to everyone that our citizenship is in heaven. It's a problem that putting an Obama button on my backpack, or a Jesus fish on my car, or a Mets sticker on my laptop, all seem to carry the same valence: those are my allegiances. I don't know whether to blame politics for being so absolutist ("Obama supporters agree with him in every way") or Christian culture for being so simplistic ("All you have to do is say you believe in Jesus, and then you're in") but I'm looking for more nuanced perspective in political discourse and more genuine depth in Christian discipleship. Is that too much to ask?

I'm wondering if Heather's new group might find a willing member in her academic adviser, who just wrote a rather unenthusiastic book review of a new volume of essays by Christians who choose not to vote.

03 September 2008

I mean, everyone's teenage years are awkward, right?

I was thinking that the most uncomfortable man at the Republican National Convention must be Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who it seems was as surprised as everyone else that McCain's running mate is not Tim Pawlenty but Sarah Palin. From the department of salt-in-the-wound, someone referenced her from the podium as "Sarah Pawlenty". Surely, the Convention couldn't get more awkward than that for anyone.

I was wrong. His name is Levi Johnston, and they made him fly to Minneapolis to be on the tarmac when McCain arrived in town today. Rick Davis is probably going to try to stage a prime-time wedding at the convention, with the Reverend Huckabee presiding. Always think carefully about the consequences of your actions, kids.

02 September 2008

Not a good sign

Nobody's called for a GOP ticket change, and I don't expect we'll see one. But the fact that anyone -- even the wry, trivia-obsessed Slate Explainer column -- would be asking questions about the technicalities of replacing a VP candidate from a presidential ticket is yet another reflection of the simple fact that nobody knows what to do with McCain's selection of Sarah Palin. There's a YouTube video from P.Diddy that I won't link to because of the f-bomb, but I believe he speaks for many of us when he surmises that John McCain must be buggin'.

The McCain campaign knows what to do: find a way to make her look both human and eminently qualified.

Christian Conversations

I am interning during this academic year with the Wesley Fellowship at Duke University. They are Duke's United Methodist campus ministry group. I was very active with this ministry during my undergraduate years at Duke, and I also live in the house that they own near campus, so it's a community that is near and dear to my heart.

One of my projects this semester is to facilitate a small group that will discuss "social issues" or "politics" or "something". Though it is an election year, we will hopefully not talk much about the election per se. However, I do hope that over the course of the semester, the students will at least develop an understanding that it is impossible to be an apolitical Christian, because of the political nature of the Christian story. ("Politics" here being understood broadly as "the way we interact with one another in the world.")

I have been very unsure of how to proceed. Should I ask them to read a book during the semester? Should we discuss a different specific social issue each week? I'm not sure. But Will Willimon is back on his blog today with a report on his conference's effort to have productive discussions about the current U.S. wars, and I think it describes part of what my hope is for my group this semester. His post is worth a quick read.

01 September 2008

Is Theodicy a "Problem" at all?

Although it appears at this moment that Gustav is not likely to be quite the storm that Katrina was, it's still obviously a serious event. It's hard to imagine what it must be like to live under the continual threat of devastating hurricanes, or to endure repeated chaotic evacuations - especially if you are elderly or have mobility issues.

Hurricane Katrina sparked a giant political conversation, but it also stirred the theological pot. Christians often end up trying to defend God (or find themselves accusing God) for letting such a tragedy happen. It's a hard defense to mount, because there is just so much suffering at every turn. UNC professor and ex-Christian Bart Ehrman reflects on the worst events of the 20th century in an effort to demonstrate the fallacy of believing in a loving, omnipotent God in his book, "God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer". (I haven't read the book; just this review of it.)

It might be the case that the "most important question" for Ehrman and others to ask is actually, "Why do I feel that the existence of suffering is humanity's most important question?" I think that people recall specific sayings of Jesus ("Ask, and it shall be given unto you"; "I am with you always...") and translate that in their minds into "I will protect you in the ways you want to be protected." That's not a careful reading. In times of trouble, we must also remember that this Jesus who seems to be our guardian is also a man who didn't particularly want to be crucified, yet submitted himself to God's will -- and said that we, too, must take up our cross.

That's kind of dangerous territory; comparing human suffering with Christ's crucifixion could be malappropriated to justify violence or tragedy as instruments of God's will, a la Falwell with 9/11 or Hagee with the Holocaust. The nuance is critical: we don't have to believe that God causes/permits these great tragedies, but we do have to let go of the expectation that God will protect us from pain and suffering (as well as its corrolary, that the experience of suffering presents a challenge to faith).

My thinking on these questions is colored by the fact that I have not experienced a direct, profound tragedy in my life the way that so many others have. One dear friend of mine had a Sunday School teacher, Todd Beamer, who died in Pennsylvania on 9/11. Another friend and classmate named Jill has a mother who is living with very aggressive ALS right now. I was there when Jill got the telephone call about the diagnosis, and you can read/watch a pretty intimate interview that her parents did with the local TV station here. I'm one step removed from these events & relationships, and so I know it is easier for me to stand back and say that they should not call God's sovereignty into question. But I do think it is true nonetheless, and the enduring faith of these two friends helps me believe that.

If anyone is interested, Jill is joining 5 siblings, 3 brothers-in-law, and 5 nephews in the Michigan Walk to Defeat ALS. You can support her towards her $1000 goal here.

29 August 2008

Hope is a thing that floats, gets votes.

I watched Obama's speech tonight at Dain's with Heather and Jill. It somehow heightened the feeling that we were watching something historic to be viewing it in a public place. It might not be remarkable to watch a political speech with the sound cranked up in a bar in Washington. But in Durham, you know something unusual is happening.

I was pleased with the speech, though not blown away. He has set the bar pretty high for himself, so it is sufficient praise to say that I thought his speech fit the occasion and met my expectations well.

I must say, unfortunately, that I was alarmed by the biblical reference he jammed in to the conclusion of the speech:
At this moment, in this election, we must pledge once more to march into the future. Let us keep that promise – that American promise – and in the words of Scripture hold firmly, without wavering, to the hope that we confess. Thank you, God Bless you, and God Bless the United States of America.

That's Hebrews 10:23, roughly. In the NRSV, it says "Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful." Now, the object of this sentence is Hope, and Hope is one of the central buzzwords of Obama's campaign.

I hate to admit the possibility, but it kind of sounds like Obama used a line of Scripture and substituted his own campaign platform for the gospel of Jesus Christ as the ultimate good for which we strive. This echoes the egregious error that George W. Bush made on 9/11/02, when he described the U.S.A. by saying that "...the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it." America is not the light in the darkness; Jesus is. And the hope we confess as Christians is not the American promise, but the eschatological promise of the risen Christ.

26 August 2008

24 August 2008


By late last week, a lot of people thought it was Biden, which takes some of the joy out of having called it. But I've been trying to think about how those two fit together as a team. Of course, this week's DNC convention is all about shaping that narrative. If they're smart, they will co-opt a simple tagline: Obama/Biden '08: The Redeem Team.

The U.S. Olympic men's basketball team was nicknamed "The Redeem Team" because they were going to bring home the gold medal after four years of disappointing U.S. finishes in international play. Obama's most compelling argument, usually shrouded behind the dangerously vague banner of "Change," is that a new leader is necessary to restore America's position in the international community. Plus, what could be more messianic than promising redemption to the masses?

(Of course, there is the small problem of USA Basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski's political leanings.)

21 August 2008

Your guess is as good as mine.

Seems that the pundits have narrowed Obama's VP shortlist down to Rep. Evan Bayh (IN), Sen. Joe Biden (DE), and Gov. Tim Kaine (VA). They've been breathlessly following every move: Evan Bayh's wife got her nails done! Joe Biden, a sitting U.S. Senator, was seen ... wearing a SUIT! Tim Kaine and Obama actually SPOKE to each other prior to a previously scheduled joint appearance!!!

There are a couple other names still being floated, like Hillary Clinton, Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius, and Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island. (I don't know who that is, but someone saw the Secret Service in Providence. Gasp!)

Seems like there are a few key criteria to consider:
  1. Demographic appeal. Use the VP to diversify your ticket. Usually this means geographic diversity, although that conversation is a lot more wide open this cycle. If Obama needs a Southerner, I don't think Tim Kaine is the answer. Give this category to Sebelius.
  2. Complementary Experience. Choose a VP whose strengths offset your weaknesses. For Obama, this probably means choosing a person with better foreign policy credentials. In other words, Joe Biden.
  3. Fitness for the presidency. Remember why Jed Bartlett said he needed a good man as his VP? "Because I could die." Nobody's talking about this reason very much, because it doesn't really impact the election as much. But who on this list would be ready to serve as president? Clinton, yes. I don't know how you gauge any of the rest of them, but I'd lean towards Biden.
The announcement is due Saturday. No leaks yet, amazingly, but I expect that we'll know before the person walks out on stage in Springfield. Looking at my three criteria, I think the choice is clear: he should pick Brett Favre. Seriously, I still think it should've been Bill Richardson all along. But some people have asked for it, so here's my gut prediction: Obama will choose Joe Biden.

Other predictions?

17 August 2008

The Gospel According to Bruce

NPR: Preaching the Bruce Springsteen Gospel.

At first I thought it ironic that a Unitarian Universalist pastor would write a "The Gospel According to..." book, but I guess it is a highly appropriate exercise of his freedom to find truth wherever he pleases. In any case, I wish someone else would've written this book - someone like me. You can't push the spiritual themes of Springsteen's work so far as to call it a "gospel," but there is definitely a richness there. I tried to do some of these themes justice in my Sojourners review of Bruce's 2005 album Devils & Dust (I could only find it posted online here, with several typos).

If you're in the market for an overblown hagiography of Springteen's life and work, I'd recommend Eric Alterman's It Ain't No Sin to be Glad You're Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteen.

P.S. I returned from Costa Rica last night, and will write about it soon. Perhaps a photo or two.

08 August 2008

August travels

Been on a bit of a blog hiatus since leaving Indianapolis. I drove back to NJ on Monday 7/28, making the trip in 11:20 of driving time, plus 25 minutes of stoppage. After a delightful ten days home, I am presently back in Durham, where I will be for about 16 hours. Tomorrow morning I fly to Costa Rica for a week with four Methodist undergrads from the Duke Wesley Fellowship for a weeklong work project.

Consequently, I don't expect to be posting anything again until after August 16. Be well, everyone, and enjoy the Olympics!

01 August 2008

Within reach

Only 95 days until election day!

29 July 2008

It's okay, Barack. Jesus had trouble finding privacy in Israel, too.

It's hard to assess to what extent this is true, but I like to think that as a student at Duke Divinity School, I am part of a community that will hold me to a higher standard than the old "I will not lie, cheat, or steal..." of the Duke honor code. When our present community covenant was introduced in 2003, it was met with quite a bit of resistance - much of it from the undergrads on the staff of the school newspaper, who just didn't get it. (How presumptive for the school to think that it can meddle in the moral formation of its students!)

I was reminded of all this by a small story that emerged from Obama's trip to Jerusalem. He took part in the custom of writing a prayer to God and placing it in a crack of the Western Wall. A local seminary student went to the wall, found Obama's note, and shared it with a newspaper, which printed it. This is viewed as a profound desecration of a very holy place; the Duke equivalent might be if a student snuck a tape recorder into Coach K's confessional booth at church. Public confession and atonement are often necessary for these kinds of breaches. So yesterday the yeshiva student appeared (anonymously) on Israeli television to apologize. He also seems to have taken the opportunity to endorse Obama's candidacy. Whatever.

25 July 2008

What's that smell?

Lost in all the noise surrounding the New Yorker's insufficiently satirically covered July 21 issue was an intriguing book review by Elizabeth Kolbert about the anti-lawn movement. ("How could we have missed such a hard-hitting article?" you ask.) She touches on perhaps a half-dozen different books from the last couple years that form part of this movement's growing corpus of literature. I never had stopped to wonder about the history of our classic grassy lawn. As it turns out, none of the common American grasses is indigenous to North America, and lawns were invented in the mid-19th century.

Around the time I was reading this article, I had a conversation with my host Mary Beth about the front lawn at our house here in Indianapolis. Instead of grass, they have a lawn full of thyme. Now, it's not the most ecologically noble endeavor; they wanted to grow something they could park a car on, and they put an industrial-strength plastic grid just underneath the topsoil to ensure that this would be possible. But after experiencing a summer with this thing, I can say that a thyme lawn has downsides, such as being uncomfortable as hell to lie down in, but it also has upsides: when you walk across the lawn, it smells like pork chops.

Winding down.

There will be no full-blown Summer Wrap-Up post. But it is the case that Thursday was my last day in the office, and Sunday will be my final worship services at the church. My last act as an intern will probably be on the softball diamond Sunday afternoon.

I've learned a lot this summer, including new words such as Carb Day, tornadic, and cornholing. I also learned some things about life in the church. When I consider all I've learned, and all the people I've met, May 10 (when I drove out here) feels like it was a very long time ago. At the same time, I've been saying that I really only felt like I "hit stride" out here during the final month, and from that perspective, it feels pretty abrupt to be finishing up right now.

In either case, I am ready to go, and looking forward to a little time in New Jersey, a place where we don't need weathermen with special adjectives telling us to get in the basement right now.

24 July 2008

You could call it that.

St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, N. Illinois Street, Indianapolis:

But where's Yugoslavia?

Check out this drag & drop interactive map quiz. It covers the mysterious and geopolitically insignificant area from northern Africa to central Asia.

Got this on email via Heather, via Melissa, via Jacob.

23 July 2008

Well, we all make mistakes.

Bob Novak is having a bad week.

After starting rumors on Monday that a McCain VP announcement was imminent (a claim from which he has since backed off), the columnist apparently hit a pedestrian with his Corvette at 18th and K streets in D.C. this morning, and drove a full block before someone stopped him. Oops.

UDPATE: The bicyclist who stopped Novak at the scene is a 1982 Duke graduate.

Final week in Indy

I'm told that in past summers, the church has had their Duke intern preach on the final Sunday of the internship. I'm glad that I was able to preach on my second-to-last Sunday, so that I could focus on the sermon without simultaneously needing to focus on packing and goodbyes.

However, I'd been pouring so much of my time into preparing the sermon (and the final session of Bible 101) that I really don't have much to do this weekend. Apart from some final evaluation type things, there is nothing immediately obvious that I should be doing, and there's not much incentive to go find things to do. I feel done.

So, this is a good week for reflection & wrap-up discussions with folks here at the church, and I'm grateful to have the time to do that. I'm also looking forward to packing up the station wagon and heading back east in five days.

21 July 2008

Speaking of offensive caricatures...

A new web site, apparently supported by some folks with interests in ethanol, is called Nozzle Rage. I missed this, but it is almost two weeks old. Included in the site is a professionally produced video that aims to portray how Average Americans seem to have no choice but to buy foreign oil, thereby financing Hamas, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban, who will extort us for more money, strangle us, and (apparently) sodomize us. Most of the web chatter I could find about this video was pretty positive.

I'm not a fan of dependence on foreign oil. (Or of domestic ethanol. Or of light-hearted references to gang-rape). But setting all that aside: don't you think this bit of puppetry might be in poor taste?

New Yorker, get back to what you do best: making fun of people who don't read The New Yorker.

I've been fairly surprised by the size of the dust-up over the Obama New Yorker cover. Most of the articles about the whole affair haven't been particularly helpful, but I did enjoy Lee Siegel's piece in the NYT this weekend. Recognizing that the cover offended or bothered a lot of people, I'd been thinking about how the same cartoon could've been done in a more unambiguous way, and I assumed it would need to be more outrageous: a gay marriage happening out the window, a placard that said "President HUSSEIN Obama," a poor person being treated by a physician, stuff like that.

Siegel says that the problem isn't that the cartoon is insufficiently outrageous. It's that "The New Yorker represented the right-wing caricature of the Obamas while making the fatal error of not also caricaturing the right wing ... But if that very same New Yorker cover had been drawn in a balloon over the head of a deranged citizen - or a ruthless political operative - it would have appeared as plausible only in the mind of that person." I'll buy that.

However, Siegel also makes a curious argument about whether the caricature of the Obamas is even viable fodder for satire. He says that since it has only been propagated by the "lunatic fringe" and "lunatic establishment" of Fox News, it cannot be satirized; satire only works when pointing out the absurdity of something widely accepted. How, according to Siegel, do when know when an idea is widely accepted? Once it has been published by the New York Times, of course.

For the record, the NYT's circulation is just over 1 million on weekdays, and 1.6 million on Sundays. Fox News averages almost 2 million primetime viewers every night of the week. That doesn't get them out of the "lunatic" category, but it does get them off the "fringe" list.

Odds & Ends

I'd call it a Monday Roundup if I had ever done this before, or ever planned to do it again.
  • Reporters staked out the D.C. police office to interview the first person to register a handgun, but they missed him -- because it wasn't a man, it was a woman.
  • Obama's speech in Berlin later this week is expected to draw "between 10,000 and a million" listeners. In related news, tonight's game between the Indianapolis Indians and the Charlotte Knights should attract between 5,000 and a gajillion baseball fans.
  • Speaking of baseball, the Mets have won 11 out of the last 13, and are tied with the Phillies for first place. The Mets and Phillies begin a three-game series in Queens tonight Tuesday.
  • Apparently in the West we have a wild horse problem, and the government is holding some 30,000 horses in federal detention centers. NPR could not confirm that a single lawyer has been able to visit with any of the horses.

20 July 2008

Sermon audio!

Sermon went pretty well today. Thanks to everyone who sent a good word my way last week! If you're interested, you can listen to the audio by clicking this link. (Or right-click it to download the file, which is almost 5 MB.)


Otherwise, you can also find it on iTunes by searching for "North Church Sermons Indianapolis."

Also, here's the text.

17 July 2008

Just believe in the Bible, okay?

The biggest issue I've had to wrestle with this summer has been how to understand the authority of Scripture. It's a lively question here at the church; many in the congregation are retired clergy, and many others have gone to seminary. There's a strong current of folks who find Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong to be the most helpful biblical theologians. They are great people, really active in the ministries of the church, and really sincere in their desire to grow as disciples. But they're alarmingly comfortable with dismantling biblical texts in order to identify the "spirit" of the text - God's real meaning. I have yet to meet someone who has uncovered a "spiritual reading" that convicts them of anything.

So that's been the backdrop for my teaching the Bible 101 class, and my preparation for this Sunday's sermon. I've heard the horror stories of seminary interns or new pastors who come out into the church, guns blazing, trying to set everyone right. It's always a disaster. I think I am more humble and sensitive than that. But how do I encourage people to see the presuppositions they are bringing to the Bible - that it must make rational sense, for example, or that God must be "moral" by some objective standard - and to consider a different presupposition: that this is the word of God, for the people of God?

I emailed one of my preceptors from the Divinity School to ask him if he had a book recommendation - something that might be a sort of indirect response to Borg's Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. He came back with a superb suggestion: N.T. Wright's The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture. I'm almost done with it. At only 140 pages, it is an ambitiously concise survey of the history of approaches to Scripture, including his assessment of how we find ourselves snarled by the false choice of literalism-or-liberalism. The final chapter contains a lot of specific ideas for moving forward, but I haven't read that yet.

In the meantime, check it:
“There is a great gulf fixed between those who want to prove the historicity of everything reported in the Bible in order to demonstrate that the Bible is ‘true’ after all and those who, committed to living under the authority of scripture, remain open to what scripture itself actually teaches and emphasizes. Which is the bottom line: ‘proving the Bible to be true’ (often with the effect of saying, ‘So we can go on thinking what we’ve always thought’), or taking it so seriously that we allow it to tell us things we’d never heard before and didn’t particularly want to hear?” (Wright, 95)

14 July 2008

"Vertical farms"?

Don't know much about it, but I'm just going to assume this is a bad idea. I mean, a bad idea: the kind that our kids will laugh at, the way we look back at the early, schematic drawings of whimsical flying contraptions.

It seems like a decent idea - after all, it's someone talking about investing heavily in a form of local agriculture, and that is good news. But if we're talking about "hundreds of millions of dollars" to build even one of this guy's dream agri-skyscrapers, I have to think: why can't we generate half that capital to support traditional small farms that have proximity to cities? Let's give it to Liz's farm!

Tangentially, this is remarkable:
"Stephen Colbert jokingly asserted that vertical farming was elitist when Dr. Despommier appeared in June on 'The Colbert Report,' a visit that led to a jump in hits to the project’s Web site from an average of 400 daily to 400,000 the day after the show."

Recap: Bible 101, Week Three

For some reason I had a smaller group for class this Sunday: about nine people, instead of the 15 or 20 I’d had the first two weeks. As Heather pointed out to me last night, a week ago I was frustrated with how sidetracked our conversation had gotten when discussing the OT, and was wishing for fewer students so that we could have a better conversation. So, that’s what I got, and on the balance I think it probably was a better conversation.

In trying to give them a background against which to read the NT, I decided to start by talking about Acts, and almost all of our time ended up being consumed by the details of Acts and what we know about the earliest days of the Church. I feel pretty good about this; I’d rather spend time focusing on the actual biblical witness than talking about the quest for the “historical Jesus” or some similar diversion.

Things hit a bit of a snag when we got to the end of Acts, where I asserted that Paul made it to Rome and preached the Gospel there (true), that Acts says nothing of the end of his life, but that he mostly likely was executed (true), and that he didn’t want to be executed in the same manner as Jesus, so he made them crucify him upside down (false; that was Peter).

This week’s handout is a one-page spreadsheet of the books of the New Testament with information about their approximate date and probable author.

13 July 2008

Pastor Conan O'Brien?

Perhaps they have a church mascot.
N. Washington Blvd, Indianapolis.
Posted by Picasa

Flip-flopping is for girly-men.

Actually, it's not - Arnold says so.

On ABC this morning, host George Stephanopolous and guest Arnold Schwarzeneggar compared notes on who has bigger arms (Arnold) and the longer last name (tie).

Schwarzeneggar also defended a candidate's right to change his mind over time:
"Let me tell you something. Flip-flopping is getting a bad rap, because I think it is great. Someone has made a mistake. I mean, someone has, for 20 or 30 years, been in the wrong place with his idea and with his ideology and says, 'You know something? I changed my mind. I am now for this.' As long as he's honest or she's honest, I think that is a wonderful thing. You can change your mind..."
I really appreciate this, and I think it's something important to keep in mind when the whole world cries 'foul' over an apparent shift in a candidate's position. That's not to say that we should give them a free pass; just recognize that it's not necessarily a bad thing when someone's thinking evolves.

Via Political Punch.

Two weeks to go.

As of the conclusion of worship today, I officially have only a fortnight left in Indianapolis.

12 July 2008


So I am persuaded by Mark Bittman's crusade to cut back meat consumption (and his advice for how to do it).

But there is competing evidence. Whom to believe?

Of course, taste and quantity are two separate issues. So maybe the answer is to eat less meat, but eat the Real Good parts when you do. That probably excludes the Genoa salami I bought at Kroger today.

(I know, this is not relevant to field ed or to the election. We'll all get over it.)

11 July 2008

Play time

This morning our Children's Pastor led a training session in the children's teaching method we use with the 1-3 graders. It's called Godly Play. It has been around for a couple decades, and they use it for the kids at Duke Chapel, among other places, but I really didn't know anything about it.

It's a really interesting program in that it structures the whole class time with great intentionality, from the moment each child enters the room (one-by-one, with a personal greeting) until they leave (one-by-one, with an individual blessing). Each week they move the hand on a big clock-like liturgical calendar. The main part of each class is the story, when a storyteller recites (from memory) the Godly Play story for that week. The stories all use unique sets of figurines & props. The stories are written by the Godly Play curriculum, and they are based on either biblical narratives, parables of Jesus, or (occasionally) on more abstract concepts, like "I am the light of the world."

I was really shocked by how theological it is. I really don't know how to relate to children as people, and I have very little concept of what they can understand or remember. But compared with the high-fructose VBS curricula that are out there, Godly Play is just wonderfully solid. It is totally oriented towards creating a reverent, sacred space in the children's classroom. To be honest, the only thing other than church worship that it reminds me of is Mr. Rogers: when the show shifted over to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, you knew that something special was happening. It's like that.

Anyone else have any experience with this program?

09 July 2008

Is America Ready for a [fill-in-the-blank] President?

Black: sure! Extremely old? Questionable.

A Gallup poll released today indicates that a higher percentage of Americans believe McCain's age will make him a less effective president than believe that Obama's race will make him a less effective president.

I have a hard time believing ageism is more pernicious than racism in this country. On the other hand, ageism is extremely ingrained and often overlooked. In part, it is ingrained and overlooked because it has some limited merit: in general, a person's age does impact his/her capabilities in a way that race does not.

Interestingly, if you scroll down through the poll results, they break it out by candidate preference. McCain supporters pretty much agree with Obama supporters that Obama's race does not impact his effectiveness as president. But 37 percent of Obama supporters believe McCain's age to be a negative factor, compared with only 8 percent of McCain supporters.

What gives? Is this a reasonable judgment to make about a 72 year-old man who wants to take on one of the most taxing jobs in public life? Or do Obama's young, progressive, enlightened supporters have a blind spot when it comes to valuing the elderly?

Pastoral Care

I knew at the outset of this summer that among the many duties of a minister, pastoral care is my biggest blind spot. The situations in which people need their pastor to be present - illness, divorce, imminent death of a loved one, unexpected death of a loved one - these are, for the most part, foreign to my experience. Furthermore (or perhaps as a result), I don't really know quite what they hope the pastor will do or say during a visit, and intercessory prayer presents something of a challenge to me.

But I'm learning. Next week I'm going to spend half the day with our Pastor of Care & Nurture, and this afternoon I will go to a nursing home with another associate pastor. But I wanted to get something in here about my trip to the hospital last Wednesday afternoon.

We (the associate pastor & I) visited a woman who had been in a coma since having a stroke on that Sunday. She was in her forties, and had had a really tough time over the years with alcohol and with heartbreak. It had taken a toll on her body, and here she was, being watched over in the hospital by her mother. That Wednesday morning, the doctors had told her that the brain damage from Sunday's stroke was something from which she would not recover, so by the time we arrived, they were mostly just watching her breathing, to make sure that she stayed alive until her brother arrived from Wisconsin. She passed on Saturday morning.

Both mother and daughter have had a long relationship with the church, but the mother is very active here, and right now is totally standing on the church, and on God, to support her; in the last eighteen months she has lost a husband, a grandson, and a daughter. Today we will plan the funeral.

I don't have any grand lessons from the visit, but it was a confusing time. I was uncomfortable, and scared by the situation; I have never been in the room with a dying person before, or been part of a conversation about a person's imminent death. When we got out of the room, I was sweaty and choked up. On the other hand, it was a very peaceful time. There was no uncertainty about what was going to happen, and the mother's sorrowful resignation to God was really a profession of faith. Those really are sacred, grace-filled moments.