24 August 2010

The Egg Recall

Last week's news that a half-billion eggs are being recalled from two farms in Iowa because of salmonella contamination should not be a big surprise. I found this article on Salon to be the most helpful summary and analysis. He focuses in on Austin DeCoster, the "free market stud" whose record of code violations would rival BP's. "Without ... effective regulation," he asks, "how tenable is our food system?"

This short commentary also takes up the question of regulation, and makes the choice plain: We can either have a centralized food production system and very strong regulation, or we can decentralize our food system. Those are the only two options if we want to avoid such large-scale contaminations. Definitely worth the three minutes to read.

(Of local interest here, it turns out that the contaminated eggs were to blame for April's salmonella outbreak at Bullock's restaurant in Durham.)

06 August 2010

Your expensive breakfast

Prices have risen sharply this year for wheat, coffee, and orange juice. The Economist is concerned: "Taken together, the raw ingredients for breakfast in much of the rich world have increased in price by 25% since the beginning of June." Of course, we all know that skipping breakfast is the most costly choice of all...

27 July 2010

Does the Pope wear a funny hat?

The Pope wears a normal hat; it is funny.

26 July 2010


Telegraph: Church minister to Tweet Holy Communion to the faithful

An annotated interview with the Reverend Tim Ross, of the Methodist Church in England:

"Twitter offers unique possibilities for communication for the Church," he said.

It does.

"It's a community that's as real and tangible as any local neighbourhood and we should be looking to minister to it.

No, you are confusing 'tangible' with 'popular'.

"The perception of church is often that it is rusting away in antiquated buildings and not in touch with the world around us, but this is a statement that we're prepared to embrace the technological revolution."

This is a statement that you are prepared to embrace anything.

What about "Because there is one loaf, we, many as we are, are one body"?

10 July 2010

Trinity Sunday

I preached a few weeks ago (on Trinity Sunday) at Durham Mennonite Church, where Heather and I have been attending since last fall. They kindly made an audio file available to me, and I promptly forgot to share it with anybody. It runs about 18-19 minutes.

22 June 2010

Why Lament?

The folks at Sojourners were interested in the Christian Call to Lament and Reconciliation, and so I was able to write something up that they posted on their blog yesterday:

>>>God's Politics: The Gulf Spill Brings Christians to Lament

I got a little long-winded, I'm afraid, but I'm always glad for the opportunity to reach more than the 8-10 people who read this blog...

18 June 2010

Memory Lane

White House Press Briefing
May 7, 2001 (LINK)

Q: Does the President believe that, given the amount of energy Americans consume per capita, how much it exceeds any other citizen in any other country in the world, does the President believe we need to correct our lifestyles to address the energy problem?

MR. FLEISCHER: That's a big no. The President believes that it's an American way of life, and that it should be the goal of policy makers to protect the American way of life. The American way of life is a blessed one. And we have a bounty of resources in this country. What we need to do is make certain that we're able to get those resources in an efficient way, in a way that also emphasizes protecting the environment and conservation, into the hands of consumers so they can make the choices that they want to make as they live their lives day to day.

Q: So Americans should go on consuming as much more energy than any other citizens in any other countries of the world, as long as they want?

MR. FLEISCHER: Terry, the President believes that the American people are very wise and that, given the right incentives, they will know how and they will make their own right determinations about how much they can conserve ...

08 June 2010

Feast your eyes

My summer project: bread-baking!

07 June 2010

A Christian Call for Lament and Reconciliation

During last week's summer institute at the Duke Divinity School Center for Reconciliation, I met some wonderful folks who've worked together to compose a document in response to the ongoing oil disaster in the Gulf. I hope you'll read it, and consider adding your name. Most importantly, I hope you'll think through how your own congregation might be able to make an acknowledgment of the oil spill in its own worship and life.

The BP Oil Spill: A Christian Call for Lament and Reconciliation

As followers of Christ, creator and redeemer of all creation, we mourn the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe and the BP oil spill now polluting the Gulf of Mexico. We mourn the human and animal lives lost, the economies and ecosystems destroyed, and the gifts of God, created from and for his love, squandered and poisoned. Most of all we mourn our complicity and active participation in an economy based on toxic energy that has made such death inevitable.
Click here to continue reading.

02 June 2010

On blame

After Katrina, Working Assets designed a billboard which placed a photo of the submerged city alongside a quotation from famed small-government crusader Grover Norquist, stating his desire to reduce the federal government "down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

I always wonder how fair it is when we take a major, unforeseen disaster as evidence of a flawed ideology.

Today the AP ran a story entitled "Conservatives seek government solutions after oil spill." In it, they recall Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal's 2009 promise to refuse federal stimulus money, in contrast with his eagerness to work with the federal government (and its resources) to deal with the oil spill. It's interesting to ask small-government conservatives from the region how they rationalize it, but ultimately not very satisfying: I gather that most would say that disaster recovery is precisely one of the few proper roles for the federal government. I can't tell if the reporter was fishing for hypocrisy, but I don't think there is much to be found here.

A much more lighthearted effort in this same vein is the Facebook group entitled "Plugging the Gulf oil leak with the works of Ayn Rand". Lord knows she wrote enough pages.

I know my opinion usually falls on the left, and I spend a lot of my time trying to be as charitable as possible toward the right. My aim is not to let anyone off the hook, or to conclude that the Gulf disaster is ideologically neutral. But if you think you're in a position to score ideological points off of this disaster, the relevant question is not whether you own a copy of Atlas Shrugged; it's whether you own an automobile.

27 May 2010

When disaster strikes

I've been thinking this morning about how our society/nation/culture reacts to major disasters. When we look at the Deepwater Horizon spill, the Upper Big Branch mine collapse in early April, or even the financial collapse, Congress and the media seem to take up the public's interest by identifying those at fault and figuring out how to prevent the same thing from happening again. The answer, in each case, seems to be regulation: introduce more of it, or make sure that the regulatory structures aren't being tainted by corruption.

If you're interested in the question of blame, I highly recommend this piece from the Times-Picayune. The author thinks that what the American people need, alongside a proper outrage, is an appreciation of the technological challenges involved in both the drilling and the repair operations. He begins, "Pity the President of the United States who has to admit to the American people the limits of American know-how." Though I'm not going to make any excuses, I honestly felt similar pity for Bush during Katrina: when a cataclysmic event strikes, how much can we really expect of the federal government?

As for the question of regulation, I touched on the topic in a paper I wrote about the financial services industry for my Agrarian Theology class this semester. The problem with recovery through regulation is that these disasters keep happening because we are basing our livelihood on inherently risky enterprises:
The consensus solution to the contraction of credit markets has been to introduce governmental regulation of derivatives markets and to loan tremendous sums of money to banks (money which, of course, the federal government has borrowed from foreign creditors). It is unclear whether we have gained any cultural or moral wisdom. “A human economy cannot prescribe the terms of its own success,” Wendell Berry writes. “If we see the human economy as the only economy, we will see its errors as political failures, and we will continue to talk about ‘recovery.’” Indeed, the entire purpose of the federal government’s drastic intervention—what is meant by the term ‘recovery’—seems to be the stabilization of financial institutions so that we can resume borrowing and lending in a way that generates artificial wealth without being bounded by the limits that constrain real wealth. Constraint, of course, is a virtue well understood by farmers and entirely foreign to bankers.

28 April 2010

More on offshore drilling

The NYT article about how the Coast Guard plans to burn up the oil spill is running underneath a banner advertisement ... for offshore drilling and underwater pipelines.

If, for some reason, you so desire, you can hear more from "the people of america's oil and natural gas industry" at this website.

Spin, Baby, Spin!!!

The Department of the Interior has finally approved a plan for a private company to build a large Wind Farm in Nantucket Sound. The payoff is not that tremendous -- an array of turbines over an area the size of Manhattan will only be able to generate about 75% of the electricity needed by the metropolises of Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Martha's Vineyard. But it seems like a step in the right direction. And while I am sympathetic to opponents' concerns about disruptions to tourism, boating, and aviation, I also feel reasonably sure that we'll never end up having to set the windmills on fire in order to keep them from poisoning our food. Given the choice, I'd love to expand offshore wind farms rather than offshore drilling for oil. (The best choice, of course, would be to use less electricity.)

19 April 2010

Engagement Rings

If you're reading this, you in all likelihood have heard already that Heather and I got engaged this past week. We're really thrilled about this change, about moving forward with wedding planning, and about our life together!

A lot of folks have been curious about our decision to both wear engagement rings. Apparently this places us on a high rung of the egalitarianism ladder. Unlike many of the things we do in life, we actually weren't trying to make a big statement with this; it just seemed like the natural thing to do. The thought process went something like this:
  1. Whatever we get, we want it to be either recycled or conflict-free.
  2. We don't feel too compelled to get an engagement ring with a gemstone in it.
  3. Do we even want to mess with engagement rings? (Yes.)
  4. Why? (To be a visible sign of our engagement.)
  5. Then let's both wear something!
Eventually, I came across this design (above) by Beth Cyr, who is in Athens, Georgia. I guess they're probably designed to be wedding bands, but we needed a matching set of something interesting. The design has a single leaf, and is made of recycled silver. We're very pleased.

We've struggled a bit to explain why we both have engagement rings in a way that doesn't disparage couples who do things the traditional way. That's certainly not our intent. But I've been glad for the opportunity to spark a lot of conversations about marriage customs. My hope is that the most interesting question in people's minds might not be "Why would a man wear an engagement ring?" but, "Why not?"

09 April 2010

Poem for spring

I don't usually take the time to read the poems in The New Yorker, but this one caught my eye a few weeks ago because of its biblical reference. It may have been more appropriately read when it was published (the March 22 issue), because since then it feels as if we've bypassed Spring and landed squarely in Summer.

The poem's title is "Ecclesiastes 11:1," which reads: "Cast your bread upon the waters, and you will find it after many days."

Ecclesiastes 11:1

We must cast our bread
Upon the waters, as the
Ancient preacher said,

Trusting that it may
Amply be restored to us
After many a day.

That old metaphor,
Drawn from rice farming on the
River's flooded shore,

Helps us to believe
That it's no great sin to give,
Hoping to receive.

Therefore I shall throw
Broken bread, this sullen day,
Out across the snow,

Betting crust and crumb
That birds will gather, and that
One more spring will come.

--Richard Wilbur

08 April 2010

Conference pride

(I try to confine my blog posts to a few categories: news/politics, interesting theological tidbits, sermons I've written. Please forgive this week's parade of posts related to college basketball.)

In the early part of the last decade, while I was an undergraduate, it felt as if the ACC represented the cream of the crop in college basketball. But by the middle of the decade, it became increasingly clear that the Big Ten and (later) the Big East were superior, at least in terms of their NCAA tournament performance. But now that Duke has won the 2010 title, take a look at the last ten champions:
2001: Duke
2002: Maryland
2003: Syracuse
2004: Connecticut
2005: UNC
2006: Florida
2007: Florida
2008: Kansas
2009: UNC
2010: Duke
In the last decade, the ACC has produced more Final Four teams (9) and more champions (5) than any other conference. Perhaps most remarkably, 19 out of the last 23 Final Fours have featured either Duke or UNC. While all this speaks more to the reliable excellence of Duke and UNC than to the overall strength or depth of the conference, it's a good bit of evidence to keep in our back pocket in case we lose the all-important ACC-Big Ten challenge next year.

Go here to see the history of Final Four appearances.

06 April 2010

Things that don't help our reputation.

If you harbor any stereotypes about Duke students, there's a chance they are true.


30 March 2010

Reading queue

Only six short weeks after Easter, I will graduate from Duke Divinity School. I'm not sure yet what I will be doing for work, but I am starting to line up some books that I hope to read in the summer and fall.

Books I was supposed to read during seminary, but didn't quite finish, but really want to read thoroughly:
  • Newbigin, The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church
  • Clapp, Families at the Crossroads
  • Johnson, The Fear of Beggars
  • Maddox, Responsible Grace
Newly released books that I want to get my hands on:
  • Wilson-Hartgrove, The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture
  • Huertz and Pohl, Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission
  • Houston, Leading by Example: Peter's Way for the Church Today
  • Owens, The Shape of Participation: A Theology of Church Practices
I know those should all be links, but I'm feeling lazy tonight. I'm pretty sure you can find all those books here.

24 March 2010

Yes We Can/No You Can't

You only have to watch the first 30 or 45 seconds to get the idea:

For All the Saints

Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of the martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero. While they prepare for what has become a major annual observance in El Salvador, I hope Christians in this country will also take time today to remember his words and his witness. A former colleague once pointed out to me that we commemorate three twentieth-century martyrs in the span of sixteen days: Romero (March 24), King (April 4), and Bonhoeffer (April 9). These days often fall in Lent or Holy Week, when we walk with Jesus to Jerusalem and to the cross. You could do a lot worse during Holy Week than to meditate on the lives and deaths of these saints.

Ironically and appallingly, the infamous Texas board of curriculum just voted to remove Romero from a list of people who stood up to oppression in the new textbook they are fashioning. I was thankful to the Daily Show for lifting up Romero's memory while skewering those who think he's unimportant.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Don't Mess With Textbooks
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorHealth Care Reform

21 March 2010

Catholics and Bureaucrats

It's been clear for a while that health care legislation in the House has been hung up on the question of federal funding for abortion. The Catholic bishops have been active and vocal opponents of any health care reform where this specter is raised. However, last week a significant number of Roman Catholic nuns and Catholic hospitals voiced their support for reform, citing the good that will come of extending insurance to millions of presently uninsured individuals.

This is interesting because we're so accustomed to the Catholic Church being univocal: what the Pope says, goes. ABC's political team put together a pretty straightforward and helpful story which notes the open question of "which group has the authority to speak for the Catholic faith on matters of public policy."

For a more provocative analysis of an entirely different sort, see this commentary from my professor Paul Griffiths. A Roman Catholic theologian, he takes the position that federal dollars should not be used to pay for abortions. However, he thinks that we are incapable of judging the current health care bill according to that standard: "Legislation of this sort in a complex bureaucratic pagan state such as ours is beyond the competence of anyone reasonably to assess as to outcome." In other words, he thinks that the Stupak Amendment demands assurances that legislators cannot actually deliver. As a result, he seems to advocate a sort of quietism: "When we don't know, the thing to say is that we don't know, and the action to take and advocate is that which accords with not knowing."

I'm not convinced that his skepticism about one's ability to know the effects of legislation is well-placed. In a pair of helpful posts over at Theolog, Steve Thorngate argues that the Senate bill (which Stupak aims to remedy) in fact does not make new federal dollars available for abortion. It seems like Stupak's amendment is a rather redundant gesture. I'm not sure if Griffiths is concerned by the complexity of the bill, the enforceability of the regulations, or the law of unintended consequences. But I don't see how you can argue against the possibility of banning the use of federal funds for abortion, if that is what Congress wants to do.

Note: Although the House has not yet begun their Sunday debate and vote on health care legislation, the latest rumors are that Rep. Stupak and his allies are going to vote yes. Their votes may have been secured with the promise of yet another redundancy, in the form of an executive order.

13 March 2010

Big Government Conservatives, Libertarian Lefties, and Glenn Beck

So, Glenn Beck said some things about churches that preach social justice, and there was a big uproarious backlash. Now, Glenn Beck is shockingly powerful; he has a ton of faithful listeners who are never even going to hear the responses of organizations like Bread or Sojourners. There's no point in "reporting myself to Glenn Beck." But this is one of those situations where an extreme figure's comments might also be sparking a more interesting debate among moderates.

If my Facebook friends are any indication, people really do have widely varying opinions about the meaning of terms like "social justice" and "politics", and how their Christian discipleship interacts with those arenas. These are all Christians who find Beck to be pretty useless, but who also believe that Christian social responsibility is an individual matter, to be kept entirely distinct from government policy.

The fundamental disagreement has been the same since at least the Johnson administration: what is the proper role of the federal government? Interestingly, this question is developing into a rift on the political right, with old-guard evangelical leaders questioning the Tea Partiers' commitment to key social issues while the Tea Party leaders criticize the Religious Right's penchant for governmental intervention. Clearly, these are two competing conservative visions of the role of government.

What fascinates me is that there is a parallel rift among Christians on the political left: there are those, like Sojourners and Bread for the World, who take the Bible's call to social justice and translate it into advocacy for governmental policy changes. And then there are those who follow a more Anabaptist or Hauerwasian vision of justice embodied locally, in faithful Christian communities, and who do not rely on government at all. My friend Tim sifted through some of these questions in an outstanding piece for The Other Journal in 2008.

Glenn Beck couldn't comprehend these complexities if he wanted to (which he doesn't). But sometimes it takes a loudmouth who misstates your position to force you to clarify what you really mean. In this sense, Beck is extremely useful, because mischaracterizing nuanced ideologies appears to be one of his spiritual gifts.

02 March 2010

David Brooks explains it all.

David Brooks says that "culture" can help us understand why Norway wins so many Olympic medals. A few weeks ago, he also explained that culture is partially to blame for the severity of the Haitian earthquake. Not sure how convinced I am of either of those things.

27 February 2010

Thomas Aquinas Explains Your Mortgage

Take a look at this snippet from St. Thomas:
"There are things the use of which does not consist in their consumption: thus to use a house is to dwell in it, not to destroy it. ... [A person] may grant [to another person] the use of the house, while retaining the ownership. For this reason a man may lawfully make a charge for the use of his house... The proper and principal use of money is its consumption or alienation whereby it is sunk in exchange. Hence it is by its very nature unlawful to take payment for the use of money lent, which payment is known as usury" (Summa, II.II 78.1).

He's drawing a distinction between those things whose use requires their consumption, and those which do not. Money belongs to the first category, but a house belongs to the second. Therefore, it is fair to charge a fee for the use of a house, even in the form of a mortgage, where the bank charges you interest in order to allow you to live in the house which they still 'own' until you've paid it off. You're getting some utility in exchange for your payment (namely, a place to live). On the other hand, it is not fair to charge interest for a monetary loan, because you never get to "use" what you borrow; you have to pay it all back.

As far as I can tell, by this logic, a mortgage is an appropriate agreement, but any derivative contract (such as the infamous credit default swap) is unjust. Such financial instruments are unjust because if you sell me a credit default swap, and someone defaults on the loan they owe to you, then you are obligated to pay me more than I paid you for the CDS. Ironically, that makes me the usurer; you, who constructed this financial instrument in the first place, are just a fool.

I suspect, though, that if you'd explained financial derivatives to Thomas, he wouldn't bother pointing out how purchasing credit default swaps is like usury. He'd probably just scratch his head, and wonder how people could be making money out of money, without having any real contact with the production or consumption of goods.

18 February 2010

The Rational, Self-Interested Actor

Tonight Heather & I attended a forum on campus entitled, "Can a Good Christian be a Good Capitalist?" The panelists included someone from the business school, an economics professor, someone from Durham's renowned Self-Help Credit Union, and a Christian theologian (Prof. Hauerwas).

The responses to the question were about what you'd expect: different types of qualified affirmatives, except for Dr. Hauerwas, who said that the answer could only be Yes if you made a pretty sophisticated argument involving the contention that capitalism forces us into connection with and reliance on others. Heather helped me to understand more about what the economist was saying, which seemed to entail a belief that the capitalist system is morally neutral, and that it's a question of the "health of civil society" -- or, in Stanley-speak, the kinds of people we have formed -- that determines the extent to which it's possible for a person to be a good capitalist and a good Christian.

What was most novel and intriguing to me was something said by the economist, Thomas Nechyba (who, incidentally, was my professor nine years ago for introductory microeconomics). He said that in economics courses, they postulate "Economic Man": the free individual who pursues his self-interest above all else. However, Nechyba says that the idea is NOT that this Economic Man is the ideal hero in the economist's worldview. Rather, it's just a model that seems to describe very well how we actually behave in markets. His point, I think, was that the system doesn't require you to be a purely self-interested automaton in order for things to work smoothly; there is moral agency independent of the system. The nuance that Nechyba was trying to introduce made me think back to how I characterized the "rational, self-interested actor" in a sermon last year.

What he didn't really address was the fact that, in general, making moral decisions (e.g. using sustainably-grown materials in your business) can put you at a competitive disadvantage that will run you out of business; you'd be a good Christian, but a bad capitalist. Or, at least, a poor capitalist.

Which might bring us to a more pithy question: Can a good capitalist be a poor capitalist?

15 February 2010

Back to the fold

The Methodist Church in England appears poised to rejoin the Church of England. Church unions of any sort are pretty rare, but even more remarkably, they are not talking about a merger; they're talking about being absorbed into the Church. As the Reverend David Gamble, President of the Methodist Conference, said, "We are prepared to be changed and even to cease having a separate existence as a Church if that will serve the needs of the Kingdom." Or, as the Telegraph describes the situation: "The head of the non-conformist denomination said it was ready to come back to the national church after 200 years apart, if it would help spread the word of God."

I think it's a remarkable gesture. Given the origins of the Methodist Church, seeing them folded back into Anglicanism makes a lot of sense. I hope that in the process of moving towards organic union, there will be some acknowledgment of the value of Wesley's movement to the Church of England. My cynical fear, however, is that what began as a renewal movement within the Church eventually became as stodgy as the Church itself, and so they figured they might as well rejoin. If the Methodist Church ends in England, you've got to reckon with its legacy; it's hard to know how to write this story.

12 February 2010

Do theologians understand economics?

My friend Tommy sent along this link to an article from the blog of the American Enterprise Institute. At AEI, they're free marketeers through and through, so it's not surprising that the writer would be critical of any redistributive economic plan, whether theologically motivated or not.

What's really provocative about the article, however, is the contention of economist Susan Lee that theologians say too much and know too little about economics. (Lee holds a doctorate in economic history from Columbia as well as an M.A. from Union Theological Seminary.) In short, she says that theologians want to help the poor by focusing on the equitable distribution of wealth, whereas economists want to help the poor by firing the engines of free trade and "growing the pie," (or, "make the pie higher"). I can't decide if this is a kind of capitalist benevolence -- "We're going to help everybody this way" -- or a veiled threat: "If you redistribute wealth, we'll ALL end up starving." I don't have a Ph.D. in economics, which makes it hard to mount a defense of theological economics that doesn't sound like The Dude: "Yeah well, that's just, ya know, like, your opinion, man."

08 February 2010

Goodson Chapel sermon

On January 20, I had the opportunity to preach in chapel at the Divinity School. In this sermon, I explore (perhaps inconclusively) how we might be able to read the optimistic promises of Isaiah 62 and Psalm 36 (the lectionary passages for Jan. 17) alongside the scenes unfolding in Haiti. I don't have audio, but you can read the manuscript (PDF).

21 January 2010

Just go away.

Those of you who've known me for a few years will recall that during the last Democratic primary, I was a John Edwards man. I didn't have a strong impression of him in 2004, but I was very moved by his decision to reenter public life with a National Press Club speech on domestic poverty eradication in the summer of 2006. I appreciated his populism, and got upset when I thought Clinton and Obama were poaching "his" issues (especially universal health care). I thought he was highly electable, in part because of he was from the South.

When the revelation came of Edwards' affair, I was really stunned; I was shocked not only by the affair itself, but also of the stupidity of doing such a thing while you are running for President. Had his primary candidacy been successful, his deception could've handed the national political agenda back to the Republicans.

So when Edwards released a statement today confirming rumors that his affair produced a child named Quinn, it seemed like the final act. But no. Later in the day comes the bizarre twist that Edwards flew to Haiti today with a team of doctors.

Is he going there to help? (Cue the personal injury lawyer jokes.) Is he fleeing the media? Or will he spend the rest of his years trying to atone for his sins, like Robert McNamara?