26 March 2020

To Russia with love

According to a joke circulating in Russia during the 1998 financial crisis, two bankers are conversing:

“How did you sleep last night?”
“Like a baby…”
“How could that be??!!”
“Every hour I woke up and cried!”


Judy and I were talking today about what's helping us personally get through the current worldwide public health emergency. I realized that one of the gifts Russia gave us in our years there (2007-17) was an appreciation for the value of humor in maintaining sanity. Not all crisis-related humor is benign, but at best it never minimizes suffering or belittles anyone; instead (as Tom Nicholson points out) its appeal depends on the ways we're all experiencing these challenges together.

People outside Russia might not realize that Russians are simultaneously dealing with at least three big realities. In addition to COVID-19, they're suffering from declines in the financial markets in connection with the fall of oil prices (a crisis which itself is exacerbated by the pandemic), and the brazen constitutional coup engineered by Vladimir Putin, by which he is in the process of awarding himself a fifth and sixth term as president. He would be the first to argue that, if the popular referendum approves his constitutional amendments, he would have to earn those terms by winning elections, but few doubt that he will win any election he contests.

In any case, all of these situations are dead serious, and at the same time, all of them present endless possibilities for humorists. You may recognize some of these examples as originally coming from outside Russia, but, home-grown or imported, here's how Russians presented them:

(Left) "Do you have any summer travel plans?" "In June and July we'll be home, but in August we want to go out to the store."
(Right) Going to work. Specialists recommend observing your daily rituals, even if you don't step out of your home because of the coronavirus.

(Left) In the USA, sales of weapons have gone up sharply. In Russia, sales of condoms have gone up sharply. In a nutshell, that sums up the differences in mentality of the two nations.
(Right) If the traffic cops stop you... [Sign] I have the coronavirus.

(Left) Doctor's advice: To prevent coronavirus infection, eat five garlic bulbs a day. Of course this isn't the least bit effective, but those around you will keep their distance.
(Right) Newscaster: "The ruble's value has fallen so that Russians can't travel abroad and get sick from the coronavirus." My dad: "Great -- a versatile approach."

"Are we going to be at this forever?"
"I don't know. I'm not interested in politics."

Another important thing we learned from Russians, to risk a stereotype: to live in the moment. This is not an argument against planning ahead and anticipating opportunities for change, but it does mean living attentively in the present, appreciating and enjoying what is right before our very eyes, cherishing our relationships and blessings. If we can't be present where we are (to borrow from the title of Douglas Steere's lecture On Being Present Where You Are), what will we be able to bring to the hypothetical future?

From Sarah Masen's "Carry Us Through"
At the beginning of one academic year, the leaders of our institute in Elektrostal gathered the faculty together and told us very plainly that the very existence of the institute continued to be threatened by unreasonable regulations and capricious enforcement, and that, among other things, we had to observe all record-keeping requirements minutely. Carelessness on the part of any of us could endanger everyone. I think we left that meeting discouraged and fearful of the tense months facing us. But as soon as I stepped into the classroom, wrote my first gap-fill exercise on the chalkboard, and greeted the students as they entered the classroom for our first meeting of the year, I was overwhelmed by gratitude for their trust, humor, curiosity, and boundless good will. We set to work.

I've written before about the Russian word normal'no and its enormous range, from "OK" to "the usual misery" -- and of course, like many Russian words, it can be used entirely ironically. In this pandemic season, the comforting power of the word (don't worry overmuch: sooner or later, everything will be normal'no) comes back to me.

If it were not for the pandemic, I would be in Russia this very day. Michael Eccles of Friends World Committee for Consultation and I had spent months planning a trip to visit Moscow Friends, only to have our plans thwarted by the novel coronavirus. I'm sad but not distracted -- there's much to do here, plenty to appreciate, plenty to be vigilant about in this moment. It's a comfort to notice that there's a big piece of Russia in my heart, helping me to cope.

Friends World Committee for Consultation provides a very partial list of online Quaker meetings for worship. Should yours be on the list? (This is not a rhetorical question -- churches and formats vary in their ability to absorb visitors not known to the worshipping community.) Contact information is in the introductory paragraphs.

The coronavirus in Russia ... the view from The Moscow Times.

A rich case study in Russian education and cross-cultural challenges: The demise of Moscow's Protestant university.

Faded records tell the story of school segregation in Virginia.

In his post, Without Assurance, Mike Farley quotes Jennifer Kavanagh: "... Faith is not about certainty, it is about trust...."

Another version of last week's song, "Needed Time."

19 March 2020

Facing criticism

I'm part of a committee that is on the side of the angels, of course, but has just come in for some sustained criticism. As with all criticism that is aimed at me, I was struck at first by how unfair it was.

Then I stopped and remembered my three interrelated rules of facing criticism. Since we live in a time when vicious criticism too often dominates public discourse, and leaders reserve the right to give as good as they get, I thought it might be a good idea to review these rules here, hoping that you will praise me to the skies feel free to criticize them and add some rules and experiences of your own.

First, harvest any possible useful information you might get from the criticism. This isn't as easy as it sounds, especially if the criticism, however fair, is delivered with unnecessary venom. I have to be willing to acknowledge my emotions but not let those emotions keep me from learning what I need to learn. The criticism may be right or wrong -- or a mixture -- but there is always something I can learn from it.

I once made a very controversial personnel decision toward the end of my time at Friends United Meeting. The incident that led to that decision, and my response to the incident, took place shortly before a meeting of FUM's board, at which my decision was roundly denounced by several weighty members. My position was all the more difficult because I was bound to keep some details private. I sat there (probably with my face turning visibly red), wondering how to persuade a roomful of upset people that I was right, before I realized that it was far more important to learn all I could from the situation. How had people found out about the decision, what could I have done better at each stage, what was I learning about the political realities I faced, and what did the whole thing look like to those who were not closely involved?

In any such situation, as I listen to the criticism, it's important to ask myself: should I be checking with my critics to make sure that I understood them correctly, and do they see me taking that good-faith step to learn rather than contradict?

If I correctly prioritize learning over self-defense, that doesn't mean that I cannot give additional information or correct critics' actual errors of fact. But that needs to be done with a servant's heart, not to protect my wounded ego.

Second, throw the criticism into the dustbin. I've kept faith with the critics, I've gained information, I've corrected actual errors. The criticism then has no more claim on my attention. It's history. Sometimes this is also easier said than done, and there is no shame in confessing my lingering pain privately with a trusted counselor, but I always found it good to begin by declaring my intention to banish the criticism, and my feelings about the critic, into eternal oblivion.

One of my favorite Angela Merkel stories came from a visit she made to the Kremlin back in November 2012. Discussing reductions in Russians' freedom of speech, the German chancellor advised Vladimir Putin not to view criticism as destructive: "If I were sulky every time I'm criticized, I wouldn't last three days as chancellor." I confess that it took me a while -- and a string of criticisms, some well-deserved -- to learn this lesson.

Third: if I am in leadership, facing criticism is part of my role, and I need to acknowledge this reality. In fact, if I am dedicated to my servant role, my willingness to face criticism squarely and ethically will be a blessing to the people I serve. In that controversy over my personnel decision, our good order as a Quaker organization required me to be accountable for my decisions. In any organization that values justice and transparency, there simply must be space to criticize leadership and its decisions, and the leaders' personal feelings cannot be allowed to reduce that space.

Did I choose that example of my FUM controversy to show me at my best? Maybe. I didn't choose to recount the time I lost my temper on the floor of Iowa Yearly Meeting (FUM).

Mike Farley acknowledges that these are strange times.

This level of uncertainty is a new feeling for Christel Jorgenson.

John Vidal: Is our destruction of nature contributing to the current pandemic?

Pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets tell us that freedom does not work.

Stay the **** home: a virtual bar for lonely Russians in self-imposed isolation.

Harold and Terri Allen with their version of "Needed Time."

12 March 2020

Stress test

I was 38 years old when I flunked my first stress test. It all started with pain that I felt doing aerobic exercises. The doctor put me on a treadmill, wired me up, and increased the treadmill speed until I said "uncle" or some variation thereof. She then referred me to a cardiologist, who examined me with a variety of expensive machines and could not find anything wrong with me.

Ten years later, something similar happened, only this time I was working in a very stressful environment. One busy evening I was running back and forth between two locations, one upstairs and one downstairs, when suddenly I found myself dropping into a chair and almost fainting. After resting, I went home to a normal sleep ... after sending an e-mail to a doctor describing my symptoms. (That e-mail is now a family legend.) After reprimanding me for using e-mail to report coronary distress, my doctor ordered another stress test. Again I flunked. This time at the end of the process I was the proud owner of a Cordis Velocity® stent, which has (apparently) served me well to this very day.

A stress test is not fun. It subjects the body to measured amounts of excess stress, with the calculation that the strain it causes will aid diagnosis without unduly harming the patient. This diagnostic opportunity is the hidden blessing -- maybe the only blessing -- that I see in that global stress test we know as the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

Tyron Siu/Reuters via New York Times.  
Despite what conspiracy theorists say, no Western agents of russophobia, anti-Trump media, or other plotters developed this novel coronavirus. It apparently has the same genesis as countless other viruses in human history, some of which have wreaked similar havoc. It spreads in ways similar to other viruses as well, by contact with respiratory droplets from infected people. Because a typical infected person may spread the disease to several others, the progress of the disease is exponential until people learn to stop giving the virus opportunities to spread. Although much research needs to be done on specific features, treatments, and prevention, nothing about this current pandemic is unprecedented or particularly mysterious.

I don't mean to minimize anything. Once infected, most patients recover, but it's a considerably more dangerous virus than a typical flu, especially if the patient already is vulnerable for one reason or another. (Again, see this WHO site.) But, aside from the medical questions, what are we learning about ourselves and our societies from the stress imposed on us by the coronavirus? Or to put it another way, what stress tests have we already flunked?

Here in the USA, national leadership has utterly failed to follow the paradoxical rule that governs all unpredictable national emergencies: the more serious the response, the better the outcome. Facing an epidemic, people who are told to "relax, it's no big deal" because "the alarmists just want to hurt Trump" -- and who therefore do relax -- will just make a situation of exponential growth that much harder to control. Yes, leadership also needs to avoid panicking people, but that requires telling us all convincingly that we're in it together and that the government is exercising competent stewardship over all the resources required in the emergency. Diagnosis: leadership incompetence. Those not in the personality cult of Trump are, to put it bluntly, not surprised, but now everyone can see how high the stakes are in maintaining competence and confidence.

The existing health care financing "system" has also flunked miserably. A single-payer system would allow the whole health care community to focus on prevention and treatment. In the current emergency, that would have saved politicians countless hours now devoted to negotiating complicated and controversial workarounds, all the while posturing to look good to the incredulous and anxious audience of voters and potential patients. At the end of the negotiations we may cobble together something like a centrally-financed response for this specific emergency, which will probably fall apart completely once the emergency ends.

Finally (at least for tonight!), we see how fragile our global trade and financial markets have come to be. Global actors have never been veritable angels, but Trump and his nationalist counterparts in other countries are weakening the post-WWII ideal of collective security almost beyond recognition. In its place they basically advocate the law of the jungle, however dressed up it might be in Stephen Miller-style pretensions. Markets, left unchecked by an ethic of investment in each other's well-being, inevitably devour anything that gets in the way of profits. Russia and OPEC may be in an oil price war, but for both entities, the ultimate enemy might be the USA's petroleum industry, who will (they hope) be driven into bankruptcy by low oil prices before Russia's reserves run out. Ordinary people in all countries affected by this price war are the last to be consulted and the first to suffer as markets contract.

As we monitor these diagnostic indicators, I hope that Christians, among others, will retain the ability to care for the individuals and communities involved without getting sucked into xenophobia, conspiracy theories, and passive despair. Examining the world's powers and principalities through a godly lens, we see that there is nothing going on that is unprecedented or particularly mysterious. It's just a virus, stressing us badly at the moment, impelling us (if we're faithful) to restore a vision of right stewardship of resources, and right investments in each other's well-being.

Until a couple of days ago, I was expecting to leave on Monday for my first trip back to Russia since Judy and I left our Elektrostal jobs and apartment, back in October 2017. I still plan to make that trip, but not until something resembling normalcy returns.

TOP: "There's a woman president in Estonia. What do you
say: can a woman become president in Russia?"
BOTTOM: "Of course not. I'm not a woman."
(Found on Facebook.)
Martin E. Marty explores the space between decline and renewal in American Christianity.

What about the theory that Trump is an instrument of Christian righteousness?

The Russian constitutional amendments: what will it mean to insert God into the document? And how did the amendment process give V.V. Putin two more terms of power despite his repeated claims that he wanted no such thing?

For Russians, humor is a key factor in the will to survive. Back in 2011, when Putin and Medvedev revealed that the latter, in serving as president for four years (2008-12), was saving the place for Putin to serve a third and fourth term, one of our students said out loud in class, "Putin again? By the time he leaves office I'll be 32 years old! I might as well shoot myself now." Turns out, she'll be 44!

A different kind of blues, from the film Horowitz in Moscow. I am so fascinated by the faces of the audience.

05 March 2020

Quaker experiments

Meetinghouse of Friends Meeting at Cambridge (MA, USA). Source.
In the fall of 1977, not long after I arrived as a new staff member at Beacon Hill Friends House, Elmer Brown came over to the house to lead an evening Bible study for anyone interested. The book we read together was 1 Corinthians, which, Elmer proposed, included the biblical model (particularly verses 26-33) used by Quaker meetings for worship right from the start.

(Side note: I don't remember us spending any time that evening on 14:34-35, about women not speaking, but I later learned that Elmer knew and liked Margaret Fell's Women's Speaking Justified.)

One of the things that intrigued me about Elmer Brown was his role among Friends. He was the executive secretary of Friends Meeting at Cambridge, a large meeting (I think the membership then was over 500 -- very large by Quaker standards) with several local Quaker meetings and worship groups under its care, scattered around the Boston region. At that time, Beacon Hill Friends Meeting, which met -- and still meets -- weekly at Beacon Hill Friends House, was one of those subsidiary meetings.

As executive secretary, Elmer had a job description that included management of facilities and programming at the Friends Center at 5 Longfellow Park in Cambridge. What became clear to me that evening, and later from attending meetings for worship at the meetinghouse there, was that he filled many roles -- including counseling, teaching, encouraging, and visibility in the wider community -- that I associate with Friends pastors. Here was a Friends meeting whose meetings for worship had no programming and no sermons, but that didn't prevent the congregation from having a pastor in all but title. That particular combination -- a meeting that was part of the "nonpastoral" side of the Quaker world but that functionally had a pastor -- was something new to me.

It was an idea that might have come more naturally to that particular meeting because it was historically the merger of two older meetings, Boston Friends Meeting in Roxbury, a pastoral meeting where Elton Trueblood had once been pastor, and the unprogrammed Friends meeting that had gathered in a room at Andover Hall in Cambridge.

A few other unprogrammed meetings have also had similar staff roles, but I don't think the word "pastor" was ever used. (Tell me if you know of exceptions!) In the years I've traveled among Quakers of all flavors, I've seen many unprogrammed meetings that handle pastoral care well, but I've also seen many who seem to have little capacity for pastoral care -- or little capacity to focus on the meeting's accessibility to visitors and the wider community. I'm sure that just about every Friends meeting in existence has people who are gifted for these pastoral roles but lack the vision or language to empower and release those people.

At the same time, I've also run into pastoral meetings where the programming threatens to crowd out people's attentiveness to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Maybe they once had a significant period of unprogrammed worship, but over the years it shrank to a symbolic few minutes or disappeared altogether. Even those meetings that call themselves semi-programmed have sometimes prioritized the programming at the cost of time devoted to waiting for the Spirit. How might they restore the trust in the Spirit's ability to lead, and the freedom for all present to respond? That trust and freedom are the rightful legacy of every Friend.

Can "pastoral" meetings do without pastors? I know of at least a couple of Friends churches that for various reasons found themselves without pastors, and (at least for a while) found that voluntary leadership rose up to fill many of the needs they used to associate with pastors.

Do you know of Friends meetings and churches that have -- now or in recent times -- succeeded in decoupling the issue of unprogrammed vs programmed (or hybrid) meetings for worship from the question of whether or not to have a pastor? It seems to me that the established correlation of "pastoral = programmed, nonpastoral = unprogrammed" needs to be challenged, and I'd be grateful to know where Friends are experimenting with new configurations.

(There's a bit of background on "programmed" and "unprogrammed" in this post: Gathering to meet with God.)

Such terms as "pastor" and "executive secretary" can be more or less helpful in conveying the roles that a meeting might like to include in providing support to release a Friend for pastoral care, community representation and access, and other roles. (What other roles?) Are there other terms that Friends have found more helpful?

Some other questions I have about Friends' experiments:
  • What creative approaches have Friends adopted for meeting places, especially churches and meetings who either can't afford to build/buy/keep meetinghouses, or deliberately choose not to have them? Who is experimenting with house churches, and if you are doing that, how do you make newcomers feel at ease coming into what looks like a private home? Second Street Community Church in Newberg, Oregon, USA, rents space in a cultural center for worship, but also maintains an office in the center of town. Has anyone else tried that combination?
  • As you consider questions of meeting space, signage, advertising, Web presence, how are you taking into account the social and spiritual filters you do or don't intend to convey to attenders and newcomers? Are there class signals, for example? Do people of sexual orientations other than the local majority know they are actually welcome? Do you  consciously or subconsciously want to filter out people who are enthusiastic about their faith in favor of skeptics and seekers? (Or do you practice the opposite sin -- avoiding people who ask too many questions?)

    I remember George Selleck of Friends Meeting at Cambridge talking about one woman he met who divided her time between Friends and a Franciscan shrine, and who saw miracles happen around her. He said that she reminded him of George Fox, but added with regret that most Friends meetings would not know what to do with someone with her level of energy.

    (Issues of location and accessibility, both physical and spiritual, are very real for me right now. Moscow Friends Meeting recently lost its meeting place abruptly when its host organization had to move to a new location where that organization was not allowed to host anyone else. Friends have been meeting irregularly as guests of another church, but a more permanent solution remains to be found.)
  • Finally, what local partnerships are happening, or are possible to start, among meetings and churches that are dramatically different in their approaches to worship and leadership? How can (for example) evangelical and liberal Friends in a city support each other while remaining true to their respective missions? Friends in Portland, Oregon, have some experience with such experiments; where else are they happening? If Friends from your tradition have a church or meeting in a city, and Friends from another tradition come and try to plant something new, do you assert turf ownership, or do you collaborate to extend Friends' reach?

You just missed the application deadline for one of the world's most interesting management opportunities, head of the planet's largest sovereign investment fund.

Heather Cox Richardson on disinformation and the "socialism" case study.

Kris Camealy on things that hide in plain sight ... obscured by our presuppositions.

A Moscow court revokes the license of the Moscow Theological Seminary. Paul Steeves' translation from InVictory.org. Slavic Center for Law and Justice article (Russian), including comments from the seminary's lawyer.

A quick guide and chronology for Russia's consideration of constitutional amendments. And some  of the Kremlin's possible strategies and talking points to promote the amendments.

Meanwhile, in the land of the free, George Packer considers how to destroy a government.
In his fourth year in power, Trump has largely succeeded in making the executive branch work on his personal behalf. He hasn’t done it by figuring out how to operate the bureaucratic levers of power, or by installing leaders with a vision of policy that he shares, or by channeling a popular groundswell into government action. He’s done it by punishing perceived enemies, co‑opting craven allies, and driving out career officials of competence and integrity. The result is a thin layer of political loyalists on top of a cowed bureaucracy.

B.B. King in a London recording studio in 1972, collaborating with musicians and talking about his musical mentors and influencers. A total joy to discover.

27 February 2020

Is the Bible nice?

Continuing along the lines of an earlier post, Is God nice?

I remember the first Bible I ever saw ... and how I came to see it.

As a child, I often explored the bookshelves where my mother's huge library of German language textbooks and literature dominated our family collection. One day I pulled out a book-sized white cardboard box and opened it. I found a book wrapped with tight precision in thin white tissue paper. Taking care to preserve the perfect creases in the paper, so that I could reverse the process later and conceal my intrusion, I carefully unwrapped the book. As you've already guessed, it was a Bible -- a black leather Bible with a zipper along the three open sides, and a transparent marble serving as the zipper pull. The marble had a small seed in it. (I didn't have any context to guess that it was a mustard seed.) I unzipped the cover and looked inside.

Since most of my reading at the time was at the Happy Hollisters level, I think I can be forgiven for deciding that this Bible was not a reader-friendly document. Even though the pages were small, the text's tiny print was divided into two columns separated by a thin third column. The English was strange ("... my tongue cleaveth to my jaws"), I couldn't figure out how italics were being used, and the diacritical marks in some words just made everything even more mysterious. Given that marble and zipper, I decided that this was not a regular book but some sort of ritual object, which helped explain why it was so tightly wrapped.

I can't remember whether I succeeded in rewrapping that Bible to match its original appearance. In any case, it wasn't for several more years that I began the general task of unwrapping what the Bible was all about. Since religion was a forbidden topic in our home, I heard about the Bible mainly from side-references in magazines and on the radio, gradually understanding that it was a very important book for certain kinds of people my parents wanted to avoid.

My high school offered an elective class on the Bible as literature, which is why they had a stack of New Testaments in the then-just-published New English Bible translation in the library. I wasn't in the class, but I helped myself to a copy of that book. It was a normal looking hardcover book, and the text on each page also looked normal -- one column crossing the whole page, no illogical italics and no diacritical marks, and -- best of all -- comprehensible English. I remember sitting down and reading the whole book of Acts, marveling at how easy and compelling the book turned out to be.

A couple of years later, I bought my own copy of the New English Bible, and that's what I was reading at the moment I put my life into God's hands. I don't now know what happened to that hardcover book, but I still have the compact-sized Bible I bought for my travels to Mississippi, Norway, the UK, and the USSR, in 1975. From the markings on the pages, I can see that I used this Bible for the Wednesday evening Bible studies at Ottawa Friends Meeting, led by Anne Thomas and Deborah Haight. This time I chose an edition that looks startlingly like the Bible I found on my parents' bookshelf -- but no center column. (The references and comments are in footnotes.)

I didn't keep that Bible in a box, and it had no zipper cover. I'm afraid that the book has long since lost its original good looks....:

So far I've avoided my advertised theme, "Is the Bible nice?" The short answer is, of course, "no!" It is decidedly not a decorative enhancement to a pious life; nor is it a handy compendium of uncomplicated blessings; nor yet a gallery of role models as implied by those ads we used to find in the magazines in dentists' offices, promising that buying Bible story books for your children will ward off juvenile delinquency. The Bible, in fact, has a demonstrated capacity to provide fuel for theological controversies and church splits!

Concerning that last point ... one of the mixed blessings of the Quaker corner of the Christian family is that we don't argue about the "inerrancy" of the Bible as much as some others do, but argue for its unique functional role in discerning Truth. For example, the Richmond Declaration of Faith, cautions against mechanical application of the text ("He" is in original 1887 text):
The great Inspirer of Scripture is ever its true Interpreter. He performs this office in condescending love, not by superseding our understandings, but by renewing and enlightening them. Where Christ presides, idle speculation is hushed; His doctrine is learned in the doing of His will, and all knowledge ripens into a deeper and richer experience of His truth and love.
When we try to explore the metaphysics of how the Bible is extraordinary, how the apparent contradictions in the text are somehow not really there, and how its ancient codes of conduct are to be interpreted (or not) in our context, we drift into "idle speculation" and, at worst, imply that there is a magical quality to this complex compilation of scriptures that is not supported by anything in the text. Instead, we in our meetings and churches rely on the Inspirer to be the Interpreter, just as the original compilers did.

In a way, we have no choice. We have our Bible only because various ancient committees and councils, praying that Christ was "presiding" in their deliberations, agreed to include some material and exclude other material. They didn't always agree on what to retain from the Hebrew scriptures and apocrypha, and how to organize the material, so Protestant and Catholic and Orthodox Bibles are not identical. In the process, they assembled a family archive for our community of faith, and we Quakers (and others!) continue to meet under the headship of Christ to discern and implement the will of God with the help of that archive. Without the ratification by the early church and, subsequently, our constant cross-generational experience of the relationship of Scripture to practice, the Bible would lose its real authority for us, despite the best efforts of Bible-wielding celebrity preachers to enforce their definitions of that authority.

Our family archive contains many exhibits that are totally not "nice," and there is no reason we should be afraid to ask why that scandalous, even repellent material is in there. Example: Nobody in Canadian Yearly Meeting of Friends knew and esteemed the Bible more than Susan Bax of Toronto Meeting, but I vividly remember her addressing a Bible study at the yearly meeting sessions with this demand: "Tell me what I'm to do with Judges 19-21?" Look for yourself, if you dare, at this epic display of rape, misogyny, kidnapping, and mass violence, and you can imagine the agony in Susan's voice.

Maybe we can make peace with some of Judges, reasoning that we're just being shown what happens "in those days" when "Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit," and a trustworthy archive has to include the ugly parts of the story. But what do we do when it is God who appears to sin? One poignant example occurs earlier in Judges, chapter 11, when the war chieftain Jephthah makes a very imprudent pledge to God that, if God gives him victory over the Ammonites, "whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering." The text credits God with the victory: "The Lord gave them [the Ammonites] into his hands."

You probably remember who emerges from Jephthah's house to welcome him home: his dear daughter. How can we read this text and not remember the story of Abraham and Isaac? At the last moment, God prevented the sacrifice of Isaac and substituted a lamb conveniently placed nearby. Why did God, who enabled Jephthah's victory, not take the trouble to find a way out for Jephthah and his only child? Of course the Bible has dozens of other examples of collateral damage, but the inspired Scriptures seem very deliberate in making this incident as bitterly sad as possible.

In his introduction to Judges, Eugene Peterson says some helpful things.
Given the Bible’s subject matter -- God and salvation, living well and loving deeply -- we quite naturally expect to find in its pages leaders for us who are good, noble, honorable men and women showing us the way. So it is always something of a shock to enter the pages of the book of Judges and find ourselves immersed in nearly unrelieved mayhem.

It might not gravel our sensibilities so much if these flawed and reprobate leaders were held up as negative moral examples, with lurid, hellfire descriptions of the punishing consequences of living such bad lives. But the story is not told quite that way. There is a kind of matter-of-fact indifference in the tone of the narration, almost as if God is saying, "Well, if this is all you’re going to give me to work with, I'll use these men and women, just as they are, and get on working out the story of salvation."
It's in this "matter-of-fact indifference" where I find all the inerrancy I need. I do not need to believe that those who wrote or assembled the archive we know as the Bible were perfect conduits for God's inspiration, nor that they had journalistic intent -- nor even the intent of making detailed rules for contexts they would never know. What seems utterly true in the Scriptural record is...
  • On the one hand, that's exactly how human beings are! We continue to find ourselves, at times, in "nearly unrelieved mayhem." As I write, the USA is descending into corruption; global markets are threatened by a medical emergency while politicians spin their responses; innocent people are being bombed in Idlib, Syria; the world's leaders know Yemen's agonies but do practically nothing; the Atomic Scientists' clock is at 100 seconds to midnight.
  • On the other hand, we are the men and women and children whom God can use -- if we allow ourselves to join God's constant intent as the Archive makes clear: to set aside all other gods and idols, and to put the Creator God at the center of our lives as individuals and communities. 
Yes, the water will still taste of the pipes -- we cannot claim to be perfect conduits of God's inspiration any more than the raggedy bunch who did God's work in the Bible -- but that same biblical heartbeat of mercy, love, grace, justice, and the constant need to do our own discernment, gives us all the authority we need.

Philip Jenkins on who compiled the Bible.

Is the Bible more than the sum of its books?
The Bible anticipates readers who come to it in a spirit of humility; in a spirit of patient and joyful anticipation that what it has to say is more important than the best things we have to say.
In the Southern Baptist wars, the untold story is the rage of evangelical women.

Physicist Alexander Krivomazov's eight hidden suitcases.

When all you can do is laugh: Russians and propaganda.

Wars that persist because they don't, apparently, exist.
War without dire consequences poses a conundrum. In a representative democracy, waging war should require the people’s informed consent as well as their concerted mobilization. But consent is something that America’s leaders no longer want or need and, with an all-volunteer military, there’s no need to mobilize the rest of us.
InSight into Mars ... magnetism and marsquakes.

Interested in attending the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women's Theology Conference, June 24-28? The registration form is online.

Kim Wilson and Hot Roux perform one of my favorite songs associated with Junior Wells.

20 February 2020

William Barr, Max Boot, and "the vapor trails of Christianity"

Today's American conservatives often point to secularism and to attacks on Christian morality as the causes of countless instances of social decay. U.S. attorney general William Barr's recent speech to that effect drew the attention of Washington Post columnist, Max Boot, who responded in a column entitled "William Barr's America vs reality in 2020."

Boot's first response is a direct challenge to Barr's assertion that (in Barr's words) "Virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground." Boot counters:
Consider some of the improvements since 1960. Real per capita gross domestic product has increased 216 percent, from $18,268 in the first quarter of 1960 to $57,719 in the first quarter of 2019, driven in part by a 230 percent increase in output per hour for non-farm workers as of 2015. The share of 25- to 34-year-olds who have graduated from college has tripled as of 2016. Infant mortality has fallen nearly 80 percent as of 2018. The homicide rate was unchanged as of 2018 — five murders per 100,000 people — but that disguises a vast improvement since the homicide rate peaked at 10.4 per 100,000 in 1980. While the number of out-of-wedlock births was more than seven times higher in 2018, the share of single mothers has declined since 1997 because more unmarried parents live together. The abortion rate soared after Roe v. Wade in 1973 but has fallen more than 50 percent since 1980. How does Barr account for these improvements if the United States is on the road to ruin?
Next, Boot challenges Barr's central argument -- that religion is an essential factor in maintaining social health -- and that's when I really took notice. Boot describes how his colleague Sherry Cho assembled evidence that the opposite might be true. Cho listed the ten "most religious" and ten "least religious" nations (using data from this 2017 survey) and then compared various measures of social well-being between the two lists. Boot summarizes:
Indicators suggest that the less religious nations are much better off. Average GDP per capita in the least religious countries is more than five times higher, while the unemployment rate is more than twice as low and the poverty rate is one and a half times lower. The homicide rate is five times lower. Life expectancy is 22 percent higher, and infant mortality is 1,000 percent lower — in part because the least religious nations spend 50 percent more per capita on health care. The least religious countries are also better educated, with a mean 12 years of schooling per capita vs. 7½ years in the most religious countries. Income inequality is 24 percent lower in the least religious countries, and gender inequality (as measured by the World Bank) is more than 400 percent lower. Finally, the least religious countries are freer, with an average score of 87.6 from Freedom House, compared to 56.5 for the most religious countries.
I don't agree 100% with either Barr or Boot. Barr first: whether or not moral values are weakening as he asserts, his descriptions of the causes include absurd exaggerations. He says that in previous eras, moral decay was just one end of a pendulum-swing cycle that eventually self-corrected ... but now it's different:
First is the force, fervor, and comprehensiveness of the assault on religion we are experiencing today. This is not decay; it is organized destruction. Secularists, and their allies among the “progressives,” have marshaled all the force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values.

These instruments are used not only to affirmatively promote secular orthodoxy, but also drown out and silence opposing voices, and to attack viciously and hold up to ridicule any dissenters.

One of the ironies, as some have observed, is that the secular project has itself become a religion, pursued with religious fervor. It is taking on all the trappings of a religion, including inquisitions and excommunication.

Those who defy the creed risk a figurative burning at the stake – social, educational, and professional ostracism and exclusion waged through lawsuits and savage social media campaigns.
I am sure there are militant atheists and secularists among us; I run into their abrasive rhetoric all the time. But sociologists tell us that the USA remains uniquely religious among the world's wealthiest countries. Surely if a militant anti-religious movement were effectively neutralizing our religious majority population, we would see more evidence of their vicious attacks, inquisitions, excommunications, and savage social media campaigns. Honestly, I don't. Actually, it seems as if most politicians at the national level still feel they need to wear their religion on their sleeves.

(Remember Hillary Clinton's campaign advisor suggesting an attack on Bernie Sanders' supposed atheism? One such example does not prove a trend, but when have we heard of any campaign trying to make a negative out of someone's Christian faith?)

I would also like to know whether America's conservative religious communities have better social outcomes than the country at large. Have things improved among evangelical Christians, for example, since Ron Sider wrote his sobering book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience?

Maybe I'm too judgmental, but Barr's overdramatization of the secularists' "organized destruction" does not seem like a genuine argument -- it is simply that same tired old rhetorical scare tactic that Richard Hofstadter described as the "paranoid style in American politics."

Boot correctly points out that Barr completely disregards advances in morality in the same years during which the USA has supposedly been decaying. For example, racial segregation was legal when Barr was born (1950). We could go on to list all the crimes and social sins that were routinely hushed up in pre-#MeToo, pre-#ChurchToo, and pre-Black Lives Matter times.

Here's what I'd like to discuss with both Barr and Boot: the usefulness of the word "religion" as a meaningful category. Barr says that religion makes all the difference -- and at various points he shifts from "classic Christian" to "Judeo-Christian" to the role of religion in general in the full 50,000 years of human development. Boot and Cho refer to the full variety of religions in the ten most religious and ten least religious countries they studied.

Here's the problem. A couple of years ago anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas wrote about the influence of religion in general to their ethical behavior: "No matter how we define morality, religious people do not behave more morally than atheists, although they often say (and likely believe) that they do."

In his article, "Are religious people more moral?", Xygalatas points to several devices that contribute to this divide between faith and practice. One very important corruption occurs when ethical behavior is only applied to fellow believers within the group, not necessarily to outsiders. Another is the common tendency for religious people to produce a folk variant -- or as Xygalatas puts it,
... the beliefs and behaviors of religious people are not always in accordance with official religious doctrines. Instead, popular religiosity tends to be much more practical and intuitive. This is what religious studies scholars call "theological incorrectness."
Is it possible that both Barr and Boot don't pay enough attention to this "popular religiosity"? Barr wants to argue that the transcendent claims of religion impose limits on human waywardness that no laws or secular ideals can match. Is this in fact true? And maybe Boot's charts of religious and nonreligious nations also can't take into account whether the religions being cited all have comparable claims on the hearts and consciences of their adherents, or are often simply identity markers along with all other features of their cultures.

Cutting across all these arguments -- and especially Boot's and Cho's analysis -- is Robert Woodberry's research on the worldwide influence of those he calls "conversionary Protestants." His claim, documented in his paper "The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy," is that these missionaries "heavily influenced the rise and spread of stable democracy around the world."

The resulting questions I have for both Barr and Boot are these: how can we argue these controversies based on vague and selective definitions of religion? Is there some factor that we ought to be paying more attention to, that might animate more actual, practical love of neighbor, and how might that factor guide the way we describe today's social pathologies and social improvements?

I'm intrigued by William Barr's reference to the secular values he compares unfavorably to our Judeo-Christian legacy. "What we call 'values' today are really nothing more than mere sentimentality, still drawing on the vapor trails of Christianity." I'd like to challenge the "really nothing more" part of this charge, but it's true that the "vapor trails" of Jewish and Christian influence are evident everywhere in our definitions of private and public good.

Maybe Robert Woodberry's study documents a similar phenomenon. Is it possible that in the "least religious countries," the powerful legacy of "conversionist Protestants" proved more durable than any specific form of public religiosity? In other words, can we attribute any of those good social metrics in "least religious" nations to the "vapor" left by those faithful evangelists? If so, what were they preaching and practicing that went powerfully beyond conventional religion as described by Xygalatas ... that is, beyond "popular religiosity" and the divisiveness of "we are special"?

Related posts:

The golden age of evangelism

The atheist's gift

Meeting Jesus halfway

It's hard to believe in Jesus

Every knee shall bow

On loving our critics

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