Sunday, October 31, 2010

Goodness

Like David Downing I resisted reading The Lord of the Rings simply because all of my friends were recommending it. Finally, on a family vacation, I read it and, once begun, I read it through. Dr Downing explains here a part of its appeal:
Reading The Lord of the Rings was all the fad when I was in high school, but, contrarian that I am, I resisted reading this fantasty epic simply because everyone else was doing so! But I started reading one evening in college, when I had classes the next day, forgetting all my homework because I couldn't put it down. I recall that it was about 2:00 in the morning when Gandalf was pulled into the abyss by the Balrog. I almost had an anxiety attack, thinking, "Now we'll never get out of the mines of Moria without Gandalf to lead us!" Later in the story, when Gandalf reappears, I had a sense of relief and elation that seemed some small tincture of the joy of that first Easter morning.

I'm sure that part of my attraction to both Lewis and Tolkien is simply that both are master story-tellers. But there is also a power of Goodness in their work. As an English major in college, I spent much of my time reading contemporary novelists who are experts at portraying troubled people—selfish, neurotic. brutish, and downright evil. But very few twentieth century novelists besides Lewis and Tolkien (and Chesterton) have the power to show us what good people look like—characters with integrity, compassion, courage, and a willingness to sacrifice for others. I'm sure this ability to portray good characters convincingly is derived from their Christian world-view, a sense that ultimately, it is not evil or chaos, but Goodness that reigns in the universe.
Insight Scoop | The Ignatius Press Blog: A Big, Long, and Exciting Book Post!

All Saints

Almighty God, who hast knit together Thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of Thy Son Christ our Lord; Grant us grace so to follow Thy blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those unspeakable joys which Thou has prepared for those who unfeignedly love Thee; through the same Thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

All Hallows' Eve

Re-posted from last year:
As Halloween approaches it is useful for the more excitable among us to be reminded that the Evil One has already been defeated. From "Concerning Halloween" by James B. Jordan:
.... "Halloween" is simply a contraction for All Hallows’ Eve. The word "hallow" means "saint," in that "hallow" is just an alternative form of the word "holy" ("hallowed be Thy name"). All Saints’ Day is November 1. It is the celebration of the victory of the saints in union with Christ. The observance of various celebrations of All Saints arose in the late 300s, and these were united and fixed on November 1 in the late 700s. The origin of All Saints Day and of All Saints Eve in Mediterranean Christianity had nothing to do with Celtic Druidism or the Church’s fight against Druidism (assuming there ever even was any such thing as Druidism, which is actually a myth concocted in the 19th century by neo-pagans.) ....

The Biblical day begins in the preceding evening, and thus in the Church calendar, the eve of a day is the actual beginning of the festive day. Christmas Eve is most familiar to us, but there is also the Vigil of Holy Saturday that precedes Easter Morn. Similarly, All Saints’ Eve precedes All Saints’ Day.

The concept, as dramatized in Christian custom, is quite simple: On October 31, the demonic realm tries one last time to achieve victory, but is banished by the joy of the Kingdom.

What is the means by which the demonic realm is vanquished? In a word: mockery. Satan’s great sin (and our great sin) is pride. Thus, to drive Satan from us we ridicule him. This is why the custom arose of portraying Satan in a ridiculous red suit with horns and a tail. Nobody thinks the devil really looks like this; the Bible teaches that he is the fallen Arch-Cherub. Rather, the idea is to ridicule him because he has lost the battle with Jesus and he no longer has power over us. ....

Similarly, on All Hallows’ Eve (Hallow-Even – Hallow-E’en – Halloween), the custom arose of mocking the demonic realm by dressing children in costumes. Because the power of Satan has been broken once and for all, our children can mock him by dressing up like ghosts, goblins, and witches. The fact that we can dress our children this way shows our supreme confidence in the utter defeat of Satan by Jesus Christ – we have NO FEAR! .... [more]
Biblical Horizons » Concerning Halloween

Friday, October 29, 2010

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John

C.E. Hill, in Who Chose the Gospels?: Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy, responds to those who argue that what we think of as orthodox Christianity simply reflects the views of the winners in an early theological power struggle. From his essay, "The Conspiracy Theory Of The Gospels":
.... Here is the basic story line.

Gospels about Jesus once flourished. As one scholar has recently put it, they were "breeding like rabbits." Each of the varied Christian sects pushed its own version(s) and competition was lively. This "free market" for Jesus literature meant that, for many years and in many places, some now-forgotten Gospels were at least as popular as the ones that now headline the Christian New Testament. Gradually, however, one of the competing sects was able to gain the upper hand over its rivals. And when it finally declared victory in the fourth century, fully 300 years after Jesus walked the earth, it decreed that its four Gospels were, and had always been, the standard for the church Jesus founded. The "winners," supported by the powerful emperor Constantine the Great, then got to write the histories — and make the Bibles. ....

Yet before there were the many Gospels, there were only the four. Not that the four were necessarily the very first writings about Jesus ever scribed, but they are the earliest which we now have. And they are the earliest whose existence we are actually sure of. Yes, the Gospel writers may have used sources, like Q. They may have written earlier editions ("Proto-Matthew," "Proto-Luke," and the like, as they are named). Possibly there were even other Gospels from the first century which we don't know about. But if such things ever existed, we have no good evidence that they ever circulated, or were intended to circulate, among groups of churches as authoritative accounts of the life of Jesus. ....

The problem for the conspiracy theory is a man named Irenaeus. Irenaeus was crystal clear in his claim that the church, from the time of the apostles, had received just four authoritative Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — and that all the others were bogus. This is just what we would expect from a fourth-century re-writer of history. The problem is that Irenaeus wrote in the second century, long before the conspiratorial rewriting of history is supposed to have taken place.

Does, then, the conspiracy approach to early Christian history, in either its popular or its academic forms, have it right? Should it bother anyone that those who stress so loudly that the winners wrote the histories are the ones now writing the histories? Let the reader judge ... but also be aware of conspiracies. [more]
Thanks to Justin Taylor for the reference.

Charles E. Hill: The Conspiracy Theory Of The Gospels

The priesthood of all believers

As we approach Reformation Day Peter J. Leithart corrects a misunderstanding of one of its central distinctives:
This weekend, Protestants commemorate Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses on the Wittenberg church door, a call to disputation that marks the symbolic starting point for the Reformation. As Luther slashed through the corruptions of late medieval Catholicism, “priesthood of all believers” rapidly became one of the great slogans of the Reformation.

Every Christian is a cleric, Luther proclaimed in one of his earliest treatises, The Freedom of a Christian, and those who “are now boastfully called popes, bishops, and lords” are in reality “ministers, servants, and stewards, who are to serve the rest in the ministry of the word”—servants of the servants of God. Whether he knew it or not, Luther was ringing the changes on a patristic teaching that had never wholly been lost during the medieval period.

Unfortunately, the priesthood of the faithful in both its Protestant and Catholic forms has been corroded by fusion with modern individualism. While no denomination sanctions this fusion, strains in popular Protestantism, especially American Protestantism, have taken “priesthood of believers” to mean that every believer has an absolute right of private judgment about morals and doctrine, the liberty to interpret the Bible with complete autonomy.

“Priesthood of believers” means that believers can do very well without attachment to any church, thank you very much. Each believer is a church unto himself. Renouncing Rome’s one Pope, Protestantism has created thousands.

This was not Luther’s view. Priestly ministry was ministry within and to the church. To be a priest means to be a priest for someone. “The fact that we are all priests and kings means that each of us Christians may go before God and intercede for the other,” he wrote in a preface to the Psalter. “If I notice that you have no faith or a weak faith, I can ask God to give you a strong faith.” Timothy George captures Luther’s viewpoint in one sentence: “Every Christian is someone else’s priest, and we are all priests to one another” (emphasis added). .... [more]
Priesthood of Believers | First Things

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The stranger who sojourns among you

Benedict XVI, in a message prepared for the "World Day of Migrants and Refugees":
.... John Paul II, on the occasion of this same Day celebrated in 2001, emphasized that "[the universal common good] includes the whole family of peoples, beyond every nationalistic egoism. The right to emigrate must be considered in this context. The Church recognizes this right in every human person, in its dual aspect of the possibility to leave one's country and the possibility to enter another country to look for better conditions of life" .... At the same time, States have the right to regulate migration flows and to defend their own frontiers, always guaranteeing the respect due to the dignity of each and every human person. Immigrants, moreover, have the duty to integrate into the host Country, respecting its laws and its national identity. "The challenge is to combine the welcome due to every human being, especially when in need, with a reckoning of what is necessary for both the local inhabitants and the new arrivals to live a dignified and peaceful life." .... [more]
I'm sure there are those who are simply anti-immigration, and within that group, those who oppose immigration for bigoted and racist reasons. I'm not acquainted with people who make those kinds of arguments. I do know a lot of people who think the borders should be secure and that those who immigrate should do so legally. It seems to me that Benedict gets the balance exactly right.

Thanks to Molly Hemingway for the reference.

Catholic.net - Catholics on the net

Politics and the pulpit

I think that partisan politics should ordinarily be absent from the pulpit. Liberals have typically been rather vehement and dogmatic on the subject. The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, which has consistently deplored pulpit advocacy for conservative candidates, summarizes part of the law thus:
.... Churches may not, however, support or oppose candidates for office without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status. This restriction includes a prohibition on endorsements or opposition for a candidate from the pulpit.
The Religion News Service reports "Hoping to avert disaster, Democrats turn to black churches":
.... The Democratic National Committee has dispatched staff to coordinate with black ministers as part of an aggressive get-out-the-vote mobilization, hoping to seize on early voting options in key states.

“We’re making sure that not only on Sunday that pastors encourage their community to go out and vote, but even during the weekday services,” said Regena Thomas, director faith and constituent outreach for the DNC.

Thomas, who is an African Methodist Episcopal pastor from New Jersey, said African-Americans are being encouraged to vote early, even “before and after Bible study.” ....

The Rev. Calvin McKinney, general secretary of the National Baptist Convention, USA, and a New Jersey pastor, said the DNC has worked with state leaders of his denomination to try to avert political disaster. ....

The Rev. Boise Kimber, a Connecticut pastor and a board member of the National Baptist Convention, USA, said he and other black clergy were already building bridges between churches and Democratic candidates even before the DNC came calling. .... [more]
Maybe panic is spreading at this very moment among those worried about religious involvement in politics periling the "wall of separation" between church and state, religion and politics. The ACLU may at this moment be preparing lawsuits, supported by the Baptist Joint Committee and Americans United — all of those who have threatened the tax exempt status of churches who expressly advocated support for or opposition to political candidates. Maybe the IRS is keeping track so they can revoke the tax-exempt status of offending congregations. Perhaps. I'm not holding my breath....

RNS Feature: "Hoping to avert disaster, Democrats turn to black churches"

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Relentless pessimism and incurable optimism

Canadian Evangelical academic and author, Dr. Craig Carter, who blogs at "The Politics of the Cross Resurrected," explains in an interview at "Mere Orthodoxy" how his faith affects his political philosophy:
MO: Can you describe the way in which your Christian worldview has informed your political worldview?

CC: As a Christian, I am a relentless pessimist with regard to the City of Man and an incurable optimist with regard to the City of God. I am implacably opposed to all political philosophies which are either too optimistic with regard to the City of Man (eg. Progressivism, Marxism) or too dismissive of the City of God (eg. Secularism). Thoughtful and pious Christians are the people who can be trusted to govern best in this world because they are well aware of the failings of human nature due to original sin, which minimizes their tendency toward embracing Utopianism, and because they have a sense of being accountable to God on the Day of Judgment, which gives them a healthy fear of killing the innocent no matter how good the cause. Of course, Christians often fail to live up to their best insights and when they do fail it negates their advantage. I’d rather be governed by a modest, moral, Aristotelian pagan than by a sophisticated, post-Christian, crypto-Marxist. In the long run it is better to be ruled by a person who knows right from wrong, even if he still does the wrong thing sometimes (think Churchill for example), than by a person who thinks right and wrong are concepts that belong in fairy tales for children (think Stalin, for example).

I believe that Western civilization has been influenced by Christianity to an extent not seen in any other civilization in the world. I believe that this influence is responsible for important, universal and permanently valid principles such as: limited government, the rule of law, individual freedom, the division of powers, free speech, freedom of religion, free enterprise, and natural law as the basis of positive law. These principles are steadily being eroded in Western Europe and the UK, but are still powerfully influential in America, which is where the West will eventually make its last stand if present trends continue.

In the late modern West, I believe that an Augustinian must be a conservative and a conservative had better be an Augustinian if he wants to survive without falling into despair or converting to socialism. .... [more]
Interview: Craig Carter | Mere Orthodoxy

Monday, October 25, 2010

Sherlock

Lars Walker was apprehensive about the new Mystery Masterpiece series, Sherlock, as was I for the same reasons. But he enjoyed it, and so did I. From Walker's review of Sherlock: A Study In Pink:
.... The new Holmes operates as a police consultant in contemporary London. The police are suspicious of him (one accuses him of being a “psychopath,” to which he replies that he’s a high-functioning sociopath). He doesn’t wear a deerstalker or Inverness cape, but those costume elements have tended to be overused (and inappropriately used) in films and TV shows anyway. The modern world doesn’t allow him to smoke, so he relies on multiple nicotine patches when he needs to think out a problem. He does take drugs. The actor who plays him (one who rejoices in the name Benedict Cumberbatch) looks too young for the part, but has the attitude exactly right.

He is supported by one of the best Watsons I’ve ever seen (Martin Freeman), like the original a recently returned wounded veteran of a war in Afghanistan. He’s seeing a psychologist who thinks his limp is psychosomatic, and is right. However, she thinks he’s suffering from PTSD, while Holmes immediately recognizes the truth, that Watson’s become an action junkie, and is starved for adventure—a commodity his new fellow lodger is ready and willing to supply. ....

I think what pleased me best about the episode, though, was that it was clearly written by people who know the Holmes stories, and enjoy riffing off the “canonical” material. For instance, in the scene where the body is found, the word “RACHE” has been scratched in the floor by the victim (in the original version, it was written in blood on the wall by the murderer). In the original, Inspector Gregson assumed that someone started writing the name “Rachel” and was interrupted. Holmes condescendingly informed him that “Rache” is German for revenge.

In this version, Inspector Lestrade suggests that the victim must be German, and Holmes condescendingly informs him that it’s surely an unfinished “Rachel.”

This episode, called A Study in Pink, is loosely based on A Study In Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes mystery. .... [more]
The three episodes of the first season of Sherlock are already for sale from Amazon and will be released next month.

Sherlock: A Study In Pink | The American Culture

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Public praying

Tim Keller offers some good advice about "How to Pray Better in Public and in Private, Too":
Years ago when I wanted to become more skillful in public prayer, I was fortunate to come across the collects of Thomas Cranmer, the writer of the original Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. The “collects” (the stress is on the first syllable) that Cranmer wrote were brief but extremely ‘packed’ little prayers that tied together the doctrine of the day to a particular way of living. They were prayed by the minister on behalf of the people, or prayed in unison by the whole congregation.

As I have read them over the years they have brought me two great benefits. First, they have given me a basic structure by which I can compose good public prayers, either ahead of time, or spontaneously. Cranmer’s collects consist of 5 parts:

  1. The address - a name of God
  2. The doctrine - a truth about God’s nature that is the basis for the prayer
  3. The petition - what is being asked for
  4. The aspiration - what good result will come if the request is granted
  5. In Jesus’ name - this remembers the mediatorial role of Jesus
See this structure in Cranmer’s famous collect for the service of Holy Communion:
  1. Almighty God
  2. unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid,
  3. cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit,
  4. that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name,
  5. through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
See how the prayer moves from a doctrinal basis (why we can ask for it) to the petition (what we want) to the aspiration (what we will do with it if we get it.) It is remarkable how this combines solid theology with deep aspirations of the heart and concrete goals for our daily life.

As time has gone on I have come to use Cranmer’s collects in my personal devotional time (this is the second benefit.) I take up one collect at the beginning of each new week. I read Paul Zahl’s volume The Collects of Thomas Cranmer (Eerdmans, 1999) that provides a very short explanation and meditation on the prayer. Then I pray that prayer to God reflectively every morning for the rest of the week as I begin my personal time with God. .... [more]
The book Keller uses is The Collects of Thomas Cranmer by C. Frederick Barbee and Paul F.M. Zahl.

How to Pray Better in Public and in Private, Too

Kýrie, eléison

At The Internet Monk, on the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican [Luke 18:9-14]:
...[T]he righteous look down on sinners and thank God that they are not like them, saying “There but for the grace of God go I.” And the sinners look down on the righteous and assert they wouldn’t be caught dead being such snobs, openly suspecting it’s all a big act put on by whitewashed tombs.
Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. (Rom 2:1, NRSV)
As usual, the ever-wise C.S. Lewis had his finger on the pulse of the matter here. In Mere Christianity, he wrote:
Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good—above all, that we are better than someone else—I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil. The real test of being in the presence of God is that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.
So then, how should we read this parable? We should read it looking only at Jesus. Not at the Pharisee. Not at the publican. Trying to identify with either of them in contrast to the other leads only to spiritual pride—thank God I’m not like him!—regardless of which one I’m pointing to.

But when I look at Jesus and realize that he is pointing me to God, who alone has the power to justify me—then I will take the appropriate position coram Deo (before the face of God). Comparison with others will not cross my mind. My complete attention will be on confessing the secrets of my heart to the One who is looking right through me and requiring an account. In a desperation that consumes all my energies, I will find myself crying out for his word of forgiveness and reinstatement. My concentration will become incredibly focused, not on myself, not on others, but on the One who made me, who knows me, who speaks the truth to me, who invites me to relate honestly and directly with him. [more]
The Real Test of Being in God’s Presence | internetmonk.com

Friday, October 22, 2010

The renewing of our minds

Kevin DeYoung, pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, and co-author of [among others] Why We're Not Emergent By Two Guys Who Should Be republishes an old blog post. It's worth republication.
If we are to be fruitful and godly Christians we need to have a theological core without being theologically crusty.

In desiring a theological core I don’t mean that all Christians must be bookish and given to intellectual contemplation. I mean that every Christian must be shaped from the inside out by a set of convictions about who God is and what he has accomplished in Jesus Christ. As Christians we should be animated (given life) and motivated (compelled to action) by a core of doctrinal truths–truths like God is loving, sovereign, and holy; God created the world and created it good; as a result of Adam’s sin humans are bent toward evil; Jesus Christ was God’s Son, begotten not created; Jesus suffered and died on the cross for sins and rose again on the third day; the Holy Spirit is God and fills us with power, enables us to believe, equips us with gifts, and bears fruit in our lives; the Bible is God’s word; Jesus is coming again to judge the living and the dead, and justification is by faith alone.

These truths need to be more than a set of beliefs we assume. They should be the lens through which we look at ourselves and the world. ....

Theologically hollow congregations and pastors may like to think they will bequeath a gospel legacy to the next generation, but the truth is we only pass on what is our passion. New converts and new kids won’t think and live and love like mature Christians, let alone be able to articulate the Christian story, if our beliefs rest in a pamphlet and not in our hearts.

I make no apologies for having a theological church. The church ought to be about the business of the gospel, and the gospel is a message of historical fact plus God-given interpretation. .... We want to be thinking Christians who know what we believe, why we believe it, and live and die in the comfort of these beliefs.
[emphasis added]

Having a theological core means, among other things, that our unity is theological. Of course we want to be united in love and purpose too. But whatever actions and affections we share in unison ought to radiate from a theological core. ....
DeYoung goes on to emphasize the danger of being "theologically crusty":
.... It’s a demeanor where being Calvinist or paedobaptist or inerrantist (three things I am gladly) are put on like armor or wielded like weapons, when they are meant to be the warm glow of a Christian whose core radiates with love for Christ and the gospel. ....

Striking the balance is not easy. But let’s try hard to be discerning and grounded without always looking for the next theological misstep in our friends, our family, or the songs we sing. And let’s be able to tell the difference between wandering sheep and false teachers. We must delineate between a slightly ill-informed wording of a phrase and a purposeful rejection of truth. .... [more]
The Crust and the Core Redux – Kevin DeYoung

Thursday, October 21, 2010

"Without our aid He did us make"

"All People That on Earth Do Dwell" is, one authority states, "the earliest hymn written in the English language which is still in general use today." It is from about 1561. The tune to which it is usually sung, Old Hundredth, is even older. The line from the second verse, quoted above, has always been for me a seemly reminder of my status — He doesn't need my advice.


All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice;
Him serve with mirth, his praise forth tell,
Come ye before him, and rejoice.
For why? the Lord our God is good;
His mercy is for ever sure;
His truth at all times firmly stood,
And shall from age to age endure.
The Lord, ye know, is God indeed,
Without our aid he did us make;
We are his folk, he doth us feed,
And for his sheep he doth us take.
To Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
The God whom heaven and earth adore,
From men and from the angel-host
Be praise and glory evermore.
O enter then his gates with praise,
Approach with joy his courts unto;
Praise, laud, and bless his name always,
For it is seemly so to do.



Ian Bradley, The Penguin Book of Hymns, 1989.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

What must be done.

Via Mike Gray at The American Culture, a fable by Robert Louis Stevenson:
Four reformers met under a bramble bush. They were all agreed the world must be changed. “We must abolish property,” said one.
“We must abolish marriage,” said the second.
“We must abolish God,” said the third.
“I wish we could abolish work,” said the fourth.
“Do not let us get beyond practical politics,” said the first. “The first thing is to reduce men to a common level.”
“The first thing,” said the second, “is to give freedom to the sexes.”
“The first thing,” said the third, “is to find out how to do it.”
“The first step,” said the first, “is to abolish the Bible.”
“The first thing,” said the second, “is to abolish the laws.”
“The first thing,” said the third, “is to abolish mankind.”

—Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94), “The Four Reformers”
“The World Must Be Changed” — A Fable | The American Culture

Liberty and the rule of law

Gene Edward Veith, in "Freedom and Government," uses a great film directed by John Ford to explain one reason why conservatives are not libertarians. First, quoting from a comment Veith made elsewhere:
We watched “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” last night in my film class. The lawless “state of nature” does NOT promote private property or free enterprise. Rather, in that movie, the lawless cattle ranchers, with their power and gunslingers, were taking the property of the small farmers so they could have an “open range.” Only until law came to Shinbone and the people voted for statehood was private property protected.
.... Many conservatives and libertarians believe that government, by its nature, limits human freedom. In a state of minimal government, free enterprise economics would thrive, and human beings would form in other dimensions of life an analogous self-regulating order.

In the thought experiment that is John Ford’s movie, “Liberty” Valence may have liberty, but he is about the only one. There is no private property. When he wants to take someone’s steak, he just takes it. When the cattlemen want their cattle to graze on farms, they just cut the fences. Because the advocates of the “wild west” do not respect anyone’s private property, there is no free enterprise economics. “Shopkeepers” stand with the small farmers to work for a rule of law and statehood for the territory. The community has to stand up against Liberty Valence. Violence (cf. “valence”?) is indeed necessary to create social order. Liberty Valence has to be shot. And those who can stand up against him, like Tom Donophan (John Wayne), ironically, also have no place in the new civilized order.

But, according to Ford, government is necessary for freedom. Not that government cannot also squelch freedom, as in the totalitarian systems of Fascism and Communism, both of which Ford fought. But a democratic government and the rule of law, in his mind, was a prerequisite for both personal freedom and a free economy. ....
Freedom and Government | Cranach: The Blog of Veith

Monday, October 18, 2010

The best Protestant colleges

First Things has placed online its ratings of the top colleges in America for Christian students based, as they write, on extensive research:
For this survey, First Things began by collecting information on 2063 college and universities in America.

It was mounds and mounds of material, starting with previously published college guides, information the schools make publicly available, and government-collected data on attendance, graduation rates, etc. We followed up with our own student polling and systematic conversations with students, graduates, faculty, and chaplains—and followed up with our most trusted resource: the subjective judgment of the extended network of First Things friends and colleagues who teach at many of these schools.
They provide charts listing schools in these categories:
  • First Things' 25 Top Schools in America
  • Least Unfriendly to Faith Among the Top Secular Schools
  • Most Catholic Catholic Schools
  • Least Catholic Catholic Schools
  • Best Seriously Protestant Schools
  • Schools in the Rise, Filled With Excitement
  • Schools in Decline, Filled With Gloom
All of the results can be viewed here.

Below is their chart of of the "Best Seriously Protestant Schools." Some fairly recent graduates I know will be pleased to see their schools on this list.


In addition they list the following as "Interesting Alternatives" in the Protestant category: The Honors College at Baylor University (Waco, TX), Torrey Honors College at Biola University (La Mirada, CA), and three experiments in Christian education: The King's College (New York, NY), New Saint Andrews College (Moscow, ID), and Patrick Henry College (Purcellville, VA).

College Rankings | First Things

Sunday, October 17, 2010

"Far over the misty mountains..."


Variety reports "'The Hobbit' pics to shoot in February." But we'll have to wait until 2012, — and in 3D?!
New Line and MGM have officially greenlit The Hobbit with shooting starting in 3D in February and Peter Jackson directing. ....

New Line, MGM and Warner Bros. (parent of New Line) issued a joint announcement late Friday afternoon. It came nearly three years after they agreed to join up on a big-screen version of JRR Tolkien's epic fantasy novel about the adventures of Bilbo Baggins, who obtains the ring that was the centerpiece of The Lord of the Rings trilogy of books and films.

The announcement also confirmed that Jackson will direct both segments in addition to writing and exec producing. Jackson's been widely expected to direct since Guillermo Del Toro's departed the from the director gig in May. ....

"Exploring Tolkien's Middle-earth goes way beyond a normal film-making experience," Jackson said in the statement. "It's an all-immersive journey into a very special place of imagination, beauty and drama. We're looking forward to re-entering this wondrous world with Gandalf and Bilbo - and our friends at New Line Cinema, Warner Brothers and MGM."

Preproduction on the films has been underway for many months in New Zealand, where Jackson shot the Lord of the Rings trilogy for New Line. Del Toro, who committed to direct The Hobbit pics in 2008, said in May that sets, wardrobe, animatics and planned battles sequences had all been fully prepared. ....
'The Hobbit' pics to shoot in February - Entertainment News, Film News, Media - Variety

American politics and Israel

Walter Russell Mead, in "The Problem With J Street," explains why the current manifestation of anti-Semitic conspiracy theory is just as stupid as such theories have ever and always been. Mead:
.... Globally, one of the most common (and idiotic) assumptions about American foreign policy is that “the Jews” control it. Virtually everyone in the Middle East, a deeply depressing number of Europeans (who cling to anti-Semitic myths about Jewish power and clannishness even while claiming to be completely free of prejudice), and even a handful of misguided Americans think that American gentiles are so weak and so foolish that a handful of clever, rich and unscrupulous Jews have led us around for decades with rings through our noses when it comes to the Middle East. The allegedly awesome mindbending power of Jews in the media and the allegedly irresistible power of Jewish money (through AIPAC and other organizations) bribed politicians and bamboozled the public. How else, these theorists of occult Jewish power ask, to explain America’s stubborn and stupid support of the Jewish state?

Everything I know about the history of American foreign policy, the state of American opinion, the nature of American ideology and theology, and the state of American politics tells me this is wrong. ....

Less than two percent of the US population is Jewish, and Jews aren’t exactly swing voters. Next to African-Americans, Jews are the most reliable (and most liberal) bloc of voters in the Democratic Party.

AIPAC’s political power ultimately comes from its ability to influence non-Jewish voters. If AIPAC and related groups call politicians anti-Israel, the tens of millions of non-Jewish voters who connect Israel’s security with American values and interests will believe them. (A recent poll found that 53% of voters were more likely to vote for a candidate who was ‘pro-Israel’.) AIPAC is powerful because it is the accredited watchdog on an issue the non-Jewish public cares about; if the dog barks, something is wrong. ....

Non-Jewish Americans aren’t listening to AIPAC because they are prepared to give “the Jews” whatever they want when it comes to Israel policy. Still less do they worry that defying AIPAC will bring down the awesome power of “the Jews” on their heads. They listen to AIPAC because they believe it is a reliable advocate for the approach to the issue they want American policy to take. A sturdy majority of non-Jewish Americans support Israel for reasons that have nothing, repeat nothing, to do with the generally more liberal and nuanced views of American Jews. Back in the 1920s, when most American Jews were still anti-Zionist, both houses of Congress unanimously supported the Balfour Declaration, the British statement that it would support the creation of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. ....

.... If the Jews of Hollywood, Wall Street and the mainstream media were as powerful and clannish as European anti-Semitic legend has it, Europe would actually like America’s Middle East policies much more than it does.

It can’t be repeated too often: the American Jewish community is not responsible for the popularity of hard line views among American non-Jews on Middle East issues. Individual Jews and predominantly Jewish organizations like AIPAC derive their influence over American foreign policy not from their Jewishness, but from the affinity of their policy agenda with the views and priorities of America’s non-Jews. .... [more]
The Problem With J Street - Walter Russell Mead's Blog - The American Interest

Friday, October 15, 2010

"Without a 'commander,' there really can’t be any commandments."

David B. Hart, in "The Desirist’s Unsatisfiable Desires" finds that Joel Marks, in his “An Amoral Manifesto,” is admirably honest in concluding that an atheist is logically compelled to "embrace amorality," but doubts his ultimate success in persuasively arguing that any kind of morality can be maintained nevertheless. Hart:
The philosopher Joel Marks is an honest man, it seems. For much the better part of a long career, he had had no difficulty in preserving a happy harmony between his atheism and his commitment to a basically Kantian moral philosophy.  ....

Over the past few years, however, he has had a kind of conversion experience, which has left him, he says, in the curious position of having to “learn to live life all over again.” As he explains in an article in the most recent issue of Philosophy Now, he has belatedly come to realize that for long years he has toiled under an illusion, and that he ought earlier to have examined his assumption that there is any such thing as right or wrong.

Much to his surprise, he now finds himself in agreement with all those “fundamentalists” who say that without God there can be no morality. Without a “commander,” it turns out, there really can’t be any commandments. And so, convinced atheist that he is, Marks finds himself compelled—just by intellectual honesty—to “embrace amorality.”

...He has not, however, simply thrown over his moral principles of old in favor of, say, prudently predatory selfishness; nor has he forsaken compassion for some kind of higher hedonism.... He may now believe that what we call morality is merely the residue of evolutionary processes, and that its real “purpose” has been to promote the survival of the species. But, even so, he can still choose compassion, he has decided, because it pleases him to do so; he calls this position “desirism.” ....

Of course if there is no God, then there can be neither moral right nor moral wrong in any objectively real sense. The “Good as such”—the source and end of moral truth, the highest object of the rational will, which has the power to unite the longing for truth with the imperative to act in this way or that—is found nowhere within nature. Not even those who believe in “natural law” imagine that it is. ....

Choose whichever you like—standard utilitarianism, Rawls’s theory of justice, attempts to ground moral thinking in evolutionary biology or neurophysiology—you will always find, if you subject your preferred ethical naturalism to sufficiently unflinching scrutiny, that at some primal and irreducible point it must simply presume a movement of good will, an initial moral impulse that, with a kind of ghostly Gödelian elusiveness, can never be contained within the moral system it sustains. All the polyphony of nature falls mute when asked to produce one substantial imperative, unless one believes (explicitly or tacitly) that the voice of nature has its origin and consummation in the voice of God. ....

Marks means well. But après moi le déluge, as Louis XV said (exhibiting a prescience rare for a Bourbon). Louis knew the French monarchy would not long survive him, but he knew also that there was enough vitality left in the moribund old estates of France to keep the inevitable at bay while he still lived. Similarly, Marks need not worry that he will live to see precisely what sort of society a truly amoralist culture might produce. And anyway, as he notes in his article, he has no children. [more]
The Desirist’s Unsatisfiable Desires | First Things

Thursday, October 14, 2010

When words assault

Hadley Arkes explains how the Supreme Court went astray in its interpretation of the First Amendment in the 1970s [read it all here]:
In a legendary case of the late 1970’s, a small band of self-styled “Nazis” sought to march through Skokie, Illinois, a suburban town with many Jews who had survived the Holocaust. David Hamlin of the ACLU declared at the time that the First Amendment protected all kinds of speech regardless of whether it was “popular or despised.” The translation was unmistakable: What was “despised” was that which was unpopular or hated. What was ruled out was that certain things were despised because they were in point of principle “despicable.”

Now we are finding the same translation provided again even by conservative writers and jurists. The case at hand involves the antics of the Rev. Fred Phelps and a contingent from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. In 2006 they were alerted to the funeral of young Matthew Snyder, 20, a Marine lance corporal who had died in Iraq. Phelps and his crew, ever ready to broadcast their message, made it a point to show up at St. John’s Catholic Church in Westminster, Maryland, the site of the funeral. They came with signs saying “Semper fi fags,” “Thank God for dead soldiers,” and decrying the “pedophile machine” of the “Roman Catholic monstrosity.” The editors of the Wall Street Journal pronounced Phelps and his band “scoundrels,” their message “despicable.” And yet the translation was made again: The editors seem inclined to think Phelps nevertheless had a “right” to engage in despicable performative acts because there are no grounds on which the law can really discriminate between the “despicable” and the “unlikable.”

But the law was not always thought to be so wanting in the standards of judgment, and the judges expounding the law were not compelled to absorb, ever more deeply with each case, the premises of moral relativism. Until the 1970’s the cases on speech, and the harms inflicted through speech, were governed by the classic case of Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942). Justice Frank Murphy observed in that case that certain well-defined and narrowly focused classes of speech have never been given protection under the Constitution. As he wrote in a famous passage:
These [classes of speech] include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or “fighting” words — those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. [Italics added]
But in the early 1970’s this understanding was truncated and largely displaced in favor of a view the judges regarded as far more sophisticated and in tune with the times. .... [much more]
Swastikas, Burning Crosses, and “God Hates Fags” « Public Discourse

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Millions of dead

One difficulty in teaching middle class Midwestern adolescents about 20th century history was convincing them how much difference there is among types of government in the degree of evil. They had no frame of reference. Dictatorships are different and those that justify their actions by a Utopian vision are very different. I intentionally spent time teaching about the purges, planned famines, and the Holocaust because otherwise there was a tendency to assume an equivalency of guilt among types of governments and regimes. I have previously noted the studies that demonstrate that, although the wars of that century resulted in massive numbers of dead, even more people were murdered by the governments that ruled over them. In a Guardian review of a new book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder, Neal Ascherson details what happened in one of the most horrific periods:
.... The time is between about 1930 – the start of the second Ukraine famine – and 1945. The zone is the territory that lies between central Poland and, roughly, the Russian border, covering eastern Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic republics. Snyder's "Bloodlands" label is jarring, a title those beautiful lands and those who now live there do not deserve. But it's true that in those years and in those places, the unimaginable total of 14 million innocent human beings, most of them women and children, were shot, gassed or intentionally starved to death.

.... To start with, the public in western countries still tends to associate mass killing with "Nazi concentration camps", and with Auschwitz in particular. Stalin is thought to have killed far more people than the Nazis by consigning millions to the gulag. But neither assumption is accurate.

In the Soviet Union, it now appears that, although about a million men and women perished in the labour camps, nine out of 10 gulag prisoners survived. Stalin's great killing took place not in Siberia, but in the western Soviet republics, above all in Ukraine where in the 30s at least four million people died in man-made famines and in the slaughter of the "kulak" peasantry.

In the concentration camps of the Third Reich, a million prisoners died miserable deaths during the Nazi period. But 10 million others who never entered those camps were shot (mostly Jews), deliberately starved to death (mostly Soviet prisoners of war) or gassed in special "killing centres" which were not holding camps at all. At Auschwitz, the overwhelming majority of Jews were taken straight to the gas chambers on arrival. And Auschwitz, terrible as it was, formed a sort of coda to the Jewish Holocaust. By the time the main gas chambers came on line in 1943, most of Europe's Jewish victims were already dead.

Some – the Polish Jews especially – had been gassed in the three killing centres set up on Polish territory: Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. But most had been shot and pitched into mass graves by German police units operating far to the east in Ukraine, the Baltics and Belarus, the Einsatzgruppen who moved from village to village behind the front lines of war. ....

.... The three gassing centres built in occupied Poland, followed by another at Auschwitz-Birkenau, were designed to exterminate the entire Jewish population of Europe west of the old Polish-Soviet frontier. East of that line, in the lands where most of Europe's Jews had once lived, the job had already been done by the firing-squads..... Snyder reinforces this by aligning the Holocaust with the fate of the Soviet prisoners of war. Herded into enormous wired enclosures with little or no food or shelter, they were intentionally left to die. In German-occupied Poland alone, half a million Soviet prisoners starved to death. Counting the hunger victims in besieged Leningrad, this most primitive method of mass killing took something like four million lives in the course of the war.

Snyder insists that the colossal atrocities in his "bloodlands" have to be set inside a single historical frame. To look at them separately – for instance, to see Hitler's crimes as "so great as to stand outside history", or Stalin's as a monstrous device to achieve modernisation – is to let the two dictators "define their own works for us". .... He is saying that both tyrants identified this luckless strip of Europe as the place where, above all, they must impose their will or see their gigantic visions falter.

For Stalin, it was in Ukraine that "Soviet construction" would succeed or fail; its food supplies must be wrested from the peasantry by collectivisation and terror. And foreign influence – which meant above all Polish – must be flamed out of the western borderlands. (Snyder reveals the little-known fact that the Polish minority were the main ethnic victims of the great terror between 1937 and 1938: well over 100,000 were shot for fictitious "espionage".)

This book's unforgettable account of the Ukraine famine shows conclusively that Stalin knew what was happening in the countryside and chose to let it run its course (some 3 million died). For Hitler, too, seizing Ukraine and its produce for Germany was crucial for his new empire. ....
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder – review | Books | The Guardian

Smart kids who want to get along

The November issue of First Things will include the results of their research into which colleges and universities offer a good education and are also not unfriendly to believers. In his introduction to the study "Faith in America’s Colleges" [behind a subscription wall], editor Joseph Bottum describes what they have been doing: "FIRST THINGS began collecting publicly available data on 2063 institutions of higher learning in the United States. Over the last year, we followed that up with polling of students and recent graduates on the religious, academic, and social atmosphere of their schools. And we followed that with queries among our academic friends and colleagues." I am very much looking forward to reading the results of the study and, particularly, the schools they rate highly [Wheaton, Princeton and Thomas Aquinas come out well].

Bottum describes their motivation:
.... The work on this special college issue of FIRST THINGS began after a conversation with a friend who, over lunch, mentioned that his son and daughter were growing ashamed of their faith. A devout Catholic who had homeschooled his children along the way, he sent them back east to a pair of distinguished universities, where . . . well, where the entirely predictable happened. Out of the hothouse and left to their own devices, they felt for the first time the constant acid drip of sneering and mockery that marks American academia today. First they tried to hide their faith, and then they quit the practice of that faith, and then, eventually, they dropped the faith. By the time they received their degrees, neither was a churchgoer and neither, really, was a believer.

And so that friend asked me a very pointed question: “Is there anywhere to go to college in the United States today where (1) you’ll get a socially useful diploma, (2) you’ll have the chance of getting an actual education, and (3) you won’t get your faith beaten out of you?”

The obvious answer is yes. Or no. Or maybe. The problem my friend faced is that his children weren’t really leaders. They weren’t self-starting, self-driving dynamos who thrive on adversity. They were just smart kids who wanted to get along. To fit in. To be normal, as normal exists at the famous old schools to which they went.

What’s the point of this special issue of FIRST THINGS. The rough-and-tumble types will do well anywhere. In our Junior Fellows program at First Things, for recent college graduates, we’ve brought them in from the likes of Wabash and Harvard and Columbia, places where they triumphed the more they were (or believed they were) oppressed. But where do the ordinary kids go—the good, smart, ordinary kids, still feeling their way into life? How do they survive? How do they flourish? ....

.... The drift at schools without an identity is now rapid and precise: They all end up in the same place, second- and third-tier would-be Harvards, locked into the same public bromides, the same educational malaise, and the same social messes as all the others.

At a Jesuit-established school like Boston College, a Methodist-founded school like the University of Southern California, or a land-grant school like Penn State—what, at the end of the day, is the difference in the education the student receives? Or the value of the degree? Or the way in which religion is treated, with varying levels of gentleness, as something one must outgrow to join the normality of the college-degreed middle class?

Such schools may well be doomed. There isn’t all that much point to them, particularly once the financial return is discounted. But the colleges with an identity and a purpose alive inside them—those are the ones to attend. The choices are almost endless. There are science schools and Great Books schools, art academies and yeshivas. There are even some where students can receive a socially useful diploma, have the chance of an education, and not have their faith beaten out of them.
Faith in America’s Colleges

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

18%

Christianity Today asks just how peculiar is it that 18% percent of Americans say that the President is a Muslim? Larger percentages than that believe various absurdities. Click on the image and magnify to read the text.

I'm back


I just returned from a meandering trip with my brother to Colorado and back calculated to arrive there, in Longmont, in time for my uncle's 92nd birthday. Uncle Vic, Rev. Victor W. Skaggs, is our father's younger brother and the last member of that generation of our family still living. He has served all of his adult life in Christian ministry, in the pastorate and in the education of pastors, and he continues today to lead bible studies where he lives. Our time with him [and with cousins] was thoroughly enjoyable, sharing memories and learning a great deal of family history. Uncle Vic has one of the most infectious laughs I have ever experienced and every subject inspires him to recollect stories about himself, family and others - most of them seemingly about mishaps and misadventures.

On the way back we stopped in Abilene to visit the Eisenhower Presidential Museum and Library; in Fulton, Missouri, to tour the Churchill Museum on the campus of Westminster College where the great man delivered his "Iron Curtain" speech in 1946 [my brother, on the left, adopts an appropriate pose in the garden next to the museum]; in downtown St. Louis; and in Mark Twain's home town, Hannibal, Missouri. At almost every stop along the way we were able to enjoy good food and drink.

Much of the scenery along the way looked very much like that in the picture below.