Friday, June 29, 2007

Nobody likes an Evangelist

Well this post is overdue, so my apologies. I've written a great deal about Christians in the US (or my impressions of them), and I've thrown it out there that I happen to be one, but I don't suppose I've given a very clear picture of what I believe and what mainstream Christians believe. I did give a brief list of some of my beliefs in the first post, but in this one I'll expand on it a bit better. Let me start by saying that I am an Evangelical Christian. There is no hiding it, and I have no shame in calling myself that. The question is: when I say Evangelical, what do you think of? And actually, while I'm asking you that, I'd really love for you to scroll down to the bottom of this post and leave me a comment with your definition or impression of what an Evangelical is. If you do this, do it before you read the rest. If you're definition changes, then let me know that too.

I've met quite a few people that equate evangelicals to Republican card-carrying fundamentalists, but that's far from the truth. While it's true that there a quite a few self-proclaimed "evangelicals" who give off that impression, they too are missing the point. In fact, I've grown up in a sphere of evangelicalism that is quite different from that, so it never occurred to me that other people (even other Christians) might be turned off by it. I've never thought of "evangelical" as a negative descriptor, but now I've realized that there has been a slide in it's usage that is causing quite a few problems. So... I thought I'd give it my best shot and set the record straight (though I owe thinking about all of this in a new light to pastor Chris who gave a very compelling message about this last fall --click on the Nov 5th sermon).

Wikipedia tells us this about the word evangelical:
"The term 'evangelical', in a lexical but less commonly used sense, refers to
anything implied in the belief that Jesus is the Messiah. The word comes from
the Greek word for 'Gospel' or 'good news': ευαγγελιον evangelion, from eu-
"good" and angelion "message". In that strictest sense, to be evangelical would
mean to be merely Christian, that is, founded upon, motivated by, acting in
agreement with, spreading the "good news" message of the New Testament."
So strictly speaking, an evangelical is someone spreading good news. So why the negative connotation? I've always considered evangelical to mean exactly that. I have some good news, and I'd like to share it. In fact, if my belief in this good news is right (and I operate under the conviction that it is) then I should be morally obligated to tell other people about it. If I kept this information to myself, I'd be culpable of a great moral harm. So it seems that I have a moral duty to let other people know what I believe. And that's where this whole thing really begins...

So I have this obligation to tell people about what I believe, but that doesn't tell me how I should go about it. Some people hand out tracks (those little salvation booklets), some televangelise, some go to foreign countries, and others spread the news a little more stealthily. Who's doing it right? Well, I'm willing to bet that every form of spreading the Gospel (yes, even televangelists) has the power to change people's lives. I believe that God can use anything and anyone. I do think some methods may be more effective than others, but whatever, that's just what I think and that doesn't mean anything anyways. To show you what I'm getting at, consider this passage from Philippians. Here Paul is telling us about a group of 'preachers' who are only preaching about Jesus because they want to stir up trouble for Christ's followers. The more they preach, the more trouble the early Christians get in. But, as Paul tells us, their bad motives actual serve God's purpose:
“It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of
goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense
of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely,
supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what
does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false
motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.” (ch 1:

There's something to this, and I think this is more important than you realize. Consider the Christians who evangelize today because they've turned into salesmen who have to pitch their product to as many people as possible. Sometimes it seems like they think they're working on commission or something. That bothers me, a lot, but even if it bothers me that doesn't mean that God isn't using their mixed up motivation for his purposes. If you've seen the movie Leap of Faith with Steve Martin you'll know what I'm talking about with all this. He certainly wasn't pitching those tent rivals for God's glory, but even he was brought to his knees in the end.

But that's a bit off track, because most self-described evangelicals preach the Gospel out of love. We are accused (quite often) of being narrow-minded and offensive because we "think that we are right and everyone else is wrong." Well, if we thought that we had it wrong, I don't suppose we'd be telling you about Christ would we? And if you think evangelizing is some sort of power struggle over the truth then you've missed our mission entirely.

So what is our mission, you might ask. Well, it's simple really. We believe that this world is imperfect, but we believe that perfection is the standard to meet. If anything less than perfection was good enough, then just where is the line, and how could anyone possible know if they were good enough? And for that matter, all those naturally-inclined-to-be-a-good-sort-of-person people would be unfairly advantaged, right? Well they're not, because even they aren't perfect. But it's okay, because God knows we suck at doing this on our own... so He sent in a pitch-hitter. Think of it this way: everyone has a chance to cheat on the biggest test of all time, and the teacher is actually encouraging it. In fact, the teacher tells you that by cheating on this test, it shows that you accept your own inability to ace it without help. It's like the test is open book, only some students are convinced they don't need help, so they never open the book. That seems silly right? So the other students (evangelicals) are desperately trying to get the other students to open their books for this open book test. It's not that we're better, it's just that we accept that we're not good at this and we want all the other students to pass too.

Now here's my problem: I don't know if God has other books out there to help the students pass. But I do know that the best one (and the most informative one) is Jesus, and your safest bet is to listen to what he said. But what about all the students who never hear of the Jesus book? I don't know. God knows, and He knows their hearts, and I know He's looking out for them too. It's like the story of the sculptor who never heard the Gospel, but who, upon marveling at the works of his hand, stopped and praised the God who created his thumb because his thumb was able to make extraordinary things. God spoke to him, and God is speaking to everyone. The question is: are we listening?

So we have a message, and the message (believe it or not) can not be told completely with words alone. The message is love. God is love. God loves us. He sent Jesus to help us because He loves us. The great commission: go love everyone with the love of God. Be loved by God, and let that love overflow into the lives of those around you. If words come into the picture, fine, but if not, that's even better. People respond to love, because love speaks to their hearts. So when I say I'm an evangelical Christian, I mean that I spend my life (well, I do a poor job, but I try) loving other people. In that way, I am spreading the message of God, which is the good news, and that good news is his love manifested in Christ. People are hungry to be loved, and God's love will satisfy them. So it's time we make sure they find it. I must share this love, because not sharing it would be a crime. It would be selfish to keep the greatest gift of all time to myself. That's why I am an evangelical.

So is being an evangelical a bad thing? Well, is loving people a bad thing? You can disagree with my beliefs and still agree that if I believe what I do then I must live how I do or else I am a horribly selfish person. That's all.
"And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ,
and to love one another as he commanded us." 1 John 3:23

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Bar Talk: the lottery

So I thought I might introduce a possible theme for some of my future posts, just because this particular source of inspiration has been good fuel for thought recently. My roommate and good friend bartends at the Best Western (this is not a plug for that hotel chain, and I'll refrain from commenting on its quality level... though I must say, the bartender is great). We work opposing schedules, so I've found myself frequenting her bar quiet often. After all, who can turn down free bottomless cokes with grenadine? One of the perks of my visits, aside from chatting with my roomie, is my fellow patrons. I live in the ultimate college-town, so bars are usually overcrowded, noisy establishments where you get hassled by sloppy frat boys. Not my style. And it certainly doesn't make for good conversation (who goes to a college bar to talk?). But at the BW life is different. The patrons come in all shapes and sizes, and each has his or her own story to tell, and believe me, they are all willing to tell it. The age range is generally 30-somethings to 70-somethings, and the reason for staying is usually some sort of convention/conference or a friend or family member is at the UW hospital. So, as you can tell, each person I meet comes with a unique set of baggage. And since my roommate is generous when she makes drinks, they quickly become chatty. So I've decided to record my more memorable bar talks, and I'm only sorry I hadn't started earlier because I've already forgotten some great talks.

Yesterday at the bar, I found myself in the company of one 30 something tax attorney (yikes) and a married couple in their 60s (ish). Their conversation somehow turned to gambling, and it caught my attention. They began talking about how casinos prey on the poor addicted souls who just can't help cashing in their paycheck in hopes of somehow hitting the jackpot. So, given that I had just read Sandel's book (which I wish I had kept for the sake of this post) and he had his own opinions on the matter that got me thinking about it myself. Sandel believes, and I agree, that state lotteries unfairly burden the poor and marginalized sectors of society. Rich people don't spend their savings on lottery tickets, generally, because they aren't desperate for financial stability. Also, the more education you have, the less likely (intuitively) you will be to fall prey to the mentality that the lottery really is a realistic way out of poverty. Understanding the odds isn't as simple as it seems, esp without a good education, and if you don't understand the extreme unlikelihood that you will ever hit the jackpot then you are more likely to think you really could win. From a common sense standpoint the lottery is looking pretty grim. Is the state really promoting a program that virtually takes money from the lowest earning members of society and redistributes that money to ease property taxes or fund education? Should the poor really be bearing this burden? Choice or no choice, if the state knowingly runs a lottery where the money is coming primarily from the least advantaged, it is (IMO) culpable of a pretty serious moral wrong.

So what does the literature say? Well I did some research this time (for once), and I wasn't surprised by my findings. The results varied in degree, but overall the sources say that the lottery is, in effect, a regressive income tax. The lower the income, the more burden you shoulder. The percentage of money paid to the lottery versus the percent you earn is lower as you make more money, for various reasons. Education is one reason, and so is the fact that rich people don't need to rely on lotteries to pull them out of poverty. So if it's true that the poor are funding the lottery revenues (and incidentally, so too are minorities, particularly Blacks and Hispanics, according to a Texas study, see below), then the revenues better be pretty damned important. But, of course, they're not, not really. In Wisconsin, according to an audit done on our own state lottery, the funds from the lottery in the fiscal year of 2000-01 had a return of about $67 per household on property taxes (the sole use of our lottery). Who pays property tax? Who is 67 bucks richer? Not the folks who bought the tickets, that's for sure.

Not all of the studies agreed on the extent of the harm done by lotteries. But even the studies that didn't show a huge correlation between education and lottery ticket purchase admitted that if a person had less than a full high school education, then that person's likelihood of buying lottery tickets was inversely related to the amount of years he or she actually completed. Education can even be predictive when you control for income (Miyazaki et al. 1996). Check out this excerpt from a report I found:

"Nevertheless, the fairly consistent finding of regressivity across the five states and numerous time periods suggests that the lottery as an implicit tax may need improvement from a consumer policy perspective. Indeed, it is likely in the best interests of state lottery organizations that they revise the marketing of their products in a manner that decreases regressivity in an effort to avoid regulation of their product due to tax incidence implications. For example, even though it may not prove profitable in the short term, a campaign targeted toward higher-income consumers would likely result in significant changes in a state's lottery tax incidence, thus, avoiding legislation that curbs a particular lottery organization's ability to generate long-term revenue. Alternatively, state policymakers may wish to alter lottery payout structures by decreasing the effective tax rate of lotteries, potentially resulting in a more attractive product for higher-income consumers."**

Mark Thorton, and economist in Auburn, points out (in a rather emotionally charged article) that "Rich people can gamble at much better odds in Las Vegas or over the Internet where the payback is 90% rather than the state lottery’s 50%."

The worst part is that states are increasing advertising and marketing for the games that the lower-income purchasers tend to put more money into (the instant scratch games that have more frequent but lower payouts). Studies show (ask any pysch student) that when you increase reward (or semblance of reward) but at irregular and unpredictable intervals then the person is more likely to repeat the behavior in hopes for the reward. Example, if you give a dog a treat every time he pushes a button four times, he won't push it as much as he will if he doesn't know when it's coming but it comes enough for him to know it sometimes will. I pulled that out of the AP Psych vault, and can't remember who said that, but I remember it. And even if that's wrong, the Wisconsin audit purposefully suggested that the state increase the frequency of prizes for the instant win games because it would bring in more revenues if people saw that some people did win sometimes. And those revenues have been shown to come from the lower income groups even more so than the revenues from the higher payout games.

So I don't like the lottery, not when the state is using it to redistribute income from the poor to the middle-upper income folks. It's not right, and the benefits can't justify it in my mind. Of course the couple at the bar and their conservative lawyer friend protested the lottery because it's a vice that sucks people into a downward spiral, and they may be right, actually they are probably right. But honestly, casinos or other private gambling get-ups don't bother me as much as state run scams. The state should not be taking advantage of people, and it certainly shouldn't use other people's ignorance or financial insecurity to raise funds that just go to the middle and upper class. Interestingly, the lawyer dude told me that although we all agreed that the lottery is bad, he could tell that I am "very liberal" based on my comments about it. I was sort of offended. Why should caring about the poor be limited to liberals? I also hate being labeled, because it traps you into a whole slew of stereotypes. I am not a liberal, and I am not a conservative. But I'm not a centrist either. So take that.

More bar talk to come.


Wisconsin Lottery Audit 2002

The income redistribution effects of Texas state lottery games Source: Public finance review [1091-1421] Price yr:2000 vol:28 iss:1 pg:82

**The tax incidence of lotteries: Evidence from five states Ann Hansen, Anthony D Miyazaki, David E Sprott. The Journal of Consumer Affairs. Madison: Winter 2000. Vol.34, Iss. 2; pg. 182, 22 pgs

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Thoughtcrime: 1984

As you may have guessed from the title, this post is about Orwell's book, 1984. I've just crossed it off my summer reading list, which consists of books that I feel like I should have already read but I haven't yet. Overall impression: I loved it. It really lives up to its legacy as a wonderful, thought provoking, and utterly disturbing piece of literature. It's not one I would read again, precisely because it was entirely to creepy for me, though I guess that's a big part of its charm as well. I feel like it did a good job of grounding my Utopian-like fantasies about what sort of society is actually achievable. Though, to be fair, I plan on reading More's Utopia next for the sake of balance. Seriously though, 1984 is a masterpiece, and I am ill-qualified to say much about it here, though I will venture to share the parts that impressed me the most.

Doublethink: "to know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which canceled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them..."

When this concept is first introduced, I dismissed it. No one could actually, would actually, think that way. Right? To my philosophy trained mind, the worst heresy you can commit is to purposefully ignore logic. But as the book progressed, it occurred to me that its not only the Party members in 1984 who do this sort of thing. We are just as guilty. Honestly, there must be dozens of times when I've knowingly believed two contradictory things and merely refused to reconcile them, all the while telling myself that they are not mutually exclusive. Some out there may think my belief that God and science aren't mutually exclusive would fall under this category, but that's not what I'm think of here (obviously). Consider this two thoughts: 1) I give my life over to God and 2) I must act in my own interest. Both daily thoughts, both require a certain set of actions, both are mutually exclusive. It's entirely too easy to believe them both (at whatever level of consciousness) and never allow yourself to consider that you can't have both. The whole, no one can serve two masters command, is never taken seriously is it? The same sort of thing happens to everyone (albeit with different subjects). So that's a bit frightening. I am willfully illogical on a daily basis. Wonderful.

"Orthodoxy means not thinking --not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness."

Like in the Golden Compass, its a terrible waste when people go through life unconsciousness. We don't even know we do it, but we do. Get up, go to class, try to stay awake, eat, read, watch tv, go to bed, repeat. Not hard to go through the motions. What about stopping to think about why we do what we do, and think about what we should actually be doing, instead of just absently doing it??

"The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two makes four?...If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable --what then?"

1984 seemed to come down pretty hard on idealism, as it should. I know its frustrating to not be able to prove that the computer I am typing on exists in a reality outside of my senses, but let's be serious. I know that makes me a bad philosopher, but I can't believe it. I suppose it could be true, even if what I believe about God is right it could be true, but really? I used to think in class that someone should have punched Berkeley in the face and then asked if he thought her fist was a construction of his sensory experience. But honestly, the book is more condemning of our attempts to water down epistemology. Truth has become so subjective these days, that its not far from the truth promoted in the book. Truth is what we make it, says the party leaders. The past, well that only exists in our memories and records, so again we make that what we want as well. There's even a part where O'Brien (the Kurtz of 1984) convinces the protagonist that if he believes he is levitating, and if the protagonist believes he is levitating, then he is levitating. It's not that idealism is bad, per se, but you see how it can be dangerous. If reality is only what exists in our consciousness, and if the government controls our consciousness, well you understand.

"But if the object was not to stay alive but to stay human, what difference did it ultimately make? They could not alter your feelings; for that matter you could not alter them yourself, even if you wanted to. They could lay bare in the utmost detail everything that you had done or said or thought; but the inner heart, whose workings were mysterious even to yourself, remained impregnable."

Only you can't protect even that, which is precisely why the book creeps me out. If society can break you, emotionally, then you've lost the only true blessing we were ever given. If God wanted mindless zombies, He would have created them. But what if we turn each other into them?? Honestly, we're not far away from that...

"The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power..."

And, Machiavelli has nothing on these guys. At least they're honest? Scary, but I don't think these power-mongers are very different from their real life counterparts...

So what did I learn? Think, think, think. Your humanity depends on it. Your integrity depends on it. Society depends on it. Passively accept nothing, guard your heart, and don't be quick to trust human establishments, of any kind. That's all for now. I promise to have a non-about-a-book-I-just-read post soon...really...

Monday, June 11, 2007

Lessons from the Golden Compass

I just finished reading Philip Pullman's Dark Materials Trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass). I had previously read the Golden Compass back in the 8th grade, and I liked it... but I wasn't much of a fantasy/sci-fi fan at the time. When I started the 2nd book, I just couldn't handle it because it was too out-there for me. It wasn't until my last few years of high school that I discovered my interest in these sorts of novels. A friend of mine introduced me to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I loved it. Then I went out and got the Chronicles of Narnia and read those too (the first book, of which, I had started to read back in 5th grade and didn't like at all... too weird for me... I think I must have been a really boring kid or something, I probably still am). Again, I loved them. Now that I've finished Pullman's books, I can see the similarities between them all. Oxford must be a very inspiring place because it's the home of some wonderful authors. And the great thing about reading all of these books at an older age is that I was able to appreciate the literature in all of it's philosophical (and often theological) glory. Lewis and Tolkien give us stories that evoke the age old struggle of good versus evil, and they make God's role in our world come alive in a whole new way. Pullman, interestingly, takes this same struggle from a whole new perspective. Though Pullman is an atheist, and his story clearly shows this, his books are just as important for Christian readers as those of Lewis and Tolkien. I'm fairly certain that his trilogy wouldn't be allowed in the libraries of many Christian schools, but I'm also fairly certain that shying away from his message would be a mistake.

(I'm trying to write this so as not to spoil it for those who haven't read it yet, but there are somethings I have to include in order to explain why his books were important... so you've been warned.)

Pullman's books focus on the question of consciousness. In the books, consciousness is vital to the survival of the world as we know it, and it's not just about being aware of the world, but it's about being thoughtful, creative, inquisitive, logical, etc. The great tragedy is not physical death, but the death of the mind. Indifference and mindlessness are the great enemies. Loss of one's consciousness is pretty much equivalent to the loss of one's soul (which for some characters in his books, is personified in the form of a daemon --there's actually a really neat connection about how growing up is the time when you settle on your personality, and that's a good thing, unlike in many other books where growing up --loosing innocence-- is bad). The church, interestingly, is afraid of consciousness (real/original/creative thought), and they pretty much associate it with sin. At first, I was kind of offended that the church was the enemy in this sense, but then I realised that Pullman was making a valid point. How often has the church in its history tried to silence dissent? Creativity? Discovery? Not always, of course, but certainly too much. Religious folks of all stripes ought to embrace and utilize their minds! Our reason, our creativity, our imagination, everything -- they are all wonderful gifts from God. Do you think He blessed us with these amazing abilities for us to be afraid of them? Of course not. In fact, I strongly believe that He gave us these specific abilities to be able to find him on our own. He gave us the tools, he gave us the choice, and He left it up to us (with some nudging along the way). Like Milton said, "Sufficient to have stood, free to fall..."

But gifts of the intellect do come at a price. An indifferent individual may not be able to do much good, but they certainly don't do much harm. They just don't do anything, really. On the other hand, someone who is intelligent, clever, and imaginative is in a different boat. She can do enormous good, but she can also do enormous harm. The bigger they are, the harder they fall (couldn't help myself, sorry). After all, what separates Lincoln from Hitler? It's not determination. It's not leadership ability or intelligence (if that was a bad comparison, replace it with a better one). The difference is in the motive; it's in the heart. God gifted both of these individuals, but they had to choose how to use their gifts. So the Church is afraid of what happens when we use our minds for evil, I understand that. But stifling thought prevents the enormous good that can be achieved by cultivating our gifts. So, Christians take heed. Pullman's worry should be ours as well...

Lesson two: the kingdom. What do you usually hear (well-meaning) Christians say about the kingdom of God?? If I can just make it through this life, I'll have a hell'va time when I get to heaven. If I can just hang on, I'll find peace when I die. I'll be rewarded, as soon as I leave this world. What kind of life does this sort of attitude lead to? If you are merely surviving this life, you aren't doing much to improve your (or more importantly, other people's) lot in the present. In other words, you kind of lack a big motivation to make the world a better place. But the Lord's kingdom isn't some far off paradise. It's here. It's now. One of the big lessons I pulled away from Pullman was his insistence that we must start living in the kingdom (republic, for him, more on that below) today. As a matter of fact, I recently heard a sermon about this at church. It was about how the kingdom of God is alive and well in our hearts and in this world, and it is our job to bring this kingdom to everyone else. In God's kingdom, love reigns supreme, and so we should daily live to love, to bring God's kingdom to the world. Don't believe me? Jesus said it too: "Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, 'The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is within (or among) you'" (Luke 17:20-21). I really believe this is the most important lesson for any Christian who reads Pullman. We must start living in the kingdom now! Decide for yourself what this will mean for you in a practical, day-to-day sense. It means different things for everyone. Everyone has a different role in the kingdom, and everyone has a duty to get started right away. Don't know what that means for you? Ask. Seek. Knock. You'll find the answer, as long as you're listening.

Of course there were a few things in Pullman's books that I didn't agree with. The main principle I really disagreed with was the Republic of Heaven. I'll try not to give to much away, but in essence the books show how every conscious being (spirit or physical) is equal. That entails that humans are in no way inferior to God (nor could they be, really, given who God really is in the books... but that's for you to find out when you read it). And I see the appeal of this line of thought. Of course, why should we be lower than Him? Don't we deserve to be on his level? Well, that's kind of how humans have gotten off track with God from the start. Sin isn't about sex and lies (contrary to what you'll often hear Christians getting worked up about today). It's about thinking of yourself first, before God, before anyone, and asserting your own interests. Pride? Isn't that really just a will that wants to be it's own God? In my heart, equality with God is not something I desire (well, I guess I probably do sometimes). That, after all, is our whole problem. We want to be God. We are gods, in our own minds. We want to be superior, to be above him, to be the rulers of our lives. Well, if God really did create us, then our lives are gifts. We are entitled to nothing, but we are blessed with everything. We ought to take the attitude of Jesus when he came down to dwell with us: "Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant" (Philippians 2: 5-7).

Another thing I was disappointed with was that the second two books don't really live up to the first one. The first one was by far my favorite, the second was okay, and the third I really only read to see what would happen. His setup is superb, but the follow through is wanting. It's hard to explain why, but I got the feeling that his wrap up lacked the subtlety and sophistication of the story he began. The ending wasn't quite as thrilling as the "prophecies" foretold, so I guess that must be it. It just seemed too easy, and I just didn't buy it. But perhaps, that just shows that I couldn't accept the whole last half of the epic tale on a faith level, who knows. Even if the last half wasn't so "out-there" I think I would have still been disappointed with the ending. That didn't happen for me when I read Tolkien, but it did somewhat with Lewis. Tolkien got better as the story progressed, and I think I enjoyed Lewis's middle novels better than the first and last ones. But if you disagree, feel free to tell me so.

So go read the books (at least the first one). And do it quickly, because Hollywood is about to bastardize yet another wonderful children's series by again during it into a major blockbuster. Quick tangent: I have a hard time when these sorts of books get made into movies. They are of the variety they are precisely because they are fuel for the imagination. But when movies come out, children go and see the movie first, and then half the fun of reading the books is gone. It's like taking a dagger to the imaginations of a whole generation. Of course, it's sometimes neat to watch the movie after the fact, but I'd give up that pleasure (and sometimes its not, because often they ruin it anyway) if that meant children would be able to read the book and fully exercise their imaginative juices. If you are curious, though, now that I've mentioned it, you can check out more info here. Some big stars will be in it. But don't look at the site if you haven't read the books yet.

**I just found this out about the upcoming film:

Fans of the Philip Pullman novel His Dark Materials have expressed outrage over news that director-screenwriter Chris Weitz (American Pie) has removed references to God and the Catholic church in the movie. Weitz told a website set up by fans of the novel,, that New Line Cinema, the company producing the film, has "expressed worry about the possibility of perceived anti-religiosity." He said that the studio had told him that if the references remained, the project would become "unviable financially." He remarked that he had discussed the matter with Pullman, who had told him that the role of the Authority (God) in his book, could be transformed into "any arbitrary establishment that curtails the freedom of the individual." The religious villains in the film, he said, "may appear in more subtle guises." He added: "you will probably not hear of the 'Church.'" One fan posted a message on the website calling the changes a "blatant cop-out to the Bible Belt of America."

Hollywood studio New Line have banned proposed references to God and the church from new film His Dark Materials. Philip Pullman's screenplay portrays the church as an institution which is experimenting on its congregation in a effort to remove original sin. But the strong religious material terrified New Line bosses, and director Chris Weitz agrees changes were necessary for the scripts big screen incarnation. He says, "They have expressed worry about the possibility of perceived anti-religiosity. "All my best efforts will be directed towards keeping the film as liberating and iconoclastic an experience as I can. But there may be some modification of terms. "I have no desire to change the nature or intentions of the villains of the piece, but they may appear in more subtle guises."

I don't know how I feel about that. But I suppose the message of the books is universal enough that any institution that suppresses original thought could be the 'enemy.' I wouldn't be surprised if the more die-hard Pullman fans get really mad.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Faith and Politics Backlash Among Evangelicals

Do you remember the story about Jesus in the temple when he turned over the money-changers tables because they were making a mockery of God's house? They call that righteous anger. That's anger you get when you see people use God for the wrong reasons. Well let's just say I had a bit of that fire in my heart this morning when I read this article. It's about the Evangelical right-wingers who have pretty much denounced the faith forum I talked about in the last post. Check out the article here. If you go read the article, be sure to read the comments. And Christians in the US wonder why non-believers don't feel loved by God. How could they?? Here are some choice quotes from the report/comments:

"Through carefully crafted questions and the responses -- mostly rehearsed -- of the candidates, the sponsoring group hoped to convince 'who knows who' that issues like world poverty and corporate CEO compensation packages trump the sanctity of human life, the sanctity of marriage and the family, and the public acknowledgement of God," Schenck declared. Schenck said CNN and Sojourners "conspired to create a fictional class of Christians -- so-called 'liberal evangelicals.'"

So apparently I'm ficitional. I suppose I should be more focused on sex-issues even though 1 in 3 children in the US (forgot where I heard that, sorry) live in poverty. Of course, that's exactly what Jesus would have done.

"If the Left can successfully redefine Christians to mean "Good" Christians tolerate and approve of homosexual marriage and abortion, while only "Bad" Christians are intolerant and disapprove, then they will have succeeded in redefining right from wrong, and morality as it has been traditionally known."

Because homosexual marriage and abortion are the most pressing moral issues of today. Much more important than people not having healthcare, not having livable wages, etc. I'd much rather make sure that gay couples can't get married then spend my time/effort making sure that everyone has a roof over thier head and food on the table. Afterall, God cares much more about the sanctity of marriage than, I don't know, keeping people alive and healthy. Wow. At least this person seemed to get it:

"How does Schneck get the ability to determine what is "mainstream values" and what is more important on the Christian agenda? Maybe what is important to him and a few fringe right wing elements is not important to the real mainstream- those of us who think being good citizens, fighting starvation and genocide, standing up for our fellow, less fortunate man, etc. Since when is "protection of traditional marriage" the most important? Who decided this and when, because I didn't get a vote. Don't act as if what a few people think is what all of us Christians think. "

He should probably tell that to this guy:

"Liberal Christian" is just another way of saying "the falling away of the elect". yes, there are denominations which have endorsed and welcomed unrepentant homosexuals. Yes, there are denominations which preach works based theology, preach Rick Warren type prosperity doctrine. They are NOT biblical, not in keeping with the bible but part of the great "falling away of the elect" foretold. they are "religious" however. Dead religion in fact...What is a "progressive christian" anyway? God's word does NOT change and evolve, and is that not what progressive means? Therefore to be a "progressive christian" is to be no christian at all, but one who claims the mantle of Christ without adhering to the Word whenever it suits. Then the liberals and socialists realized that their lack of religious credentials worked against them suddenly they adopted religious coloring."

Well, I left a comment there myself. Not a very nice one. And just so you know, for me, this isn't about me thinking I have it right and they have it wrong. It's just heartbreaking to see God's message perverted like it has been by many Christians, on BOTH sides of the political spectrum. So it looks like I have some extra praying to do.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Politics and Faith

(Warning: I am embarrassingly ignorant in regards to American politics, so take my observations here for what they're worth. I claim no authority on any of the candidates, and what I've written is entirely based on my impressions from the program I watched.)

A couple of nights ago CNN hosted a forum on faith and politics. Jim Wallis, the author of God's Politics: why the Right gets it wrong and the Left doesn't get it, was the organizer of the event. The organization responsible is called Soujouners: Christians for Justice and Peace, and you can find more info about them here. The event was a 'debate' between the three leading Dem candidates. Edwards, Obama, and Clinton were each allotted 15 min to answer a series of questions about how their faith guides their "moral compass." The forum wasn't meant for the candidates to show off how religious they are so they could win the evangelical votes, rather it was meant to show how the beliefs they do have will likely affect their decision making as a political leader. If a candidate does have faith in some religious belief system, and if they are genuine believers, then their beliefs will undoubtedly affect how they lead the country. You can read the full transcript of the debate here, though I think it's more beneficial to watch it (Here are the links courtesy of Wilson: part 1 ... 2 ... 3 ... 4 ... 5 ... 6 ... ).

Edwards started off the show, and I think he was very honest about how his beliefs translate into his political policies. For example, he admitted that personally he doesn't believe that gay marriage is right (from a Biblical standpoint), but he also recognizes that his belief about gay marriage can not dictate federal policy on that issue:

"I think there's a difference between my belief system and what the responsibilities of the president of the United States are. It is the reason we have separation of church and state. And there are very good people, including some people that I'm very close to me, my daughter who is sitting in the front row here tonight, feels very differently about this issue. And I have huge respect for those who have a different view about this. So I think we have to be very careful about ensuring that the president of the United States is not using his belief system and imposing that belief system on the rest of the country. ... I think what that means in this case is the substantive rights that go with partnerships, civil unions, for example, and all the subsequent rights that go with that, should be recognized in this country, at least in my judgment, should be recognized. And I think it is not the role of the federal government to tell either faith-based institutions, churches, synagogues, what they should or should not recognize. Nor should the federal government be telling states what they should recognize. "

Because Edwards isn't against awarding those rights to gay couples, he could have lied about his personal beliefs and said that he himself agreed with gay marriage. But he was honest, even though a good deal of Americans don't share his belief. So I thought that was good. More importantly, though, he recognizes that often the moral issues that Christians focus on are not always the most important ones(most urgent anyway). While gay marriage, stem cell research, etc are all very important moral issues, they are are not the only ones that the Christian faith speaks to. Edwards, rightly I think, wants to get at the moral issues that Christians should really be worried about. For example, his big concern is eliminating poverty, a problem that he's been passionate about before he ever became a politician. The problem of poverty is largely ignored by politicians who give lip-service to Christian values. Why? Because helping the poor (and I mean really helping -healthcare, good education, work that pays, whatever is needed for a decent life) is very costly, and they'd hate to give up their own comfort to help those in need. Also, there's a dangerous tendency in Christian thought that says the poor deserve to be poor because somehow they've brought it upon themselves. Well, I think that's horribly mistaken, and I highly doubt Jesus would have told a poor person that they deserve to be poor and they should go bugger off (excuse the language).

After Edwards it was Obama's turn, and I have to admit that I was left completely unsure of how his faith (the substance of which he didn't really explain) specifically relates to his politics. He would answer a question, and I would think: wow, that sounds great. Then I would think on what he said, and I wouldn't be able to determine much substance to his answer. It seemed to be more rhetoric than anything else, though I have to admit that he was the most captivating speaker of the three. But that's not enough in my book. One of his more memorable quotes:

"Now, how do we then realize that faith? How do we make sure that it actually lives, that it's not just something that we talk about? A couple of things that we have to do is to fix our politics, and we have to get beyond what Dr. King called the "either/or mentality" and embrace "the both/and mentality." And our politics have exacerbated this notion of either/or."

I'm not entirely sure what this means, but it sounds wonderful. I think I just want a picture of how he will practically apply this mentality. I'm sure there's a way, and I know he was short on time, but I was hoping for more policy ideas. He did mention something about early childhood education and prison reform, but after that I'm unsure of how he planned on addressing the poverty question (which is what that quote was a response to, in part).

Lastly, we have Clinton. Now I'll be honest, I've always been unsure about this gal, and I don't have a good reason why. I think she is one of those "tough" politicians that Galston talks about, and that makes me uneasy, even if that means she does a better job because of it. But, after this forum, she earned brownie points from me because I felt like she was really honest. They started by stricking a low blow by asking how her faith carried her through her husband's adultery, and she handled that well (but not too well, which made it seem genuine). When asked what she asks God for, she responded:

"Sometimes, it's, you know, obviously praying for discernment, for wisdom, for strength, for courage, praying for my family and my friends, I mean, praying for people whom I don't have any personal connection with..."

Not that I could ever know for sure, but one of things I pray for is that our country's leaders will be going to God in humility and asking for wisdom. My prayer is that they ask for discernment, and that they actually listen to God's answer. If our president is honestly going before God on her knees, then there is hope yet for our country. They also asked her about her thoughts on abortion, and her answer really struck me. She is prochoice and I'm undecided. One thing I do believe, no matter what, is that women should never have to be in a position where they feel like they have to make that sort of choice. No woman should feel like she has no option other than aborting her child. Hillary agrees:

"[I want] abortion [to be] safe, legal, and rare. And, by rare, I mean rare. And it's been a challenge, because the pro-life and the pro- choice communities have not really been willing to find much common ground. And I think that is a great failing on all of our parts, because, for me there are many opportunities to assist young people to make responsible decisions. There is a tremendous educational and public outreach that could be done through churches, through schools, through so much else. But I think it has to be done with an understanding of reaching people where they are today."

It's time the two camps banned together and actually started to help the situation of these women (through prevention, or assistance once they are pregnant). So I think Hillary was right on track with where we need to go from here, and she was certainly right about bridging the divide between the two groups.

So, overall, I enjoyed the show. I think it's important that we don't shy away from talking about faith and politics. If a candidate is a believer, in anything, then it's important for us to know what that is and how that will affect his or her presidency. If we don't talk about these things, who will? I'm also glad that this was a forum for the democratic candidates, because that party is often accused of not defending values. I think the candidates did a good job, but I'm still not really impressed by any of them yet (not radical enough for me? who knows). There will possibly be another forum in the fall for the GOP dudes, which should be interesting. We shall see. If anyone else happened to watch the show, let me know what you thought...