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Category Archives: Worldview and Culture
In our already splintered America, the last thing we needed was something else to divide us, but that is what we got. Solar power has come to our rural neighborhood. Or rather, solar power wants to come to our neighborhood.
Some of us in the neighborhood want solar power and some of us do not. More precisely, some of us want it and some of us want very much not to have it. Signs have appeared up and down our road, most opposing the massive solar farm but others supporting it.
My wife and I take a two-mile walk each morning along our country roads, so we walk by many signs. On a recent walk, I noticed that the signs opposing solar power were all standing where they had been placed, but more than half of the pro-solar signs were lying on the ground. It appeared that there was some mischief at work. Continue reading
Second Time Around Sunday.
First published in the October 19, 2018 issue of Christianity Today.
But why would God want to hide? Is he just waiting to jump from his hiding place in quantum uncertainty and shout, “Surprise!”? Does he want to astonish us by the revelation that he has been here all along, working in our lives and our world, turning evil to good, and making all things serve his incomprehensible purpose?
Perhaps. God, as the Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon once pointed out, loves throwing parties: “Creation is not ultimately about religion, or spirituality, or morality, or reconciliation, or any other solemn subject; it’s about God having a good time and just itching to share it.”
Yet there is more to this than God’s love of a good party
“What Should Christians Do About President Biden?” I hear that question, though perhaps in a less respectful form, regularly. It is more like, “What about Biden?” or “Did you hear what Biden’s done now?”
Most of my friends are Christians who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. In conversations about politics I, who did not vote for either of the major candidates, generally find myself on the outside. I sometimes try to reframe, or perhaps enlarge the frame, of such conversations to include God’s plans for the church and the world and Christian responsibility within those plans.
What is that responsibility? What should Christians do about Biden? The biblical answer is that
they should pray for him. St. Paul urged “that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority…” As the Bible scholar Christopher Wright put it, “Paul commands all kinds of prayers for all kinds of rulers.”
How should we pray for rulers like President Biden? Continue reading
According to the political scientist Eiten Hersh, of Tufts University, “politics is for power.” In his book by the same name, Hersh, who self-identifies as a political liberal, complains that Americans have lost sight of this obvious truth. This is especially true of the left who, in recent years, has engaged in what he describes as “political hobbyism … emoting and arguing and debating, almost all of this from behind screens.”
Whether Hersh is right or not depends, it seems to me, on two things: (1) whether power is a means or a goal and (2) what type of power is being considered.
If in politics the use of power is seen as a means to an end and that end is the common good of a people, then the acquisition of power is not only a legitimate pursuit, but also a necessary one. However, power is dangerous even when it is legitimate. And it is dangerous, in part, because it is addictive.
The American Church, particularly its more conservative wing, has suffered from this addiction. In the 1970s and 1980s, under the leadership of the Reverend Jerry Falwell, Sr., conservative Christians began seeking power in both politics and the media. The Moral Majority flexed its muscle to oust liberals from Congress and “The Teletubbies” from the airwaves.
The power conservative Christians wielded grew. Politicians began courting them.
Sixty-nine commercial spots ran during this year’s Superbowl. Each thirty-second commercial cost two million dollars, which means, if I did the math right, that advertisers spent 138 million dollars to convince us to buy their product during just one television program. One suspects that Pepsi, Anheuser-Bush, Cadillac and others don’t buy into the lingering myth that television content has no lasting effect on viewers.
John Paul II once noted that “Vast sectors of society are confused about what is right and what is wrong and are at the mercy of those with the power to ‘create’ opinion and impose it on others.” I am not sure who the Pope had in mind when he referred to “those with the power to ‘create’ opinion and impose it” but I suspect he was thinking of those in the entertainment industry.
Television and the movies have a bully pulpit in almost every home in America. So what do they teach? For one thing, they teach that religious people are always suspect, usually odd and sometimes dangerous (unless, of course, they are clergy, which almost guarantees them to be dangerous). A recent study conducted by the Parents Television Council found that 25% of the time religious people are portrayed on television, it is in a negative light (22% of such portrayals are positive). But on NBC, the network of West Wing, ER and “Must See TV”, over nine out of ten portrayals of religious people were negative. Apparently someone at NBC is on a mission to warn America that religious people are greedy, mean and, very possibly, sexual predators. Continue reading
This is a true – and sad – story. I do not know the details, but I have become acquainted with the outline. It seems personal to me.
Violence, war, and famine were not happening over there. They were happening here, all around the family and the village. Dangerous men were strongarming them for protection money – money they could not afford to give, money that was needed to buy food.
There was nothing they could do. They scraped what little money they had together and paid them off. By the time the army arrived, it was too late; their tormentors were already gone. Besides that, the soldiers were as bad as the men they were fighting.
After two dreadful growing seasons – most of the people in the village were farmers – poverty was pervasive throughout the region. The farmers had no crops to sell. The village artisans had no one to buy their merchandise. Life in the village had always been difficult, always only one step ahead of indigence; but during the last three years starvation had been nipping their heels.
But word had been spreading through the village and around the region that America was the land of promise, the land of plenty. In America, there is law and order. Its people live in peace. Hard work brings prosperity there, unlike here, where it invites extortion.
It would not be surprising if the words for “mask” in the world’s languages have been used more in the past year than in all recorded history combined. That is impressive, given the length of time masks have been around. In 2018, archeologists discovered a 9,000-year-old Neolithic stone mask in the Middle East. One could argue that the earliest masks, although not face masks, were worn by Adam and Eve when they donned fig leaf coverings and tried to hide from the Lord.
Ancient Egyptians wore masks in religious rituals. They also placed masks on the faces of the dead to protect them on their crossing to the afterlife. In the Far East, masks were worn both for religious ceremonies and for theatrical productions. Classical actors routinely performed in masks, which explains why the ancient Greek word for actor was “hypocrite,” which means, “the one under the mask.”
Masks sometimes serve as identity markers. The mask marked the stage performer as an actor, the shaman as a healer, the chief as an authority. In West Africa, certain masks identified their wearers as intermediaries through whom petitions might be delivered to the dead.
More often, though, masks are worn to hide one’s identity. In ancient religious ceremonies, masks sometimes hid the wearer from malicious spirits. Historically, judges in many cultures have donned masks to protect themselves from reprisal from both friends and enemies of the accused. Today, companies are working to design “masks” that hide people’s identity from facial recognition software.
I write this on the day that Joe Biden was sworn into office as the 46th president of the United States. I thought President Biden’s inauguration speech was well-written and, at times, dynamically delivered. The theme, to which he returned again and again, was the need for national unity.
A secondary theme, a prerequisite for presidential inauguration speeches, was hope. The president brought those themes together when he called all Americans to unite to fight hopelessness. Picking up the hope theme later in the speech, he promised, in the words of Psalm 30, that though “weeping may endure for a night … joy comes in the morning.” Near the conclusion of the address, he said: “Together we will write an American story of hope…”
Every U.S. president in my lifetime has spoken of hope at his inauguration. This may be because inauguration day is a day of hope in the U.S. or it may be that Americans are naturally a hopeful people. They extend hope like a line of credit, placing it at the incoming president’s disposal.
What is the substance of this hope to which presidents routinely refer? Dwight Eisenhower spoke of it as the hope for the healing of a divided world. George W. Bush called freedom the hope of millions worldwide. Ronald Reagan thought of our hope, indeed “the last, best hope of man on earth,” in terms of an “opportunity society” where all of us “will go forward.”
Peace also figures into inauguration day hopes. Jimmy Carter hoped for a peaceful world built on international policies rather than on weapons of war. John Kennedy pledged to engage in a “peaceful revolution of hope” to assist “free men and free governments” south of our border.
Peace, justice, prosperity, and freedom form the substance of hope in inaugural speeches, but how to obtain them is far from obvious. Certainly, the united efforts of the American people play a necessary role. But presidents have assumed another dynamic is in play and that assumption is questionable.
That dynamic can be described in a word: progress.
According to Pew Research center, 70 percent of Americans identify as Christian. This includes evangelical protestants, who make up the largest bloc in American Christendom, along with Catholics, mainline protestants, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The next largest religious bloc in Pew’s study is Judaism, which comprises a little less than 2 percent of the population. Then Islam, which makes up less than 1 percent. Some have argued that the second largest bloc, dwarfing both Judaism and Islam, are those who identify as “nothing in particular.” They come in at about 16 percent of the total population.
It is, however, debatable that the “nothing in particular” folks form a religious bloc. It’s like giving an empty space on my bookshelf a catalog number. However, there is another religious group that is much larger and more influential than all those listed above, with the possible exception of Christianity.
Unlike the “nothing in particular” group, this bloc clearly meets the criteria to be considered a religious group, though it is entirely overlooked by Pew and by most sociologists. This group has no official structure or hierarchy, but it invokes a god, possesses a historical narrative (or mythology, as some deem it), and reverences its saints.
This religion has received various labels over the years, but the one that has been around longest, given to it by Rousseau before the American Revolution, is “Civil Religion.” According to the sociologist Robert Bellah, Rousseau outlined the simple dogma of Civil Religion as: “the existence of God, the life to come, the reward of virtue and the punishment of vice, and the exclusion of religious intolerance.”