Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Chameleons, Hostas, and Abuse at UVA


I knew he was living in there.

At least one gecko.  Or, at least to us Texans, he's a gecko.  One of those lizard-type chameleon things whose skin can turn from bright green to dark gray, depending on the color of their surrounding environment.  Technically, their scientifically supposed to be called anoles, and they're neither geckos or chameleons.  But here in Texas, we don't usually worry about nit-picky accuracy.

Just ask Ted Cruz.

Okay, that was a cheap shot.

At any rate, there was at least one little gecko, or anole, or chameleon, who lived in a potted hosta in our backyard.  Whenever I watered the broad-leafed plant with a watering can this summer, the green guy would stick his pointy head out from under a leaf, either confused about it raining when the sun was shining brightly, or to give me a stern scowl about not watering his home often enough.

That was then, of course.  Today, however, we're running full-tilt into the end of November, and we've had several hard freezes already this fall.  That means our hostas have died for the season, and their leaves, once buoyant and as green as a gecko, are now brittle and yellowed, lifelessly draped over the rims of the pots in which they were recently thriving.

So I went out this morning and trimmed off the dead leaves and stems, even though Mom insists that I should leave the dead stuff alone until springtime, so that they can help protect the rest of the plant during the winter.  After all, contrary to what the corporate relocation experts will tell you, our part of Texas can get mighty frigid between November and March.

As I was trimming the yellowed leaves from the biggest pot of hosta, its resident gecko stumbled out from within the thicket of stems on which I was cutting.  At first he looked pretty confused, but he seemed to realize that his home was being chopped up.

At first, I didn't notice it was him - he was exactly the same color of the stems I was cutting:  a pastel hue of very light yellows, very light mint greens, whites, and grays.  Even if this creature isn't a chameleon, his skin certainly had acclimated to the color of his environment, even if that environment had died, and was losing the final strains of vibrant greens from its summery chlorophyll.

He'd gone along with the color scheme around him, and had adjusted his own skin color accordingly.  Even though the colors around him were the result of the plant's hibernation for the season.

I've been told that I think too much, but I thought anyway about the incidental example of my longsuffering anole - gecko friend.  Here he was, going along with the flow, and unwittingly letting himself acclimate to an environment that the thin-skinned little fellow likely wouldn't be able to endure throughout the entire winter.  At least, not if he'd stayed in that pot.  Anoles have their own version of hibernation, but scientists say they usually do so in groups, presumably to preserve body temperature, and they congregate under sturdier things than the thin, dead leaves of perennial plants.

Of course, with all of the anoles we have in our creekside neighborhood, I know that whenever I see one, even if he repeatedly shows up in the same place, chances are pretty good that it's not the same exact one every time.  And maybe this little guy was simply checking up on his summer home since we'd had nice weather this morning.  Perhaps he fully intended to return to wherever he and his fellow anoles are spending this winter's coldest nights.

Nevertheless, I soon found myself contemplating how I sometimes allow myself to acclimate to whatever environment I'm in, whether it's a beneficial environment for me or not.  I work hard to blend in, and ignore warning signs as that environment changes.

And then when winter comes, how often do I feel like I've been left out in the cold!

I'm supposed to be smarter than a gecko, or an anole, or chameleon, or whatever those little critters are.  Sometines, however, it feels like I'm simply better at disguising the ways I'm not.

Meanwhile, our little grayish, mint-green-tinged anole might also represent a way to approach all of the angst currently being expressed over the riveting Rolling Stones article about the culture of sexual dysfunction at the University of Virginia. 

If the accusations are accurate - and by many accounts, they are - is UVA's rampant rape crisis the fault of spoiled rich fraternity brats at one of the South's most yuppified schools?  Is it the fault of administrators who seem desperate to preserve their jobs, and their employer's prestigious image?  Or could it even at least partly be the fault of women who are so eager to win acceptance into the school's flinty cliques that they inadvertently set themselves up for being molested?

The goal of Rolling Stone's article is to help declare nationwide alarm over what appears to be a silent epidemic.  Our society's relentless objectification of women - spurred in part, ironically, by a pop-rock culture Rolling Stone glorifies - plays a key role in the ability of fraternity boys to perpetrate and perpetuate this rape culture, not just at UVA, but at institutions of higher learning across the United States.  Rolling Stone's protagonist had a friend who herself flung herself at men, reveling in their attention, and striving to be part of the insular UVA community.

A community based not just on academic traditions, but sexual ones as well.

Who enters college anymore as a freshman and isn't aware that sex is one of the most favored activities of college students?  Sex, and drinking, and abusing sex, and abusing alcohol.  It's all part of the package these days, isn't it?  At least if you want to be social, popular, and running with the "in" crowd.

Not that the ubiquitousness of sex and alcohol can justify rape.  "No" should still mean no.  But every rape victim is a person for whom the sea changes in our culture away from rape are too late.  Every time a person gets raped, the advocacy on behalf of sexual morality and personal integrity that articles like Rolling Stone's seek to advance proves ineffective, at least to a certain degree.

So what can people do in the meantime to try and avoid being a victim of rape?

They can refuse to be a chameleon.  They can refuse to work at trying to embrace and emulate the culture that apparently has little interest - or incentive - in changing itself.  After all, our potted hosta didn't change its color to match the little gecko's.  The lizard changed itself to match its environment.

Okay, so it's not a perfect analogy, but it still works, right?  Women who are going to college to have sex with the cutest guys they can find will probably succeed.  Women who go to college to obtain an education, however, risk being targeted by the same sexual predators that are preying on willing victims.  Perhaps one of the best ways for these women to reduce their chances of becoming a victim is to flatly refuse the urge to join the broader social culture at universities.  Particularly universities with robust fraternity and sorority programs, where the abuse of alcohol and sex is notorious.

Otherwise, the more they try to mimic their environment, the more risk they're subjecting themselves to.

After all, trying to fit in doesn't always pay.

Remember, the hosta plant of summer isn't the same hosta plant of winter.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What Our Focus Can Reveal, or Change


On what are you focused?

Last night in Ferguson, Missouri, a number of people were focused on their anger:  Anger over what they perceived to be a flawed decision by a grand jury in St. Louis County.  They burned down some local businesses and torched two police cars as they focused.

As if inflicting injustice upon local businesses in a predominantly black city helps resolve any perceived or legitimate racial injustice.

Meanwhile, the writers of a new book about marriage appear to be focused on sex.  In The New 'I Do,' Susan Pease Gadoua and Vicki Larson explore alternatives to what they perceive as the "damaging" effects of conventional monogamy, and advocate for ways polyamory can make couples "brave."

Gadoua and Larson bemoan what they view as our society's provincial view of adultery.  "Society still tends to view non-monogamous relationships negatively," according to an excerpt of their book on HuffingtonPost.com.  "Just look at the language that's used to talk about it.  Those who engage in it are either promiscuous, putting themselves and others at risk of sexually transmitted diseases, or cheaters, with a breakup being the expected outcome once an affair is discovered.  It's all about diseases, betrayal, secrecy, and deception."

Um, don't you suspect there are legitimate reasons for that?

Even within marriages that are unabashedly Biblical in their intentions, the focus can be confusing.  Sharon Hodde Miller, a young doctoral student who's also a pastor's wife, recently complained in a Christianity Today article that the two days per week she put her young son in daycare didn't provide her enough me-time in her busy life.

"I couldn’t finish my dissertation, write [articles], manage our home, tend to my faith, and make every second of my son’s days 'count,' Miller explains.  "I felt trapped, but what were my options?"

Miller goes on to rationalize that her options included more daycare for her son, and that the Bible doesn't directly condemn parents who need outside help in raising their kids.  Which, on the one hand, is true.  Besides, plenty of young couples today live in parts of the world with atrociously high cost-of-living rates, and those costs dictate that both parents need to work outside the home.  That, in and of itself, is not a sin, nor should it be something for which we evangelicals automatically blame parents.

Hey - there's only so much downsizing a family can do in North America.  And if all of the people who live in overpriced communities moved to cheaper parts of the country, what might that do to the cost of living in those parts that, currently, are cheaper places to live?

So, if she was so self-conscious of her decision (that raising her young son was easily fixed by outsourcing), on what else could Miller have focused, aside from evaluating motherhood as being almost as important as her doctoral degree or writing articles for a Christian magazine?  Can't some things be put on hold?  Especially since a child's formative years can't be?  I'm also not sure why motherhood meant that she couldn't "tend to her faith" like she thought she should be doing.  Is her faith merely another compartment of her life that can be managed, like childcare, writing articles, or writing a postgraduate paper?

Those things on which we focus can usually say something about our preferences and priorities, can't they?

The longer I spend with my parents, helping Mom care for Dad, who suffers from senile dementia, the more I'm learning that the more I focus on myself, and my perceptions of our family's reality, the more miserable, fearful, and depressed I become.  We've come to the point on dementia's dreary road that, nearly every day now, there will be an interval during which Dad will forget who Mom and I are.  I find these intervals to be extremely distressing - but not just for myself.  They prove that Dad is slipping away in real time from the bedrock physical relationships he's had for decades.  I see the pain of profound confusion in his face, and I watch as he struggles for comprehension and peace, since he still knows he should recognize his wife and his eldest son.

For years, I've prayed that the Lord would make me less selfish, and He's certainly doing that through this bleak season of my Dad's "golden years."  Proof that God doesn't necessarily answer prayers in ways that we like.

Of course, the cynic would say that I react to books like The New 'I Do' and articles like Miller's because I'm single, and I don't know what intra-marriage struggles and stresses are like.  Besides that, I'm a male, which makes it easier for me to take the patriarchal side of things.

Ferguson's protesters would add that I'm a white male, which means I'm probably part of America's racial problems, instead of a part of the solution.

We all can devise all sorts of defense mechanisms to deflect those things we perceive to be criticisms of our focus.  Most of us have enough stress in our lives already, thank you, without having other people look at our situation with a critical eye.

Yet focus can make all the difference in how we cope with our stress, can't it?  When I focus on what Dad can no longer do, or remember, I can literally worry myself into a miniature panic attack.  When I focus on what I believe about God, His sovereignty, and His care for His people, however, I find that it's easier to let go of Dad's situation.  Psychiatrists might call it "displacement," or "transference," but I believe it's simply the ability of releasing things I can't control and trusting that God does control them, and He will do so for our benefit, and His glory.

Not that it's easy for me to do.  It's not easy for any of us to look at certain situations and be angry or anxious about our inability to change them in our favor.  However, our focus should be on Christ, and the faith His Spirit can give us that is infused with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Right?

Even now, as I type this out, I am struggling to apply the Fruit of the Spirit to my immediate, personal circumstances.  I'm told in God's Word that I should find my hope in Him, but I can't work up, or conjure up, that hope.  It exists, along with God.  Which means I need to rest in Him.  Which means that no matter what events fill my day, and no matter what Dad forgets, I need to focus.

I need to focus on Christ.

We all do, in whatever we face, whether we're willing to or not.


Monday, November 24, 2014

Prelude to Ferguson's Grand Jury Decision


For his sake, I almost hope they indict him.

It's early in the afternoon on this November Monday, and news has already ricocheted across the Internet that the grand jury convened to examine the evidence against Darren Wilson has reached its decision.

A press conference is being set up in St. Louis County for later this afternoon, with the delay buying time not just for members of the grand jury to put some distance between themselves and the media, but also to allow law enforcement agencies throughout the St. Louis region time to brace for whatever civil disobedience might follow the announcement.

If Wilson is no-billed, many pundits expect blacks to protest forcefully against what will be perceived as racial injustice.

Yet if Wilson is indicted for some form of excessive police force, it may be the best scenario not only for Wilson, but for the St. Louis community.

Not that I hope Wilson committed a crime.  An indictment isn't a verdict; it simply means that sufficient evidence exists for a case to be made against the defendant.  And that evidence needs to be put into a legal context.  In the short run, it would mean more agony for Wilson and his family.  Yet in the bigger picture, for him and us, having this whole sordid case play out in a public courtroom for all the world to see might be the only way of diffusing the racial animosity that militant segments of the African-American community have been trying to foment.

Of course, this assumes that Wilson is either genuinely innocent and the evidence presented in court vindicates him, or that Wilson is genuinely guilty of the charges brought against him, a jury finds him guilty, and a suitable punishment is rendered.

If legitimate, objective justice is not done should Wilson be indicted, then we're just delaying the public's acrimony.

Many pundits have mistakenly drawn correlations between Wilson's shooting of Michael Brown and George Zimmerman's shooting of Trayvon Martin.  Nevertheless, despite the many difference between these two tragedies, cooler heads pleaded with the public to let Zimmerman's trial play out in front of us, even though doing so required a type of patience in which angry mobs don't like to indulge.  When Zimmerman was found not guilty, there was anger, but no terrible riots, mostly because everybody had access to the court proceedings.  Even when many of Zimmerman's jurors expressed regrets over their verdict, it remained clear that the case was not as simple as white versus black.

Isn't it just as probable that Wilson's shooting of Brown is more complex than race, too?  Unfortunately, however, it's difficult to sustain the level of angst and resentment necessary to provoke mob violence as a criminal case unfolds in a public courtroom.  If anything, the traditional secrecy of grand jury deliberations may have helped to stoke the suspicions and cynicism of people who want Brown's death to be about race and police brutality.  Even if that evidence is released to the general public immediately after the press conference today, it could be too little too late for people who are too emotional to be rational.

Police unions probably wouldn't want Wilson indicted for anything, and plenty of conservative Americans who believe black activists drag racism into every cop shooting would likely howl in protest, too.  So let's refresh our memories just a bit, even with the ancillary yet disturbing vignette of unprovoked police officers intentionally firing tear gas at a media crew during an early Ferguson demonstration this past summer.  It's no secret that law enforcement agencies across the country have developed a bad reputation of heavy-handedness, especially when it comes to people who are not white-skinned.  The questions that still remain, regardless of the grand jury's decision in Wilson's case, are questions of unnecessary aggression by law enforcement personnel, and the degree to which that aggression is race related.

Should Wilson be indicted, and his case goes to trial, this issue of police aggression would hopefully be central both to Wilson's defense, and to the prosecution.  Which would mean that, hopefully, we could have a cathartic, soul-bearing conversation on this topic both inside the courtroom and out.  If Wilson is no-billed today, then the question goes back into the closet, until the next sensationalistic episode where a white cop shoots to death a black person.

This is why I almost hope Officer Wilson is indicted today.  Even if the truth can sometimes be a bitter pill to swallow.

For everybody involved.


Friday, November 21, 2014

Obama's Deportation Order is a Big Tease


If anybody still doubted that illegal immigrants are a big political pawn, President Obama defeated those doubts last night.

In a predictable public relations stunt at the White House, the President announced his unilateral plan for "protecting" approximately five million illegal immigrants from deportation.  His plan is an executive order, a potentially powerful tool at any president's disposal if they want to stir political pots or navigate around pesky bureaucratic potholes.  But an executive order is not as robust as a law.

He says his plan is legal, humane, and proactive.  He even went so far as to insinuate that it's a legitimate part of "how our democracy works."

But Obama's feigned idealism is no better than the obstinacy of right-wing Republicans whom Democrats say are stalling progress on immigration reform.

Why?

Because Obama's grand gesture last night was performed for an audience of desperate illegal immigrants across the country who likely have a poor grasp on what Obama wants from them.  Obama isn't acting in their best interests - or even in the interests of his fellow Democrats, who will have to face a new order in Washington when Republicans take over the Senate next year.  If Obama really wanted to be an agent for the type of legitimate change he wants to see in America's immigration laws, he would have resisted the temptation to showboat with this executive order.

Genuine, legitimate change in our immigration laws needs to be more comprehensive than any executive order can embrace.  Illegal immigration isn't just about deportations; it's about how people can breach our borders illegally in the first place.  It's about the many reasons why people will break our laws to leave their homeland.  It's about why undocumented workers can find work here.  It's about why American employers will pay below-market wages while they profess allegiance to free market economics.  It's about the inequity of tolerating illegal immigration that's biased towards Hispanics because they have a land bridge to our country, while African and Chinese illegals, for example, do not.

And then, to top it off, genuine, legitimate immigration reform will address how all of these issues are interrelated, and how they affect individual people.  Individual lives.  Lives that shouldn't be treated as pawns.  By their native government, or ours.

Instead, Obama's speech proves that, at least for now, he's acting in his own.  It's his own political life and legacy that he's focused on.  He's licking his wounds from the bruising midterm elections that recently depicted his presidency - not only in the minds of Republicans, but also in the minds of Democrats trying to get re-elected - as impotent, and even incompetent.

Obamacare, the President's signature bit of legislation, is failing on many levels, and is ripe for a massive overhaul when Republicans take control of Capitol Hill.  Practically every bit of the President's foreign policy - what there's been of it - is in tatters, with even Hillary Clinton distancing herself from her tenure in his cabinet.  Race relations across America seem to be worse now than when our first black president took office.  Income inequality is growing, even as the President golfs his heart out and vacations on elitist Martha's Vineyard.

Against this backdrop of disappointment and dysfunction, Obama apparently has decided that little of it is due to his own lack of leadership skills, so maybe he needs to start taking the bull by the horns and setting policy unilaterally.  Even if that policy really isn't policy after all, but pretentious grandstanding to the detriment of real people who can't legally vote in the United States!

Illegal immigrants.

Whatever you think about illegal immigrants, they are real human beings with genuine emotions, aspirations, and expectations.  Shucks, they wouldn't be here illegally if they didn't desire certain things for themselves, would they?  Nevertheless, whether you believe they all need to be deported, or whether you believe we need to grant blanket amnesty to every last one of them, you have to admit that the President pretty much threw them under the bus last night.

Sure, Obama said that the United States will not deport five million people.  He says they'll even be able to work openly.  But can any of those five million illegals rest easily in these promises?  They're not promises, are they?  It's almost guaranteed that Republicans will strenuously work to counteract the President's executive order, perhaps even taking it to court.  Meanwhile, it's been said that during Obama's administration, upwards of 400,000 illegals have been deported each year, which represents a dramatic increase from deportations conducted during George W. Bush's administration.  For as long as Obama's executive order can be considered to be in effect, might he simply be reshuffling his expectations of our border security agencies from focusing on deportations to, perhaps, reassigning personnel and resources to border patrols?

Immigration activists have been hounding Obama's administration for years about all of those deportations, and perhaps this is his way of trying to kill two birds with one stone.

But executive orders are not permanent.  Even though last night's may score Obama some incidental political points, the people he's pretending to help should find no security in what he says.  He cannot assure them of the permanency of their stay here.  Perhaps they won't be deported tomorrow, but what about next summer?  Or after the general election in 2016, when experts suspect a Republican could easily re-take the White House?  How is this any way to plan for the future in one's new homeland?

To illegal immigrants, Obama is simply a big tease.

And that's what's so discouraging about last night's charade.  Republicans have already begun using the President's pontificating to further demonize illegal immigrants, and will probably be able to find some way of eventually neutering just about everything Obama said last night.  The mainstream media refuses to report factually and objectively about this topic, which means confusion will continue to reign among the general public.  That could mean Democrats will embark upon a new legislative season on Capitol Hill even further behind in their platform than they were yesterday afternoon, since they'll have to make up for ground that they lost in the President's impotent executive order.

And who will pay for all of this?  Yes, the American voter will, in terms of lost productivity (!) within our legislature.  But the people who can't vote here legally will be the biggest losers.

Again, it doesn't matter what you think about the broader issue of illegal immigration.  There is no way illegal immigrants -  or, for that matter, legal immigrants and native-born Americans - benefit from what the President did last night.

Once again, illegal immigrants have emerged from this debate as mere pawns in the political petulance and manipulative power plays that have consumed Washington.


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Truth Beyond Cosby 'He Said - She Said'


I really, really, really like Bill Cosby.

He's genuinely funny, he's G-rated, and he's been a stellar advocate for racial harmony.

Well, at least he's G-rated in public. For years, he's been quietly dogged by accusations of sexual impropriety behind the scenes.  In 2005, his lawyers reached an out-of-court settlement with a Pennsylvania woman over her charges of molestation after the police determined there wasn't enough evidence to officially charge the celebrity.

And as celebrities go, Cosby has been one of the biggest.  After earning tens of millions of dollars annually during his smash hit comedy's run on NBC during the 1980's, he reportedly considered buying the network from its parent company, General Electric.  From his TV shows to his Jell-o commercials to his many public appearances, Cosby personified the prototypical father and husband, since his marriages and family lives - both onscreen and off - seemed so stable and robust.  When a son of his in real life was killed in 1997 during a botched robbery, the country was shocked by the reminder that such indiscriminate tragedy can strike even a beloved patriarch like Cosby.

Unfortunately, it's been the alleged tragedies of a premeditated sort that have suddenly blown up in Cosby's face, as a fifth woman has recently come forward with new claims of Cosby as a sexual predator.  A former supermodel says that Cosby drugged and raped her in a hotel room years ago - all of these incidents happened years ago - which fits a pattern of abuse each of Cosby's other accusers have outlined.

Making matters worse for Cosby is that one of his lawyers scoffed at the most recent accuser, contemptuously suggesting that hers represents a desperate grasp for notoriety and relevance as her career fades.

Nor does it help that Cosby's response to all of this current furor has been silence.  Indeed, Cosby's response has been brazen in its timidity.  He's either personally said he doesn't talk about such allegations, or he lets his lawyers say it for him.  And on the one hand, it's an understandable response:  if they're not true, why dignify such sordid accusations with an official response?  On the other hand, if they are true, appearing to take the high road by not talking about them can look equally meritorious to the public.

And speaking of Cosby's public, it currently seems as if most Americans want to give him the benefit of the doubt, and honor our memory of him with deference to his steady insistence that the allegations completely lack merit.

Yet, what if the allegations have merit?

In a way, this is exactly the type of "he said - she said" dilemma that makes many allegations of sexual misconduct extremely difficult to investigate, let alone prosecute.  Compounding this dilemma is the fact that Cosby has been a Hollywood star since the 1960's, and a black one at that, which makes him quite rare when it comes to America's celebrity universe.  One of his accusers has publicly stated that Cosby is an "untouchable," and that's why she never went public earlier with her story.  It's only now, as she sees what may be her final chance at wresting an apology from him, that she's come forward to join the growing chorus against Cosby.

It's hard to see what else these woman could hope to gain from their allegations, except perhaps an apology.  Whatever statutes of limitations there may have been have likely expired, so it's not like Cosby faces any jail time.  He's already reached some sort of financial settlement with one of his accusers, so maybe these other women see this as a chance to get some money out of him before the 77-year-old edges ever closer to death, which would end their money hopes.  But Cosby's passing would also end their hopes of getting a personal apology from him, if indeed, he really did to them what they say he did.

As Cosby and his representatives remain mum on these charges, Hollywood's public relations machine has decided that he's no longer worth the liability.  Upcoming talk show appearances have been cancelled, a new television project with NBC has been scrapped, and his signature series, the Cosby Show, has been pulled indefinitely from cable TV re-runs.  Not because Cosby is guilty, but because the entertainment industry loathes associations with damaged brands.  And Cosby has suddenly become a damaged brand.

Not just from the accusations against him, but his own attempts at ignoring those accusations.

Die-hard Cosby supporters would counter, "well, what else is he supposed to say, other than that they're not true?"

And you know what?  It's hard to come up with anything else to say, isn't it?  We're back to the "he said - she said" dilemma, in which nobody really wins.  Cosby can continue to deny, and lose a few media projects that would have paid him a fraction of what he used to command.  But whether it's fair or not, the aura of suspicion gets thicker with each woman who tells her story.  And the women, for all of the public's sympathies for victims, are treated with suspicion as well, since we don't really know if they're inadvertently making Cosby the actual victim.

Besides, if her story is accurate, what should any female supermodel be expecting - rightly or wrongly - when she's alone in a hotel room with a man?  If something did happen, might she simply be harboring regrets?

Meanwhile, the deeper danger in all of this can be seen in how it affects other victims of sexual abuse.  If an abuse victim doesn't have irrefutable, obvious evidence to back up their claim, the skepticism they may face can make coming forward with an allegation frightfully foreboding.  If the abuser happens to be a highly-regarded or powerful person with far more resources at their disposal - whether in the form of public admiration, money, or influence within the industry employing them, the odds of a victim achieving credibility become even longer.

Whomever is lying when it comes to the Cosby allegations is not only working against their own self, but they're reinforcing the public's weariness in trying to parse the truth out of similar cases, whether they involve international celebrities or not.

The most we can hope for is that the truth comes out sooner rather than later, not just for the benefit of whomever is the victim here, but for all future legitimate victims of sexual abuse.

And perhaps the innocent victims of false accusers, too.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Why Settle for First Things Marriage Pledge?


Is this the answer?

First Things, an evangelical think tank with Roman Catholic sympathies, has come up with the "Marriage Pledge" to try and resolves what appears to be an imminent capitulation by United States courts to gay marriage.

In the Marriage Pledge, ministers who oppose gay marriage can affirm their position and vow to only perform religious marriage ceremonies, with no civil aspect involved.  In other words, the couple married by the minister will be wed before God, but not the state.  The couple will still need to arrange for a marriage license separately.  Currently, most churches help the couple handle this detail in conjunction with the religious ceremony.

At first blush, the idea fits nicely with my own personal idea, in which the Church reclaims marriage altogether, revoking the very term "marriage" from any civil ceremony, and restoring matrimony as not just a religious act, but a distinctly Judeo-Christian one.

Pretty counter-cultural, huh?

With the Marriage Pledge, meanwhile, there is no sweeping, defiant revolution.  There is no judicial advocacy, or vote, or legislation, or any stand of any kind in the public square.  It's simply an online vow by pastors who will no longer sign marriage licenses.

It reads, in part:

"We will no longer serve as agents of the state in marriage.  We will no longer sign government-provided marriage certificates.  We will ask couples to seek civil marriage separately from their church-related vows and blessings.  We will preside only at those weddings that seek to establish a Christian marriage in accord with the principles ­articulated and lived out from the beginning of the Church’s life."

Sounds reasonable, right?  No fuss, no muss, no bitter, drawn-out legal battles.  No Constitutional amendments, no public scenes of anxious piety, and pastors can avoid the whole gay marriage mess and get back to other things.

This way, the church takes care of how the church believes marriage should be viewed, and the government takes care of the parts of marriage that deal with taxes, legal relationships, property, and census statistics.  Separation of church and state, right?  And if the government wants to do the whole equality thing, then so be it.  At least they're not dragging religion into it, and forcing ministers to violate their conscience.

Besides, this is how it's already handled in other countries, gay marriage or not, and evangelicals don't seem to have a problem.  The government does its bit of paperwork, the church does its bit of sacredness, and voilĂ , you're married! 

Of course, even though about 60 ministers have already signed the pledge, deciding to not sign a marriage certificate is something any minister could do with little fuss or fanfare, as long as they advised the couple beforehand.  Maybe some ministers already are, and simply haven't broadcast it.

Which brings up the point being raised by people who have a problem with this Marriage Pledge:  what does it resolve, besides getting conservative pastors out of the politics of marriage?  How does not signing a government-mandated marriage certificate publicly testify to one's belief that God has ordained holy matrimony to be between a man and a woman?  Period?

When I've said that evangelicals should wrest matrimony away from the state, I guess I've envisioned something a bit more public and decisive.  After all, marriage is a public commitment, expects public support, and usually benefits from public incentives, such as deferential tax codes and private property rights.  When I've advocated for the separation of marriage and state, I've kinda assumed that it would involve the government no longer calling the licenses it gives, acknowledging two peoples' marriage, as a "marriage."  It could be called a "civil union," or a "legally-binding contract recognizing the emotional relationship between these two extra-close people."

But the government shouldn't give out marriage certificates.  Seems to me, only a God-honoring minister of the Gospel should be able to do that.  After all, the government has merely joined the church's bandwagon when it comes to acknowledging that marriage and family are the most logical ways of managing a population.  If two gay people want a document from their government saying they have the right to be emotionally attached to each other, then I guess I don't have a huge problem with that.  And if the government wants to give people who've entered into such deeply emotional relationships special privileges when it comes to property ownership, then I guess it would be simply another form of taxation or business relationship.

What First Things' Marriage Pledge seeks to avoid, however, is the brutally honest dilemma that commands the gay marriage debate.  This Marriage Pledge represents a convenient "out" for our society, and neuters the whole idea that Christ's followers have the privilege here in the United States of advocating for God's design of marriage.

Granted, it certainly looks like the battles for the hearts and minds of American voters are nearing their end, with the Supreme Court increasingly siding with gay marriage advocates, and hardly anybody seriously believing a Constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage can win the 38 states necessary for ratification.  And personally, I don't see the tide turning, even though I mourn the loss of our society's understanding of the moral role marriage and family should play in it.

Neither, however, do I believe that this battle over the sanctity of marriage has reached an irrevocable impasse.  I even see a benefit in our dialog over marriage, since the evangelical church's misguided tolerance of divorce has played such a twisted role in undermining the whole "sanctity of marriage" notion.  We've been more flippant about marriage in the church than some gays are who seek to marry people they truly, deeply love.  Indeed, the flaw here isn't in marriage, but in the way we've been treating it.

There are many advocates for gay marriage who labor under the misapprehension that if they can force Christian ministers of the Gospel to officiate at gay weddings, then gay marriage will have become acceptable in the eyes of our whole society.  Some even want gay marriage to represent the idea that God Himself approves of it, and that we can prove it by conducting gay weddings in theologically conservative churches.

For such people, who hope for such things, the Marriage Pledge created by First Things will serve as a wake-up call, and that isn't a bad thing.  So maybe ministers can sign the pledge, or even begin to refuse endorsing civil marriage certificates, but remain committed to the advocacy of heterosexual marriage in the public square.

If this issue is too important to ignore, as signers of the Marriage Pledge likely believe it to be, than it's too important to escape.  Right?

On any number of issues, public opinion may still end up being decidedly against us evangelicals.  But "while there is still day," why settle when it comes to marriage?

Can't we do better?


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Both Shoes Drop Today for Malls

Update 5/9/16:  Both malls are now officially in foreclosure.


This is about as official as it gets.

Today's Dallas Morning News is reporting that two large regional malls here in north Texas will soon "revert to lender" in a grim reality check for America's bricks-and-mortar retail industry.

Can we finally say with all certainty that the era of the Great American Mall is now over?

So long, carpeted hallways and seating areas lined with potted palm trees.  So long, glassy skylights, mirrored escalators, and cheesy Muzak.  Not every mall is going to disappear from the American landscape, of course, but today's news means that the Foot Lockers, Abercrombies, and Spencers' of generic mall-dom are facing a paradigm shift when it comes to staying relevant for consumers.

Malls have been dying and closing all over the United States.  But Dallas is the city that made shopping a sport.  Its most successful enclosed mall, NorthPark, has been a profit machine since it opened in 1965, and is one of the world's most successful even today.  But in all of Dallas, only one other viable mall remains - the Galleria - and the city's suburbs have seen fortunes turn for their malls as well.

Granted, some of those malls were located in places they never should have been to begin with, but others simply couldn't keep up with the frenetic pace of commercial development over the past fifty years in this booming part of the country.

But of all the malls to face the ignominy of falling into receivership, these two particular malls here in north Texas had so much going for them.  Collin Creek Mall opened in 1981 in Plano, and Vista Ridge Mall opened in 1989 in Lewisville.  Both Plano and Lewisville are even more prosperous today than they were back when these malls opened.  Each mall is situated at a crossroads of two major freeways, near major corporate business campuses and desirable residential subdivisions.  Neither Plano nor Lewisville have the poverty, racial discord, crime, and municipal dysfunction that Dallas has, and that could discourage retailers.  Each city boasts a decent mix of races and ethnicities (at least for suburban Texas), reputable public schools, well-paved streets, and robust outlooks for future civic success.

Of the two cities, Plano is the more affluent, since its location closer to north Dallas has enhanced its ability to siphon off a lot of choice spillover from Big D's economic success.  Indeed, Toyota recently announced that it's moving its North American headquarters to Plano, practically confirming the city as the best place in the country to relocate a Fortune 100 company.

Nevertheless, being more of a middle-class city hasn't diminished Lewisville's livability index.  Chase Bank, for example, has been funneling back-office jobs from the Northeast to Lewisville for years.

Any way you look at it, if you're searching for poster children to depict the Lone Star State's economic vitality, both Plano and Lewisville fill the bill.

So what does it say that each city has a mall about to meet the equivalent fate as foreclosure?

In the case of Collin Creek Mall, its owners have not kept their property competitive with newer, more stylish, and more exclusive shopping centers.  The name of the game in retailing is being better than one's competitors, and Collin Creek has languished on its dated laurels for most of its existence.  Luxury shoppers are always on the move to whatever's more prestigious, and Collin Creek seemed to take its demographic for granted.  As Plano has continued to evolve as one of this region's wealthiest cities, it seems as though Collin Creek's owners figured its high-profile, convenient location was all the marketing it needed.

It wasn't.

In the case of Vista Ridge Mall, the plethora of Walmarts and other big-box retailers who all viciously compete for middle-income shopping dollars likely doomed it.  Whereas enclosed, climate-controlled shopping should be a no-brainer in an extreme weather state like Texas, it's hard to beat drive-up shopping and the Internet.  Whereas not keeping itself trendy enough likely crippled Collin Creek's profitability, Vista Ridge's downfall probably represents the more universal scenario for the average mall.  And it's a scenario the retail industry knows all too well by now:  the combination of big-box stores and the Internet is a one-two punch for bricks-and-mortar establishments.

No amount of trendy remodeling and upscale boutiques can save the average mall if shoppers are convinced they save more money in a big-box environment.  And it's hard for any physical store to beat the convenience of shopping online.

So it looks like both shoes have dropped today.  Bleak has now become the default outlook for malls on both the luxury and mainstream sectors of the enclosed regional mall phenomenon.

I remember my first visit to a mall, back in the mid-1970's, in suburban Syracuse, New York.  The mall was built onto the back of a stand-alone Sears department store, and was called Penn-Can Mall.  Even as a kid, I was in awe of its practicality - particularly in snowy Syracuse - and what I thought was its luxury:  It had its very own toy store!  Not just a toy department, like Sears had.

Penn-Can went defunct in the 1990's, mostly due to the collapsing local economy in upstate New York.  What's left of it is now a car dealership.

Considering the prime real estate upon which both Collin Creek and Vista Ridge malls sit, if they do end up closing, there will likely be no shortage of options to replace their empty stores and enclosed hallways.

In many ways, the American consumer has already moved on, which is why malls across the country are facing a similar fate.

But at least one mall invention will continue to flourish not only in America, but around the world:  the food court!  You can find food courts today in airports, office buildings, schools, and even megachurches.

Shopping tastes may change, but eating tastes still require a personal, physical, in-your-face experience.

Let's hope nobody ever figures out how to Instagram dinner.


Monday, November 17, 2014

Can Science Deceive on Adam and Eve?


Who were Adam and Eve?

For an increasing number of evangelicals, this is a trick question.

Should it be?

Most evangelicals who read the Biblical account of creation in Genesis literally believe that Adam was the first human being to ever exist in our universe, and that Eve was the first woman to ever exist in our universe.

However, that literal view is considered by many religiously conservative scientists to be merely one of several interpretations of Genesis, and a flawed one at that.  According to conventional science, it would be genetically impossible for the diversity of humanity we have today to have come from two individual hominids.  The more realistic, scientific scenario would be that somehow, some sort of pack of thousands of humans evolved, from which a male and female emerged who, for whatever reason, became the focus of Genesis 2.

According to this analytical view of Adam and Eve, it isn't so much that the two of them actually existed, but that they mark the beginning of God's interaction with His creation on interpersonal emotional and intellectual levels that He'd heretofore been unable to.

Who, then, were Adam and Eve?  It depends on how deeply you subscribe to the increasingly popular academic exercise called "evolutionary creation."  It's an exercise that purports to combine cutting-edge science with rational theology to resolve what has been one of the biggest leaps of faith that the Bible has expected of its readers.  And that leap of faith has been to accept the notion that Adam and Eve really were the first two humans, from whom the billions of people who populate our planet today have descended.

Of course, traditionalists claim it would be heresy to say that the Bible is wrong, and that Adam and Eve were anything other than humanity's literal, original parents.  But the human mind can be incredibly clever, and a group of science advocates who purport to also be evangelical Christians have embarked on one of the most ambitious and well-funded programs to challenge traditional notions of who Adam and Eve were, and indeed, of how our world came into existence.

Their main mechanism for advocacy and promotion is an organization called BioLogos, based in Michigan.  BioLogos holds seminars, provides training to pastors, conducts classes for religious schools, and conducts other initiatives to promote evolutionary creation as a practical way of combining science and faith.  They're tired of having their scientific professions being belittled by non-science-trained theologians and religious zealots who barely survived high school biology.  They say science doesn't contradict scripture, and that when we say it does, we evangelicals are harming our witness to the world's intellectual community.

And they claim they can mix evolution and creation without abandoning the general validity of the Bible, the orthodoxy of the doctrine of original sin, and the theories of evolution that they say make more sense than blind, uneducated, provincial faith.

So, who were Adam and Eve?

According to their blog, there are three basic ways evolutionary creationists can logically interpret the account of Adam and Eve in Genesis.  Each of these options relies heavily on regarding the Bible as a piece of high literature; each also accommodates science; and each manages to avoid directly refuting the Bible:

One option is to view Adam and Eve as a historical pair living among many 10,000 years ago, chosen to represent the rest of humanity before God.  Another option is to view Genesis 2-4 as an allegory in which Adam and Eve symbolize the large group of ancestors who lived 150,000 years ago.  Yet another option is to view Genesis 2-4 as an 'everyman' story, a parable of each person’s individual rejection of God. 

The problem with such hypothesizing, however, is pretty simple:  Isn't the created superseding the deference our Creator has every right to expect from us as we grapple with His creation narrative?  Each of these options is based on the notion that we can pick and choose portions of the Bible that are more convenient to interpret as poetry.

But how do we know God intends for us to read Genesis as allegorical poetry?

This type of rationalizing has been done ever since the books of the Bible began to be written.  Mankind has always presumed for itself the ability to abrogate, ignore, or re-fashion parts of the Bible that pose difficulties for how we'd really like to live, or even how we'd really like to do ministry.

Duhh... this was the very impetus behind original sin, wasn't it?

Meanwhile, wasn't the Bible created to serve as God's testimony to all of His people on this Earth, regardless of when they lived, or where they lived?  We humans may consider some of what he wrote to be ambiguous, or open to certain types of interpretation.  But none of it can be open to new revelation or interpretation that wasn't available to people groups who've had access to it since its first books were written.  Granted, when He came to Earth, Christ did not contradict any of it, although He blew out of the water a number of misconceptions people held about Him.  Still, nothing Christ did during His time on this planet cast into doubt anything that had been written beforehand.  Not even the account of who Adam and Eve were.

So now, just because we have high-tech testing protocols that use sophisticated yet subjective dating patterns for minerals and other chemical compounds, science can now portray a scholarly new way of looking at creation that contradicts what millennia of theological teaching has held?

Have the Jewish and Christian religions been wrong about Genesis since it was written?  Are there other parts of the Bible that treat the first few chapters of Genesis as an allegory, or a parable?  Are there any credible strains of ancient, historic Hebraic or Christian cultures that embraced Adam and Eve as mere caricatures of humanity?

And what does it say about one's belief in Christ that God could use such a strange, illogical path to secure our redemption as sacrificing His own Son, but couldn't have simply commanded this universe into existence?

Or, maybe God could have commanded this universe into existence if He'd wanted to, but it makes for such a big barrier when trying to convert skeptical scientists, that it's best to cut God a little slack and build a more logical, empirical process of Creation so mankind could eventually prove how fascinating God really is?

That's really what evolutionary creation is all about, isn't it?  It's about being unwilling to believe something for which we truly need to have faith.  Not only is traditional creationism a dated notion, it demands an enormous amount of faith.  Creation presents too many challenges to the skeptic, the dogmatic, the inquisitive, the empiricist, the rationalist.  So, even if we can stretch creation's theological boundaries to where it's just barely within Christianity, we still need to make it more intellectually correct, more believable, more plausible, more provable.

Not that there's anything intrinsically wrong with science, or exploration, or inquiry, or curiosity.  Even if the people doing the discovering don't acknowledge God when they learn a new fact about our universe, such discoveries do glorify God, as they continue to prove His sovereignty, creativity, and power.

At what point, however, does evolutionary creation cease to honor God, and seek to honor mankind instead?  At what point does evolutionary creation stop pointing to the Creator, and begin to accommodate the created?

Which better captures God's power and sovereignty, anyway?  That from two individual human beings He personally created, all of humanity could come?  Or that He orchestrated some primordial ecosystem to metastasize and re-create itself over and over until a suitable human-type being eventually emerged?  Some people say it takes greater faith to believe in evolution instead of creation, but that's not exactly the type of endorsement for which evolutionary creationists are striving, is it?

Few of us like to leave our comfort zone.  For traditional evangelicals, it's uncomfortable to contemplate any option than a literal Adam and Eve, with Genesis representing the literal history of our universe.  It's what our great-grandparents were taught, and what even secular Christian culture has been comfortable in tolerating for generations, even as the theory of evolution has been evolving since the 1800's.  For scientists, it must be uncomfortable being unable to look fellow academics in the face and say that you have to take something on raw faith.

Perhaps traditional evangelicals like me are genuinely too uneducated to know all of the empirical challenges to creationism that exist in modern science.  But having an education doesn't necessarily mean that one has learned true facts.

If faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen, does God need evolutionary creation to still be the Creator?

And if He doesn't, why would we?

Friday, November 14, 2014

Ask Yourself: God's Glory, or Whose?


Here it is, folks:

When it comes to spiritual questions, cultural disputes, and how we intend to interpret any passage of the Bible, this is how we should do it:  Interpret everything in the Bible and life itself in deference to God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.  Everything.

Interpret everything in a way that gives glory to the Holy Trinity.

Straight-up, no-holes-barred, every time.  No cultural exceptions, no circumstantial qualifications.  Ask yourself, "who gets the glory?  God, or me, or humankind in general?

It's as simple - and profound - as that.  Isn't it?  Do we each need to be an expert in Hebrew, Greek, or seminary-speak?  Do we need to get some evangelical celebrity or political guru to weigh in with an opinion?  When we read God's Word, and when we consider how to apply it to our daily lives, no matter the subject at hand, won't the right way to act be the way that best glorifies God?

If we're living for God, instead of ourselves, these won't sound like trick questions.

Nevertheless, as I wander around our evangelical subculture and listen to different people say different things about their interpretation of faith, it never ceases to amaze me how we all - every one of us - approach God's Word from some degree of our own, unilateral, personal perspective.  We view the Bible, faith, God, His Son, and how we're to live our lives through a prism of our own preferences, experiences, assumptions, education, and hopes.

Yes, that's part of being human, and of our sin nature, but it's also part of the sanctification process, through which we're supposed to be progressing, not languishing, or regressing.

Unfortunately, we tend to forget that our cultures - even in religion - can work against our sanctification.  We're taught that since God loves us, and created us each as individual people, we have a right to think however we want to think.  We're taught that God expects us to think for ourselves.  The more liberal we are, the more we're taught to value other people, and how they think, and what they think.  The more conservative we are, the more we're taught that other people should think like us.  Which, if you think about it, is as inaccurate an ambition as letting everybody believe whatever works for themselves.  As long as the humanity for which we advocate has a decidedly lateral and horizontal focus, instead of a vertical one, we're probably not honoring God.

At least, we're probably not honoring God as much as we'd like to think we are.

We're in trouble when we consider our opinions to have at least as much weight as God's do.  We forget that we're always interpreting, because humans cannot create truth.  We can only respond to it.  On the other hand, God interprets nothing, since He is the Source of all things.  He is omniscient, omnipresent, and sovereign.  We're not, so we interpret how God's Word applies to various situations in our lives, whether that interpretation is fairly direct, or vague, or apparently not supported by much of anything.

What should matter more should be our desire to honor God in all that we do, endorse, and believe.

Sure, some of us are more accurate than others when it comes to how we believe God is glorified.  As our society has devolved into an "all roads lead to Rome" sort of universalism, however, and narcissism has ossified our ability to critique our own motives, it's easier to fall into a reverse pattern:  evaluating what faith can do for us, rather than acknowledging what God has already done, is doing, and will do.

Both inside and outside the church, for example, we treat issues like gay marriage as if we're entitled to craft a viewpoint based on variables that are relevant to our experiences.  Instead, shouldn't we be viewing everything in light of how each thing - person, experience, fact, ideology, motivation, emotion, reflex, fear - exists as a manifestation of God's revealed word and will?

In other words, we can argue 'till the cows come home about love, relationships, fidelity, marriage, selflessness, covenants, commitment, lifestyles, wants, needs, feelings, romance, and how we think or believe God would want us to act when it comes to gay marriage.

But what do you think honors God about gay marriage?  And what does God say honors Him regarding heterosexual marriage?  God has given us some pretty specific facts regarding marriage, sexuality, covenants, and purity that, in and of themselves, aren't open to as much interpretation as we often like to presume.  We like to believe that we are autonomous actors in His presence.  We've seen how our ideas about things can change over time, as we experience new people, and participate in new relationships.  So surely, God changes, too!  Right?

Well, He doesn't.  He tells us He's unchanging, and that what He said when each book of the Bible was first transcribed is as relevant and factual today as it was then.

Besides, we haven't yet answered the question:  what is it about gay marriage that brings glory to God?  The ability of people to marry each other regardless of gender - how does that bring glory to God?  Is love bigger than God?  Is commitment bigger than God?  Is human sexuality and gender assignment bigger than God?  Is what we want to do bigger than what God wants us to do?

What right do we have to decide whether or not marriage honors God in the first place?  That right comes from God Himself, correct?  What right do we have to decide whether or not gender matters when it comes to marriage?  For that matter, what right do we have to decide that even heterosexual marriages can be terminated simply because one or more spouse has tired of it?

People get divorced because they want to get divorced.  Meanwhile, where does God ever say that divorce honors Him?

Don't we make these conversations much more complicated than God intended them to be?  Of course, conversations about gay marriage aren't complicated to people who don't want to honor God with their view of it.  And they're not complicated to people who deeply desire to honor God with their view of it.  To be frank, the only people for whom conversations like gay marriage are complicated are people who struggle with imposing their own personal sense of superiority upon God, Who will not share His holy superiority with anybody or anything.

Actually, it's probably a good struggle to have, as long as you're willing to realize that, ultimately, you're not in control of your life.  You're not able to change God's view of sexual perversion.  A society can vote to allow gay marriage, but such a vote doesn't change God's will.  But that reality doesn't mean much when we concentrate more on what we want, than on what honors God.

No, living lives that honor God isn't necessarily easy for us, but being purposeful about honoring God shouldn't be a difficult desire for us.  To the degree that it is, that's the degree to which we haven't given Him the Lordship over our lives that He desires - and deserves - to have.

Every child of God's has been bought with a Price.  And that Price is His holy Son, Jesus.  Therefore, we are to honor God with our lives.  We are to live in deference to Him, out of thankfulness for Christ's sacrificial death on our behalf.

If any of us aren't living this way, then perhaps He's not yet our Lord.

And if you find that last sentence particularly offensive, then it's probably because you know He's not. 

Meanwhile, we can never err on the side of God's honor.  But we can certainly err on the side of ours.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Trophy Bathrooms, Manhattan Style


http://432parkavenue.com/residences.html
A bathroom with a view at Midtown Manhattan's brand-new 432 Park Avenue

Trophy bathrooms.

You've heard of trophy wives, right?  And trophy homes?  Well, when it comes to trophy homes, just about every room gets blinged-out and hyper-accessorized.  New rooms also get added, such as media rooms, gift-wrapping rooms, and even miniature religious chapels.

For a long time, however, the most private places of any home - trophy or not - had been kept in the shadows.  These rooms were usually small, and were ferreted away into the bowels of a dwelling, tucked out of sight, with discrete views, if any, and absolutely nothing to celebrate.

Well, not any more!  The inner sanctum of personal - and often undignified - physical maintenance has now become one of the most celebrated rooms in a trophy house.

That humble ceramic-tiled shower with an opaque curtain?  It is now a glass-sheathed, marble-walled "wet room."  The impolite toilet?  It has now been practically re-visioned as a sleek throne.  Instead of being secreted into a corner or closed off by its own louvered door, toilets can now command prime bathroom real estate.

Uninhibited.  Out there.  Brutally honest.  Nothing to hide.  And leaving nothing to the imagination.

Indeed, it's imagination overboard with today's trophy bathrooms.  And the trend isn't just for today's McMansions and upscale exurban tract homes, where bay windows flank sunken bathtubs. 

A few restaurants, bars, hotels, and other commercial establishments have been tinkering with the concept of unconventionally visible public bathrooms for a number of years, but even public bathrooms expect their patrons to remain mostly clothed.

But not so for a number of prime new ultra-luxury residential towers in New York City.

For generations, the New York City residential bathroom has been designed for cramped, discrete utility, and if they had a window, it was tiny, and faced a back alley.  Today, however, privacy is for commoners.  If only the little people pay taxes, Leona Helmsley's infamous quote could be reinterpreted today as being "only the little people have little windows in their bathrooms."

Witness the pictorial essay compiled by the New York Times of some very immodest, very glassy, and very view-filled bathrooms currently being offered in the city's most expensive residential projects.  At what is perhaps the city's newest celebrity tower, 432 Park Avenue, you can purchase a brand-new apartment with at 10' x 10' plate glass window centered in front of your pod-shaped bathtub, and a glass wall hiding very little of your shower space and toilet area.

http://ny.curbed.com/archives/2014/09/16/the_interiors_of_herzog_de_meurons_215_chrystie_revealed.php
From your bath pod, you'll be able to peer down the corner
of 215 Chrystie Street
If such a spectacle isn't enough for you, there's the pod-shaped bathtub - no rectangular tub-and-shower combos at these price points - tucked into the corner of another celebrity building being literally erected with glass corners.  Which, yes, means that you can take your bath practically peering over the corner of your apartment building.

Yet another luxury building in Manhattan is remodeling its bathrooms to have two toilets facing each other behind glass walls.

It's as if exhibitionism has become the next rung on society's elitism ladder.  Talk about conspicuous consumption!  Still, if you've got twenty, forty, or ninety million dollars to spend on an apartment, there's only so much marble and African wood that can be purchased to outfit such skyscraper palaces.  At some point, these apartments have to provide the biggest "wow" factor architects and interior designers can imagine.  And when it comes to "wow" factors, how much better can it get than showcasing Manhattan's dazzling skyline?

Enter Manhattan's take on the trophy bathroom, which outclasses anything you'll find on the ground in suburbia, simply because you need the verticality of these sky mansions to pull off the desired effect.  Like a Realtor quoted in the Times article says, wealthy homebuyers in Manhattan have always wanted a view from their living room; now, they also want a view from their bathroom.  And when it comes to views, Manhattan can certainly deliver.

So what if the bathroom offers some of the best views?  Remember, only the little people would be intimidated by so much glass when they're getting into and out of a bathtub.  Or off of a toilet.

Besides, it's not like these glass bathrooms are going to be on low floors, where the only view will be of other buildings - and their occupants.  It's also not entirely clear how many of these new apartment towers are being constructed with such transparent trophy bathrooms.  It could be that the market for such exhibitionistic elitism is smaller than developers and Realtors say it is.  Then, too, how many of these glass-walled bathrooms are going to have designer shutters over them anyway, after their naked novelty wears off (which will probably happen by the third night in the homeowner's new apartment)?

According to the Times piece, if this is a bona-fide trend, it can actually be considered quite beneficial for the homeowners of these see-through bathrooms:  considering how self-conscious so much visibility could make the people using them, a rise in physical fitness among Manhattan's penthouse population may be forthcoming.  In what other room in your home are you almost always nude, with lighting that accentuates everything you don't want accentuated, and plenty of mirrors so you can't avoid it?

What's more likely, however, is that the type of people purchasing homes with such bathrooms are people who already possess a personal confidence that has either propelled them into pursuing physical fitness.  Or theirs is a personal confidence that says their personal looks don't matter.  What matters to them is being able to own an apartment where one's bathtub can command a view replicating the vantage point of a ship's captain piloting the mighty USS Manhattan down into New York Harbor.  Looking south from high above Manhattan island, its pointy tip makes the borough look like a nautical vessel plying the waters represented by the Hudson and East rivers.

Of course, that ship effect is lost on any north-facing bathroom.  For buildings near Central Park, there's hardly any northward skyline in which to revel, either.  Besides, what happens when other buildings of equal - or greater - height eventually get constructed near these luxury buildings currently under construction?  Hardly anything ever stays the same in Manhattan's skyline.  Will owners of today's crop of trophy bathrooms have to start going to court against future developers who either want to obstruct views - or, perversely, take advantage of them?

Hey - a boom in trophy bathrooms is one thing.  But a boom in high-powered portable telescopes may be forthcoming as well.

Purchased not only by people living in these skyscraper palaces.  But also by folks living within sight of them.


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Plural Universes for a Faith Odyssey


Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name,
by the greatness of His might,
and because He is strong in power
not one is missing.


Ten years and four billion miles.

That's how long it's taken the spacecraft Rosetta to deliver its landing craft, named Philae, to a small comet 300 million miles away from us here on Earth.  Today, history was made as the European Space Agency announced that their Philae had indeed landed on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, a nifty bit of spinning rock and ice that travels at about 85,000 miles per hour.

And it wasn't a direct flight.  Rosetta's epic journey of four billion miles over ten years included multiple looping orbits around the sun.  The next time you wonder why your flight from Houston to Chicago involves a layover in Atlanta, be glad you're not traveling four billion miles to reach your destination a mere 300 million miles away!

Indeed, Philae's landing today marks yet another stunning feat in the annals of human imagination, intelligence, ambition, and tenacity.  The numbers and distances boggle our minds.  Humankind marveled when men walked on the moon - and that was with 1960's technology!  We keep talking of going back to the moon, but since it's already been done, it can sound anti-climactic.

Predictably, most evangelicals will likely smirk at the objective of Rosetta's galactic enterprise, which is to study the molecular composition of Comet 67P and attempt to derive theories for the origins of life on our planet, and indeed, the beginnings of our universe.

Modern science is relentless in its pursuit of defining our beginnings, and while on the one hand, the exploration of our environment stokes an understandable curiosity, most of the people doing the exploring have no interest in correlating what they believe they find with far less sophisticated accounts of our origins that we find in God's Word.

Still, it's fascinating that mankind can develop a machine that can travel four billion miles in a decade.  It makes you wonder why Detroit can't make cars that don't start falling apart when their warranties expire.  What's even more fascinating is that God created all of this that seems so limitless.  This vast expanse of our universe is intriguing both for what we've been able to learn about it, and also for what we don't know about it.  Yet, anyway. 

Even we evangelicals can be in awe of what science discovers, even if the people discovering new facts about our universe read false causal narratives into them.  But how about this:  We believe that the God of the Bible has created everything that exists in our universe.  We commonly say "the universe," as if there's only one.

But what if God has more than one universe out there, somewhere?

I'm not the first person to ask such a question.  In scientific terminology, the concept is called "multiverse" in the singular, while in sci-fi lingo, they're called "parallel universes."  But we don't like to broach this subject much within polite, conventional evangelicalism.  Somehow, it sounds dirty, like we're doubting something about God; or excessively weird, like something in our brain may start leaking out of our ears.

Yet it does not deny God's sovereignty to wonder if there's more that He's created out there, beyond our universe.  In fact, don't we acknowledge God's limitless, boundless sovereignty by allowing that He's powerful enough to have more than one universe going on under His auspices?  If, as some creationists say, our planet is only several thousand years old, that's not a whole lot of time for our timeless, eternal God, is it?  What else might He have been doing before time began?  Or at least, before time began for our universe?

Might God have multiple universes out there, beyond ours?  The Bible teaches us that there is only one God, so there aren't multiple gods somewhere.  Science fiction folks wonder if God has created other things and places in our universe that may or may not support human life, but what about other universes?

Have you ever thought about plural universes?  God is omnipotent and omnipresent, so even though He's sovereign over our universe, being so doesn't deprive Him of a scintilla of effort or attention elsewhere... if there is indeed an elsewhere.  Or if anything is an "effort" for God anyway.

I have to admit:  My brain starts to tingle after contemplating these possibilities for a while.  And His Word is appropriately silent on the parallel universe idea.  Obviously, it's not for us to know what else God may have created for His glory beyond the universe He's given us.  Even though it would all be for His glory.

Besides, there's little practical merit in knowing what may exist beyond our universe.  It's not like we're experts on the universe we've got.

As far as Philae is concerned, initial reports from outer space indicate that its anchors may not have deployed properly.  Scientists say they may be able to repeat the deployment activation to try again, but even if Philae can't maintain its stability on Comet 67P, the landing craft has still provided them with significant information for the future.

Which simply proves that science keeps on learning, even from its mistakes and momentary failures.  I wish I could say the same for myself.

Indeed, God has given you and me particular responsibilities for today, for here, and for His creation in this universe - creation to which we're gaining greater and greater access.

To boldly go where no man has gone before may be intriguing, and even prideful, but to know the God Who created all of where we've been, and wherever we've never been, and may never get to go this side of eternity, is humbling.

Humbling for us here on Earth, and for whomever else may be out there.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

When Christian News Reporting is All Three


Across most of the journalistic firmament, is there any greater validation than being covered by the New York Times?

Not that the Times is the best media enterprise out there.  Or that it is always fair, balanced, or correct.

Yet the Times manages to exude a confident - and yes, urbane - air of authority in most areas of modern civilization, from business to politics to the arts.  Its coverage of international affairs is respected around the globe, if not for its lack of liberal bias, then at least for its breadth and scope.  Few other media organizations have the financial wherewithal and credible pedigree to report on so much and be read by so many influencers of the world's stage.

Meanwhile, for all of its sophisticated prestige, its blatantly liberal bias on key topics such as ecology, abortion, Obamacare, and gay marriage normally makes the Times a pariah for conservatives in general, and evangelicals in particular.  So it was perhaps with a grave level of suspicion that World magazine, a proudly evangelical news concern in the deep South, allowed a Times reporter to interview them in their North Carolina headquarters.

Mark Oppenheimer is a religion writer for the otherwise overtly secular Times, and his beat covers a broad cross-section of faiths and belief systems, with Christianity simply one of many.  And evangelicalism an even narrower subset among the world's religious paths.  Nevertheless, Oppenheimer was drawn to World by its surprisingly accurate track record recently of sniffing out sordid scandals within our evangelical sub-culture.

But what kind of story would he make out of such notoriety for something like the Times?

One always seems to get the impression that whenever anybody at the Times talks about evangelicals, it's with blatant disdain, a few hedonistic chuckles, and a dismissive smirk.

Surprisingly enough, Oppenheimer treats his subject with a fair amount of respect, even if he seems to have himself been somewhat surprised by what he found at World's headquarters.  Considering the types of stories World has helped to break - from Mark Driscoll's misleading PR stunt for a newly-published book, to Dinesh D'Souza's extramarital affair - Oppenheimer could have been excused for expecting to walk into some some sort of National-Enquirer-for-Christians operation.

Oppenheimer still can't resist calling World's reporting "muckraking."

Instead, what he discovers is a bit more complex than that, even if he doesn't know what to make of it.  "Evangelical Protestant journalism is generally more public relations than reporting," he explains.  "World stands out as an exception."

It's almost as if we evangelicals are supposed to keep our dirty laundry in a closet someplace.  When staffers at World learn that something is amiss in our evangelical ghetto, they're supposed to either ignore it, or try to spin something saintly out of it.

Outside of Christianity, such behavior is called enabling.  Within evangelicalism, however, it's mistakenly called being gracious.  Non-judgmental.  Even Christ-like.

But is it Christ-like to subversively purchase thousands of one's own newly-published book to rig the Times' best-seller listing?  Is it Christ-like for a well-known man to attend a religious conference with a woman who is not his wife?  The one, Driscoll's book fraud, was done in secret, because if it were exposed, it would damage his career.  The other, D'Souza's affair, was brazenly public, but he apparently presumed his charisma made him privileged.

Has bringing these stories to light been muckraking on World's part?  Why shade World's reporting of these two men as somehow undesirable?  After all, "muckraking" doesn't have the best of connotations.  Did World's employees have axes to grind?  Were they in pursuit of Driscoll and D'Souza out of some sort of vendetta?  Even Christ called the Jewish leaders of His time on Earth to account for their corruption.  It wasn't like Christ was gossiping then, and neither was World's reporting gossip.  It wasn't slander, it wasn't false, and it wasn't arbitrary.

But yes, it was news.  At least to us evangelicals.  To jaded journalists outside of our subculture, perhaps rigging the Times best-seller list and having an extramarital affair sound like provincial topics, but to people who purportedly believe that the Bible's teachings on morality are inviolable - particularly for our leaders - such stories represent worthy opportunities for journalistic exploration.  The fact that both items became the tip of the iceberg in terms of other problems exposed in each man's career is almost beside the point.

Indeed, World's research simply compounded other missteps by both Driscoll and D'Souza that, together, have significantly tarnished each one's personal reputation.  Driscoll lost his church empire after legions of his subordinates accused him of being a bully, and D'Souza pled guilty to violating election laws, and is currently on probation.  D'Souza has a strong following among non-religious right-wing conservatives, so his notoriety hasn't dulled their attraction to him much, but Driscoll has dropped out of the spotlight, except for a cameo appearance at a pastor's conference at a megachurch in affluent Southlake, Texas.

A lot of Christians blame World magazine for exploiting the problems these two men have had, and even exacerbating those problems by publicizing them.  So, does that mean that evangelicals shouldn't run any sort of news media that isn't a glorified PR mechanism?

Or does it mean that some evangelicals have a problem with hero-worship within our subculture?  Driscoll appears to still command a significant fan base, not just in his hometown of Seattle, but across North America.  And D'Souza has retained his partisan political allies.  Should World have treated these men as untouchables, and refused to draw our attention to warning signs that they're currently not fit leaders for Christ's body?

In his postmortem on Driscoll's sad saga, World's editor, Marvin Olasky, carefully explained why his magazine did not pretend that the saga didn't exist.

"World is a strange creature within the journalistic world," admits Olasky.  "We’re a Christian publication but not a movement organ, so we publicly criticize Christian leaders and organizations when they haven’t responded to the private criticism that always follows abuses of authority... We investigate problems within the redemptive hope that God turns weakness into strength."

A typical knee-jerk reaction to bad news is to blame the messenger.  And if World had been malicious in its intent, biased in its reporting, and taunting in its editorializing, then we'd all have had cause for complaint.  However, reporting bad news is not, in and of itself, bad or wrong.

In fact, the onus is particularly pronounced for Christians when it comes to reporting the news.  Being responsible for conveying accurate information is important enough; being responsible with the reputations of people who claim to be brothers in Christ should make any Christian organization more cautious.

So far, World has not shown itself to be irresponsible.  It's merely been reporting how other public figures within evangelicalism have been.


Monday, November 10, 2014

Praise Teams Under Fire in Worship Wars


Worship wars.

They're the fights that have been going on for decades in North American churches regarding the music style and liturgy format each congregation uses for its corporate worship services.

And yes, every church employs a certain liturgical style, even if that church hates the word "liturgical."  Liturgy simply means the process by which a group's religious beliefs are expressed in a group setting.  Some churches have a very "high" form of liturgy, in which grand displays of religiosity are demonstrated, while most churches these days have a very "low" form of liturgy, in which religion is displayed in an everyday, almost apologetic environment.

It's almost as if they don't want to offend their surrounding culture, or appear to be too different from it. 

Depending on the style of liturgy a church adopts to express itself in corporate worship, a style of music usually follows, according to a prescribed - almost perfunctory - assumption; namely, that high liturgy is done with classical music, and low liturgy is done with contemporary Christian music (CCM).

Increasingly, churches are attempting to "blend" music styles, regardless of their liturgical styles, because our culture's worship wars have taken such a toll on congregants over the years.  They incorporate some "old" songs from an indeterminate period of time, and then some "new" songs, which are usually praise choruses of dubious legitimacy, but which sound appealingly modern and "relevant."

Yet, unfortunately, the old scars from our worship wars haven't ever healed completely, since people continue complaining about the music they encounter in North America's churches.  Sometimes, the complaint will be that a church is stuck in the past, refusing to sing music with which today's generation can relate.  Alternatively, however, pundits are becoming more vocal against the contemporary music being sung in their churches, and led - almost universally these days - by what are called "praise teams."

Praise teams are groups of people who are put on a stage, either in groups, or spaced individually at even distances, who ostensibly lead the congregation in singing songs of worship.  Most praise team members have their own microphone, since they've been chosen because of their musical proficiency - which itself is a relative and subjective assessment.  A lot of times, however, musical proficiency doesn't play a significant factor.  Since most CCM isn't written for four parts (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), there isn't a lot of harmony sung any more in churches.

Not that there's anything sinful with praise team members who can't sing.  At least, who can't sing according to traditional metrics of musical theory.  Plenty of church choirs over the centuries have been comprised of people who couldn't sing, either.  In fact, Christianity's history with bad church choirs helped to usher in our modern era of praise teams.  Praise teams are easier to assemble and manage.  And, just like the choir members who came before them, most people who sing on praise teams genuinely desire to help their fellow congregants worship our Savior.  Which makes it hard to fault their commitment.

At first, when praise teams were a new phenomenon, congregations were told that it would take a while to work out the kinks.  Eventually, praise teams would  prove themselves to be a solid improvement over the choirs they were replacing.  But it's been years now, in most churches with praise teams, and judging by the complaints being voiced on Christian websites these days, not a lot of progress has been made.

Some people say that the microphones used by praise teams amplify a select group of voices to the exclusion of the overall congregation; all anybody hears are the voices of the praise team members.

Some people say that praise team members tend to attract too much attention by the way they dress (or don't dress), or sway to the beat.  Back in the olden days, of course, choirs wore robes, so everybody was covered, and looked pretty much the same.  But today, people think robes are either too old-fashioned, or too sanctimonious.

Some people say that praise teams can't possibly redeem the bad music they're leading the rest of the congregation in singing.  Which, of course, isn't really a praise team's fault.  Nevertheless, when it comes to throwing babies out with the bathwater, blaming praise teams for the bad music they're singing seems to come naturally to us churched folk.

So, the worship wars aren't over, are they?

Now, by way of full disclosure, I must confess that I used to idolize classical corporate worship.  For 15 years, I've attended a large, wealthy church in Dallas whose beautiful sanctuary boasts a magnificent multi-million-dollar pipe organ.  All three of our Sunday morning corporate worship services are organized according to a mid-to-high liturgy featuring deeply reverential classical music.  To top it off, I sing in the chancel choir, and while technically, the music selection is what would be considered "blended," it's a blend of Bach and Getty, not 1950's hymns and CCM.

Nevertheless, God is moving me out of my idolization of classical worship, even though I remain convinced that, all things considered, it's the most appropriate genre of worshipping God in the splendor of His holiness.  Indeed, I believe that it's our concept of "holiness" that has been corrupted over the years, along with, to a lesser degree, our dulled sense of musical tastes.   Today's musical tastes endorse much of what CCM gives us as satisfactory replacements for some of the greatest hymns Christianity has ever known.

Although I'm trying not to be idolatrous, I'm still a bit biased.  Shouldn't we be?

This diminution of holiness and embrace of musical inferiority that many congregations perpetrate has combined to give the modern North American church a crisis in worship.  It's not just a worship war.  It's a crisis Satan has effectively exploited to split up congregations and turn otherwise God-worshipping congregants against each other.

People have said that the worship wars are over, and that traditionalists lost, but I say that this is part of the problem:  in the sense that classical music is "tradition," that makes its use - or rejection - more preference than purpose, doesn't it?  And preference is not necessarily a good justification for much of anything substantive, is it?  Especially when it comes to worshiping our holy Creator God in a corporate service.

Instead, what we need to be asking ourselves is this:  what is the purpose of corporate worship?  Once we answer that question, and answer it Biblically, then we can chat about music styles.  After all, God looks inside of us to see why we choose to worship Him in a particular way.  We may argue that in order to present the Gospel as "relevant" to today's generation, we need to use music today's generation enjoys.  But in doing so, are we concentrating more on preference, or purpose?  By the same token, a wealthy, white church like mine could reason that classical music is what most rich white folk expect in their prestigious churches.  But that's preference over purpose too, isn't it?

This means that praise teams, and the music they most often present, are not, in and of themselves, intrinsically wrong.   They can be deployed badly; but then again, so can classical worship.  Besides, most congregations in the USA today cannot afford the huge pipe organ and extensively-trained musicians that my current church can, and upon which most classical music is dependent to be executed to its fullest.

So where does all this leave us?

Rachel Miller, in her article for the Aquila Report, a Presbyterian-centric website, says this about the continued ruckus over praise teams:

"If the words are true and faithful, if the congregation can sing it and be heard, if the focus is on praising the King of Heaven, let us rejoice and worship and remember to be gracious to others who may not share our worship music style."

What Miller writes, of course, encapsulates many of the reasons people don't like praise teams.  Praise teams, and the CCM they broadly deploy, still seem to miss the mark on a lot of levels.  For a while, being gracious towards advocates of praise teams sounded like a Biblical way of reacting for people averse to the style.  However, haven't we given the style enough time to evolve into something better?  At what point can we stop pretending that the product produced by CCM and praise teams really is really good?  Not based on preference, but on purpose?

Personally, I suspect that if churches simply took the microphones away from praise teams, a lot of the problems would go away.

Amplifying individual voices when a congregation is supposed to be singing together doesn't really set a good tone, either aesthetically, or purposefully.  The whole point of congregational singing is, well, "congregational" singing.

If the amplification of individual voices is thought to be necessary because the instrumentalists accompanying the singers are playing loudly, well... perhaps the instrumentalists are playing too loudly!  If any instrument drowns out congregational singing, whether it's drums, or electric guitar, or a pipe organ, isn't that instrumentalist playing too loudly?  Perhaps taking the microphones from the praise team will force other acoustical measures to be taken so that congregational singing can be enhanced.

Hey - I used to worship our church's pipe organ.  Are you worshipping your praise team's drum set?

Microphones can also encourage - however subconsciously - a performance mindset, both for the singer using it, and the audience viewing and listening...  Did you even flinch at my use of the word "audience" for "congregation" in that sentence?  Let's not forget that any Biblical corporate worship service has only one audience member, and that is God Himself.  All the rest of us are merely participants.

Removing praise team microphones will also likely force whomever is selecting the music to pick songs the congregation can actually sing, instead of merely mumble along with.  I've been in worship services where CCM is used, and watched as congregants chatted amongst each other, or on their cell phones, while the praise team gyrated on a fantastically-lit stage, repeating the same lyrics over and over again.  There was the praise team, and there were people in the auditorium's seating area, but they were disconnected.  At best, what was supposed to be corporate worship was a CCM concert with sing-along bits.

Meanwhile, what is God hearing from all of this?

If all He's hearing is a bunch of squabbling from His people in North America over how we like to sing what we want to sing, then does it really matter if praise teams or chancel choirs are setting the tone?