Friday, April 30, 2010

Pretty Mean Buick

Show and Tell


This week, my eldest nephew bought his first car. And he paid cash.

He's taking driver's ed, and got the opportunity to purchase an old Oldsmobile from a family friend for the princely sum of $1.00. Which means that yes, it needs some work. But it runs, all the basics work, it's got airbags, it's all in one piece, and the interior is in remarkable shape for being a 16-year-old car. But what really counts is that it's a car, and a 16-year-old boy has entered the realm of the driving public.

Which got me thinking about my first car. I didn't buy mine when I was in high school. I did pay cash, but it wasn't no stinkin' dollar. After I graduated, I took the money I'd saved and went to a local used car guy and plunked down $3,500 smackers on an eight-year-old Buick Riviera luxury coupe I'd been eyeing in his lot. It wasn't the car in the photo above; mine had two-tone light blue paint, one of those puffy landau tops in light blue vinyl, and rally wheels.

Under the hood lurked a massive 350 V8 engine, and I used to enjoy freaking out my passengers by waiting until the last possible moment to pull out into traffic... and then flooring it so my Pretty Mean Buick could surge forward at break-neck force.

"Pretty Mean Buick" came from my license plate: PMB-985. Yup, I still remember it.  One of my female friends from high school was coming up with acronyms for everybody's license plates, and that's what stuck for mine.

GM's notoriously unreliable power window switches haunted this car - as oddly, they do my nephew's 1994 Oldsmobile. While my Riviera guzzled gas like crazy, at $0.95 a gallon, the price of gas didn't really faze me. I remember when it finally hit $1 a gallon, and like everybody else, I thought the world was coming to an end. Oh, for the good old days!

About three years after I bought my Buick, I left work at the old Six Flags Mall here in Arlington and walked past an accident scene in the parking lot. It wasn't until I had walked past my Riviera that I realized it was one of the vehicles involved in the crash scene - which didn't make much sense to me at first, since it had been parked for several hours!

I remember a police officer walking over to me, and asking me if this was my car. I looked at the horribly crumpled wheel well and door of my car, and realized it was. Apparently, a drunken shopper had gotten into her car - a retired police cruiser with reinforced bumpers - and somehow backed into four other cars, totalling two of them: mine, and a car she pushed mine into. The teenage girl who owned that other car was crying as she saw the damage inflicted by my Pretty Mean Buick, pushed into her little Ford.

When I got the official word that my insurance company would be totalling my first car, I went to the impound lot where it had been sitting and said my goodbye's. Eventually, I had another GM car - oddly enough, an Oldsmobile - with unreliable power windows, but I've never owned another car as classy and powerful as my Riviera.

And with gas costing what it does these days, that's probably just as well.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Arizona's Doing More Harm Than Good

If I had any hair left, I’d be pulling it out right about now.

As you know, the state of Arizona has gone ahead and enacted SB 1070 which proponents say will help support law enforcement’s crime fighting efforts, and opponents say will open the floodgates for racial profiling of Hispanics.

I’ve read the new law, and while I’m no legal expert, it doesn’t seem as noxious as some people claim it to be. Mostly, it bolsters Federal laws regarding illegal aliens and clarifies the obligations local law enforcement organizations have regarding the handling of illegal aliens. It protects police officers who have reason to suspect that a person may be breaking the law by being here illegally. It also prevents people who have been incarcerated and cannot produce valid documentation from simply being released back into society.

In essence, SB 1070 reminds us all that illegal immigration is still a crime, and that law enforcement organizations don’t have the liberty to pick and choose what parts of the law they should enforce. Proponents say they’ve been forced to draft the new law in response to lax immigration law enforcement in Arizona. Opponents say immigration is a federal matter, not a state matter.

Would so many people be throwing a hissy fit over Arizona’s new law if it gave the police broad powers to suspect fundamentalist Arabs of being terrorists? I suspect not. As it is, in Arizona, the racial profiling that might – either intentionally or unintentionally – increase under SB 1070 will most likely disproportionately affect Hispanics, of which Arizona has many of both the legal and illegal varieties.

The Bill's Thorniest Issue

So to me, the question of whether the bill unfairly targets Hispanics is the crux of the issue.

Let’s face it: opponents who fear racial profiling most likely have a point. Hispanics appear to be the only target of this legislation. However, let’s clarify the concept of racial profiling. If a police officer running a speed trap intentionally looks for Hispanics to pull over and demand ID, that is racial profiling. If a police officer running a speed trap simply pulls over any offender, and that driver only speaks Spanish, and can’t produce a valid insurance card or driver’s license, then that officer has not committed racial profiling. The officer is just enforcing the law.

But how often will the former scenario occur in reality? How many cops will aggressively participate in racial profiling with the nation’s civil rights lawyers just waiting to pounce? How many cops will take cover under this new law to round up as many illegals as they can find? These are big unknowns at this point.

To complicate things, many illegal immigration advocates simply want our laws changed to allow illegal Hispanics free access to our country and its many welfare programs. They assume their sheer numbers justify their intentions (which brings up another curious point: Why aren’t there as many – and as vociferous – advocates for illegal immigration from Africa, or China?).

Prominent Hispanic activists bristle at the term “illegal immigrant.” They’re not illegal, they posit; most of this border land used to belong to Mexico anyway. What’s wrong with seeking a better life and providing food for one’s family? Isn’t that the story of America? Aren’t all Americans immigrants?

Sure, all of our ancestors were immigrants – even the “Native Americans” who came over the Bearing Strait. And yes, just about all of our ancestors came here looking for something better, whether it was better hunting grounds, better religious freedom, or better political freedom.

But the United States hasn’t been a lawless, non-chartered territory for centuries. Granted, you might not like all of the history that has unfolded in what is now the United States. But as our country has developed and matured, we have realized that in order to preserve the independence we enjoy as citizens and as a sovereign nation, controls need to be in place in order to protect and nurture the vital socioeconomic systems that help make our standard of living better than most other places in the world.

Does that mean we’ve rolled up the welcome mat and immigrants are no longer welcome in America? Of course not: thousands of people from across the globe apply for and legally become citizens of our great nation every year. But they obediently comply with quotas, jump through bureaucratic hoops, and provide the proper justifications for why they should be accepted by our country, just like anybody wanting to relocate to any other country in the world has to do.

Nobody complains about immigration quotas in England, Japan, China, or even Mexico and Guatemala. How many Hondurans would scream indignantly if hundreds of thousands of Americans decided to resettle there illegally?

If economic advancement is the sole justification for allowing people to move here illegally, why should legal Americans have to relinquish our sovereignty just by virtue of our closer proximity to Latin America than, say, Canada or Finland? By all accounts, Central American countries actually encourage migration to the United States because expatriates here can contribute significantly to their own GDP’s. That is, if you accept as valid such a warped justification for encouraging your citizens to break the laws of another country.

Which is the other problem, isn’t it? So many Latin American countries are such banana republics that their own governments are jokes. It’s easier for them to let industrious workers traipse up the continent to rich, spoiled America than to banish corruption, thwart dictatorships, and properly educate their citizenry so that they can enjoy at least a measure of the economic success America has achieved.

But, I digress. We’re talking about Arizona’s new law, right? And how after all I’ve said about how bad illegal immigration is, I need to come out and say that SB 1070 is misguided.

Acts of Frustration Aren't Always Logical

Yep – you heard right. As much as it pains me to say it, and as good as the intentions of the legislation appear to be, the possibility that what Arizona has enacted may in fact create a double-standard between legal Hispanics and other ethnicities and races holds too great a civil liberties risk. SB 1070 hurts the cause it purports to help.

Now, before you tune me out as just another ACLU hack, consider this: One of the great virtues of the United States is that citizens of all races and ethnicities are equal under the law. What do you think the civil rights movement was all about?

How many American Hispanics will be improperly detained or suspected by SB 1070? As American citizens, they have a right to be considered innocent until proven guilty. If whites and blacks were going to be vetted based on their ethnic or racial profile to initially determine their legal status in Arizona, how many of us would be indignant and canceling our conventions in Phoenix?

Just because we know we have a severe problem with illegal immigrants from Latin America doesn’t mean we can accept the inclusion of legal Hispanic Americans into the witch-hunt for illegals. It’s just not morally right.

Of course, it’s not morally right for Hispanic activists to pool legal and illegal Hispanics under the same protectionist umbrella, or allege that SB 1070 proponents are simply anti-immigration (dropping the “illegal” part of immigration). Actually, I’ve read where many legal Hispanic Americans have become as angry with the illegal Hispanics as whites and blacks have. But how much legitimacy will SB 1070 unintentionally give illegal immigration activists if they can prove US citizens are also being targeted by law enforcement?

Let’s face it: the crisis of illegal aliens defies well-meaning legislation like SB 1070:
  • We have many businesses and individuals who like hiring illegals because they’re cheap, exploitable labor.
  • Cheap, exploitable labor distorts the employment market, creating the perception that low-skilled Americans won't work jobs illegal Hispanics will. The deceit in that claim is that American workers know their rights - illegal aliens generally don't. True, we have lazy Americans, but undercutting minimum wage laws only incentivizes employers.
  • We have misguided human rights advocates who view our immigration laws as more of an inconvenience than an economic development tool or even a means to ensure the rights of citizens of a sovereign nation.
  • We have politicians who misinterpret “majority rule” to mean being subservient to whomever squawks the loudest – in this case, the pro-illegal Hispanic communities.
  • We have a legacy of poorly-enforced immigration laws that have allowed these pro-illegal Hispanic communities to swell in size and influence.
  • We have diluted the significance of birthright citizenship by allowing so many illegals to cross the border and give birth.
  • And we now have generations of children born to illegal Hispanics who present heart-tugging conundrums to the deportation of illegal parents of legal children.
Both Democrats and Republicans have contributed to the atrocious complexity of the illegal alien situation; Democrats by waffling on the enforcement of sovereignty laws, and Republicans by profiting from the exploitable labor of illegal workers.

Until we as a nation get serious about border protection, national sovereignty, and the Biblical mandate that a worker is worthy of his hire, laws like Arizona’s SB 1070 will only exacerbate the crisis of illegal immigration. Good efforts at curbing illegal immigration may suffer irreparable harm by the good intentions but bad execution of legislation such as this that cannot strike at the root of the problem.

I want to support it, but I can’t.
PS - In the suburban Dallas town of Farmer's Branch, Texas, the city council is waging it's own small-scale war against illegal aliens by trying to defend its embattled ordinance requiring apartment renters to furnish proof of legal US residency. I support this ordinance in Farmer's Branch because it applies equally to everyone wanting to rent. Proof of legal residency is just one more document you need to provide if you want to rent an apartment. I don't see anything wrong with that.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Why Keep Shielding Wall Street?

Why do you boast of evil, O mighty man? The steadfast love of God endures all the day. Your tongue plots destruction, like a sharp razor, you worker of deceit. You love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking what is right. You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue.

But God will break you down forever; He will snatch and tear you from your tent; He will uproot you from the land of the living. The righteous shall see and fear, and shall laugh at him, saying, “See the man who would not make God his refuge, but trusted in the abundance of his riches and sought refuge in his own destruction!”

But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever. I will thank You forever, because You have done it. I will wait for Your name, for it is good, in the presence of the godly. - Psalm 52

As I was reading this scripture this morning, I had already begun writing today’s essay about the current financial overhaul bill in Congress, and this passage struck me as being particularly apropos to the discussion.

Not that the Republicans necessarily have wrong motives for opposing the current iteration of the Senate’s proposed bill. I tried reading the bill myself online, but at 1,336 pages of political mumbo-jumbo, quite frankly, life is too short. So I’ll take their word for it that parts of the bill have legitimately objectionable wording and motives in terms of government over-reach and ineffectiveness.

Indeed, more than one culprit exists for what has been dubbed the “great recession,” and Congress' wrangling over yet another controversial "overhaul," along with its current grilling of Goldman Sachs executives, have overshadowed that fact.

But pro-business factions should tread lightly when it comes to protesting attempts at fixing the current mess we’re in, and preventing another one. Allowing banks to invent products and strive for profitability is one thing; failing to acknowledge that our financial system has lost its ability to police itself is another. And isn’t that really the crux of the matter?

Small-government liaises-fair advocates say that restrictions on businesses inhibit economic growth. But what our banking system has perpetrated across the globe this past decade has more than inhibited economic growth – it has decimated it. Surely Wall Street has provided all the proof its detractors need to champion the need for real reform and stricter oversight.

After all, if the Great Recession hasn’t convinced conservatives that big banks do not act in the best interests of our national economy, what will? A real depression? Is that what they want?

Capitalism Is Good, But Not Perfect

No economic system is perfect, and the people who think that’s a heretical statement need to get a grip. True, capitalism happens to provide some of the most logical and balanced methods, incentives, and rewards for good ideas, hard work, and prudent tenacity. But it also has a big sieve called greed that can suck money away from even the hardest working entrepreneurs and ethical industrialists who happen to be caught on the wrong side of a ledger.

Some conservatives claim that we already have enough laws on the books to make sure that the greedy side of capitalism stays in check. But how can they keep saying that today with a straight face? After banks that took TARP money are once again posting billion-dollar profits? After they participated in mortgage deceit which, in collusion with the greed of homebuyers across the country, ended up imploding most real estate markets? After investors lost billions in the stock market free-fall? After unemployment soared to 10%, with most experts saying many lost jobs are gone forever?

Granted, most of the mortgage mess wouldn’t have happened if would-be homebuyers had stayed within their budgets. But if banks hadn’t decided to scrap some of the most logical indicators of credit-worthiness, even the greediest homebuyer would have been forced to either stay within their means or keep renting a while longer.

Institutional investors, too, who actually went to Wall Street looking for quick profits – which only come with high risk – abandoned most measures of due diligence. Their greed translated into banks stumbling over themselves to satisfy a quick-money market, but which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did the banks first propose the high-risk investments, and the investors took the bait? Or were investors badgering their account reps, screaming for banks to package bad loans to sell to them?

Either way you look at it, nobody acted altruistically. The love of money drove the bus off the cliff.

Should capitalists expect us to live with such recklessness as part of the price we pay for a minimally-regulated financial industry? Can we truly continue to give banks and investment houses the benefit of the doubt that they will act in the best interests of their investors and the overall economy without further government oversight? To what extent can we assume that firms “too big to fail” will take the initiative to police themselves and operate ethically and wisely? Remember the difference between intelligence and wisdom? After all, we’ve seen how some of the most intelligent mathematical wizards in the world have been able to craft intricate financial products, but how wise have they been?

And what about the lowly consumer/worker? That economic entity upon which capitalism theoretically rests? Are we supposed to obediently roll with the punches? Are we supposed to be expendable worker bees, helping companies ramp up and create products and then quietly allowing ourselves to be duped and laid off, while our retirement accounts evaporate before our eyes?

Can everyone in a capitalist system be at the top of the production chain, immune to employment ebbs and flows? Can everyone own a business and stake a claim to greater prosperity? Who is supposed to actually produce what inventors and owners want to produce? If capitalism didn’t have rank-and-file workers to actually produce and manage a company’s product, how could anybody make a profit? Where’s the logic in marginalizing the very people upon whose backs most of the money in our economy is made?

Why is Protecting Consumers Bad Business?

So, about Washington’s renewed interest in more regulations for Wall Street: How is protecting consumers bad for business? Wasn’t it actually some Republicans who accurately revealed the deceitful practices in which Democrat-supported bureaucrats were engaged to market sub-prime mortgages to impoverished minorities? Why can’t conservatives start with that noble call and champion the integrity of the entire financial system?

How has what the banks have been able to do benefited our economy? One of the “experts” I heard recently complained that a lot of jobs could be lost on Wall Street if Washington interferes too much. And after I stopped laughing incredulously, I had to ask myself: as if the great recession hasn’t been bad enough? How many people have already lost their jobs? Jobs that only ever paid a fraction of what most Wall Street executives earn, but added up, have made a bit hit on Middle America’s spending power.

At what point does defending somebody’s ability to immorally make money take priority over the general public’s right to enjoy protections for their money? Conservatives like to say that the role of government is to protect its citizenry, but can’t protection include financial safeguards in addition to military might? Especially if, as some experts suspect, what Wall Street perpetrated on our country wasn’t already illegal?

Abundance of Riches

As the psalmist says, the righteous do not trust in the abundance of riches. Not that Main Streeters who are upset over the financial industry’s haughty misdeeds don’t share some blame in the mess that has visited our economy. But Wall Street has lost the trust many people placed in it, mostly because the AIG’s, Lehman’s, and Goldman Sachs’ of the world trusted in the abundance of their riches.

If they can’t learn to say “no,” won't somebody else have to have to say it for them?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Power Point?

It’s a bad workman who blames his tools, right? When you get bad news, don’t blame the messenger, right? Two classic rules to live by.

Except if you’re in the US military.

Behold, Microsoft’s office workhorse: the much-maligned PowerPoint program. Have you ever sat through a PowerPoint presentation and wondered if all the slick graphics and animations are really only hiding the possibility the presenter has no idea what they’re talking about?

Apparently, our military has been suspecting that for years, and the limits of their patience with PowerPoint seems to have been reached, or so says an article in today’s New York Times.

If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to take a moment and read through this piece by reporter Elizabeth Bumiller, who combines a delightful wit with useful facts to create an engaging bit of insight into that realm known as military intelligence.

Or the lack of it. Which is what our generals want to find out.

Do the Powers That Be Have A Point?

I’ll let the military sort out what they’re going to do – or not do – with the PowerPoint epidemic which appears to be clouding judgment and obscuring reality from command posts to battlefields.

According to Bumiller, generals have begun to fault PowerPoint for mid-level officers spending their days creating .PPT slides instead of studying warfare tactics and planning offensives. Apparently, the fact that Microsoft just sells the product escapes them; if somebody wasn’t ordering reports to be provided in .PPT files, who would have to craft these presentations day after day? How classic of a displacement model is blaming PowerPoint for the military’s increasingly obvious problem of disguising real information with bullet points and blinking arrows?

Bumiller quoted Brigadier General H. R. McMaster as criticizing PowerPoint as “…dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control. Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.” Which, of course, is true.

But if it wasn’t for PowerPoint, generals would be getting their information from another reporting mechanism, which itself would probably be susceptible to the same types of “dumbing-down” overgeneralizations and misleading arrangement of facts by whomever prepared them that generals are griping about now. What did they use before PowerPoint, and if they don’t like it, why can’t they switch to the text-heavy report printouts they say they prefer?

Software As the New Scapegoat

Can PowerPoint be blamed for its increasing inability to accurately quantify and qualify the increasingly complex military situations in Iraq and Afghanistan? Is PowerPoint the reason one general didn’t convey precise instructions to his leaders in the field? Or is PowerPoint the scapegoat for a military increasingly under political and economic pressure to perform in environments which are radically different from any other type of warfare we’ve ever experienced?

If they didn’t have PowerPoint, what other mechanisms would underlings be using to say, “um, well, we really don’t have a grasp on what’s happening right now, but you generals say you want updates every day, so this is the way we’re going to make it look like we learned something in military school.”

What does this controversy have to say about the ability of our military leaders to identify legitimate sources of problems and develop solutions to mitigating processes that contain known flaws?

Hmmm... maybe if we want to win these wars, we should secretly buy and ship PowerPoint programs to the Taliban and al-Qaeda...

Monday, April 26, 2010

On the Value of Creativity - Part Two

I'm sorry, everyone - I'm an hour late... but I hope it's worth the wait!

Have you ever realized our society places a high value on very little? Literally! Standards have fallen to points so low that sometimes, it doesn’t take much to appear extraordinary. Hopefully, my blog doesn’t fall into that category, but if it does, it’s not for lack of trying to help explain away the mechanics of my snap-crackle-pop brain.

Seriously, folks: minimum standards rule our world, don’t they? Sometimes it seems as though people benchmark the status quo and then work backwards from there. The trouble with that approach should be obvious: how often does the status quo represent excellence?

Now, there are some tasks in life where excellence doesn’t really factor into things. For example, when you buy a car, you know that you’re not going to get a hand-crafted Rolls Royce on a Ford budget. You want your Ford to be safe and reliable, and you expect high standards on other basics, but if it doesn’t have a motorized hood ornament or come with your choice of over 100 leather colors, you’re still satisfied in the Ford’s ability to get you from point A to point B in the same amount of time. (Of course, with it’s recent accelerator problems, I guess a Toyota would actually get you there faster…)

Churches, Budgets, and, um, Art...

When it comes to corporate worship, however, how many churches push budgets to try and get the biggest and newest at the expense of the best and the finest? Minimization has taken over the evangelical church world, where congregations may spend thousands on high-tech gadgets but scoff at even a small stained glass window. Part of the mentality comes from Biblical mandates to be prudent with money, and part of it comes from the increasingly bland tastes of our society in general and Christians in particular. For people who claim to have a personal relationship with the Creator of everything, however, how many of us expend a lot of effort trivializing beauty by denying its expression?

Of course, if everybody attending churches would actually tithe, much of this problem probably wouldn’t exist. It’s hard to argue with churches about spending money on fine art when they can barely afford to keep the lights on. To the extent that believers steal from God by not returning to Him a portion of what He’s given them, sin may be robbing people of the opportunities to worship God in the splendor of His holiness through the arts.

So assuming that we are tithing – which, again, is the minimum standard; our offerings are also expected, aren’t they? – can we proceed with the discussion of what art in church looks like? After all, pontificating with platitudes about art and how we should take advantage of it only goes so far, doesn’t it? What does it actually mean? And do you need an income the size of a Wall Street executive’s before you can do something about it?

Remember, I’m not an art purist. If I was, I’d say that art has a place in any church’s budget, whether the light bill is being paid or not. But I’m not sure such a perspective would pass Biblical muster, because we still need to be mindful of the fine line between art for God’s glory and extravagance for our own sake. The Widow’s Mite went to the Lord’s work, of which paintings and statuary comprise only a part, not the whole.

Class, Let's Review

With that being said, let’s remind ourselves of some basics about what makes good art good:
  • Good art makes you think. It focuses your attention on a limited range of ideas, concepts, or doctrines that engage your mind with truth.
  • Every element in good art has a purpose. Whether a great building or a great painting, everything incorporated into the whole has a reason for being there.
  • Regardless of your education or life experience, you can somehow relate to good art.
  • Even if good Biblical art mimics popular culture, it don’t celebrate it. Holiness, or the quality of being set apart, doesn’t necessarily start outside of transitory ideas. Direct copies of popular culture, though, without any discernment as to their legitimacy at ascribing glory to God, probably don’t qualify.
  • If the Biblical art is not entirely about an attribute of God, in which at least one of His characteristics can be identified, then generally, at least one of the fruits of the spirit can be identified in some aspect (love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, meekness, self-control).
  • In good Biblical art, God receives uncompromised glory through its theme, the media used in its creation, and the way it is created.

Three Case Studies

Now, let’s consider some actual examples of evangelical churches who have gone the extra mile and intentionally incorporated fine art into their buildings and ministries. You might be surprised at what I think qualifies!

Case Study: Calvary Baptist Church; New York, NY
Project: Traditional gold leaf gilding
When the congregation remodeled the venerable church's sanctuary in the late 1980’s, they wanted to rejuvenate the tired, gray space and celebrate Calvary's legacy in New York City's arts community. Among other things, they executed a palate of soft hues with dusty pinks and creams with gold accents to brighten the space. But they decided that instead of gold-colored paint for the trimwork and decorative touches, they should go the extra mile and use the real thing.

Through its international missions work, Calvary knew of a Christian couple in Central America who were experts in traditional gold gilding. While this couple received commissions for Catholic churches, most evangelical Protestant churches scoffed at the idea of paying for real gold when speckled paint looked almost the same. However, Calvary decided that the precedent God set for having real gold in His original temple set a standard they wanted to emulate.

They brought the couple to Manhattan to gild the many plaster flowerettes and other embellishments that had been previously stuck onto the otherwise grim sanctuary walls. The result proved indisputably regal and elegant. When the remodeled sanctuary was rededicated, the story of the gold detailing elicited warm appreciation from the congregation who could finally see how this one detail could make such a difference.

Case Study: First Baptist Church; Arlington, TX
Project: Foyer renovation & hand-crafted partition walls
: Here in Arlington, Texas, we’re hardly a hotbed of international art, but like many middle-America communities, wood craftsmanship enjoys a robust level of respect and artisanship.

Two years ago, First Baptist Church renovated its prominent foyer area from a formerly tasteless space into a gloriously inviting entrance to its sanctuary. Not only were aesthetics greatly improved, but First Baptist found a creative solution to nagging problems with the circulation of pedestrian traffic outside the sanctuary. With multiple Sunday morning services, worshippers waiting for the next service and people exiting the previous service were constantly getting tangled up in the unnecessarily narrow foyer.

Granted, that’s not a problem many churches would actually mind having, but First Baptist saw a lot of wasted space along the wide plaza outside of the foyer’s air-conditioned confines. And remember, this is Texas, where morning summertime temperatures can wilt big hair before Sunday School is over.

First Baptist decided to enclose most of their outside entry plaza and install a series of partition walls to help direct pedestrian traffic flow. But instead of plain drywall, a member of the church who is a master craftsman built several wood walls with coffered panels and modified Gothic cornices, all in a deep, lush stain. Exit doors were moved to the sides of the foyer, and glass archways opened up the space to the street, where even at night, the wooden panels are illuminated so passers-by can admire them.

The beauty of the new panels masks their surprisingly effective utilitarianism: church members tell me they actually do work at helping to moderate traffic flow; there’s a lot less congestion in their freshened, elegant foyer; and the sanctuary has a new public face combining efficiency with some old-world extravagance.

Case Study: Park Cities Presbyterian Church (PCA); Dallas, TX
Project: Easter Sunday flowered cross
As I crossed the busy avenue fronting my church after services on Resurrection Sunday, I glanced over to the police officer holding back traffic and out of the corner of my eye, I caught a delightfully unexpected vision. It was this extraordinary cross celebrating the life of Christ and His defeat of death and sin, erected outside the main doorways to our sanctuary. Since like many congregants at Park Cities, I never use those doors, I was unaware that this flowering cross has been a tradition by our children’s ministry for years.

Actually, the police officer directing traffic told me about it as I did a double-take to admire it. He’d been stationed outside our church since the crack of dawn that morning, and he watched as somebody brought out the Styrofoam-and-wire-mesh cross and set it up at the main entrance. Then groups of children came to the front of the church with flowers, and throughout the morning, they pushed their flowers into the Styrofoam or wire mesh, creating this simple yet dazzling sculpture.

How amazing an idea is this?! Wow – even now, looking at the photo, I’m struck with how the colorful flowers – God’s glorious creativity – take the ugly shape of the cross and replace its imagery of sin and death with life and beauty. Set against the gray stonework and sturdy wooden doors of our church, the flowers contrast even more strongly, proclaiming the lavish Resurrection promise literally from the steps of our church.

What an easy, low-cost, and profound way to share a glimpse of the Gospel with the world – or, at least, the Sunday brunchers along Dallas’ Oak Lawn Avenue.

See? Fine art doesn’t need to come from Italy, take years to craft, or requre fundraising. Where it starts is a love for God, an understanding of what He has done for us, and a desire to evangelize – even if it means using gold leaf, a mitre saw, and cut flowers instead of a microphone.

However you tell it, tell it well! That’s what fine art is for.

Photo by Darian Reichert

Friday, April 23, 2010

Raising Praise

Show and Tell

Can you guess the approximate time period when this photo was taken? Was it in the 1940s? The 1980’s? Or sometime within the past several years?

If it wasn’t for the four-color processing, amplification speakers, bright lighting, and air conditioning vents, it probably could have been taken in 1880, couldn’t it? Well, I don’t know if grand pianos were that big yet in 1880 or not… but you get my point, don’t you?

This is not your boomer father’s seeker-sensitive contemporary church, is it? In fact, it’s so non-contemporary that even though this photo was taken about three years ago, there are no JumboTron video boards in the sanctuary. A massive pipe organ had just recently been installed, towering over the chancel area where the choir is standing. And – gasp! – did I just say, “choir”? You mean a North American church still has a relic like that?

You're Invited

Now, before you fear I’m going to launch into a tirade about classical corporate worship versus contemporary worship: relax! You already know my thoughts on that subject.

Instead, I’m actually using this photo to do something I rarely do: advertise. But I’m not making any money on this. I’m advertising our Chancel Choir’s Eastertide Festival Concert this coming Sunday evening. For those of you reading my blog who live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area, I’d like to invite you to attend this special service celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is the cornerstone of our faith.

In case you haven’t already figured it out, this is a photo taken inside the sanctuary at Park Cities Presbyterian Church, near the town of Highland Park and the Dallas neighborhoods of Turtle Creek and Oak Lawn, just north of downtown Dallas. Originally built for the congregation of Highland Baptist Church in the 1930’s, the structure has been remodeled and brought to code by Park Cities Presbyterian, which bought the facility from the Baptists in 1992.

I’ve been attending Park Cities Presbyterian for the past ten years, and have been a member of the choir for the past four. Concerts like this Sunday’s Eastertide Festival represent the philosophy that governs the doctrine and programs of our church: the glorification of God. If you attend the Eastertide concert, you will not be entertained as much as you will be led in Trinitarian worship. That is, the focus will not be on you as an audience member, but on God and, specifically, Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection to save us from our sins.

Sound counter-cultural? Good – because it’s supposed to be!

This Is Intentional Church

The music you will hear has not been selected because of its popularity or ease of singing. It has been chosen because of the way it fits into the overall Easter story, as told in the Bible. Some of it will be contemplative, some of it celebratory, and most of it convicting. Remember, this music isn’t for you as a consumer. It’s to assist you in worshipping God, with Him as really the only audience. Your enjoyment of it will be a nice bonus.

Ahh, yes: enjoying classical music...! For some people, classical music remains an acquired taste. Others have been so indoctrinated by pop culture that masterworks by Bach, Handel, and others can be positively confusing. But for people who can appreciate our need to offer our best to God, you can’t deny that the mathematical structure and exegetical texts in the finest music represent a superlative contrast to simplistic, saccharine sounds and lyrics most closely associated with today’s transitory culture.

Personally, I’ll admit it: I don’t like all of the music we’ll be singing this coming Sunday evening. But I value it all, because even if the tunes don’t appeal to me, they’re of a quality which, in the music world, objectively ranks quite high. And the text of each piece relates crucial doctrines of our faith in ways a lot of ordinary choruses don’t.

Some people may say that’s being elitist. But drawing distinctions between the common and the extraordinary differs little when we're recognizing the deity of God contrasted with His creation.

And the fact that God desires fellowship with His creation and invites us to worship Him, should stir within us a humble desire to recognize who He is, and who we are.

Listen For It

One of the pieces we’re singing Sunday, Chandos Anthem No 9 - O Praise the Lord With One Consent by Handel, requires the choir to soften our voices to silence as we continue to sing one note. If we do it properly, you'll be able to note the imagery of raising our voices in praise to Heaven as we literally sing “to Heaven our voices raise...” But instead of only singing words about it, our voices trail off, evoking the floating of our praises up through the atmosphere to God Himself.

If you come this Sunday, listen for this part. It’ll sound weird at first, but when you realize how appropriately Handel crafted his score, maybe the rest of the music will fit into place for you as well.

After all, good news travels fast - and up!

Park Cities Presbyterian Church Sanctuary at 7pm
at the corner of
Wycliff & Oak Lawn

Thursday, April 22, 2010

On the Value of Creativity - Part One

“What is art, and what are the criteria for determining good art from bad art?”

Well, those are the fundamental questions of the art world, aren’t they? They’re even questions I’ve recently raised here on my blog. Only, Makoto Fujimura wouldn’t take the bait.

Fujimura had been invited by my church, Park Cities Presbyterian, to speak on contemporary evangelical perspectives in the art world as part of our church’s 2010 arts festival. For the past three years, Park Cities Presbyterian has hosted the event as a combination outreach/show for the arts community in Dallas’ trendy Uptown/Oak Lawn/Turtle Creek neighborhoods, where our church is located. People of faith are invited to enter artwork based on a specific theme, prizes are awarded by nationally-recognized Christian art critics, and our church and surrounding community can view and purchase the artwork ranging from photographs to paintings, sculpture, and more.

The question had been asked by a member of the audience, but her intentions in asking it seemed obscure: was she simply an arts amateur with a naïve question? Or, was she trying to hook Fujimura into an unwinnable debate over Christians and culture?

Fujimura smiled politely, with the air of somebody who’s been asked these questions a million times. He explained that his explanation for why he couldn’t answer would take two hours, and since our evening was rapidly drawing to a close, perhaps a better solution might be found by perusing the variety of content on his website.

The audience chuckled softly and gave an appreciative round of applause.

Why Do Christians Generally Dismiss Art?

Indeed, whether the question had actually been voiced or not, it has been one of the elephants in the room since practicality, social conservatism, and pop culture have drained most evangelicals of our historical vibrant interest in the fine arts.

Many evangelicals pride themselves on being boors when it comes to the arts, but whose loss is that?

The very fact that a Bible-believing church sponsors an arts festival in 2010 probably elicits more confusion than enthusiasm from fellow believers. “Why waste your time and energy on stuff like that?” I can hear them asking.

Perhaps the main reason why art receives short shrift by many evangelicals involves the fact that its very definition has proven to be so elusive. North Americans in general, and evangelicals in particular, need things cut and dried, in black and white. Sure, we can get a dictionary definition, but how many of us suspect that there’s far more to art than a rote definition, and we get intimidated by things that seem complex?

Many of us interpret the heady sophistication with which prestigious arts schools prop up their programs as proof that either they’re hiding something significant from us pedestrian arts patrons, or that their dismissive sneers over the more conventional art forms to which many of us more easily relate really means the principles with which they value art are, in reality, as hollow as their modernist works appear. The oblique angles, random squiggles, rude colors, and dissonant sounds are really one big farce, and they know it. Only they’ve built an empire of nuanced relativism to pretend existentialism is beautiful.

Then too, how many evangelicals have ever been encouraged to explore their creative sides? We learn truth from the Psalms but rarely wallow in their poetry and imagery. We bicker over Revelation, but seldom bask in its pageantry and majesty. We marvel at ancient cathedrals, music, and paintings, but scoff at the notion that we need any of those today to express our faith. Besides, it would cost too much!

But at what point to we imperil our ability to appreciate even a fraction of the divinity of our Creator by dismissing the less practical aesthetics of expression? We’ve all heard that art helps us express the creativity that God has implanted in our selves, but how seriously do we apply that truth to how we view Him, His Gospel, and His creation?

Have church budgets become all-consuming? Has being able to acknowledge great art from the past become sufficient reason to ignore artists of today? Has God stopped gifting His children with crafts He once specified for adorning His house? Do we lavish our own dwellings with expensive furnishings at the expense of our churches, which we decorate with plain drywall and fake flowers?

Does the popular notion of deviant artists with their sexual explicitness, screaming noises, and nihilistic themes automatically prejudice us against the possibility that God-honoring art can still be created? During his lecture at Park Cities Presbyterian, Fujimura sadly commented that the mere mention of the word “creativity” can imperil graduate art students at some of the nation’s most prestigious universities. What more proof do we need to hear in evangelical circles that the banner for one of God’s most omnipotent characteristics – His creativity – needs to be carried by somebody in our culture?

Um, that would be us, right?

Nobody denies that controversial art exists, and that the reason it’s controversial usually lies in its penchant for shocking its audience, denying truth, trivializing the sacred, and promoting the profane. Not all modern art has succumbed to the perversity that many evangelicals can easily identify in the publicized works and shows that some contemporary artists have used to make names for themselves. But unfortunately, unless one goes out and looks for it, modern art of intrinsically beneficial quality probably won’t reveal itself effortlessly.

Reclaiming Fine Art Isn't Tricky

So if evangelicals were interested in recapturing the pleasure and perspective of creativity in art, what should we be looking for?

Obviously, Fujimora and others of his expertise would probably be amused at my attempt to clarify the topic, but should it really be as difficult as some people make it? After all, the peasants who worshipped in them didn’t need to be an engineering genius to appreciate the great cathedrals. Common folk were among the first to laud some of the greatest painters our world has ever known. Regardless of the generation, great art has always possessed intrinsic qualities that bespeak the vitality, truth, and pleasures of our Creator.

Art created to inspire glory to God can generally be recognized by the following traits:
  • They make you think. They focus your attention on a limited range of ideas, concepts, or doctrines that engage your mind with truth.
  • Every element has a purpose. Whether a great building or a great painting, everything incorporated into the whole has a reason for being there.
  • Regardless of your education or life experience, you can somehow relate to them.
  • Even if they mimic popular culture, they don’t celebrate it. Holiness, or the quality of being set apart, doesn’t necessarily start outside of transitory ideas. Direct copies of popular culture, though, without any discernment as to their legitimacy at ascribing glory to God, probably don’t qualify.
  • If the piece is not entirely about an attribute of God, in which at least one of His characteristics can be identified, then generally, at least one of the fruits of the spirit can be identified in some aspect (love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, meekness, self-control)
  • God receives uncompromised glory through its theme, the media used in its creation, and the way it is created.

How Much Does It Cost?

One of God’s attributes which Fujimura made a point of explaining deals with His extravagance. His extravagance in grace, yes, but also His extravagance in His love for His people.

Now, obviously, extravagance is a subjective term. What some cultures would consider extravagant others would consider paltry, and much of it depends on a people’s affluence, opportunities, worldview, and access to other resources. Extravagance can also wax and wane based on economic cycles, levels of education, and even a basic commitment to the concept.

To the extent that we can afford it, to what degree should we be extravagant in our relationship with God? Remember the woman with the jar of exclusive perfume? Remember the different ways Mary and Martha spent their time with Christ? We’ve already considered the exacting and opulent design, construction, and furnishings for the Temple.

Extravagance involves some level of sacrifice, right? Not that we can repay God for his sacrifice and gifts to us, but we can demonstrate His prominence in our lives. Through the time, treasures, and talents He gives us, we not only tithe to Him but give Him offerings, and they’re not just offerings of hard currency.

When people find out that the majestic pipe organ at Park Cities Presbyterian cost over two million dollars, most of them fall into the same trap Judas did when Christ’s feet were washed with the expensive perfume. And I have to remind them that Christ ordered His disciples to worship Him first and foremost before being concerned about the poor and needy around us. He also chided Judas for his pretentious righteousness, knowing that he was stealing from God. If you tithe an amount pleasing to the Lord, then maybe you have a right to your opinions on how God’s money is spent. But if you don’t even tithe, then you’ve no place at all in the conversation of extravagance.

I’m not saying that we should all rush over to Fujimura’s gallery in Manhattan and run up the value of his artwork by buying out his collection. I’m not saying that if your church can’t afford a pipe organ that you’re dishonoring God. I’m not saying that all contemporary Christian musicians are writing music that glorifies God, either.

Just as we are discerning in the types of art we accept as valuable, we need to be discerning with it's actual processes and results, and measure them against the deity of Christ.

After all, what is purposed for God's glory is also for our benefit. Fine art shouldn't be something that gets stuffed down your throat - unless it's a splendid, gourmet meal, or your mother's specialty of the house (and if those are one in the same, give me your address so I can join you for dinner sometime!).

Part Two (coming next week): Examples of how art compliments faith

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

They Stole My Mood

Well, here I was, getting ready to discuss the arts from a Christian perspective in light of an interesting lecture I attended last night, when I discovered that my car had been broken into overnight.

So I apologize, but my creative juices just ain't flowin' today! They took - why am I minimizing it? they STOLE - about $130 worth of stuff, like an adaptor and collapsable camp chair in the trunk. They took my eyeglass cleaner, hand sanitizer, and a roll of paper towels, so maybe they're neat freaks, like me? At least they left my prescription sunglasses, which I suppose I should be grateful for.

Funny - being glad the thugs were gracious enough to leave something behind...

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Another Field Trip!

It's time for another field trip away from my blog...

The second of five articles I'm writing for the "Singles in the Church" series for is now live on their site! Please check it out and give me any feedback you may have.

Thank you!

Monday, April 19, 2010

What's In A Title?

If anyone needed proof that some North American Christians have become consumed by humanistic dogma, consider the title of a newly-released book written by Jim Pace, “Should We Fire God?”

Am I the only person who shivers at the audacity and hubris represented by such an imperious and presumptuous title?

Maybe Pace doesn't even realize how dangerous his book's title appears. After all, many evangelicals have had their world view warped by contemporary Christianity's seeker movement which conveys an imballanced perspective on mankind's hierarchy juxtaposed with the Divine. In other words, man-centered ministry has replaced God-centered ministry in so many churches to the point that a title like this was probably inevitable.

First, Some Background

Pace pastors a church near the Virginia Tech campus, and college students comprise a significant percentage of his congregation. After the infamous atrocities committed by deranged shooter Seung-Hui Cho in 2007 at Virginia Tech, Pace quickly became one of the personalities turned to by the media for expert commentary regarding how the university’s faith communities were responding to the crisis.

During the intervening years, Pace has fielded numerous questions of angst, confusion, fear, and disillusionment over the God-factor in this horrible event. Where was God? Why did He allow something like this to happen? Isn’t He supposed to be a God of love and peace?

Without dismissing as irrelevant the honest search for answers after tragedies, while acknowledging that a lot of things that happen to and around us create vivid perplexities we may never resolve, and with a personal conviction that to ask such questions and wrangle with such emotions is neither sinful nor unbiblical, I must qualify all of our anxieties and doubts with God’s own admonishment that we should never mock Him by denying His existence, dismissing His sovereignty, or refuting His love for us.

Why I Have Problems With the Title

Can we ever presume to expect God and His will to be subjected to our finite insight? In how many ways is the title of Pace’s book implausible at best and sacrilegious at worst?

  1. If you are a supervisor and you fire somebody, what are you doing? You are telling a subordinate that their presence in or contribution to your mission is no longer required by you or your organization. You are saying that you can function at least equally well, if not better, without that person.
  2. Can the created tell the Creator that He is no longer a viable entity?
  3. Doesn’t the basic premise of the question indicate a supposition that mortals have the authority to dismiss the presence of God as irrelevant or unnecessary?
  4. What is the point at which mortals can pass judgment on God’s importance and relevance without being heretical?
  5. Can one biblically extrapolate the possibility of broaching the idea that God can be “fired” in any context while still believing in His sovereignty, infallibility, and complete perfection?
  6. How inappropriate is it to entitle a book with a statement that purports to ascribe potential legitimacy to heresy?

"Don't Knock It 'Till You Try It?"

Of course, a popular defense of books is “you can’t critique it without reading it.” And if I were purporting to write a book review, I would agree. But I’m not writing a book review; I’m responding to known facts about the book, and specifically, its title.

When the woefully inaccurate and deceptively myopic “Wild At Heart” by John Eldridge came out in 2001, defenders of the book tried to muffle widespread cries of dissent by asking “did you read the book?” But how silly an argument is that? Do we need to read Playboy to know its content? Do you need to drive a Lexus before deciding whether or not you can afford it? Can evangelicals believe in Jesus Christ without reading the Bible cover to cover?

Even a lot of book reviewers don’t read the entire book they’re reviewing. I believe the standard is the first two chapters and the last chapter, and maybe the first paragraph of the other chapters.

People of discernment can usually determine the validity of something by it’s name or title, what other people of discernment (or lack of it) have already said about it, the way the item is marketed, and what the creators of the item say about it.

That’s what I’ve done with Pace’s book. I’ve checked out his personal website, his church’s website, and read an interview of him on Crosswalk. I’ve also taken what things I know about the character of God and applied all of these things to my evaluation of the book’s title. And I have to confess, the fact that Pace’s book has a forward written by Rick Warren did not prejudice me positively.

From the reviews I’ve read, most of Pace’s material in the book adheres to a fairly standard formula of listing grievances against God and then struggling with hard answers. If it weren’t for the title, perhaps the book would become invisible among the plethora of other Christian angst writings. Pace himself admits that we Americans have a very low tragedy tolerance threshold compared to other cultures around the globe.

Asking Questions Is One Thing...

Now, be as careful here as I’ve tried to be: the fact that many people have been confused with and angry at God because of the perverse and atrocious things He allows to happen in our world does not mean that we sin when we have these reactions and emotions. The fact that Pace has written a book that delves into these deep, dark questions is not the issue.

However, believers are admonished that in our anger, we are not to sin. We are not to deny God His deity. We are to relinquish the control we think we have to Him and rest in His sovereignty.

Does Pace’s title accomplish any of these directives? How does Pace’s professed insight into God’s workings through tragedy manifest itself in the title?

To the extent that the title of a book actually represents its content, does the title “Should We Fire God?” warrant evangelical consideratrion as helpful reading material? Should it raise red flags cautioning against possible misinterpretations of Biblical suffering? Even if "should we fire God?" is a question one of Pace's counseling patients asked, shouldn't he have exercised better judgment than to put it in lights as the book's title?

Or did Pace’s publishers think a more controversial, eye-catching title might sell more books?

For further consideration:

  • Job 38:1-7
  • Job 42:1-6

Friday, April 16, 2010

Bloodworth's Eastwood Shoot-Em-Up

Show and Tell

When you hear artsy-type people saying art expands the mind, do you believe them?

Well, you should. I think they’re correct, because even the awful art I talked about the other day has a way of helping you realize how… um, different other people can be.

But let’s not get mired down with the controversial junk that masquerades as art. This past Saturday, some friends and I went to the annual Main Street Arts Festival in downtown Fort Worth, which I always find to be a mind-expanding experience.

Over the past 25 years, the festival has grown in every way, and prospective artists now need to pass an entrance jury before they can participate. It's become one of the most profitable and prestigious events of its type, featuring the talents of painters, sculptors, woodworkers, glass blowers, jewelers, and other creative types from all over the country, including Maine, New York City, Florida, and California. Prices range from a few dollars for small prints to $30,000 and more for enormous paintings and sculpture.

The weather this year was the best I can remember it being, with clear skies, temperatures in the low 70’s, low humidity, and just the right amount of breeze. The crowds were also thicker than they’ve ever been, and we were sometimes forced just to stand still as the throngs ahead of us choked up in front of a particularly popular art display.

Of which there were many! By far, the biggest crowds were clustered around the kinetic sculptures by Jeffrey Zachmann of Minnesota. My friends and I also found a lot to admire in the graphite drawings by J D Hillberry of Colorado, who spends up to two months on one drawing.

Overwhelming in its diversity as well as its talent, the pool of artwork and artists on display defied a definitive assessment of winners and losers, but perhaps one of the most unique pieces was this enormous painting by Doug Bloodworth of Florida. To give you an idea of the size of this work, consider two of his other paintings below it, dealing with the game of Monopoly and comic books. In “Clint”, Bloodworth painted a larger-than-life Clint Eastwood in a legendary gunslinger pose in the right-hand corner of his canvas. Then, in the vast stretch of canvas remaining, Bloodworth had his wife shoot bullets through the painting. What looks like specks or flecks in the orange and yellow sky are actually where the bullets ripped through the fabric. And the wood behind it.

Now, maybe you know of people who shoot up their artwork all the time. You’ve probably seen cars with the fake-bullet stickers on them (I’ve actually seen a couple of vehicles in Dallas with actual bullet holes in them). But to have something hanging over the sofa in your living room at which the artist’s wife actually shot strikes me as an intriguing conversation piece. Bloodworth's painting detail ain't bad, neither (that's as redneck as I can get).

So what if Bloodworth’s work probably will never grace the hallowed halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or even the exquisite Kimbell here in Fort Worth? My old architecture professors – particularly the one who couldn’t stand Norman Rockwell’s classics – would scoff at Bloodworth’s literalism and pedestrian subject matter.

But I don’t know… Fort Worth’s Modern Art Museum used to have a single, long fluorescent bulb they called art. I felt like telling their board of directors if they thought that was art, I could show them a whole Home Depot full of art just down the street.

I've heard that art is only art when somebody buys it. Does the more something cost mean it’s more art-worthy?

Maybe that's why Bloodworth didn’t provide his asking price for “Clint”.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Prom Nite Blight

Did you go to your prom? You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that I did not. In fact, my small circle of friends in high school almost made a pact that none of us would degrade ourselves by wallowing in such a shallow, melancholy, and pretentious spectacle.

As if all of the sentimentality drenching prom night wasn’t bad enough, there was the incredible expense of wearing uncomfortable clothes to eat hotel food and sweat while jiggling to loud music. Besides, we all knew that most of our classmates considered prom as simply the first course in a night of alcohol-fueled sexual debauchery.


Was our assessment of high school prom night simply a stilted interpretation of negative stereotypes, or was it pretty accurate? If you went to your prom, and you attended a typical suburban high school, you have to admit that even if we were exceptionally cynical, we pretty much were correct, weren’t we? Maybe you didn’t drink, smoke, and have sex on your prom night, but you knew you were in the minority, didn’t you?

The year before I graduated, the son of a prominent local businessman trashed the Holiday Inn across the freeway from our high school’s prom hotel, Dallas’ glitzy Anatole. From what I heard, even some students who didn’t join in the fracas at Holiday Inn got plenty sick from contraband alcohol smuggled into the Anatole’s rarefied hallways and salons. Rumor had it that in response, the Holiday Inn forbid any access to our high school’s graduating classes for years, and our prominent businessman ended up paying for remodeling at least one room.

Ahh, good times, right?

To its credit, I didn’t hear of any similar stupidity taking place at my senior class’ prom, which the Anatole (with either a weak memory or weakness for business) also hosted. Who knows - maybe our proms were mild in comparison to others they've held? At least for my class' festivities, I recall hearing that faculty, parents, and other chaperones practically smothered revelers with supervision. Which I'm sure all of my classmates in attendance deeply appreciated.

Parental Advisory

Of course, having fun doesn’t have to be a crime, and different people have different ideas of what fun looks like. But the fact that prom nights at my high school don’t contrast with many proms across the country is not a point of pride. And the fact that many parents either react with apathy, a smirk and a wink, or outright complicity by providing the booze and condoms only compounds the problem.

And what is the problem? That our society actually endorses the notion that the best way to celebrate a milestone such as completing one’s childhood education is with sex and alcohol. By kids who are still minors.

Over the years, some people thought the stretch limousines and designer ball gowns were signs prom night had breached the boundary between recognizing achievement and silly excess. Why some parents now don’t think reserving blocks of hotel rooms for their teenagers isn’t a de-facto endorsement of wild behavior eludes me.

Even less responsible are the family lifestyles that apparently indoctrinate children with morally permissive attitudes as they’re growing up. After all, most kids don’t just suddenly turn into sex-crazed drunken hooligans on prom night, do they? Rather, they’ve been primed and coached since birth by their parents’ personal behavior and failure to frame cultural pressures and immoral temptations in terms of consequences, rewards, propriety, and dignity.

Raising the Bar (not the one in the lobby)

So, is it really about the kids, or… about what their parents have and haven’t been able to teach their kids?

I think the proudest parents are the ones whose graduating teenagers can demonstrate responsibility and celebrate maturely. And “maturely” doesn’t mean doing adult things as a minor. Any teenager can stumble over minimal standards.

After all, graduating is one thing. Proving you’ve learned something is what counts.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sending the Pope to the Pokey?

What started out as an implausable notion has recently morphed into a relatively serious attempt on the part of some Britons to arrest Pope Benedict when he visits the United Kingdom this coming September. They want to try him on accusations of "crimes against humanity."

Atheist activists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens say that some respected members of Britain’s legal community are advising them on the likelihood that such a stunt can withstand Vatican challenges. They're modeling their case after Britain's 1998 use of "universal jurisdiction" to try former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

And it would be a stunt, too, if it wasn’t for the fact that at the root of Dawkins’ and Hitchens' anger lies a tangled heap of unconfessed sins - or at least a woeful dearth of name-clearing proof - regarding decades and generations of alleged molestation by priests of youth in their care.

The Scandal That Won't Stop

Catholic sex scandals that rocked bastions of the faith here in America only a few years ago have now hit Europe with a fury. From Germany to India and Ireland, recent claims of sexual abuse by priests and cover-ups by none other than the current Pope himself have sparked widespread disdain for the Roman Catholic Church and calls for investigations, clarifications, explanations, and resignations. All of which have been greeted by the Vatican with either silence or the feeblest of vague press releases. A couple of Pope Benedict’s closest advisers have publicly come to his defense, but all they’ve done is add fuel to the fire, either by comparing Rome’s current problems to the Holocaust, or blaming pedophilia on homosexuals.

Which, since they’re the ones both facing the charges and suggesting the gay connection, may be the closest to the truth that Vatican officials have come. Obviously, some of the scandals for which priests have been accused would not have happened if the accused could prove that they weren’t closeted.

But although some might accept the unfounded all-gays-are-pedophiles argument as an explanation, none of this excuses the activities for which all of these priests have been accused. The situation would be much more clearly in the Vatican’s favor if these priests had been allowed to defend themselves in courts of law, but many of them haven’t. So the suspicion, anger, and resentment just grows deeper in the increasingly cynical court of public opinion.

Legal scholars point to several conditions of this push to arrest Pope Benedict as much ado about nothing:

First, as a head of state on a diplomatic visit, the Pope enjoys a high degree of diplomatic immunity which the Queen's government would severely imperil itself by infringing upon.

Second, Pope Benedict was living and working in Germany during the period when he is accused of being complicit in covering up some of the abusive priests, so British law probably wouldn’t apply.

And third, the basic question of how the Crown would make such charges stick in a court of law remains murky at best and unlikely at worst. At the time, Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict's pre-pontifical name) was neither a head of state nor responsible for creating policy - only administering it. That's a far cry from being in a position to commit crimes against humanity.

So, would the ruination of ecclesiastical and political relations between the United Kingdom and the Vatican be worth the trouble?

The Crown vs. the Pope?

Still, to a degree, the prospect of arresting the Pope – of all people – presents and intriguing scenario, doesn’t it? Mainly because to many Roman Catholics, the Pope isn’t just a person, he’s an emissary of God’s with divine authority and privilege. To have British courts – which technically act on behalf of the Queen, who in herself has no power at all (but she used to be a “sovereign”) – try the Pope would be the fantasy culmination of centuries of religious strife and vainglorious history for England. How many martyrs to how many faiths would be spinning in their graves to have the Pope on trial by the Queen’s government?

Of course, the Roman Catholic faithful would be utterly horrified that the Pontiff would be subjected to such humiliation and degradation, not only in a court, not only in England, but by a government of a faith which splintered from their church. Were he to be found guilty, Pope Benedict would almost certainly become some sort of sainted figure for Catholics, who surely would ascribe deific accolades to him that we heretofore have never seen. Who knows the type of violence that could erupt with a guilty verdict? Look at the long-running conflict in Northern Ireland, which would certainly flare up with tortuous bloodshed.

And what of the Pope himself, who although currently enjoying relatively good health, is not a young man? Legal challenges and wrangling could go on for years, and were he to die even of simple old age before any resolution is reached in his case, what might that mean to long-term stability between countries in the Commonwealth and the UK and Rome?

Even if none of this comes to pass, might Dawkins and Hitchens have already made their point? For the first time in recent memory, a group of people are calling on legal action against a Pope for indiscretions which have been widely publicized in the international press, generally confirmed by a variety of participants, and unconvincingly disparaged by the Vatican. Roman Catholicism has been declining in membership and influence for years, and they’re not handling this latest blemish to their reputation to anybody’s satisfaction.

If they’ve got nothing to hide, the Catholic church is doing a good job of hiding that fact. When Jesus Christ was challenged to prove Himself, He quoted scripture, and nobody could deny His righteousness. If the Pope has divine ex cathedra, why can’t he do that?

Maybe Rome and Toyota have the same PR firm… Dontsay, Nuthin & Hyde?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Controversy as Art

Art experts claim that subjectivity negates our ability to say art can be good or bad.

I say, “balderdash.”

Some art is good, some art is bad, and then some of what is purported to be art isn’t really art at all, but just a piece of junk masquerading around as an abstraction.

Take, for example, the sudden tempest-in-a-teapot over the heretofore unknown “Colonna Mediterranea” obelisk by heretofore unknown sculptor Paul Vella Critien. Critien’s “Colonna” has become a flashpoint for artistic debate in the village of Luqa, Malta, because of its obvious, um, phallic properties. Oh, and the Pope will be coming to town later this week.

They're Just Now Recognizing It?

Having been in place since 2006 in the middle of a traffic circle at the entrance to town, one wonders why the imminent visit of His Eminence has only now made village officials embarrassed by what they consider to be an offensive work of public art. It’s taken them four years to notice what it looks like? Is the Pope’s opinion of the obelisk more important than how God would view the artwork? What about the citizenry and city leadership that erected the piece to begin with? Does removing or hiding the art – against popular opinion, btw – somehow negate mindsets that once thought it was OK?

I’m not going to give you a direct link to view the object in question, but you can Google it easily enough if you like. If you look at it, you’ll see the reason for the controversy. But taken a step further, and it seems a valid critique to question whether it really even is art. Sure, it’s a shape, and it’s colorful, but beyond that, what makes it any better than a crunched toilet paper roll that a child may have painted?

Critien says he was incorporating ancient Egyptian art forms and Mediterranean colors to create his piece. If you took off the top-most piece of the structure, you’d probably remove most of its objectionable identifications, but you’d just be left with a brightly-painted column. Wouldn’t that still depict the Mediterranean flavor Critien says he was aiming for?

Who joins me in wondering if Critien has been waiting these past four years for somebody to finally make a stink over this silly piece of art? He knew that someday, somehow, it would all hit the fan, and he’d become famous. He probably didn’t figure it’d take a papal visit for things to get so blown out of proportion, although he knew enough people would come out in support of his piece that he could join the “uneducated art boor” cry which is being launched against critics.

Bad Artist? Get PR the Easy Way!

What an easy way to play pretend! If somebody doesn’t like a piece of art, you just suggest they’re unsophisticated and dim-witted. You can create the most crass piece of junk you can imagine, and you know you can run and hide behind the politically-correct screen of “art for art’s sake” protectionism that supposedly validates both the conventional and unconventional.

Remember the hideous 1987 photo by Andres Serrano of a crucifix in a glass of bodily fluid? He was a nobody “artist” before he hit on the idea of creating a stink in the art and religious worlds with his blasphemous idea. Of course, Serrano was counting on the unfortunately predictable habit of the religious right to make a greater fuss over things than they otherwise would warrant. Which is the equivalent to blood in the ocean, which draws the sharks of the media to come and rip the story to death.

But today, even if you were alive in 1987, you have to think a moment about what piece of "art" I'm talking about, and you probably never knew Serrano's name. All you remember is the photo, which even art experts would have to concede was nothing more spectacular than what a belligerent teenager might have thought up.

Of course, Critien’s work doesn’t come close to mimicking the absurdly vile taste of Serrano’s. They're two different sub-species of bad art. Critien’s statue in Malta is more obscenely goofy than sacrilegious. But is either good art? Instead, I think each piece says more about their respective craftsmen than anything else.

And that’s not particularly admirable either, is it?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Dude, My Parents R 2 Cool

Actually, I'm surprised it's taken this long for a family to pull this stunt.

But I'm not surprised they're from California.

At this very moment, 13-year-old Jordan Romero continues his climb to base camp, where he will begin his ascent after spending several weeks acclimating to the altitude.

Base camp? Acclimating to the altitude? What, is this kid climbing Everest or something?

Um, yup.

And where are his parents, you may ask? Well, his proud mom and dad, who have already joined him on similar ventures, including Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro when he was 10, are joining him again for this latest stunt. The family that climbs Mount Everest together stays together, I guess.

Climb Every Mountain

Romero told the AFP news agency that "It's something I've always wanted to do before I die - I just happen to be doing it at this age. I happen to be going for a world record. But I just want to climb it."

Hmm... a 13-year-old kid already has a bucket list? How weird is that? And what kid doesn't like climbing stuff? Bunk beds, trees... and Mount Everest? How does normal boyhood fun warp into extreme hubris? Who's really wanting to do the climbing here - Romero, or his parents?

How many 13-year-old's have a realistic appreciation for the rigors and disciplines required for scaling Mount Everest? Is it just me, or is Romero like many Olympics-destined kids? You know who they are - the idea for glory is planted by their parents, and their parents coax/nurture/pressure their kids along the way until the Olympic gold medal round or, in this case, the summit of Mount Everest.

How much of this is classic parental displacement, and how much of this is genuine ambition on the part of the child? And how much of the ambition is a desire to please one's parents rather than an insatiable, intrinsic thirst for something as wild as standing at the tippy-top of Mount Everest before you're in high school?

Please. I know I'm cynical, but where does good, nurturing, guidance-type parenting end and getting-my-thrills-through-my-kid parenting begin?

The Ultimate Celebration of Self

And what of climbing Everest itself? For all the adults who have done it over the years - aside from scientists who have endeavored to explore and explain the geography, biology, and geology of Everest - how many have accomplished much more than simply satisfing their selfish thirst for conquest and invincibility? How might society benefit from such displays of adrenaline and utter self-gratification? Granted, society may not benefit from a lot of things we humans do or don't do, but doesn't climbing a mountain represent one of the most gratuitous of personal endeavors?

Romero's parents say he'll have some of his school textbooks with him during his climb, and if they sense that he's reached his limit, they'll turn back.

But who is checking the parents? Who is evaluating their limits? On his website, Romero solicits funds so people can help him "climb the highest peak in the world." Contribution levels start at $100. In fact, Romero's parents seem to have developed a whole industry based on their child, from youth hikes to over 30 sponsors and partners.

Granted, they're breaking no laws, and you probably can't beat climbing Mount Everest when it comes to family-bonding excursions.

Except if Romero starts to complain, "Are we there yet?"

Friday, April 9, 2010

Buggy Buggy World

Show and Tell

“It’s a buggy buggy world out there.”

When he was about four, my second-eldest nephew learned that phrase and had a knack for reciting it at humorously appropriate times. Actually, when you think about it, you could use it to end almost any conversation these days:

"Yes, it seems like everybody in Washington is there for the pork."
"You’re right – it’s a buggy buggy world out there."

"All Microsoft ever does these days is come out with new software to try and make us forget how bad their previous version was."
"I know – it’s a buggy buggy world out there."

"Did you hear that Sarah and Michael are getting married?"
"Really?! It’s a buggy buggy world out there."

(You think I’m kidding? Have you ever met Michael?)

Today's Show & Tell photo comes from a friend of mine who has a knack for finding some of the most fascinating things on the Internet. Monte Melugin, take a bow! Not only did Monte introduce me to Christoph Niemann, he’s found some photos taken by a physical therapist in Poland which capture insects as they’re resting in the dead of night.

As they perch still and dormant on a leaf in a state of torpor, heavy summer dew rests on their motionless antennae, eyes, wings, and other weird appendages. At about 3 am near his home in Jaroszow, Miroslaw Swietek gets up and slips into the woods around his village with a digital camera, a flashlight, and an incredible eye for secret splendor. He stalks his prey, sets his camera within an inch of it, and captures an image of bejeweled slumber. In the camera’s flash, dew droplets become gem-like ornaments that Harry Winston could only hope to emulate.

And those eyes – or ocelli, to be precise. The dew actually magnifies the microscopic intricacies of these optic orbs, and helps you realize how, when they’re buzzing annoyingly around you, these insects can evade almost all efforts at being caught.

Amazing, right?

You’ll forgive me, but I can’t resist delving into a little evolution-bashing while I consider these tiny creatures crouching on fragile leaves, with dew adorning even the slightest details. Doesn’t it take more faith to think natural selection contributed to all of this, than to believe that the almighty God of the universe actually crafted each molecule for His eternal glory? Dismiss my foray into intelligent design if you like, but doesn’t faith in evolution require ignoring many more facts than believing Genesis 1:1 actually supports?

Indeed, it’s a buggy buggy world out there, isn’t it?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Working Together to Break Apart

Of all the topics a single, never-married man probably should avoid, divorce may rank up in the top five. And usually, I try to be respectful to people going through such a difficult time by keeping my mouth shut, since there are always two sides to every story.

But divorce has become such a prevalent occurrence in our society, the topic is hard to avoid. Recently, a new method of conducting the divorce process has emerged that tries to accomplish what conventional litigation and well-intentioned mediation have failed to do: make divorce more user-friendly.

Suppose a divorcing couple has children, or a business, or other significant assets. Suppose the couple has decided they want as amicable a split as they can get. This is where collaborative divorce comes in. This emerging class of family law generally deals with divorce and making the break-up of families less stressful.

Collaborative law involves the inclusion of specialists from a spectrum of disciplines, such as child psychology, personal finance, trusts and estates, small business law, appraisers, accounting, and insurance. All of these experts are hired by both parties (the wife and husband) for neutral advice, to which both parties have access and upon which consensus can be achieved as decisions are made. In theory, it sounds like a humane, logical, and prudent way to help mitigate the affects of divorce on children, family finances, and even spousal angst.

Can Divorce Be "Family-Friendly?"

When parents divorce, usually their kids suffer the most, so providing an emotional cushion for them must be a priority. But otherwise, I wonder: Should we be working to make divorce less painful? Is diluting the effects of the destruction of one of our society’s basic building blocks possible? Or advisable?

Why do you think divorce is as destructive as it is? When a business partnership comes apart, there can be financial and emotional problems, but they’re usually only as devastating as the participants make them. You don’t hear of people sending their kids to counseling just because a business partner backed out of a deal. Why is divorce so different?

Intellectually, we all know the reason: Because divorce is the opposite of marriage, and marriage comprises a social institution of such intrinsic importance that damaging it in any way is naturally painful. Divorce is like taking the keystone out of an archway; remove the lynchpin, and you’re going to have fallout. It’s just a basic fact of life.

On their website, the Collaborative Law Institute of Texas says they provide a “more family-friendly method of divorcing.” But that’s on a scale of barely quantifiable differences, isn’t it? Did your archway fall completely, or did just parts of it collapse on itself? Does it really matter? Either way, the arch is gone, and the space it was covering is completely useless.

Oh, Really?

The website goes on to say: “A mutually-respectful approach to divorce can dissolve a marriage while protecting children, saving the dignity of both parties, and preserving the wealth of family assets.”

"Mutually-respectful?" If the couple are divorcing, mutual respect has already flown out the window.

“Dissolve a marriage?” Marriages may end, but they don’t dissolve. To dissolve something is to make it disappear, but unless your marriage lasted twenty minutes, it won’t ever just disappear. Things happen in all marriages that cannot be ignored, and that people can’t simply pretend never happened.

“Protecting children.” Marriage is designed to protect children. Ask any child of divorce – ANY child – and if they say their life is better because their parents divorced, then they probably don’t understand what marriage is supposed to be in the first place.

“Saving the dignity of both parties.” Sorry – but in cases where the divorce is being pursued because of infidelity, one party has already relinquished their dignity. If the divorce is an even 50-50 decision, then both parties have relinquished their dignity by virtue of their unwillingness to make the marriage work. The fact that society doesn’t – and shouldn’t – penalize divorced people doesn’t mean there is no shame in failing to live up to one of the most significant covenants into which humans can enter.

Divorce Hurts For A Reason

Even though I've never been in one, I'm aware that marriage can be difficult and even heartbreaking. But I can't say I've ever known a divorcing couple who have both decided to throw in the towel without any animosity of any kind. The brutality of divorce usually follows patterns of behavior that have already left deep scars in the marriage relationship. But even if divorce is a mutually-satisfactory decision, should a married couple be able to shrug their shoulders and say, “well, we gave it a try, and it didn’t work out. Let’s just shut this thing down and move on”? I'm not going to say that all divorce is wrong, but neither do I believe we should work to make it seem natural or incidental.

Should we tolerate efforts to streamline divorce? Should we just stand by while people try to sterilize and anesthetize the destruction of marriages?

Might laying bare the raw characteristics of divorce for all to see help people be more prudent during their engagements? Does making divorce more family-friendly increase its viability as a possible option if things take a turn for the worse after the Hallmark type of love begins to fade into real life?

Maybe if people worked as hard at saving their marriage as they do trying to make divorce less painful, it wouldn’t be necessary in the first place. Instead of collaborative divorce, why not try a collaborative marriage?

Tanks for the Rattle

What’s your diversion? Sports? Gourmet food? Clothes? High-tech gadgets?

Let’s face it, there’s nothing wrong with any of these things. They all have a purpose and place in life when assigned their rightful priorities. And no, sports doesn’t take precedence over everything else.

My diversion is cars. Not the Formula One racing machines or customized street cruisers. Ever since I was a child, I been fascinated with regular, ordinary cars. How they’re designed. How they change from year to year. How tastes and expectations evolve and new concepts come to the market.

Some neighbors recently bought a 2010 Cadillac CTS, arguably the best-looking car made in American today. I also like the new Camaro and Malibu by Chevrolet, although after I had to go into arbitration over a bad Chevy purchase several years ago, I vowed I’d never buy another one.

Alas, my tastes tend to run towards the exotic when it comes to automobiles. A friend of mine is the executive assistant for the most exclusive car dealer in Dallas; his nameplates include Rolls Royce. After looking at her husband’s brand-new Mercedes she got with her special employee discount, I joked that I’d have to figure out some way of being adopted.

In One Accord

Not that my one-year-old Honda Accord is a bad car. Although we’ve had a stressful relationship lately. This morning, I just picked it up from the dealership where it’s been for the better part of the last month. And in case you think today’s Honda’s might be even better than old Honda’s, consider what has gone wrong with mine:

Initially, I took my Accord in to the local dealership because the seat belt mechanism for the middle part of the rear seat locked up, which was strange, because nobody has ever used it. However, the rear seat back won’t fold down unless all of the seat belts fold with it, and this one decided not to. So the dealership ordered a replacement seat belt and I went back to have it installed. Only they’d ordered the wrong color. So I had to take it in a third time.

On the third try, my service advisor helpfully asked me if there was anything else that might be wrong with the car. And I mentioned that yes, there is a rattle behind the rear seat, which may be related to the middle seat belt not working.

“Actually, Honda has a service bulletin out on rattles around the rear window. Maybe that’s the fix,” he offered. So I asked them to check into it.

I got the car back, and the rattle was still there. Innocently enough, I offered to drive around and show the service advisor what rattle I was talking about. We drove with a service technician, and we all heard the noise, but it didn't sound too serious.

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Two weeks later, the dealership informed me that the gas tank in my car had been improperly installed. Something about tubes that hadn’t been clipped in place properly, which along with other parts were banging and rubbing against the gas tank. After practically deconstructing the rear half of my car’s interior, they traced the rattle to a place completely outside of the passenger compartment.

The gas tank, of all things! Those things can catch on fire, can’t they? Remember the Ford Pintos I kept talking about in reference to Toyota’s current problems? The Pinto’s downfall was its gas tank.

Now, while cars may be a diversion for me, I’m in no way a mechanic. My longsuffering brother – a helicopter maintenance manager - can attest to that. So to me, when I hear my gas tank wasn’t installed properly, there are no warm fuzzies running up and down my spine. What I’m feeling is something more along the freakish variety, with mental images of flinty sparks shooting from metal-on-metal friction underneath my car. And then big orange fireballs. Consuming my Honda. (gulp) And me.

Which, the guys at the dealership tried to assure me, would not have happened. They couldn’t exactly tell me how they could be so confident it wasn’t a safety issue, but at least now it was fixed. They double-checked everything and even put some padding between the gas tank and the floorboard. It isn’t fireproof, but then, I suppose explosions usually render fireproof stuff ineffective anyway.

The dealership knew I wasn’t happy, but hey – it wasn’t their fault the gas tank was installed improperly. I knew that, too, and I didn’t blame them. In fact, I was astonished that the service tech thought to check the mounting of the gas tank – all of the noises we heard came from the interior of the car. And the two weeks it took them to find the problem weren’t a terrible inconvenience for me – they had given me a luxurious version of the Accord for me to tool around in. Silver, with black leather interior, an audiophile’s dream speaker system, and an impressive V6 (mine’s a 4-cylinder). So I was stylin’ as the dealership’s mechanics were going crazy trying to find the rattle.

When I met with my service advisor and his boss to go over what had been done to my car, they gave me the phone number for Honda’s United States office in California. I called the number to tell them the reason I bought a Honda was to actually avoid such problems as improperly-installed gas tanks, but the woman with whom I spoke told me that’s what my warranty is for. She wasn’t impressed when I said something to the effect of, “well, my warranty isn’t going to do me a lot of good if my gas tank explodes.”

So after the dealership cleaned up my car and got everything put back together again, I picked up my car this morning. It’s been sitting in the garage all day – I’m actually not looking forward to driving it! What other hidden problem might just be waiting to rear its ugly head?

It's Trying to Tell Us Something

Which brings me to the rattle that led to the gas tank. If it wasn’t for the rattle, none of us would have known a problem existed. Now, I understand most rattles come and go according to changes in the weather and temperature, and as a natural result of aging. Like people, cars are only brand-new once.

But today, my mother, who has probably sat in the back seat of my car more than anybody, made an interesting comment.

“Thank God for rattles,” she mused as I told her the final resolution to my Honda’s saga.

Especially since the gas tank nests just under the back seat.