Friday, November 29, 2013

Culture Slack in Black Friday Creep?

It's the great American holiday.

Most countries have a day of independence, or a day to commemorate their war dead.  And even Communist countries today make some acknowledgement of Christmas.  New Year's is a biggie around the planet, and Easter is celebrated at various times in various countries depending on the type of church calendar they follow.

But in the United States, Thanksgiving is unique, in that it's a day set aside by the government to give thanks.  And not just to give thanks, but to thank our holy and sovereign God for the bounty with which He's blessed our nation.  It may have originally taken place when the pilgrims celebrated their first successful harvest in the New World, but it was during the depths of our Civil War that President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, officially called Americans to offer "Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens."

Not just "god," with a little "g."  Not the Allah of Islam, which does not recognize the patriarchal characteristic of the God of the Trinity.  But the God of the Bible.  It's to Him that we should offer our thanksgiving.

Time was, before the National Football League, television, and big-box retail stores, our country virtually shut down on Thanksgiving Day.  It was conceived as a family time around the dinner table, or for churches, the Communion table.  Today, of course, it's the rare church that bothers to meet on the fourth Thursday of November.  Mealtimes are arranged around the football schedule on TV.  And what had started out as the much-heralded launch of the Christmas shopping season, Black Friday, now creeps into the middle of Thanksgiving Day like an uninvited guest with an already-opened bag of empty-calorie Oreos as a contribution to the day's festivities.

A lot of us traditionalists grumble about all of these intrusions into what was initially intended to be a sacred day of family, friends, fellowship, and food.  But, frankly, football has become such a part of our American culture, it's understandable that American families, with our limited attention spans and regressive social skills, need to balance the day's reverence with a good old dose of gridiron gladiator worship.  Years ago, movie theaters began opening on Thanksgiving night, giving people who'd had just about enough fellowship and stilted conversation with their supposed loved ones the opportunity to actually have some fun, watching a first-run flick.

Indeed, giving thanks has become something we tend to ignore as much as we take for granted the abundance of stuff for which we should be thankful.  Many evangelicals - and even non-Christians - lament the lack of appreciation we spoiled Americans have developed the wealthier our country has become.  After all, even poor people in the United States are richer than most people on our starving, war-torn globe.

Nevertheless, it's with particular consternation that many Americans have been criticizing the Black-Friday-creep that is taking over more and more of Thanksgiving Day.  Many big-box stores opened at some point during the day, along with a few car dealerships, with most of them in full swing by 6:00pm last night.

But what about the employees at all of these retail outlets, some ask.  Don't they deserve a day off with the rest of their family?  One Pizza Hut manager in Indiana refused to open his restaurant yesterday, and was either fired, or quit, depending on whether you believe his employer's hastily-delivered press release.  The Pizza Hut story seemed to encapsulate this year the question many Americans are asking:  how much is too much when it comes to free enterprise hijacking our singular American holiday?

Actually, that's just the point, defenders of Black-Friday-creep argue.  America is all about capitalism, and what better way to express our love of capitalism than to give shoppers what they want?  After all, would all of these retailers bother to open on Thanksgiving if there wasn't any money to be made?  If nobody wanted to shop, or eat out, or go to the movies on Thanksgiving, retailers may have tried opening for a couple of years, but the trend would have died out on its own.

Instead, it's just getting bigger and bigger.  Before too many years, almost everything will probably be open all day on Thanksgiving, because apparently, enough consumers want it that way.

So, what happened?  Is America at the breaking point of completely selling-out to retailers?

Well, let's look at who is shopping on Thanksgiving Day.  Of course, this is not an accurate science, since retailers are loathe to publicize detailed reports of the characteristics of their consumers, believing that data to be proprietary information.  But a casual viewing of news reports last night, as reporters stood among throngs of excited shoppers, or online photographs of the shoppers crowding into malls, and even comments in social media, can give at least a glimpse into the types of people who apparently love Black-Friday-creep.

First, at least here in Texas, are Hispanics, who, in some videos and photos, appear to be the only people waiting in those long lines, or jostling in crowded store aisles.  Some photos from malls not identified also show large numbers of Asians, along with more Hispanics.  What's interesting, meanwhile, is the obvious lack of white faces and black faces. 

Now, this is not a racist observation, but it is a racial observation, and a cultural one.  As I perused Facebook this morning, looking at the photos and comments from friends who celebrated Thanksgiving yesterday, it was obvious that my friends - both in predominantly white families, and black families - who enjoy strong marriages, and who still have kids at home, tended to demonstrate the most traditional patterns of observing the holiday.  Tables heaped with food, group shots of smiling relatives, and, yes, the photos of guys in living rooms watching a football game on big televisions.  In conventional families of both black and white races, across the country, this was how yesterday was spent.  At least, among people I know across a broad swath of middle-class America, from coast to coast.  I found no mention of shopping on Thanksgiving Day, although I have no idea how early some of these friends woke up this morning to hit the stores.

Contrast this tableaux on Facebook with the images I saw yesterday on the news.  Yes, there were some fights, stabbings, and shootings in stores across the country that makes one wonder how emotionally balanced Thanksgiving Day shoppers might truly be.  But besides the sporadic violence, discounters everywhere seemed to be packed.  Plenty of photos and videos out there for you to look at for proof.  Are Americans that desperate to save a buck that they're willing to go through all of that on the vacation day they've been given to avoid life's hassles?

Might it be that for people who are relatively new to the United States, and who thus have far fewer connections with the Thanksgiving holiday, the notion of staying at home on this particular day with family and friends is not as significant?  After all, why have our immigrants come to the United States?  They've come for political freedom, as well as economic and materialistic opportunity.  And what better way to exercise both, in a purely objective context, than getting as many bargains as you think you can when native-born Americans are at home for the day?

It's also likely that the poorer a person is, and the newer to America they are, the more challenged their grasp of the English language may be, and the more likely their lack of a credit card may be, which means that shopping online - something that many middle-class whites, blacks, and native-born Hispanics do regularly now - is not a realistic option for them.

Now, obviously, there were whites and blacks out shopping on Thanksgiving, too.  A fight that was caught on video by a customer at a North Carolina Walmart shows aisles packed with gawking white folk, perhaps wondering what great deal they missed that could have provoked the brawl.  And I'm sure plenty of Hispanics and Asians celebrated Thanksgiving at home with family and friends.  But I still wonder how many of them are native to the United States, and more rooted in our Colonial traditions, even if they feasted on cuisine more popular within their respective cultures.  There's no law that says you have to eat turkey on Thanksgiving, and in fact, incorporating foods from one's country of origin represents an entirely appropriate way of expressing the holiday's purpose.

Nevertheless, if Black-Friday-creep has become so popular in large part because recent arrivals to this country don't really know much about Thanksgiving itself, might that simply point to the reality that we native-born Americans aren't doing a very good job of enculturating folks who are far newer to this American experience than we are?

Of course, retailers aren't going to sacrifice the almighty dollar to help train new arrivals to our shores about why Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, so simply complaining about Black-Friday-creep won't solve anything.

Indeed, how likely might it be for our post-Christian culture at large to decide it's going down too unorthodox a path on these Thanksgivings, and attempt to reclaim more of its heritage?  Our culture already seeks to undermine any opportunity to give credit to any deity - let alone God - for the abundance many of us now think we've earned for ourselves.

So to the extent that Black-Friday-creep may simply be yet another manifestation of the sloppy, and indeed, insular ways believers in Christ - both white and black - are being salt and light to new arrivals in our country, perhaps the extent to which we lament about the desecration of the holiday by retailers is at least as much our fault as theirs.

Then again, maybe it's not that big of a deal that the traditions of Thanksgiving are either shrinking or evolving.  Traditional forms for observing Thanksgiving certainly are being honored by fewer and fewer Americans, at least in proportion to our country's growing population.  But die-hard capitalists are correct in observing that replacing the faith-based, food-based, and even football-based traditions with shopping, movies, and eating-out traditions isn't exactly un-American, either.  In fact, one would think right-wingers and neo-libertarians would be rejoicing at all of the crass commercialization, even if they're stuck inside with relatives with whom they're not crazy about communicating while, apparently, new arrivals to America are out engaging in raw commerce.

The reason Black-Friday-creep is as popular as it is, of course, is because retailers want consumers to think they're getting the best possible deals.  And the more penny-pinching a retailer and its customers are, the earlier they think they have to open to perpetuate this savings illusion.  Yes, some of the deals being offered are worth a considerable amount of money, relative to the product's full price, but retailers have a bad habit of rigging what's considered "full price" so shoppers think a lower price is truly a bargain.

Everybody still thinks "a penny saved is a penny earned," but discount retailers, in particular, have honed the art of marketing loss-leaders to cover up more conventional pricing on other aisles.  So, really, that maxim works best for the retailers themselves.  Stores earn the pennies customers think they're saving further down in other products that aren't discounted as much.

So, does the early bird also catch the worm, as another Black-Friday-creep saying goes?

Maybe, but I still prefer pecan pie.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Mefferd - Driscoll Word War Speaks Volumes

I'd heard of Mark Driscoll.

But I'd never heard of Janet Mefferd.

Driscoll, of course, is the often acerbic and occasionally belligerent evangelical preacher in Seattle, Washington.  He likes to brag about how satisfying he finds his wife, how his testosterone-fueled ideas of masculinity are superior to those of more effeminate men, and how the Trinity-denying T.D. Jakes, a prosperity gospel pastor, is a brother in Christ.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Driscoll has managed to forge a popular teaching ministry that appeals to a gritty range of both male and female "new Reformists."  He's become an entrenched member of our vast evangelical industrial complex as a prodigious author and sought-after conference keynoter.  His latest book, A Call to Resurgence: Will Christianity Have a Funeral or a Future?, was published by Tyndale House on November 5.

It was ostensibly to conduct a promotional interview for his book that Janet Mefferd, who I recently learned is an evangelical personality in her own right, welcomed Driscoll onto her Christian talk radio show November 21.  Mefferd launched her line of questioning by asking Driscoll about the morning he crashed a conference being hosted by yet another evangelical celebrity, John MacArthur, that was serving as a publicity event for his new book that was competing against Driscoll's.  The topic of these two books is whether or not the Holy Spirit still exercises His demonstrable gifts - such as healing and speaking in tongues - in our modern world.  Driscoll says He most certainly does, while MacArthur says those gifts were intended for times and places that have long since passed.

Okay.  Are you still with me?  Sometimes I grimace with incredulity when evangelical Christians wonder why we don't have more evangelical Christians on this planet.  Like all of this I've written so far - which demonstrates the energies upon which many of us evangelicals spend our emotions, time, and finances - really has commensurate eternal influence on our glorification of God and and being salt and light within our spheres of influence.

At any rate, it didn't take long for Mefferd, the radio talk show host, to apparently corner Driscoll into uncovering a lie.  There has been a tempest in a teapot over allegations Driscoll's team initially made regarding MacArthur's security detail, and whether or not they maliciously confiscated Driscoll's books that he brought onto the campus of MacArthur's California church during his conference.

A conference, remember, that was at odds with the thesis of Driscoll's new book.

Talk Radio Balk

Mefferd eventually gets Driscoll to admit that what his office first claimed about the book confiscation really didn't happen.  That wasn't surprising to me, but then again, I didn't pay much attention to the incident when Driscoll's people started making a fuss over it.  When pressed by Mefferd, Driscoll seems to strike a conciliatory tone regarding the brashness with which he first criticized MacArthur's people, and I wasn't sure why it seemed like a big deal.

Remember, too, that the only reason I was listening to the tape was because the fallout from her live interview with Driscoll continues to spread like wildfire across our evangelical industrial complex.  More and more people are writing about it, arguing over it, and taking sides over it.

Being unfamiliar with Mefferd, I don't know if her tactics in this particular interview are representative of the way she typically interviews her guests, but her tone of questioning only goes a bit farther before Driscoll starts complaining that she seems to be staging a "gotcha!" campaign against him.  And frankly, I found myself agreeing with him.

Hey - we all know Driscoll likes to play some sort of sanctimonious bully against a conventional archetype of the kindly, gracious pastor.  He likes to swagger, he likes to catch people off-guard, and he seems convinced that notoriety and respectability are the same thing.  But both Driscoll and I were under the impression that this was supposed to be an interview exploring the validity of the claims and theology Driscoll presents in his newest book.  I wouldn't expect Mefferd to do a fluffy, puff piece of entertainment journalism, or a goofy late-night talk show PR segment, but it seemed an odd venue to press Driscoll on his attempt at upstaging MacArthur.

Indeed, instead of an interview, it soon sounded like an inquisition.  Mefferd got pretty direct, and accusatory, because she didn't leave it at Driscoll's conference-crashing.  She switched to a part of his book where she recognized some of his content as being something written by another theologian, Dr. Peter Jones.  Driscoll gives a sloppy and incomplete reference to Jones' work at the beginning of this section of his book, but he then goes on for several pages without clarifying that what is being presented as his writing is actually Jones'.  Which, in the hotly-contested world of intellectual property law, is considered plagiarism.

At first, Driscoll offered Mefferd a pat apology, and mumbled something about how footnotes can get mistakenly omitted as manuscripts shuffle multiple times between an author and his publisher.  He also apologized for having a cold, being stuffed up, and sounding lethargic over the air.  So maybe he was realizing he was conveying the impression that he wasn't taking these accusations as seriously as Mefferd wanted him to.

And boy, she kept poking him with that plagiarism stick.  Over and over again, awkwardly, even as Driscoll began to plainly protest.  He told Mefferd he was doing her a favor by letting her interview him, and this was supposed to be about his beliefs about the gifts of the Spirit, and not about legal stuff like how many times he credits another author.

For her part, Mefferd reminded him that this wasn't just some exercise in petty grammatical formalities.  All of Driscoll's own ministry material, online and otherwise, is lathered with warnings about copyright laws and plagiarism.  No publisher wants to be caught red-handed selling books with unattributed content in them.  This is a legal issue, Mefferd cautioned Driscoll, and it's also a moral issue.  Why should the church expect the world to exhibit morality when we treat it so cavalierly ourselves?

All excellent points, of course, and right on the mark.  But while it was appropriate for Mefferd to point these out, was it appropriate for her to lambaste Driscoll with them on the air?

Driscoll's fans across our Christian ghetto have been rallying to his defense, saying this was typical "gotcha" journalism that is out of place in an evangelical environment.  Meanwhile, other evangelicals are coming out in support of Mefferd, complaining about how tiring Driscoll's arrogance has become, and the arrogance other of preacher-leaders in our evangelical industrial complex who seem to have appropriated their own standards of conduct apart from those they expect from the rest of us.

Reception Interference

However, there's more to this than that, isn't there?  For example, if Mefferd really wanted to confront Driscoll on plagiarism, shouldn't she have done it privately, instead of live on the air?  I sometimes take evangelical celebrities to task here on my blog, but I usually either omit names and other identifying details, or I write about widely-known disputes, such as this one, that are ensconced in the public domain.  The Matthew 18 process for resolving church conflict isn't invalid in these cases, but in our digital age, it's more effective when pursued by people who have a personal relationship with the conflictee.

This whole kerfuffle also calls into question the integrity of the "publish or perish" mantra that has captured the evangelical church.  Everybody has to write a book.  And not just one.  They have to write a book every year or two.  That's how they stay in the limelight.  It's how they maintain their credibility, and perpetuate their appeal as conference speakers.

Meanwhile, however, do we really need all of these conferences?  And do we need all of these books?  How many of them are redundant?  If Driscoll really plagiarised, doesn't that mean his content really wasn't all that original to begin with?  Apparently, he didn't have anything new to contribute to our evangelical dialog on the Holy Spirit.  If a respected theologian had already written on the subject, why not simply tell your followers, "hey, read so-and-so's book, and I won't have to write one."  Not exactly an attitude Christian publishers might embrace, perhaps, but, "of the writing of many books," might restraint be sometimes prudent?  After all, can't publishers usually run a re-print of an old book that has stood the test of time and theological scrutiny?

Then, too, when your stock-in-trade is based on animosity, as Driscoll's is, shouldn't you be prepared for times when other people try and pitch you a bit of your own medicine?  And if, as her choppy interview lurched along, Mefferd adopted the notion that this was likely the only time she'd be able to pin him down on the subject, might that justify her willingness to provoke his churlish side on the air?

Not that when you do something wrong, it's wrong to call you on the carpet.  My opinion of Driscoll wasn't terribly high before all of this broke loose, and it doesn't help his case that, despite the venue, his graciousness when being corrected (by a woman?) was paper-thin.  And since this is my first time learning about Mefferd, who she is, and how she operates, I can't say my first impressions of her are stellar, either.  Even if, technically, everything she pointed out was correct.  But then again, maybe people read what I write, and lump me in with both of them, because at their core, everything that this debate stems from is the drive that the three of us feel - individually - to set the record straight about what we believe, and why we believe it.

That's why, for my part, at least, I'm using this as a teachable moment for myself.  Because if there's anything this teaches me, it's that having a viewpoint isn't what's wrong.

It's how you communicate it that might be.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Pop! Goes Another TGC Article

Maybe my problem is that I expect people to mean what they say.

And then I get my knickers in a twist when what they say is something I hope they don't mean.

Sometimes I stumble over little stuff, the incidental parts of somebody's argument that maybe they didn't spend a lot of effort on developing.  You see, if I can't accept your little points, how do you expect me to accept your bigger points?

I'm finding that I'm having this problem more and more with one of our more popular Christian websites.  The Gospel Coalition (TGC) features content written by avant-garde leaders of the so-called "New Calvinist" movement, or "New Reformers," or whatever brand of post-seeker, post-Willow-Creek, new-urbanist theology you're comfortable calling it.

Sometimes their content hits well within the mark.  But, at least to me, increasingly, other stuff of theirs doesn't.  A lot of times, the problems seem to crop up when their writers try to pander to popular culture, or when they try to make themselves sound hip and relevant.

When it comes to relevance, I've found that the Bible and Christ's Gospel are the most relevant things any culture can ever appreciate, so I think that sticking with those two things helps make any article or argument credible.  Ironically, it's preachers and teachers who've been to seminary who tend to display an irresistible attraction to our culture instead.

I started realizing TGC's credibility could be highly subjective when one of their writers began defending his leadership style as legions of long-time members flocked to a new church being launched as an alternative to his heavy-handedness.  Then I began having issues with the way some of their writers expected people suffering from chronic clinical depression to just snap out of it.  I never did like the way they turned preachers into celebrities, or the odd lack of negative reviews of any of their books.  What was supposed to be a collective of ministry aids for pastors and laypeople who believed in predestination turned into just another corner of our evangelical ghetto where select seminars, conferences, videos, books, blogs, and podcasts were marketed to our vast evangelical industrial complex.

Then today, I read yet another article that turned into a sneak preview for yet another book.  Yet another book by a professional Christian - a pastor, seminary professor, and conference speaker - about the world of work and employment.  It's being released by its well-known publisher today, and by the number of Facebook "likes" the piece has already garnered on TGC's website, it looks like it'll be a good seller.

But even that depresses me.  Because it means people actually believe that preachers who don't work in the conventional world of work are experts on it.

Technically, there's nothing wrong with the author's basic premise.  He wants fellow Christ-followers to see their jobs as an opportunity to serve Christ and model His Gospel.  I believe that is the appropriate way for us to see our jobs, as I think most evangelicals do.  The reason it's a subject for which publishers can sell how-to books, however, is because it's a lot harder to do in practice than it is in theory.

But what makes preachers the best source of information for putting the Gospel to work in the workplace?  Sure, many pastors like to run their back offices and administrative staffs like corporate fiefdoms, and the profit motive lurks under the thinnest of surfaces at many of these popular megachurches carrying massive payroll burdens and other overhead costs.  But most other churches are not like corporate America, and even if they were, most churchgoers are not preachers or members of elder boards, the two areas in most churches where power rests.  It's like Jack Welch telling workers how to work when he was head of General Electric.  Yeah - it's easy for him to say.  He's the boss.

Meanwhile, for the most part, the rest of us have to do what we're told.  That's why we're the employee, and not the employer.  In fact, it's the main reason why most of us find so much drudgery in our jobs, and why they're so unfulfilling.  We don't have the creative opportunities, or the authority to control the quality we'd like to see, or the access to budgets that could help us hire the ideal team of experts, any of which would substantively empower us in our jobs.  We have to deal with managers who either don't understand our job, or don't care about much else than their own approval rating from their own managers.  We may not get to just take a break so we can decompress.  Our schedules are not our own.

Hey - most of us don't look at employment as drudgery because we want to!  It's because our employers wish they could save money by not having to employ us.

Preachers and professors may work a summer internship, or a pre-college gig, or even a couple of years in the office of a seminary to help pay for their schooling.  However, none of that is the same as spending upwards of forty years of your life facing the same routine, struggles, disappointments, competition, dead ends, incompetence, frustrations, idea-stealing, brown-nosing, office politics, pink slips, outsourcing, downsizing, everyday workplace complexities of post-industrial employment.  It's not that professional Christians need to be experts in every subject for which their parishioners encounter conflict.  And it's not that preachers don't have their own disappointments and burnout.  But maybe the subject of finding the rewarding aspects of whatever employment God gives you should be left to the guys who've transitioned, mid-career, out of their for-profit working lives, and are re-inventing themselves in the ministry.

Then again, I could be wrong about that.  So I decided to see what this particular pastor had to say on the subject.  Would he be just another holder of unrealistic assumptions about the workplace, or would he have some realistic insights?

Like most professional Christians, this one starts his article with some light-hearted banter to get the ball rolling.

Only it's not anything in the Bible he references, or a legitimate corporate world experience he might have had after college, but the popular TV show, The Office.  Okay, this preacher-author is in his 30's, so The Office seems relevant to him because it's a funny show with good acting and appropriately trendy workplace situations.  Except he makes a point of including the office romance angle between two of the show's main characters.  The two people who flaunt morality and God-honoring sexual activity by having a baby out of wedlock.

He even calls the guy who gets his girl pregnant "noble."

Now, obviously, premarital pregnancy is a common situation in our society today, and indeed, in many workplaces.  But just because it's a common situation, and cleverly written for a TV show, and acted out by characters who strike us as anybody we could know and work with in our normal, everyday lives, that doesn't make the people who do it appropriate characters to be affirmed in an article on an evangelical-themed website.  Does it?

In fact, the way this preacher glosses over it, on his way to promoting the theme of his book (which is living out the Gospel in the workplace, remember) I'm left to wonder what his gospel looks like.  If he was going to use the reference to Jim and Pam as a launchpad for how believers in Christ could Biblically support their officemates in a similar situation, that would have been one thing.  But no, he lets it hang there as "a great love story."

And we wonder why each successive iteration of doing-church-in-shiny-new-ways fails to resonate with our culture.  Or even look much different from it.

If this pastor had completely left out any reference to The Office from the promotional article he provided to TGC's website, then we could have had a discussion about how adequately a preacher-professor can appreciate all of the struggles and dynamics everyday workers in corporate America use to justify their ambivalence - and, indeed, fear - of living a life marked by the cross of Christ in their lives.

As it is, unfortunately, there's no point in getting any further than the first paragraph of this preacher-professor's article.  Unless, of course, I'm being a prude, and not blithely acquiescing to the overall theme of The Office, which as this author points out, is to portray the working world as drab and stifling.

It was supposed to be part of his opening banter, to get his audience thinking about his topic.  If he misses the point about what makes The Office such an unsuitable depiction of "a great love story," however, how is it nitpicking of me to doubt he's got anything special to say about the workplace?

Looks like pop culture comes out ahead yet again.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Whigged Out: Scratching Below Politics' Surface
The largest private house in England

"Wentworth Woodhouse" sounds like the name of a British writer, like P.G. Wodehouse.

Or, perhaps, the name of a fancy barn, like the place where firewood is kept dry.

But no, Wentworth Woodhouse is the name of the largest private house in the United Kingdom, a sprawling, 300-room mansion that's actually two country manors in one.  Facing northwestward is the first manor house, a mostly-brick structure in the English Baroque style, finished in 1734.  That same year, however, work began on the far more lavish and expansive "frontal" extension in a classically proportional Palladian aesthetic, that faces southeastward.

The reason for such a massive addition had little to do with whether the front of the house faced northwest or southeast.  Nor did it have much to do with the quality of construction on the first, mostly-brick structure.  Or even that it was mostly brick.

No, the reason a new addition had to be constructed resulted from the changing tastes of Britain's powerful Whig political party, in which the family building the house was prominent.  Among other things, the Whigs were a group of self-appointed architectural critics who, by the time Wentworth Woodhouse's first grand house was reaching completion, had decided that the English Baroque style was so last-year.  Whigs found it pretentious and needlessly opulent, whereas the design principles of venerated Italian architect Andrea Palladio were considered far more pure, pleasing, and balanced.

Palladio had died more than a century earlier, in 1580, but even as British aristocrats knew of his signature style in the 1730's, you know it today, too, here in suburban North America.  For example, those palladian windows you see everywhere?  The ones that are curved on the top, and usually flanked by shorter windows?  Those are "Palladian" windows, and they prove how popular and enduring Palladio's ideas have been throughout the centuries.

Big Whig Digs

At any rate, as I was watching a PBS special on Wentworth Woodhouse last night, I learned that politics saturated this house and the families that used to own it.  To have its design dictated by a political party's architectural taste helps express the role politics played in its purpose as a domicile.  Thomas Watson-Wentworth, of the dynasty that owned Wentworth Woodhouse, twice served as prime minister, and his family was perpetually locked in a desperate power struggle against the Tories.  Wentworth Woodhouse helped establish the Whigs as a bastion of respectability and authority.  Like many estates of its day, it served as the economic engine of its community, South Yorkshire, employing at its peak nearly 1,000 people.  Generations of the family maintained a reputation as being among the most beneficent to its workers of all the landed gentry.

Back then, the Whigs stood for preserving the authority of England's great aristocratic families, from which much of Parliament got its members.  This meant that Whigs wanted Parliament to be more powerful than the monarchy.  They opposed Catholicism as a threat to England's sovereignty and individual freedoms, and, among other avant-garde positions, they protected Presbyterians, a fledgling group caught between the Church of England and the Roman Church.

In many ways, the Whigs would probably be considered liberals in the parlance of modern United States politics.  "Limousine liberals," of course, since building what would be - and remain for centuries - the largest private house in the British Empire isn't exactly an aspiration for prim and proper conservatives.  Conservatives who saw their duty as being loyal monarchists, with its heritage of economic patronage.

And, oddly enough, the movement to overthrow British rule in the Colonies was influenced by Whig advocacy in the New World.  Colonists who later would call themselves "patriots" first called themselves "Whigs," expressing sympathy to those back in Britain who were chafing under the rule of the Crown.  How supportive would that be of today's right-wing narrative?

Created Equal, As Long As You're Like Us

Being an amateur aficionado of architecture, I find buildings like Wentworth Woodhouse fascinating not only in terms of their design, but how their design relates to culture, and even history.  After all, it's the rare building where form doesn't follow function.  On the one hand, I find that this particular confection of two mansions of differing aesthetics suffers from too much size and not enough purpose.  According to architectural historian Dan Cruickshank, who hosted the PBS program about Wentworth Woodhouse, it was so gargantuan, guests were provided with different sachets of colored confetti to sprinkle on the floor as they commuted from their guest rooms to the dining room and ballroom.  By doing so, guests could find their way back to their bedrooms, much like the breadcrumb trails of Hansel and Gretel.

What Whigs considered ostentatious in the Baroque style apparently translated differently with the Palladian!

On the other hand, however, isn't the connection between Britain's Whigs and America's Colonial patriots somewhat ironic?  At the time of Wentworth Woodhouse's political prominence, only white Englishmen could vote, and only white male landowners had any power.  Advocating for majority rule in a parliamentary structure differed from an autocratic monarchy in that day and time only by degrees.  Meanwhile, in the United states, democracy, voting, and "all men created equal" rang bitterly hollow as well, at least up until the 1850's.  When our first few presidents were elected, only white men who owned land could vote, and some states refused to let Catholics vote.  Non-white men got the vote in 1870, with ratification of the 15th Amendment.  Women got the vote in 1920, and Native Americans in 1924.  All poll taxes and property requirements in all elections weren't finally abolished nationwide until 1966.

Isn't it tempting to look on the political era of Wentworth Woodhouse's heyday centuries ago with a certain smugness, and even disdain?  We're so much more committed to democracy here in the United States.  We forget that our Founding Fathers would not have let you vote even in our last election, earlier this month, if you don't own land, are a woman, or have any other color skin than white.

Right-wing Texas Senator Ted Cruz, for example, lives in an apartment in a Houston high-rise.  That, plus his patrimonial Hispanic heritage, would have made two strikes against his eligibility to vote, according to the laws approved by our Founding Fathers.  Hmm.

Scratching the Surface

Thankfully, a lot of changes to our voting rights have evolved over time, both in England, and the United States.  Of course, that may not be good news for some people.  If you're an old-time purist, societies have unraveled more than improved, especially when it comes to who has political power.  Last night, as I learned about Wentworth Woodhouse, I marveled at how that big ol' pile of stone, marble, bricks, and Palladian aesthetics in South Yorkshire provides a curious wrinkle to what people expect in their governance, what form they want that governance to take, and those whom they'll allow to select that governance.

If we Americans would open up the Palladian windows of our political discourse, how much might we learn about where we've come from, and how that might not be the most virtuous of foundations upon which to build our current political reality, or our political future?

Recently, Wentworth Woodhouse finally found a buyer after languishing on the market for years.  Its selling price?  Approximately £1.5 million ($3 million US).  A pittance, considering its size, historical significance, and craftsmanship, which Cruickshank testifies is exquisite.  But there's a good - and bad - reason for such a low price.

As it happened, in an ironic twist for this house and its owners, one of their prized assets on the estate, a rich seam of coal the family privately mined for decades, contributed to its decline.  After World War II, while the nation was desperate for coal to rebuild its industrial might, Britain's liberal Labour Party seized the mineral rights to Wentworth Woodhouse.  Strip-mining operations instigated by the government scraped away valuable topsoil and rendered what experts complained was low-quality coal, instead of the high-quality fuel the family had been more conventionally mining far away from the house.

Obviously, the government-sanctioned surface mining was a retaliatory stunt meant to intimidate the wealthy family.  Heavy machinery dug right up to within a reported 16 yards of the house.  Structural engineers now point to cracks spreading about its 300 fabled rooms as being the direct result of the government's plowing and digging.  The home's new owners are suing Britain's Coal Authority so the building's foundation can be repaired, and the rest of their legendary house can be restored.

Wentworth Woodhouse has carved into its pediment the family motto, "Mea Gloria Fides," which translated means "Trust is My Renown."

Maybe instead, it should be, "Scratching the top of any surface rarely helps."

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Dallas' 50 Years of Kennedy Angst


I'm glad that's finally over with.

For the past year, here in the Dallas area, our news media has been talking about the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  Yesterday, in Dealey Plaza, along the western fringe of downtown, several thousand spectators gathered for a memorial observance, despite weather with temperatures just above freezing, and a cold, sporadic drizzle.

Not quite the agreeable commemoration Dallas officials were hoping for, considering that news organizations from around the globe had come to capture the moment fifty years later when a normally sunny Dallas would, once again, apologize to the human race for killing its beloved leader.

Of course, the city of Dallas never killed anybody.  And President Kennedy was never truly popular among Republicans during his political career.  But to hear people talk about the president, his policies, his wife, his brothers, and his death, you'd think that time stopped on Elm Street downtown as three shots were fired, one of them hitting the promising young Democrat.

Just about every time I drive past that spot on Elm Street where Kennedy was hit as he rode in his open-air limousine, there are at least one or two people nearby, and usually a small crowd.  They're looking at the spot in the roadway, taking in the angle from the old school book depository that still stands off to the side, and up towards its sixth floor window in the corner.  Elm Street curves to go under a set of railroad tracks, and then, on the other side of the railroad bridge, branches off northbound and southbound onto I-35.  Usually, I'm headed home, which means I take the route Kennedy's limousine first took, in the middle lane, which heads off towards Tarrant County.  The right lane heads off north, up I-35 and past Parkland Hospital, which is where his speeding limousine took the wounded president that fateful day.

And I have to admit, just about every time I pass that spot, I wonder what it was like for those Secret Service agents, realizing that the First Lady was holding parts of the president's brain in her hands, as another agent was crawling on the trunk of the speeding vehicle.  And I'm not just being melodramatic.  In one of the many, many, many retellings we Texans have heard over the past year, that agent who jumped up the back of the presidential limousine still remembers Jackie Kennedy reaching over to collect chunks of brain matter that had splattered on the car's polished black trunk, holding them in her hands as she grieved for her husband, who was dying in front of her.

I may not have been a person who'd have voted for Kennedy, but I'm still a human being, and the drama of that moment would have overwhelmed me as it would have just about anybody.  To witness such a thing would be more profoundly tragic than any of us can say.

So in that regard, the commemoration of Kennedy's death that took place in Dallas yesterday was due not only the Kennedy family, none of whom were in attendance, but the nation, and even the world.  All week long, several local media outlets had interviewed tourists from all over the planet visiting Dealey Plaza.  Indeed, it seems that of all the things for which Dallas is recognized today - its economic vibrancy, the old TV show of the same name, its respected symphony, its famous football team - the assassination of President Kennedy remains the touchstone with which most people associate Big D.

Some critics claim that Dallas hasn't done enough to atone for the problems in the city that contributed to Kennedy's death in 1963.  Others claim that Dallas should have built a shrine for Kennedy by now - instead of the boxy memorial constructed a couple of blocks away that reeks of urine.  Still others say Dallas should have bulldozed  the whole of Dealey Plaza, torn down the school book depository, and erased any vestige of the '63 atrocity.  About the only thing critics agree upon is that no matter what Dallas does or doesn't do with the scene of Kennedy's assassination, everybody won't be satisfied.

Frankly, I think the way Dallas has handled the half-century aftermath of Kennedy's death has been at least adequate.  First of all, Dealey Plaza is a confection of green space where three major streets service downtown underneath a major railroad artery.  Some people criticize the design as outdated, and an artificial wall along the western side of downtown.  But now that the city runs its light rail trains along those same tracks, it's hard to see how any better configuration can be constructed, with I-35 right there, and serpentine freeway ramps to another expressway right there as well.

Second of all, having the assassination's venue preserved virtually intact is a half-empty, half-full proposition.  If you want to be negative about it, sure, the recognizability of Dealey Plaza to history buffs serves as a constant reminder of the event, and it encourages the consistent proliferation of conspiracy theorists, many of whom throng the plaza on good-weather days, preaching their suspicions to curious tourists, and even giving out their own maps and charts of how Kennedy was shot.  And who did it.  But if you want to be positive about it, keeping Dealey Plaza intact has helped legions of tourists from around the world learn more about the place, it has helped keep the Kennedy legacy alive for generations of people who hadn't yet been born when he died, and, yes, it's probably the most popular and most consistently populated public area downtown.  It tells a gruesome story, but - and pardon the pun - plenty of cities would kill to have such a highly-trafficked pedestrian attraction in their downtown business district.

To be honest, if the Kennedy family had been smart, they would have purchased space someplace close to Dealey Plaza and established some sort of permanent museum or library to their fallen son.  A place where they could regulate the conversation regarding his legacy.  With all of the tourists already at Dealey Plaza, it would be the logical way for them to perpetuate Kennedy's memory on their terms.

Then again, a museum has already been set up in the former depository and is popular, highly-visited, and more academic than nostalgic in scope.  So maybe it's just as well for history's sake that the Kennedy family has kept all of their presidential memorabilia in Massachusetts.  After all, Kennedy wasn't killed because he was universally trusted and adored.  With the Kennedy's viewing Dallas as their no-man's land, we're freer here to imagine not just what could have been, but what really was.

For example, do you believe the findings of the Warren Commission?  A recent Gallup poll found that 61% of us still refuse to accept that a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, was responsible for killing our 35th president.  Some people think Oswald was innocent - at least of assassinating Kennedy.  Oswald did kill a Dallas policeman that same day, J.D. Tippit, in a shooting witnessed by a dozen people in Oak Cliff, a neighborhood close to downtown.  In fact, it was Tippit's murder that landed Oswald in jail.

Many conspiracy theorists say most of that is hogwash, but I have just as hard a time believing 12 normal Dallasites would lie about a patrolman's murder as I do that the Warren Commission made up Tippit's killing.  So I'm not inclined to doubt that Oswald wasn't somehow involved in a significant way in Kennedy's death.  Why else would he react so violently to Tippit's questioning of him on a street in Oak Cliff?

But neither am I inclined to believe that Oswald acted alone.  He doesn't strike me as the type of man who could cobble together such an assassination plot by himself.  I'm open to the possibility that the Mafia, burned by the increasing investigations into corruption by Kennedy's brother, Robert, the turncoat Attorney General, wanted to punish the Kennedy patriarch, Joseph, who had helped supply the Mafia with booze during Prohibition.

Some experts say the Mafia connection with the Kennedy family has been overblown, but let's face it:  with the Mafia, who ya gonna believe?  A Mafia connection would also help explain why the shady, seedy Jack Ruby felt compelled to murder Oswald in the underground parking garage of the Dallas Police Department's jail.  But then again, it's speculation like this that has kept Kennedy's death in the public spotlight for five whole decades.  It's likely that all of the adulation that Americans have continued to shower on this singular Massachusetts family is due just as much to the sensationalism over the president's death and the perverted glamor of possible underworld ties as it is any of the political savvy exhibited from its other senators and congressmen.

Virtue, after all, was a quality emblazoned on the Kennedy men more in its lack than its abundance.

Indeed, the tragic recollections from that day fifty years ago yesterday are of a photogenic young woman in a pink suit and pillbox hat cradling the crumpled body of a president, or standing blanched-faced on Air Force One as the oath of office is recited to Lyndon Johnson.  Or standing, days later, a veiled figure in black, with two children at her knees, as the casket passed in front of them.  She'd later go on and make her mark in publishing, and inherit millions from a Greek shipping tycoon, but that pink outfit in that black limousine is what many of us remember of her most.

Her one surviving child, Caroline, became America's ambassador to Japan this past Tuesday, a timing reportedly requested by the daughter of the late president to get her out of the country in time for yesterday's bitter anniversary.  After all, my idea of their family museum aside, it's understandable for the Kennedys to not have ever ventured back to Dallas during these intervening years.

But that doesn't mean Dallas should forever hold the somber notoriety of being the place where, as many say, America's innocence died, along with its 35th president.

Kennedy did not want to travel to Dallas.  And Dallas did not ask to be the place where he was killed.  Two years ago, when Mike Rawlings became the city's current mayor, he received a call from the Los Angeles Times, asking him what plans Dallas had for the upcoming 50th anniversary of Kennedy's death.  And it's been that way for Dallas and its leaders for all these years.  City Hall put on a stoic face yesterday for the media, but I can't help but imagine they're breathing a sigh of relief, too, that this observance is now behind them.

I hope the Dallas area doesn't have another fifty years of morose anticipation.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Letting Silence Speak

I've gone three weekdays without writing an essay for this blog.

Well, to be honest, I've gone three weekdays without posting anything I've written for this blog!  You see, I've written a couple of pieces, but abandoned both of them, because I realized that I was either complaining about something, being jealous about something, or otherwise contributing absolutely nothing of worth to your life, or mine.

Not that I'm under any delusion that you consider what you read on my blog to be the highlight of your day.  But neither do I want your time to be wasted when you read what I write.  I care much less about whether you agree with my take on a particular subject than whether you regret even reading it.

My time is far less valuable than that of many other people's, so if I don't like bad journalism, or bad literature, or whatever this blog is to you, then I know you won't.  And a lot of times, it's not so much the content that can be bad, but the attitude with which it's conveyed.

So I figure that when the latter is influencing what I'm writing in a negative way, it doesn't make any difference how meritorious the content is.  So not writing is better than writing something in an unhealthy spirit.  Of course, while I make no bones about being a "recovering cynic," even I know when enough is enough.

Imagine my pleasant surprise, then, when today I stumbled upon a quick list of key times we believers in Christ should simply be quiet.  Q-u-i-e-t.  It came as a soft affirmation to my frustrating week of apparent non-productivity, since I didn't have any essays posted to show the topics over which my brain is mulling.  Anybody keeping track of how much I write would see a big empty hole for the middle of this week, but God and I both know everything He convinced me you didn't need to read!

Written by Chicago medical doctor Lina Abujamra, this handy list - each with supporting Bible verses - originally had ten items, but I've adapted it for myself as a blogger.  And I encourage you to hold me accountable to it.

So, here it is.  I should not write:
  1. When I can't come up with a constructive opinion or viewpoint to share. 
    Proverbs 17:28: "Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent."
  2. When I'm mad. 
    Proverbs 25:28: "Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control."
  3. When I may be rushing to a decision, or drawing incomplete conclusions about something.  Lamentations 3:25–28: "The Lord is good for those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord . . . Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth to the dust—there may yet be hope."
  4. When I'm relying on tradition or convention for the sake of, well, tradition or convention.  In other words, even if something should still be done the same way, I should be sure I can explain why that is so.  I can't expect nostalgia alone to provide a sufficient defense for an opinion. 
    Ecclesiastes 7:10: "Say not, why were the former days better than these? For it is not from wisdom that you ask this."
  5. When I simply don't like something. 
    Philippians 2:14: "Do all things without grumbling or complaining."
  6. When the timing is inappropriate. 
    Proverbs 25:11: "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in setting of silver."
  7. When I don't have anything to say that gives grace. 
    Ephesians 4:29: "Let no corrupt talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear it."
This past Sunday at church, our sermon text came from Luke 9:28-36, when Christ took Peter, James, and John to the Mount of Transfiguration.  Now, Sunday's sermon didn't cover this, but do you recall the moment when Peter, groggy with sleep, realized that Moses and Elijah were chatting with Jesus?  He scrambled some half-baked thoughts together and stammered that he, James, and John should construct three tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.

Right there.  On the spot.

What?  Where did that tent idea come from?  Granted, back in the day, all the important people had tents, and those tents could be decorated in ways that indicated the status of the person inside.  So it wasn't that tents would technically be inappropriate, but all things considered, the idea itself wasn't appropriate.

For one thing, the only material the disciples had was their own clothing.  Not exactly suitable for the purpose at hand, both in terms of quantity and quality.  And Peter was missing the whole point about Christ, and the Earthly tabernacle, and how the Holy Spirit would soon come to dwell in us, the new tabernacle.

Tents were so BC.

And anyway, how did Peter, James, and John know the two men with Christ were Moses and Elijah in the first place?  It's not like the photos of these great leaders were familiar to the Jews.  They didn't have posters, or Wikipedia pages, or their own websites, or 501(c)(3) organizations with marketing material.

Did Christ make the introductions?  "Moses, may I introduce Peter, John, may I introduce Elijah?"  Can you imagine how utterly bizarre that must have been?  No wonder Peter was babbling gibberish - maybe the stuff about building three tents was all he said that made much sense at all.

For everybody who wonders about whether God has a sense of humor, simply consider Peter.  One of my favorite little vignettes from the whole Bible is when the angel wants to free Peter from his prison chains, and has to slap Peter to wake him up.  Can you see it?  And then, when Peter, by now a fugitive, gets to where the early Church is praying for his release, and Rhoda leaves him at the gate, can you imagine Peter, standing out there on the street?

"Hey!  Hey - I'm a wanted man, ya know," he's hissing, trying to be quiet, but still fully aware of his vulnerability.  "You're leaving me out here in full view of Herod's henchmen!  Hey!"

So when Christ, Moses, and Elijah heard Peter exclaim about tents, they apparently ignored him.  Or at least, they tolerated his bumbling mortality.  The text completely omits any further reference to the tents, as if Christ perhaps rolled His eyes, maybe hugged Moses and Elijah one more time, and said "see you later" or something as the cloud came down from Heaven and enveloped them.

Maybe with a slight nod and a grin to them like, "see what we mean about our brother, Peter?  God loves Him!"

And then when Moses and Elijah get back to Heaven, can you imagine them deferring to our Almighty Father's sovereign wisdom and acknowledging, "dear Heavenly Father, we didn't deserve Your grace, and after five minutes with Peter, we're humbled yet again at what You've been having to put up with in your plan of salvation!"

Okay, so maybe I'm not being very gracious there, or even orthodox, and I usually don't like it when other people make conventional, colloquial assumptions about true stories from the Bible.  But as we read this passage from Luke in church this past Sunday, I found myself once again marveling at, indeed, what God puts up with as He intentionally uses people like Peter, and me, for His purposes here on Earth.

Especially when we open our mouths.  Or write our blogs.

Which connects with Dr. Abujamra's reminders about times when we believers should go ahead and keep quiet, refraining from offering our contribution to whatever narrative is unfolding around us.  It's best, of course, to follow such advice, but even when we don't, God looks at our hearts.

If we're sinning in our motives for needing to say or write what isn't edifying, that's one thing.  But if we're just acting like Peter, blathering out of good intentions but laughable logic, Christ may still allow us to participate in something grand for His glory and our good.  Even if that moment was so remarkable that, according to verse 36, neither Christ nor His three disciples spoke about what they had witnessed on the mountaintop when they returned to the rest of His followers.

Apparently that mountaintop experience was too holy to mention to another soul, let alone discuss, chat about, write about, blog about, tweet, e-mail, publish, or do interviews about.

Okay, so maybe silence really can be golden!  As in, royalty.  And maybe that's my cue to bring this essay to a close...

Monday, November 18, 2013

Clearer Air in Climate Change Debate

Which is getting hotter faster?

Our planet, or the debate over its warming?

We all know that the topic of climate change is based as much on politics as it is science.  For years, all over Earth, people have bickered about whether our environment's temperatures really are increasing, and if they are, whether the levels by which they're increasing are significant, and dangerous.

Which leads us to question whether or not there's anything we can do - or even should do - to try and cool down our planet.  And, if there is a role we can play, what form it should take.

Your answers to all of these questions will almost certainly reflect your politics, since liberals tend to push every panic button they can find, even if it means shutting down society as we know it.  The more conservative you are, the more skeptical you are of the science surrounding climate change, because you don't want somebody else changing your lifestyle to accommodate fluctuations in the weather.

Over in Poland, the United Nations has begun the second week of its Warsaw Climate Change Conference, convened to provide delegates from the around the world an opportunity to publicize varying perspectives on the crisis as they see it.  If, indeed, they see a crisis at all.  Australia didn't bother sending a delegation, since their new, conservative-led government is growing tired of always being vilified at these meetings.  Meanwhile, a delegate from the Philippines is staging a hunger strike during the summit because he believes Typhoon Haiyan, which tore through his country last weekend, was as powerful as it was due to negative effects of climate change caused by wealthy, Western countries.

Playing the whipping post is a rough role to sustain, and Australia isn't the only advanced country willing to risk some bad international press by turning a cold shoulder to the climate change debate.  Both Japan and Canada, two major industrial powers, have announced plans to back away from previously-announced emissions reduction plans, which in Japan's case apparently stems from its unexpected loss of its Fukushima nuclear reactors in 2011.

Tempers Tempering Degrees of Temperature

As much as impoverished Majority World leaders might like, it's unrealistic to expect developed countries to quit emitting greenhouse gasses cold-turkey, which is really what they want.  Japan, for example, is scrambling in the wake of 2011's epic earthquake and tsunami to make up for lost ground in energy production.  Besides, it's not like we have incontrovertible proof that CO2 emissions cause greenhouse gasses in the first place.  Melting glaciers is one thing, but again, how do we know glaciers don't thaw and eventually re-create themselves through some natural process?

Speaking of what we don't know, we only have several decades' worth of scientific data tracking temperatures across the globe, so while many scientists think they know how to track historic fluctuations in temperatures before reliable records were kept, there's still room for debate, isn't there?  Science may be reliable and rigorous, but it's not always right.  After all, for example, the widely-used method of determining an artifact's historic lifespan, carbon dating, still doesn't resolve every archaeological dispute.

Plus, most scientists are pretty sure there was an Ice Age, followed by at least one significant warming of Earth, so it's not like global warming hasn't happened before.  If it's just the fact that scientists can now track with ever-greater accuracy the ecological changes taking place on our planet, what makes them so sure these changes are being instigated and exacerbated by human activity?

Granted, it's not the most unlikely scenario, is it?  Let's face it:  doesn't it seem pretty logical for all of the chemicals we've been pumping into our ecosystem during the past couple of centuries to have caused at least some damage to the planet?  We can see how our air can get fouled by smoke and haze when we set a campfire, and we can smell what comes out of a car's muffler.  In particular concentrations, might the products of these chemical reactions overwhelm the natural resources with which God equipped this world?

Obviously, right now, there's more at stake for industrialized countries if climate change is real, and is caused by human activity.  After all, we don't create CO2 gasses just for the fun of it.  They're the byproduct of things we create to sell, which means that the economic model that has brought most of these chemical products to market may need to fundamentally change if global warming is as real, as bad, and will do as much harm as most scientists claim.  In that regard, it's easier for less developed countries to insist that their futures are at stake if the rest of us don't do something to reduce pollution.  However, such guilt trips by the poor towards the rich are falling on increasingly deaf ears.  Ironically, it's the same complex science doubted by conservative capitalists that liberal advocates for the ecologically disenfranchised can also misinterpret, thereby undermining their pleas.  For example, the Philippine activist on the hunger strike blames global warming for the severity of Typhoon Haiyan, but scientists have refused to blame global warming for Superstorm Sandy that raked across the New York City metropolitan area last fall.  Sometimes, big, powerful storms simply happen.

We can't even get consensus in the scientific community regarding the severity of climate change.  Most experts across scientific disciplines agree that some sort of global warming is taking place, but how that warming's warning gets interpreted depends on a scientist's specialization.  For example, in percentages ranging from the mid-80's to nearly 98%, the overwhelming number of climatologists agree not only that climate change is taking place, but that human activity is the primary cause.  Meanwhile, while they generally accept that some sort of climate change is taking place, only 36% of registered geoscientists and 30% of the American Meteorological Society's membership find global warming to be a reason for concern.

Blowing Hot and Cold

Armed with such support for climate change in theory, if not for its causality, some media outlets have even begun the unprecedented policy of refusing to run opinion editorials and letters to editors that refute climate change or mankind's involvement in it.  They do so - and fight charges of censorship by conservatives - by arguing that climate change is as provable a fact as it can get.

Surely such heavy-handedness cannot be a helpful tactic in this debate.  Stifling opinion is not necessarily a prudent way to promote another one.  Leave it to liberals to take aim at our freedom of speech when it comes to something as controversial as climate change.

But conservatives can be little better in the integrity department.  Consider, for example, the stunning claim - apparently out of nowhere - by a little-known Presbyterian pastor in North Carolina, who believes that even if there is such a thing as global warming, it's blasphemy against God to suggest that mankind is causing it.

Rev. Skip Gillikin is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Weaverville, North Carolina, and recently, he wrote an op-ed to his local newspaper that has attracted a following of like-minded evangelicals.

"To claim that humans have significantly contributed to supposed climate change is an audacious demeaning of the character of God," Gillikin claims in his editorial.  "This constitutes a serious moral act, as one day all will give account to the God who is not mocked."

Now, considering that we live in an approximation of a free republic, the good reverend is allowed to be skeptical about the legitimacy of climate change, although it must be said that glaciers don't usually melt of their own accord.  Does he have another explanation other than the obvious:  that glaciers, like all ice, melts faster the warmer its ambient temperature is?

Nevertheless, none of us earn any credibility by ignoring the facts.  Something is happening to the glaciers, and experts say our ocean levels are indeed rising, so even if you don't want to call it "global warming," nature appears to be reacting negatively to some recently-introduced stimulus.  Aside from the economic implications of the CO2 question, what's wrong with considering all of the options that present themselves?  And if we humans are generating too much pollution, isn't that the moral problem here?

After all, God did create this world.  In fact, yes; God created life.  So is it blasphemy to say He allows people to die, or be aborted, or otherwise murdered?  Is it blasphemy to say He allows car accidents, heart bypass surgeries, cancer, mental illnesses, birth defects, or the need for one's arms or legs to be amputated?  In all of these things, God's original created order is amended, adjusted, fixed, or otherwise changed by mankind.

Yes, our sovereign God knows about His humans' penchant for pollution, and while I remain a skeptic of the extent of the impact our human activity has on long-term environmental problems,  where's the immorality in wondering if smog, a scientific fact, isn't damaging the ozone He created?  We pollute our waterways, so where's the immorality in pointing out that God's creation wasn't designed to purge itself so we can have clean drinking water even though we dump raw sewage and lethal chemicals into it?  Even in Japan, with the radioactive fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, will God grant you a dispensation for you to go live safely next to those reactors to prove that mankind cannot destroy Creation?

God has given us brains for a reason.  And one of those reasons is for us to take responsibility for our sins.  There is a sinister ideology popular among some evangelicals that takes "rule and subdue" to reckless, rude, ungrateful, abusive, and unsustainable lengths regarding the natural resources with which God has blessed us.  Isn't the sin not in claiming that God's creation can be damaged by mankind, but refusing to acknowledge how we can take His good gifts to us for granted?

Evangelicals, of all people, should understand that we suffer from this pervasive, destructive thing in our world called sin.  In fact, our sin is why Christ came to Earth to die.  Sin is why we have cancer, why doctors need to perform amputations, and why the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, caught on fire in 1969.  And maybe sin is why we're experiencing global warming.

How can saying it's a sin to acknowledge a sin advance the cause of rational debate over our ecology?

Now, speaking of facts, and sin, if we're going to argue that climate change scientists are disproportionately picking on the United States, and not focusing on countries like China, where pollution is rampant, or the United Arab Emirates, where per capita, each person in their water-starved, air-conditioned playground is more dangerous to our planet than any American, then have at it.  America is not innocent when it comes to pollution, but it should not be expected to shoulder an unfair burden when it comes to paying the costs of our planet's industrial excess.

As it is, Gillikin does have it right when he says that God has climate change under control.  To whatever degree we humans are responsible for whatever negative changes His creation is currently undergoing, none of it has caught Him off-guard.  Indeed, He's given us not only the entrepreneurial ability to create pollution, but He's given us the intelligence to work on solutions for it.  We get injured, and doctors can usually stitch us back together.  Such intelligence works on our physical bodies; maybe it will work on our physical plant, our Earth.

And the plants on our physical plant.

After all, if nature was ours to exploit, shouldn't we be glad previous generations didn't believe that?  Otherwise, in what kind of environment would we be living today?

Friday, November 15, 2013

Latest Racial Shooting Not Black and White

Here we go again.

Another drunk driving accident.  Another shooting.  Another instance of a black person being shot to death by a white person.

Only this time, it happened in the combustible environs of suburban Detroit.  And we're talking literally, right outside the city, practically on the line between mostly-black Detroit and one of its mostly-white suburbs.

Dearborn Heights is 86% white, and it's where Theodore Wafer, a fifty-something white maintenance man at Detroit's international airport, was awoken early in the morning of November 2 by Renisha McBride.

Earlier that night, McBride had crashed her car into a parked car not far away in Detroit, and according to witnesses, walked away from the accident scene and then returned at least once, before wandering away again, only to turn up later several blocks away, and across the city line, on Wafer's doorstep.

McBride was thoroughly intoxicated, with a blood alcohol content three times Michigan's legal driving limit.  Her family assumes that being so drunk, McBride became disoriented, couldn't use her mobile phone, and chose - for no reason in particular - Wafer's house to try to get help.

Wafer, however, after opening his inside front door, shot McBride in the face with a 12-gauge shotgun.  She had been standing on his porch, behind the closed and locked screen door.  He was arraigned today on charges of second-degree murder in the shooting.

The state of Michigan does have a self-defense law that allows a licensed gun owner to shoot if their perceived aggressor is posing an "imminent" threat to the gun owner's own health or life, or the health or life of a third party.  What prosecutors don't believe existed in this case is the "imminent" threat, since McBride was still behind a closed and locked screen door.

What the courts will have to decide is whether or not Wafer suspected McBride was ready to injure him in some immediate way.  Perhaps he believed her to be in possession of a firearm herself, and if he could convince a jury of that, some sort of "imminent" threat could be established.

Or, did he just shoot because a black woman was standing on his front porch before sun-up?  It's likely the prosecution will look into Wafer's past to see if there is any history of racist behavior that they could use to paint Wafer as a trigger-happy bigot.

Either way, there's a lot of information that will likely never be proven, since the only person alive to recount that early morning shooting is the shooter himself.

Obviously, it's early in this case, and now's not the time to draw conclusions or cast blame.  However, so that cooler heads prevail here, let's look at several observations that don't depend on unreasonable speculation.  First, it's likely that that, considering what we all know so far in terms of the circumstances leading up to the shooting, and the fact that the shooter is the only key witness, the county prosecutor, Kym Worthy, really didn't have much choice in her decision regarding whether she would be pressing charges.  The front door may have been open, but the screen door was still closed and locked.  Worthy is not the judge or jury; she's the county prosecutor, and that screen door gives her all she needs to send the case to a judge and jury to render a verdict.

It's the only chance Wafer has to clear his name.

Then there's the location of this shooting, and the uncomfortable fact that the victim was black, and the accused is white.  In a place like Detroit, with its grim history of racism, no white gun owner should expect not to be hauled into court if they shoot a black person.  Especially if there are no witnesses.  To his credit, Wafer hasn't denied pulling the trigger, and he's apparently been cooperative with the investigators, and since reasonable doubt will be a major component of his defense, he stands a decent chance of being exonerated.  In fact, considering the deep-seated enmity that's existed between blacks and whites and Detroiters and suburbanites in southeastern Michigan, if Wafer ran all of the possibilities through his mind before he pulled the trigger, and he still fired, even after evaluating the potential repercussions, his lawyers could use that in his defense.

After all, it was before dawn, and even if his porch light was on, Wafer might not have been able to see whether or not McBride, in her drunken state, and perhaps waving her hands about, had a pistol in one of her hands.  I'm not taking his side in this case; just suggesting one of the many variables that might come up during the trial.

In addition, although both Worthy and McBride's family deny it, doesn't it seem that McBride's blood alcohol level is a big part of this case?  She drove drunk, crashed into a parked car, and left the scene of the accident.  That's three violations of the law right there.  When she returned to the scene, nobody apparently cared enough for McBride's safety to try and restrain her for an ambulance to come since, as at least one witness to the accident scene told police, she had a bloody injury.  There's a lot of dysfunction in this tableaux even before Wafer gets involved.  The point is that McBride was not acting like she was in any possession of her faculties; perhaps the reason no witness to the accident scene tried to help her is because they were scared of her behavior, and unsure of how she'd react to an intervention.

Okay, so that helps Wafer's case, too.  Maybe her irrational behavior simply scared him silly at that hour of the morning.  Granted, he didn't have to shoot to kill, and that fact won't help his case.

Unfortunately for Wafer, however, stands that reality of the closed and locked screen door.  That's what pushed Worthy to go ahead and file charges, and that's what Wafer's defense team is probably going to struggle with the most.  Not that a closed and locked screen door would have provided any protection for Wafer, since it certainly didn't for McBride, but it was sufficient an obstruction between the two people that Wafer should have been able to buy some time by yelling for help, yelling threats to McBride, getting on his phone to call 911, or some other less drastic reaction than firing a weapon.

Indeed, for those who want to paint Wafer as trigger-happy, while it may be awfully early in this case to make that assumption stick, it's an easy assumption to make, since just having a license to carry a gun doesn't mean the gun owner is going to use it wisely.  If Wafer's defense team is going to overcome what appears to be an obvious assumption on the part of the prosecution, they're going to have to prove that Wafer has a history of calm, measured, responsible behavior with his weaponry.  It's easy to forget that discharging a gun is always serious business.

Wafer will be back in court on December 18, and we'll see what happens after that.  For her part, Worthy seems to have diffused a potential race war that would have compounded all of the other problems facing not just Detroit proper, but its surrounding suburbs.  And that's probably the greatest sticking point here.  For the region's blacks to be pacified, at least temporarily, Wafer had to be charged.  What is the degree to which racism played a role in the black community's pacification?  Worthy herself was not racist by charging Wafer, since she was just doing her job based on the evidence as it's currently known.  But if the black community was waiting for Wafer to be charged before backing down from what had been a growing level of contention over the case, then what does that say about race relations in southeastern Michigan?

Hopefully, everyone will stay calm and wait for all of the facts to come out in a fair trial.  And that includes not just blacks and whites in the Detroit area, but racist agitators across the country, and the national media.

Let's see if our country has learned anything.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Dog Food Tales

Dog food.

It's considered such a lowly source of nutrition.

It may be healthy, of course; otherwise, we wouldn't feed it to our beloved family pets.  But judging by its looks and odor, we rarely assume it would taste good to us.  And those few hardy souls who've ever tasted it on a dare never seem eager to make it a regular part of their diet.

Dry, it can be even less appealing than those unappealing dry cereals doctors say are supposed to be the healthiest for us.  Moist, or in what dog food manufacturers call "gravy," dog food takes on the texture, appearance, and even smell of leftover human food that's turned bad in the back of the refrigerator.

Our dogs don't seem to complain too much, but I haven't known a dog yet that, just like you and me, prefers people food instead!  That right there probably tells us something about the flavor quality of conventional dog food.  Which makes dog food the butt of many jokes and disparaging comparisons.  "That looks worse than dog food," we'll say.  Or, "I wouldn't let my dog eat that."

Poor dogs.

Then consider this:  It has been said that American Christians today spend more money on dog food than they do on cross-cultural missions.

Do you believe that?

Dr. Michael Oh serves as the executive director of the Lausanne Movement, a group founded by Billy Graham that seeks to promote Christian evangelization worldwide.  He said it during an interview for the Gospel Coalition's website.  The statistic originally comes from Leonard Ravenhill, a British evangelist best known for being a spiritual mentor to the late musician Keith Green.

It's just convicting enough to sound accurate, although I can't find anything to substantiate its claim.  For one thing, what was Ravenhill's definition of an American Christian?  There are so many varieties.  Besides, has anybody ever done a study to determine how much American Christians spend on dog food, or cat food, or pet food in general?  Then too, how would somebody determine a dollar amount for what American Christians contribute to cross-cultural missions?  Would it be by how much they individually donate, or a percentage of what they donate to their church, or what they donate to para-church missions agencies?

Veterinarians say people food is usually bad for dogs.  So, considering the price of quality dog food these days - the stuff that isn't made with artificial fillers and questionable byproducts in China - how can American Christians NOT spend a lot of money on dog food?

Still, it makes the point that although dogs and pets in general are not a specific part of our faith walk, it's an approximation of a likely truth that American Christians are just jaded enough about foreign missions to spend more money on relative luxuries like pet ownership than they are to help fulfill a basic command from the Bible.  You know, the Great Commission?

Go ye therefore, and preach Christ's Gospel to every nation?

Do you spend more on dog food than you give to support the Great Commission?

I don't have any pets, so do I have to answer that question?

Back when I was working for a freight brokerage in New York City, I got a call one afternoon from a potential customer who had a hot lead on a job lot of dog food.  A freight brokerage, just so you'll know, arranges to ship goods from a supplier to a customer, and the firm for which I worked specialized in international exports from America to places all over the world.  And this guy who called our office with his request about dog food wanted to ship it from here to Bulgaria.*

So, I started collecting the information I'd be needing to get some shipping quotes.  His location, whether or not he was using a letter of credit, and to whom the dog food would be consigned.  We also briefly discussed the process involved.  This potential customer had never shipped dog food to Europe before.  He was acting on a tip he'd gotten about really cheap dog food, and somebody had provided him a contact in the recently-dissolved USSR who would buy it from him in Bulgaria, on the spot.

"Wow," I commented casually to the guy on the phone.  "They must have a lot of really hungry dogs over in Bulgaria."

"Oh - this isn't for pets," the man replied.  "This is for people to eat."

I stopped in my tracks.

He wanted to ship these containers of dog food to a foreign country for human consumption.  I asked him to repeat himself, figuring I'd mis-heard him.

"Yeah, the Bulgarians are starving over there," the guy confirmed, and I could practically hear his glee over the telephone.  "They're so hungry in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, they'll eat anything to survive.  Isn't it great I got this super cheap deal?"

I don't remember how I ended that call, but when I hung up the receiver (remember those pre-cell-phone days?) I turned to my boss and said, "I can't process this request for a quote."

"Why not," my boss wanted to know.  So I told him that the guy wanted to ship dog food to Bulgaria because people there were so hungry, they'd eat it themselves.  I remember that my boss's face clouded over, too, but he was the owner of the company, and bottom lines meant more to him than to me.  He did take the information to work up a quote, and he figured it was just unusual enough a shipment that if there were any official questions from customs, it might sound better to the authorities if the paperwork was arranged by the owner of the company, instead of a regular employee.

So thankfully, I didn't get any demerits for being unwilling to perform a basic function of my job.

And, fortunately, when my boss called the guy back with some figures, he learned that the deal had already fallen through, but I can't remember why.  So my boss was relieved, too, that he didn't actually have to go through with such a questionable shipment.  We talked about it in the office, amongst a couple of us, and the possibility was floated that if food was that scarce in Bulgaria, that maybe dog food was better than nothing at all.  Somebody checked the customs regulations (we had books and books of them in our office; this was before the Internet, too!), and there was nothing illegal about such a shipment.  Dog food is nutritious, after all.  But none of us were happy with the thought that somebody was still trying to earn a profit off of the misery of people he'd likely never have to meet.

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but maybe it can also be the stepchild of abuse.

So, as I heard about us American Christians spending more on dog food than missions today, my mind floated back to that day on the 25th floor of 21 West Street, where I used to work, and had received that call about sending dog food to the starving people of Bulgaria.  The whole episode left a terrible taste in my mouth, as if I'd eaten some of that dog food myself.  I thought then that maybe, if the people of Bulgaria were that desperate, I should look into whether or not some humanitarian organization was already shipping human food over there.  The church I attended, Manhattan's venerable Calvary Baptist, had an extensive network of international compassion ministries; maybe one of them could help.

But then somebody in the office mused that maybe the reason the dog food deal fell apart was the customer in Bulgaria learned that the United Nations or some other relief group was bringing in real food to prevent a humanitarian crisis.  And then, as things tend to do, more calls came into the office regarding shipments to other places, and before I knew it, the Bulgaria situation had been shifted to a back burner.

And then it disappeared from the stove completely.

It's what usually happens when we're presented with an immediate challenge, isn't it?  If we don't act quickly on it, like this customer with the dog food deal was trying to do, something else can just as quickly divert our attention.  The diversion can be just as worthwhile, but usually, it's just more busywork, or something less demanding, or perhaps some desirable recreational activity.

That's why, when I hear things like dog food and international missions, the ease with which the Bulgarian situation dropped from my consciousness - despite my strong stance on it initially - still can prick my conscious.  Not that I think God is blaming me for whatever aid may not have arrived for the Bulgarian people.  But the truth that cross-cultural missions is an ongoing responsibility for God's people, and it's a responsibility that doesn't lose its importance, urgency, or impact on the lives of those it can touch.

Whatever mass starvation existed in Bulgaria is long over.  But the Great Commission is as valid today as it was when Christ charged His church with it over two thousand years ago.

That's a long time in which to grow complacent, isn't it?  A longer shelf-life than dog food, even.

But that doesn't make it any less efficacious, does it?

* I say it was Bulgaria, but it may have been Hungary.  Sorry I can't be positive which one it was.