Friday, June 27, 2014

Playing Partisan Games with Religious Rights

Petty politics played with religion this week in Washington.

In other words, nothing new happened on Capitol Hill.  Not that our elected officials want you to know that.

This week, for example, instead of trying to advocate for substantive change in the way Congress does business, Republican senator Rand Paul engaged in some busy-work in a Senate committee.  He tried to call Democratic senator Barbara Boxer's bluff over her concerns about the way some women in other countries are being treated by radical Muslims.

Believing that Boxer was simply playing to the liberal faithful as she extolled the virtues of combating injustices against women, Paul tried to attach a religious rights amendment onto an otherwise bipartisan bill.  And his amendment sounded good enough:  it would have prevented the United States from giving foreign aid to countries whose anti-blasphemy laws sentence convicts to death or life imprisonment.

Ostensibly, Paul's amendment was aimed at Muslim countries where both the subordination of women and the persecution of converts to Christianity are prevalent.  Had his amendment been passed in committee, it could have killed two birds with one stone:  appealing to religious rights activists, and feminists - two groups that are rarely on the same side of anything.

However, only one other Republican senator voted with Paul for his religious liberties amendment, and it died in committee.

Technically, if Paul was genuinely interested in calling Boxer's bluff on her concern over the plight of women in countries where they're treated as second-class citizens, he could have crafted an amendment that more directly addressed the issue, rather than exploit something like religious rights.  But Paul was being just another politician here, and in this case, an ineffective one.  If you were to corner Boxer and ask her if she supports both women's rights and religious rights, she'd likely reply in the affirmative on both counts.  But if you ask her to prioritize the two, it's likely she'd put the former over the latter.  Right?  Sure, Paul can say his objective was bipartisan, but he knows the score.  So to call foul on a game he already knew was set is more hollow grandstanding on his part than genuine leadership in the Senate.

And not just because he was toying with Boxer, but because the whole topic of foreign aid is bigger than just women and religion, isn't it?  After all, American politicians, from the President on down, don't expect foreign governments to treat their people a certain way just because we give them money!

Foreign aid is a tool used by American governments to obtain political favors that primarily benefit our interests.  Not theirs.  We may help countries score their own political points along the way, and achieve some altruistic, beneficial human rights successes in the process.  Foreign aid can also generate some good photo ops for politicians supervising the distribution of food to impoverished people groups.  But all that is icing on the cake, not the cake itself.  The cake is what we can get for ourselves in the bargain:  oil, political stability, political leverage, a jab at a common enemy, bragging rights in foreign policy, or the self-aggrandizement of the most prominent politician involved in the deal.

It's a token power play on our part.  Still, Washington thinks it works, even if the diplomacy surrounding it can get tricky.  And the tricky side of foreign aid is why politicians don't want to be too restricted in how they broker each deal.

Much is made these days about how much America spends on foreign aid, particularly in contrast with the return on our "investment" that average American voters think we should be getting.  However, this concern betrays a naïveté on the part of citizens beyond the beltway who don't understand that the money is going to foreign leadership, not foreign indigenous groups, or foreign persecuted groups, or foreign poor people.

We're handing U.S. taxpayer dollars to leaders in other countries who've either worked themselves into a tight financial spot and need some political "capital" - or are simply incompetent, or lazy, or hopelessly corrupt.  Washington knows not to expect much from the dollars we dole out around the globe, because the return on investment principle is the same in foreign policy as it is with social welfare programs.  Conservatives gripe about it all the time when it comes to entitlements, but foreign aid can actually be viewed as an entitlement slush fund for politicians hoping to score something with, in, or through a foreign country.

Besides, foreign aid comprises less than 2% - two percent! - of America's budget, and other countries know this.  They know our foreign aid is petty cash.  Even Christ would likely ask why it isn't somewhere around 10%, especially if we are supposedly a "Christian" nation.

Which brings us back to religious freedom.  What do rank-and-file conservatives think about when they talk about religious freedom?  Is it freedom for anybody to practice the religion of their choice, no matter how unconventional or unpopular it may be?  How many people who cheer religious freedom would allow an Arabic prayer to be read over the loudspeaker at their kids' school?

Rand Paul is good at puffing up smokescreens to obscure the fact that he's not really doing much of anything in Washington except playing the same type of partisan games he criticizes his fellow politicians for playing.  Throwing religious liberty into the mix simply earns him brownie points among God-and-country right-wingers.

Meanwhile, if international religious liberty is so valuable to the good senator, why doesn't he try again and champion a full-fledged bill for it, instead of a piddly ol' amendment?  If this isn't a topic to trivialize, then take the lead on it!

Wouldn't that would be a good way for a self-presumed maverick to set himself apart in our bickering, do-nothing capital?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Fit Flopped? Strike a Pose!

Okay, so maybe yesterday wasn't a normal day for Elizabeth and Benjamin Neufeld.  We're not quite sure why, but somehow, the sporty Honda Fit Elizabeth was driving ended up on its side at the curb outside of their tony Bel Air home in Los Angeles.  But as you can see, the neighbors seem more excited by the situation than the Neufeld's.

That's Elizabeth, unhurt and unfrazzled, still in the driver's seat, with a pink-and-white blouse, with Benjamin, standing outside - both posing for the camera.  According to their neighbors, one of whom can be seen on top of the car, with the passenger door open, Elizabeth took some selfies with her cell phone, and then passed her purse and her cell phone through to her husband, who asked a neighbor to take a few snapshots before the fire department arrived to extricate his wife.

Is this how you'd be handling the aftermath of your car having flipped on its side?

"Calm as a cucumber" is now Benjamin described his wife, as he chatted amicably with reporters who were clearly surprised by such sanguinity.  Some reports say that the Neufelds were in the car together when it tipped over, but others have video of Benjamin quietly describing how he heard a noise like somebody moving a metal garbage can, him going outside to see what was going on, and then seeing a group of neighbors around his wife's car, socializing like they were at a backyard barbecue.

"I was concerned, of course," he recalled, "but everyone was just standing around and she was chatting with them, so I just joined the conversation.  I didn't do very much. There wasn't much to do."

After help arrived, Elizabeth was safely freed from their car, and it was towed away, the couple went inside and had dinner.

Remarkable, huh?

The Neufelds are both in their 80's, and have been married for over 60 years, so it's worth asking whether either one of them should be driving at their time of life.   And what about that Honda Fit, which while being a highly-rated economy car, obviously has a wonky center of gravity when it comes to curbs?

Nevertheless, there's something indomitable about the Neufelds, isn't there?  A "let's just make the best of things" type of attitude that seems scarce these days.  Granted, the affluent neighborhood in which they live - their street runs the crest of a ridge with stunning views of Los Angeles - could be easily enjoyed by any of us, but how many people even in neighborhoods like Bel Air are as unflappable as this couple?

Maybe if the Neufelds owned a $200,000 hand-made Bentley, like the stereotypical Bel Air resident, they'd be more upset.  But then again, as heavy as those British super-luxury cars are, the chances of one of them tipping over are probably nil.

So here's to Elizabeth and Benjamin Neufeld.  We'd have never have heard of you otherwise, but your fifteen minutes of fame has been one of the good kind:  endearing.

Keep calm, and carry on... and pose for a photo or two.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Hot Car Child Deaths and Distracted Parenting

On the one hand, it's hard to tell which is worse:

The evil of a parent who intentionally murders their child?

Or the profound absent-mindedness of a parent who unintentionally leaves their child in a car to suffocate in the heat.

One is more criminal than the other, based on degrees of intent and sheer neglegence.  But either way, the child comes out on the losing end of that parental relationship.  And while one of the parents spends the rest of their life in jail, the other spends the rest of their life racked with guilt and ignominy.

Which is worse?

On the other hand, while both the intentional murder of children and the suffocation of children in hot vehicles can be prevented, it's a lot easier to prevent the latter, rather than the former.  And although cases like the current one in Georgia, where a Home Depot corporate employee's child died in his SUV while he spent the day at work, get a lot of publicity, they're still relatively rare, considering the number of kids who get shuttled around every day.

According to the non-profit advocacy group, an average of 38 children die in locked vehicles every year in the United States.  Maybe that doesn't sound like a lot to you, but consider this:  in 1990, the average was five.  Besides, numbers and statistics don't mean anything if a loved one of yours is affected by this type of tragedy.

Especially one that is so preventable.

If you want a more startling number, try this one:  619.  That's the number of kids left in cars who've died of heatstroke just since 1998.

Now, I'm not a parent, and I usually refrain from writing about parental and child-rearing issues, but I don't think I'm unqualified to evaluate this issue, particularly since every parent I know spends every waking hour of their days knowing they've got kids.  I mean, I can't imagine how hard it must be for a parent to forget they've got a child in their vehicle.  My brother and sister-in-law talked with their children in their family vehicles all the time.  Maybe other parents don't?  Back in the day, my own parents seemed to have been always glancing into the rear-view mirror and asking "what are you doing now?" as if my brother and I were always up to something when we were kids.

Of course, seat belt use was rare in those days, and car seats for infants and toddlers were practically non-existent. believes rear-facing car seats deserve a lot of the blame for the rise in heat-related child suffocation deaths in vehicles, since the number of instances has risen sharply since their use has been mandated by law.  Because of how they're built, rear-facing car seats can prevent a casual observer in a front seat from verifying if the car seat is occupied.

Automatic air bags are also targeted by, because before they became standard equipment in all cars, lots of parents had been setting up car seats in the passenger seat.  After air bags became law in 1995, parents began using rear seats for transporting their small children, since the force of a deploying airbag can be quite dangerous - even for adults.  But because air bags can be credited with saving a lot of lives, their drawbacks have become part of the price we pay for automotive safety, and car seats aren't going to be returning to the front seat any time soon.

There's also the question of whether the heavily-tinted windows that come standard on a lot of vehicles - particularly SUV's - can prevent an exiting parent from seeing that somebody is still in a car seat.

But I still go back to my question about how parents forget they've got a kid in their car to begin with.

My parents, my brother and his wife, and every other family I've ever ridden with knows that the children in our vehicle need to be accommodated.  In fact, virtually everything about the ride ends up revolving around the kids.  If we play the radio, we have to play it so they can hear it, or so they can nap (which means we can't hear it).  If the air conditioner is on, we periodically check the temperature in the back to make sure the kids aren't sweltering or freezing.  Drivers tend to try and take fewer risks when they're driving kids in traffic - or at least, they should.  Plus, you're either on your way to something for the kids, or to something that isn't for the kids, and you have to drop them off someplace else first.  Both ways, it's very hard to forget the kids, right?  Even if they're fast asleep.

I mean:  you're a parent.  This isn't some surprise passenger in your car.  Can parents truly zone out and forget they've got a kid in their car?  Maybe if your life is impossibly stressful, or you just got some horrible news, you could forget.  The way some people become so engrossed in their cell phone conversations, I suppose it would be easy to forget basic things - shucks, I see drivers on their phones forgetting how to drive all the time!  But still... this is your kid in the back seat!  Even if you don't take her to daycare every day, wouldn't the uniqueness of the day you do be enough to remind you?

One of the reasons these cases end up attracting so much attention, I suppose, is because so many parents wonder themselves:  how does this happen?  Most parents probably can't imagine a scenario in which they'd forget their kid in their car.  How incompetent does a parent have to be to do such a thing?  What else have they forgotten to do for their kid?

As for the case in Georgia, law enforcement officials suspect the dad may have had criminal intent in the death of his son.  They say the two dined at a Chick-fil-A restaurant for breakfast just a mile from Home Depot's corporate office.  The question that becomes apparent is whether a parent can forget they've got their kid in the car during a one-mile trip.  There's also evidence that the dad went out to his SUV during his workday, and returned to the office.  How many kids left alone, strapped into a car seat, aren't squealing or making some other commotion when they next see their parent?  How could the dad have missed that?  Was the little boy already passed out?  Or already dead?

Did this dad intend to kill his young son?  As of today, the dad is in jail without bond.  Police have said that there are inconsistencies between the accounts he's given to various investigators.  Nevertheless, there's enough doubt about his criminal guilt around Atlanta for sympathetic people to have already donated $20,000 in support of the family.  Apparently, a lot of people believe this is all a tragic mistake.

Okay, so let's take it as that.  Frankly, I know a number of computer techies, which is what this dad did for his job at Home Depot.  They're great people, but if you get them going on a technical question, they can seriously zone out from everything else to concentrate on an answer.  We know about distracted driving.  Maybe this is a case of distracted parenting.

Then there are the folks who say that it's easy to fix such distractions, such as whatever this technology-focused dad may have fallen for, or a cell phone conversation, et cetera.  Put a diaper bag on the passenger seat to remind you of your toddler in the back seat, they say.  Put something on your door to remind you to check the back seat.  Put a small Post-It note on your rear-view mirror.  But hey - if you're going to forget your kid in the back seat, how likely are you to remember to rig simple gimmicks to avoid doing it in the first place?  How disciplined are you going to be to install your reminder before every trip with your kid?

And there's still this question:  If you can forget your kid in the back seat, what else are you forgetting to do for him or her?   How much complacency can survive such parenting styles before you're a dangerous parent to your child?

For this family in suburban Atlanta, there are no easy answers, no matter what caused what happened.  About the only good that can come out of stories like this is if such news can prompt parents to double-check their kids in the back seats of their vehicles.  Hey - why not make it a habit?  Let it become your distraction.

After all, distractions evolve from split-second evaluations we make for what is most important at that particular time.  The cause of a distraction may be beyond our control, but is the priority we give to that distraction?

I'm not a parent, but I'm told kids can make for valuable distractions.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Fallon's Humor Isn't Godly Joy

He was born in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.  I think that's pretty cool, since I was born there, too.

His wife, Nancy Juvonen, is of Finnish descent.  I think that's pretty cool, too, since I am, too.

His name is Jimmy Fallon, and while I don't watch much late night television, I've seen his stuff, and when his comedy is clean, which is a lot of the time, he's pretty funny.  He's a natural when it comes to making people laugh, and I think that's pretty cool.

But is watching him host The Tonight Show a spiritual discipline?  Zack Hoag, a pastor in Vermont, says it is for him.  Fallon's humor "restores my faith in the reality of joy, Hoag enthuses.  "And not just any joy.  A divine kind of joy."


Christianity Today's Kate Shellnutt thinks so.  She takes it as a given that "Christians need balance in our pop culture engagement," as if Christians should be spending much time engaging with pop culture at all.  And Shellnutt doesn't just love Fallon for bringing a balance of fresh fun to late night television.  She inadvertently defines her version of Biblical joy as being full of character impressions, slapstick silliness, and music parodies.

As if the joy God wishes for His children is all about character impressions, slapstick silliness, and music parodies.

It's not that Fallon isn't funny, or that his youthful vibe shouldn't be relevant to his audience.  It's not even wrong for evangelicals to try to be finding some sort of entertainment on television that isn't full of licentiousness and vulgar language.  If you want to enjoy Fallon's comedy for what it is - and according to Shellnutt, it's pretty shallow and juvenile - then staying up past a typical commuter's bedtime to watch his show probably isn't a sin.

But is it joyful in the Biblical sense?

Vermont's Hoag claims that emotional happiness, such as the enjoyment he derives from Fallon's humor, equals joy.  Hoag refutes the traditional evangelical view that joy supersedes emotion, especially when our circumstances wouldn't necessarily conjure happiness.  Amazingly, he has the chutzpah to deride Nehemiah 8:10 ("the joy of the Lord is your strength") as "a defeater statement, a kind of Jesus-juke meant to stifle any real emotions we might be feeling."

Apparently, in his family growing up, he hated it when his preacher father would exhort his children to "stop being sad/mad/bored/whatever and be JOYFUL!  After all, you have a relationship with Jesus!"

Um, and being joyful in Christ despite our circumstances is bad theology?

It seems ironic at a humanistic level, but the Bible often couples joy with trials, such as in Luke 6:22-23 and Romans 5:3-4.  That means Biblical joy should be possible despite our circumstances and natural emotions, doesn't it? 

Hoag thinks this orthodox view of joy forces us to be inauthentic liars in the face of genuine hardships, or refusing to acknowledge the good things that God provides us.  He also scoffs at the notions of God's holiness and our depravity as a reason to not be joyful, apparently failing to grasp that the reason there's joy in our juxtaposition with our Creator is that He loves us despite who we are.  We rejoice not in our depravity, but in what Christ has saved us from.

And for her part, Shellnutt insists that "we need the light of the funny, silly, and joyful to glow in the dark." 

But is the joy of the Lord comparable to what's funny and silly in life?  God's joy is about salvation, freedom from the fear of death, and resting in His sovereignty.  Yet Hoag and Shellnutt want to be content with humor?

According to Psalm 37:4, joy is delighting ourselves in the Lord.  Fallon may be funny and silly, but he's not our divine Savior.

Jonathan Edwards once said, "glorifying God is nothing else than rejoicing in God in His glory.  But if God made man to rejoice in this, then He made man to be happy."  In other words, our joy is found in God.

And yes, there is an element of our conventional definition of happiness that is a part of Biblical joy.

But is Biblical joy merely an emotional happiness?  After all, anybody can be happy - as is proven by Fallon's appreciative audience, whether they're evangelical believers or heathen unbelievers.  Sometimes, a good joke is a good joke, and people are going to laugh at anything that is genuinely funny.  But are good jokes and genuine humor legitimate substitutes for the joy God wants us to have?

And if God's joy isn't special, if anybody can see why believers are obviously "joyful" or happy, and we're basing this joy on emotions anybody else can feel, how does that testify to His perfect peace?  A peace that passes understanding?  A peace that only His people can possess?

After all, God's joy is a Fruit of the Spirit, along with things like love, peace, and patience.  And these Fruit are gifts that God gives us.  Neither the world, nor anybody in it, can give us His joy.  So if Billy Graham can't give me Godly joy, and John MacArthur can't give me Godly joy, why should we think Jimmy Fallon can?

Let's not delude ourselves into thinking that pop culture can take the place of anything God wants for us.  Fallon's revamped Tonight Show may provide a welcome breath of fresh air as far as late-night television is concerned, and there's nothing particularly wrong with that.  But should we confer upon mortals the honor and respect that we should reserve for our Creator and Redeemer?  Don't we sin when we define the joy we believers in Christ are supposed to have as something that can be obtained without a relationship with Him?

Go ahead and have a good laugh with Fallon.  But how funny will his jokes and antics be after you've seen them a few times?  Meanwhile, God's joy does not change, although it can change us to our core.  It is always available, never in re-runs, and always commercial-free.  We cannot tire of it, or not be in the mood for it.  We can't even turn it on - it happens inside of us automatically when we let God rule our heart and mind.

It may not be silly, or slapstick, but it's eternal.  It may not be as tangible as a belly laugh from one of Fallon's jokes, but it is real.

In fact, if I couldn't tell the difference between being happy because of Fallon's humor, and God's holy joy, then I'd be truly worried.

Monday, June 23, 2014

McMansions Feeding on Urban Trend

It's the trend that wasn't supposed to happen.

McMansionization.  The phenomenon of tearing down relatively diminutive, unimpressive homes to construct super-sized trophy homes.  Some people call them monster homes.  Like they're trying to gobble up the old 'hood.

It's a result of mostly white, mostly wealthy Americans returning to the cities their ancestors practically abandoned just a generation or two ago.

And just as unpredictably, it's driving a lot of people nuts.

As suburbanization and white flight decimated America's inner cities after World War II, many experts wrote an epitaph for the urban core.  Even as scholars hoped some sort of miracle could help reinvigorate neighborhoods that were dying all around our country's downtowns, it looked more and more like nothing could dim the popularity of suburbia.

But something unexpected happened on the way to limitless sprawl.  Inner-city living quietly became desirable.  And not among the poor, who couldn't ever have afforded to leave for suburbia, or the non-whites, who where usually shunned in suburbia, but by relatively wealthy whites.

Even though many jobs had decamped from downtown skyscrapers and followed their employees to the 'burbs, plenty had not, and those workers were getting tired of their mind-numbing commutes.  Then too, as manufacturing left the urban core for suburbia, and then overseas, a lot of abandoned yet funky, solid buildings were available on the cheap, which attracted the interest of our post-industrial creative class.

As suburbanization had run amok across the country, a lot of people had begun to question the rationale of bulldozing trees for cookie-cutter subdivisions, placing shopping and employment districts along freeways, instead of within communities, and intentionally excluding most all mass transit options except school buses.  And eventually, the more people inched along for hours along those traffic-choked freeways, and had time to wonder what was so awful about those inner-city neighborhoods they were driving through to reach a better quality of life in the 'burbs, it began to dawn on more and more commuters:  that quality of life I'm supposed to have in suburbia is being spent on these freeways!  If we lived closer to the office, we could be home by now, or at least in our local artisanal coffee shop or wine bar.

Suddenly, suburbia wasn't so attractive anymore.  And the exurbs don't really solve any of the problems new generations are finding with suburbia.  Besides, there's still that commute, which only gets longer the further away you purchase your home.

At first, the return to America's cities took the form of infill development, and the remodeling of dilapidated yet salvageable  properties that had survived half a century of white flight and suburbanization.  But the cheapest spots in the newly-desirable neighborhoods eventually filled in, and the choicest of the old homes that had lost their luster were eventually renewed up to and beyond even their former glory.  Along the way, in the trendiest old neighborhoods, new apartment buildings and townhomes sprouted, boasting architecture intended to make them look old, yet modern.

It was all hip, sophisticated, and cool.  It was urbane.  And prices began to climb.

Inevitably, this tide of new-and-renewed had saturated whatever vacant land could have been built upon, or whatever old homes could be easily remodeled.  And not every family moving back to the urban core wants to live in apartments.  So urbanism's newcomers have turned to what they believe to be the next best thing:  tearing down existing homes, and constructing brand-new ones.

But it hasn't necessarily been the next best thing.

It sounds like a good idea, in theory.  Keep the walkable neighborhood, with the grand, mature trees, and the quick commute to employment and hip new restaurants.  Find the least-attractive, worst-preserved, and smallest of houses in aging single-family neighborhoods, tear them down, and in their place, build a house with amenities you would want in suburbia, and you see no reason to deny yourself just because you're back in the city.

Hey, you're improving the neighborhood by increasing property values and removing from the streetscape something that was likely an eyesore.

But eyesores are in the eyes of the beholder, aren't they?  And while it is true that a man's home is his castle, some of these new houses are practically, literally, castles.  Right next-door to far smaller, far more humble domiciles.

Which begs the question these days:  are the older homes the eyesore, or the new McMansions squatting awkwardly in their midst?

Back in the day, most urban neighborhoods were built just like suburban and exurban subdivisions are:  by the same developer, or groups of developers, who pretty much adhere to a similar style so they can save money on construction costs.  Whether it's a street of row houses in Washington, DC or Brooklyn, or a street of detached single-family ranch houses in Dallas, most of what was originally built shared similar facades, street set-backs, rooflines, and materials.  They may have looked exactly the same, or they may have all featured a different floorplan, but taken as a whole, every house on the block looked like it belonged there.  There was a level of continuity, cohesiveness, and character that made it feel like a community.

Plus, their sales prices when new were all fairly similar, meaning that a consistent lifestyle could be expected from the neighborhood.  Some city planners complain that such an economic consistency has been part of American society for far too long, but when it comes to money, few of us have been eager to share our block with people far poorer than us, or even far richer.  Poor neighbors can drive property values down, and rich neighbors can drive taxes out of our reach.

With today's McMansions, however, the diversity some city planners say we've needed has definitely arrived, but it probably doesn't look like anything even the most optimistic social scientists envisioned.  In the most desirable neighborhoods of inner-city Dallas, for example, two- and three-level homes tower over short ranch-style cottages, often on double lots.  On some blocks, McMansionization has virtually wiped out all of the original, smaller homes, actually neutralizing the stark differences that would otherwise be apparent.  But most blocks are still in transition, and likely will be for a while, since early homesteaders from suburbia are still paying off the remodeling expenses they accumulated before the McMansion craze took over their neighborhood.  The effect is odd at best:  cute, fresh, modernized old homes next door to impossibly large, garish new houses that are proportioned more for an estate than an urban lot.

Today, the Washington Post has an article featuring a ridiculously tall, remodeled town house along a tired row of diminutive, historic ones, all attached, and all with the same roofline, with the exception of this goofy-looking interloper.

The monster home craze is taking an odd turn in some college neighborhoods, such as the pre-war districts near Fort Worth's popular Texas Christian University.  Developers have been purchasing old, often ramshackle houses near campus, and constructing monster buildings that look like single-family houses, but are actually private dormitories for students, not residents who want to become a part of the neighborhood long-term.

Even in New York City, where exorbitant land costs have kept the McMansion craze to a minimum, the "mansions" developers are now building in Manhattan are monster apartments.  They're created either by combining several existing smaller apartments into one huge one, building several multi-level penthouses on the top of new buildings, or even gutting the first five levels or so of an otherwise conventional apartment building and turning the space into one huge condominium.

Why do less wealthy New Yorkers have a problem with this idea?  Well, for the ground floor trophy apartments (desirable because they usually have an exclusive entrance off of the street), their creation occurs in the space where shops, restaurants, and doctors offices have traditionally been located.  That means a building's residents lose amenities, and the sidewalk loses commercial energy as a blank wall for a private residence replaces a pedestrian-friendly enterprise.

Plus, the more apartments are combined, that many apartments get taken off of the city's housing inventory, driving up housing prices on an island that can never seem to have enough housing.

On the one hand, a property owner should be able to build whatever kind of house he wants, can afford, and can maintain.  Within reason, of course.  Few people, for example, would want to live next-door to a structure shaped like a 60-foot water tower that the owner claims is a house.  And in Fort Worth's case with student housing being built near TCU, it's hard to deny neighbors their frustration with developers appearing to abuse single-family zoning rules.

At its core, however, the monster home phenomenon is more than zoning, or even money.  It's about changing values; only in this case, whose values are worth more?  Some people, particularly those who own smaller, older homes, don't mind whatever inconveniences such structures present their family.  Or they don't live the lifestyle that requires a lot of space and modern luxury.  Two bathrooms as opposed to four?  A separate dining area?  A media room?  Twelve-foot ceilings as opposed to 8'6"?  How much of what today's self-indulgent family wants in their home is truly necessary?  And just because you can afford to build it, should you?

Meanwhile, why can't a family pour money into their big home, particularly if they view home ownership as a safe place to put a lot of their money?  Sure, the larger the home, the more energy it needs, and the more things you'll need to fix.  But if the homeowner can afford it, why should the neighbors care?  Builders claim modern homes are far more energy-efficient than most older homes, so whose structure is more wasteful per square foot?

Sometimes, of course, a developer or a builder will tear down a legitimate eyesore and instantly improve a neighborhood by replacing the older structure with something new and more appropriate.  But such projects seem to be more the exception than the rule. 

Nevertheless, if the main issue here involves changing values, whether it's the aesthetics of what a house looks like, or the size required to accommodate how a family wants to live, or even the fact that close-in neighborhoods are now more attractive to more people than those in the 'burbs, how should that change be transacted?  How should the people pursuing the change act?

McMansionization can be a significant component of the broader phenomenon of gentrification, which is itself complex and divisive.  However, gentrification typically involves vast socioeconomic changes within a previously marginalized neighborhood, whereas McMansions usually sprout the most in neighborhoods that managed to remain somewhat stable throughout their city's war with suburbia.

At its worst, McMansionization happens because people who can afford to have what they want to have usually get it.  And it's the worst side of McMansionization that attracts the most attention, isn't it?  It's the imperiousness, the disdain for what currently exists - and who currently exists.  It's the idea that my ability to do something is more important than your inability to do something, and that somehow, being unable to tear down your house and build a new one to match my McMansion makes you morally inferior.  And you are morally inferior; otherwise, I'd have to take your opinions into consideration if I'm going to be your next-door neighbor.

But of course, a lot of people who build McMansions don't necessarily care about their neighbors.  Or at least - the neighbors who've likely lived through the block's dark days, and survived.  Perhaps it's that cavalier attitude about a neighborhood's history, where people have lived and died, and families have grown up, that most bothers those of us who either don't want, don't need, or can't afford the McMansions other families desire.

In another fifty years, what will these neighborhoods look like?  Will they have transitioned mostly to McMansions, like several popular Dallas neighborhoods have already done?  Will the streetscape resemble a city skyline, with homes of various heights and shapes up and down the block?  Will these big homes be able to hold their value?  Value both in terms of their resale price, and the values their families represent?

It's a trend that wasn't supposed to happen.  So, even with all of the negatives that have come along with it, the fact that it has happened isn't all bad news for cities.  McMansionization has proven that people can still find value in old neighborhoods, even if they don't respect the people who preceded them there.

Let's hope we can learn some lessons from this within the next half-century, before McMansionization reverts to the suburbs.

Like that will ever happen.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Truth Can Lie Beyond Targeted Talk

I listen to former vice president Dick Cheney, a guy who who helped orchestrate America's invasion of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, inaccurately blame Iraq's current ISIS insurgency on Barak Obama's incompetence.

I read about New York City's ultra-liberal Union Seminary divesting itself of fossil fuel revenue, claiming that not doing so would be a sin.

And I realize now, more than ever, that it doesn't matter if you're a conservative or a liberal; people feel entitled to believe their version of truth really is truth.  Not what truth really is.

Of course, there's no surprise in this.  I'm not saying I'm seeing such revisionism for the first time.  But it's not every day that, from two opposite ends of the spectrum, two popular institutions within their particular spheres of influence each blatantly prove the point.  Especially if what they prove goes beyond petty self-aggrandizement to blatantly contradict why they claim to have authority in their respective fields.

In Cheney's case, it's as simple as historical fact that while President Obama has indeed mismanaged the Iraq war, it is a war he inherited from his predecessor.  And his predecessor, who was fed misleading information by Cheney and other war hawks, invaded a sovereign nation without proof of his claims for doing so.  Cheney says that most of Washington and the free world consented to the invasion, but everybody was operating on the same biased information Cheney's band of warriors were disseminating.

Pick apart the Obama administration's foibles in Iraq all you want, but the very reason he had to deal with that war lies with you, Mr. Cheney, for whom it could far more factually be stated that rarely has a U.S. vice president "been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many."

Union Seminary's petulant self-righteousness over fossil fuels is similarly audacious, even if it's not making the big headlines Cheney is.  Founded in 1836, Union Seminary seems to have always taken pride in its ability to flout orthodox Christianity, and it has produced some of the most liberal preachers America has ever known.  So having it take a stand through its finances against a perceived social ill is not what's surprising about their statement about fossil fuels.  In fact, it would be more surprising if Union Seminary wasn't on the left wing's ecological bandwagon, demonizing mankind for its reliance on natural resources that have pollutive byproducts.

But claiming fossil fuels are a "sin"?

"As a seminary we are familiar with the scriptural warning that 'the wages of sin is death,'" writes Serene Jones, Union Seminary's president.  "And this could not be more literally true than it is in the case of fossil fuels."

Jones goes on to explain her definition of sin as "anything that prevents us from having a faithful relationship with God, with each other, with ourselves, and with creation."

Which is not the orthodox definition of salvation taught in the Bible.  Biblically, sin is "anything that prevents us from having a faithful relationship with God," full stop.  And what is a faithful relationship with God, but acting in accordance with God's honor and glory?  We can mar that relationship with God in the way we treat other people, ourselves, and the environment, but God does not hold us to the same standard when it comes to the Created as He does when it comes to the Creator, Himself.

This may sound like a nuanced technicality, but it's an example of how flawed theology can sound more plausible than heretical.  But then again, this is the kind of stuff Union Seminary has become famous for fabricating.  Usually, however, they're creating their own interpretations of theology, not trying to twist basic logic.

Presumably, Union Seminary is making this change in their finances because they have decided that mankind's use of fossil fuels significantly contributes to the theory of global warming.  Yet for all of the logic science insists it needs for its own credibility, global warming is still a theory, even though a lot of dramatic evidence appears to support the idea that global warming is happening.  Nevertheless, we still don't have answers to whether or not global warming - and cooling - could be naturally cyclical.  Nor do we know the extent to which mankind's introduction of processed chemicals into the environment may contribute to the planet's temperature fluctuations.  Nor do we know whether the relatively short timespan in which accurate temperatures have been recorded around the world represents a sufficient data sample to judge whether any current "warming" is unprecedented or should be of particular concern.  After all, even when I was in school, I learned about the Ice Age, and our planet has obviously warmed up considerably since then, and all that warming took place without any nasty automobiles or coal-fired power stations.

I'm not smart enough to know whether or not a global warming phenomenon of the destructive scale many scientists allege is truly taking place.  And if it is, I'm not smart enough to know the extent to which mankind has a role to play in such a phenomenon.  But the thing is - nobody is smart enough to know these things!  That's why we don't have definitive proof.  We can pretty much prove that something called gravity exists, or that wind exists, and maybe we can deduce from measuring glaciers and sea levels that something is heating up somewhere on our globe.  But global warming isn't the same as gravity and wind.  And assigning blame for it certainly is open for much continued debate.

About all we know to be true about global warming is that it may be taking place, and human activity may be a contributing factor.  We already know that pollution exists - just one look at Beijing's air can confirm it.  But are fossil fuels sinful?

Sure, fossil fuels produce pollution when used in specific ways, but the ecology God created actually has built-in mechanisms to help clean away some of that pollution.  Besides, part of the pollution-making process is determining when benefits outweigh drawbacks.  For example, fossil fuels are used to make the plastics used in cutting-edge healthcare to save lives.  Union Seminary thinks that's sinful?  I preach a lot about not letting the ends justify the means, but if we can release the harmful byproducts of things created with fossil fuels in doses our environment can satisfactorily absorb, does that make fossil fuels themselves "sinful"?

Or is it the reckless ways mankind exploits fossil fuels that becomes sinful?

In other words, is it really Exxon's fault when we purchase gas-guzzling vehicles we don't need?  Is it Exxon's fault when people don't fix their vehicle's muffler?  Why do we blame coal miners when electric power stations don't install sophisticated pollution control devices on their smokestacks?

I suspect that if the leaders at Union Seminary were actually honest about their opinions regarding fossil fuels, they wouldn't call such naturally-created fuel "sin", but rather the cavalier way many of us use those fuels.  After all, despite their grand profession of Earth-love, I don't think Union is going off the grid, which is what they'd have to do to realistically "divest" themselves of such immorality as fossil fuel.  They couldn't take the subway, or ride bicycles with rubber tires.  I mean, isn't it silly to make such a blatantly unfounded and unsupportable statement about an industry that provides both positives and negatives to societies around the world?

Yes, faith is often confused as being unfounded and unsupportable, and many of the ways God expects us to honor him seem illogical to people who do not love Him.  What's ironic here, however, is that Union Seminary has spent over 100 years actively trying to wring some humanistic logic out of the Bible, and here they go, willfully beseeching their god of morality to illogically blame creation itself for something mankind abuses.

If they really wanted to advocate for sustainable, environmentally-responsible energy use, perhaps they should re-invest their endowment in ventures that seek to minimize energy waste and byproduct emissions.  They could have quietly instructed the committee administering their endowment to transfer funds from low-risk, high-yield conventional energy companies to high-risk, low-yield ecology firms.  But why waste an opportunity for self-promotion, especially since most of the people to whom your erroneous spin is directed won't bother to take it in context, or parse the fact from fiction in it?

Actually, it's the same reason Dick Cheney and his daughter wrote what they did for the Wall Street Journal.  They figured their fan base won't bother to think back and wonder why one of the guys who crafted the initial misguided invasion of Iraq has any credibility when it comes to blaming somebody else for why the whole thing has turned into such a deplorable mess.

At least, I hope that's why the Cheneys wrote what they did.  I hope they don't actually believe, deep down in their souls, what they wrote.  Because considering how unGodly Union Seminary has been for all these years, I've no doubt that plenty of post-Christians think what President Jones wrote actually makes sense.  And look at how rapidly America's mainline churches, the primary consumers of Union's relativistic dogma, are eroding.

Pilate famously asks Christ, "what is truth?" during his interrogation of the Messiah.  What is truth?  In the case of the Cheneys and Union Seminary, the truth is more than they want to admit.

Funny, though, how both examples involve oil, with Iraq being the world's second-biggest producer of that black gold.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

New Urbanists Can Ideate on This

Tomorrow is the last day Dallas will play host to a prestigious conference on urbanism.

The conference is called New Cities Summit 2014, and it bills itself as "the leading global event on the future of the urban world."  Although it is closed (ironically) to the public, about 800 professional urbanists from 40 countries have been at Dallas' gaudy Winspear Opera House since yesterday, discussing trends in city life, and offering their opinions on how communities around the world can live better as we live closer together.

After all, city life is about density, and people living with a lot less personal space.  Here in the United States, and Texas especially, suburbanization has been the preferred lifestyle for over half a century.  But the preference pendulum is swinging back from the split-levels and faux Colonials of the Boomer generation to the gritty high-rises and soul-less grind of mass transit that today's trendsetting Millennials prefer.

Around the rest of the world, particularly in land-locked Europe, poverty-stricken Africa, and densely-populated Asia, suburbanization never actually reached American-esque proportions.  Either communities were rural, or they were urban, although city life is generally preferred.  After all, if it wasn't, cities wouldn't exist!

These days, agrarian societies are notable more for their shrinking populations, whereas cities around the world are seen as beacons of hope by young people.  And economically, at least, it's not hard to see why.  The more people who live in a particular area, the more chances to make money, no matter what your career is.  Unless you're a farmer.

And now, some cities even want to plant farms on underutilized land, and hopefully provide fresh produce to city dwellers who've developed a diet overly dependent on processed foods.

It's against this backdrop of global urbanization that the Re-Imagining Cities conference has been holding workshops on topics like city-centric technology, transportation, making cities more environmentally-friendly, helping city residents be more happy, and concepts like "the Shared City" and "Inclusive Cities."

While browsing this event's website, it quickly becomes obvious that esoteric posturing and Utopian hubris are key elements of how these new urbanist professionals tick.  They use terms like "geo-strategist", "social change-maker", "augmented reality", and "urban ventures accelerator" as if they've watched too many episodes of Charlie Rose and The Jetsons - simultaneously!

Some of their lingo you have to Google.  "Ideating," for example, is one of their favorite words, but it's simply another term for "think".  "Intrapreneurship" is another one, and it describes a person within a large organization who is allowed to act unilaterally, like an entrepreneur.

Indeed, it's easy to see who the enemies of new urbanism are.  And there are no surprises.  Large, traditional corporations are high on their hit list.  So are automobiles, single-family detached homes, and basically anything that isn't found in New York City's hippest 'hoods.  Also not surprising is the address of several American-based participants:  Brooklyn.

How ironic that millions of people have moved out of Brooklyn over the years, including my parents, looking for a better quality of life for their families.  Now it seems that if you don't like Brooklyn, you won't like the future these new urbanists are planning for you.

And what do these new urbanists do for a living?  There are some glorified social workers, and the entrepreneurs who seem to prefer crowdsourcing over traditional banks for funding their dreams.  There are few engineers, but lots of computer techies.

Some of them have biographies that read like their jobs have been pulled out of thin air.  One of the expert urbanists is "an experienced facilitator on the subject of movement-building" who helps her clients "rethink their participation strategy and maximize impact."

One young fellow - and a lot of these experts in urbanism are young - describes himself as "a lateral thinker, successful serial entrepreneur, and the co-founder of a transcultural think tank."

Culture is also a big thing with these folks, and they advocate for arts districts as a form of economic development.  Not coincidentally, the Winspear Opera House, where this auspicious convocation has been taking place, is a recent addition to Dallas' cultural district, which bills itself as the largest contiguous collection of museums and performance halls in the world.

Apparently, good music, dance, and theater need to be clustered together for bragging rights, instead of spread throughout a community to enhance the public's access to them.

And while a lot of high-dollar education is reflected in the multiple post-graduate degrees held by most of the New Cities speakers, there seems to be a huge disconnect between the aspirations of new urbanists, and the reality for why today's cities - and, likely, tomorrow's - fall so far sort of those aspirations.

A lot of the New Cities agenda appears to be centered upon their conviction that they can manipulate ordinary people like you and me to do what they want us to do.  You and I are the problem, and they're the solution.  If you don't particularly like being squished into a confining urban street grid, or stacked on top of each other in high-rise housing, you need to be re-trained so that loft living - and not needing a drivers license - are what makes us honorable citizens of our planet.

On the plus side, reducing personal and social frictions has become a huge goal of new urbanists, since greater population densities aren't naturally conducive to peace and goodwill.  And while some new urbanists seem to pretend that crime is something that happens only to other people, the schedule at this week's gathering in Dallas includes speeches by the city's chief of police, as well as some experts in the burgeoning field of crime-reduction technology.  Civil liberties purists might call such technology merely an expansion of Big Brother privacy annihilation, but frankly, particularly in Western countries, high crime rates are one of the biggest impediments new urbanists face in implementing their vision of paradise in the city.

Another major impediment is the quality of urban schools, which doesn't appear to rank highly - actually, at all - on the agenda for this week in Dallas.  For wealthy urbanists, private schools are the typical solution for ineffective or unsafe public schools, but for America's dwindling middle class, private schooling is not an option.  Homeschooling may be, but since it takes two incomes for mid-level and lower-level workers to survive in large cities, who's at home during the day to teach the progeny?

One of the key factors that lured America's middle classes out of our urban cores was the promise and reality of desirable schools in suburbia, and compared with the dismal statistics of most urban districts, suburban schools still retain their allure.  It's why, although more and more urban parents are now trying to raise their families downtown, still more urban parents resign themselves to the suburbs when their kids hit pre-K.

Oddly enough, I myself used to be what is now considered a new urbanist.  I was in graduate school for urban planning back in the late 1980's, and I was growing frustrated that my professors were spending so much time trying to demonstrate the modeling of future demand for freeways.  I was going to school here in Texas, which has historically been a state built on the autonomy of the personal automobile, but I figured that at the rate Texas' population was growing, mass transit would have to be incorporated into our transportation infrastructure at some point, and doing so sooner rather than later would be cheaper.  Right?

But I forgot an even more important component of urbanism than crime, schools, artisanal coffee shops (whatever those are), luxury lofts, and trendy lingo.

There has to be political buy-in from the public.  Particularly in the West, obviously, where democracy is established, but even in countries like China, the ruling class knows that the appearance of civic appeasement helps them maintain control better than iron gloves do.  And here in Texas, voters simply have not embraced mass transit the way taxpayers in the far more densely populated Northeast have done.  The reason my urban studies professors were talking freeways - and nothing but freeways - back in the late 1980's is because that's what the public was willing to fund.  And that mentality, for better or worse, hasn't reversed itself, although as parts of the state continue to sprawl with continued growth, residents are increasingly willing to discuss alternatives to the personal automobile.

But back in 1990, however, I grew disillusioned with the "planning" part of my urban studies program.  And I stopped taking classes, leaving my degree unfinished.

I've always thought that I was born in the wrong generation, but usually, I mean that I should have been born decades earlier, in an era that better suits the more provincial side of my personality.  Yet I've been watching this trend towards new urbanism for the past few years with a mix of envy and intrigue.  Now, however, probably thanks to being older, and having a more objective perspective, instead of an optimistic idealism, I see why suburbia isn't as evil, wasteful, uncreative, and antisocial as I used to think it was.  And as many new urbanists are convinced it is.

No, I've never been to any suburb that is as exciting as Manhattan, but I've seen few urban cores that are as clean as most suburbs, with as much reasonably-priced housing as most suburbs, or as safe, or as quiet, or with a less stressful atmosphere.  And as I've gotten older, my priorities have shifted.  Kinda like some trends do.  Trends like new urbanism, maybe?

Besides, let's face it:  if everybody in the world wanted to live in cities, there wouldn't be room enough for them.

To the extent that groups like New Cities wants to make urban environments as livable as they can be for the people who want to live in them, then I say "go for it."

However, if new urbanists think that city living is intrinsically better, healthier, and even more moral than suburban or rural living, then these convocations like the one they're having in Dallas this week will be just another group of elites trying to tell other people how to live their lives.

Augmenting reality may work for a bunch of ideating accelerators of urban ventures, but do the rest of us really need them making social change for us?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

ISIS Springs from Bushes in Iraq

If dire news reports rippling out of Iraq these past few days are to be believed, the political crisis in that ancient country is entering a new chapter of inhumanity.

I question the credibility of these dire news reports from Iraq because the same reporters and governments that didn't even see ISIS coming are the same folks who now are predicting the end if Iraq as we knew it.

Or at least, the end of Iraq as Presidents George W. Bush and Barak Obama have tried to convince us could exist.

After all, it was the second Bush president that threw our military into the Iraqi quagmire to begin with.  Remember that?  The hunt for those elusive weapons of mass destruction (WMD) - a hunt that was elusive because those weapons didn't exist?  Nobody ever claimed Saddam Hussein was a nice guy, but the freedoms and economic advantages that his country enjoyed before Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld convinced their boss to overthrow Saddam never managed to survive our invasion.

At first liberals challenged Bush and his conservative admirers that the Iraq war was a folly, driven more by paternal angst than any imminent threat against America.  Saddam was the guy who famously tried to have 43's father, George H.W. Bush, assassinated, and it was hard to watch the Bush dynasty's transition from Afghanistan to Iraq after 9-11 without wondering how much of it was payback.

And then, after Obama won the presidency, liberals found themselves having to defend a war they'd never embraced.  We'd gotten ourselves stuck too deeply in the Iraqi quagmire, and Democrats were the relief pitchers in Bush's slugfest, gamely trying to pull out a win for at least the Democratic party, if not the country as a whole.

Much can be said about the botched diplomacy, erratic military moves, and outright failures of the Obama administration's execution of their part of the war.  But it can't be ignored that Obama simply inherited a colossal mess, and that the guy who'd started it all was re-crafting his image as a peaceable gentleman rancher down in Texas.

I've never supported the Iraq war.  I've admired the bravery and sacrifice of America's military personnel who dutifully went over there, and fought, and got wounded, and died over there.  Indeed, I firmly believe that the sacrifice our military has made at the behest of their commanders-in-chief says many positive things about our country.  Which is a good thing, considering what the many bad things done by their commanders-in-chief say about our country.

It would have been nice - and I'd have gladly admitted to having been in error - if the Iraq war could have somehow morphed into a gilded trophy of American imperialism.  Because Iraqis didn't have democracy under Saddam, they could have benefited from having a greater voice in their present, and their future.  But many Western politicians have been taken aback by the almost blatant refusal by Iraqis to embrace our Western style of governance.  After Bush's "liberation," ethnic struggles and religious stratification that Saddam had managed to forcibly control burst back into Iraqi society after being pent up for generations.  It was like Saddam was holding tightly to the narrow opening of a giant balloon, and when Bush forced him to let go, the balloon that is Iraq was free all right - free to ricochet around, deflating wildly, and finally lying limp and empty on the dusty ground.

Ready for ISIS to grab.

I'm no historian or political scholar, so back when America invaded Iraq, I opposed the war simply for the obvious reasons.  First, there was a lack of WMD evidence.  In addition, we were crippling our credibility in the international community by invading a sovereign nation.  I also worried that Bush would take his post-9-11 focus off of Afghanistan and al  Qaeda, to the detriment of our effectiveness there.  Like many conservatives, I didn't realize the extent to which Saddam's autocracy was actually keeping a tight lid on the fierce religious and cultural rivalries that make Iraq practically ungovernable without a centralized authority figure.

Today, I'm saddened as an American for the role that our elected leadership has played in the stunning unraveling of Iraq.  It's a country whose society we've woefully misunderstood, to both their detriment, and ours.  We've also abused Iraq for the purposes of political gamesmanship here in the United States.  And it's been both Democrats and Republicans who have sought to exploit Iraq for votes and military contracts.

Many American soldiers who served in Iraq are beginning to question the legitimacy of their service, especially considering how rapidly the American-trained security forces in Iraq are falling apart in the face of ISIS.  To those veterans who are watching all of this stateside, and to the families of servicemembers who were killed in Iraq, I can only hope that their pride of service and their sacrifice for the ideals we say we value as Americans can be some sort of balm.

Some "experts" have begun to speculate that since most of the victories being won by ISIS are located in the northern parts of Iraq, it's possible the country could eventually be split in two, since a war for Baghdad and the country's vast oil industry to the south would undoubtedly be more sophisticated, and attract international military might against which ISIS is so far untested.

But considering how wrong, deluded, and partisan the experts have been all along, even a short civil war seems hopelessly optimistic.

Meanwhile, the mainstream Western media has begun to goad the Obama administration into some sort of armed engagement with ISIS, as if yet more American swagger can fix anything.

As if the fact that "ISIS" wasn't even in our lexicon a week ago represents a good testament of Washington's recent competence in handling global crises.

May God grant peace to Jerusalem - and Baghdad.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Eager for Peaceful Unity?

For what are you eager?

Do you eagerly await some desired event, like the birth of a child, or a job promotion, or the opportunity to purchase a new car?  Do you earnestly and enthusiastically strive to do your work well?  Do you look for ways to do things better, do things for others, or not do things that you know you shouldn't, but you find fun anyway?

For believers in Christ, the Apostle Paul says we are to be eager when it comes to maintaining unity amongst ourselves.  According to Ephesians 4:3, he urges you and me to be "eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."  And sure, it's easy to bounce through an altruistic verse like that, acknowledge how nice it is when "brothers live together in unity," and agree that "pursuing all that makes for peace" is a noble task.

Yet how often do you and I then continue on our individualized, independent pathways, letting our culture frame our worldview, and our personalities customize our interpretation of what Paul is saying?

Perhaps unity is particularly elusive in a democratic republic, where, politically, voters are encouraged to speak their mind and make choices based on their opinions and knowledge.  Choices are valued, alternatives are explored, and opposition is seen as a civic benefit, within reason.  Somewhere along the way, a country as diverse as the United States is supposed to still be able to find common ground in a basic framework of identity, ideals, and values.  Even if our brand of unity is held in the balance more by tension than a shared foundation.

In Christ's communion of saints, however, there is to be both unity and peace.  Whereas we Americans have little peace in our society, as we advocate for different things, there is still a semblance of unity, at least in theory.  However, that is not the model Christ presents in His Gospel for His people.  In fact, Christ not only expects both unity and peace from us, He wants us to be eager as we maintain them!

My editor at, Debbie Holloway, recently posted an article entitled "When Did Christians Get So Mean?" exploring the phenomenon of personal attacks by self-professing Christ-followers in our modern culture, particularly online and in social media.  It seems like everybody wants to mimic Rush Limbaugh or Piers Morgan these days, bashing their opposition instead of simply offering different viewpoints.  It's cool to be derisive and demeaning, and sometimes funny, too.  We're sure to score a lot more Facebook "likes" with vitriol than we are with eager patience, aren't we?

Eager patience?  Well, consider it the opposite of righteous disunity.  After all, we each think we're right, and when it comes to being eager, we each strive to prove it.

Yet righteous disunity isn't as easy to resolve as a plethora of nasty texts, tweets, and posts online.  What about serious differences of theological opinion that may be discussed with quiet, academic propriety and professionalism, but still represent diametrically opposed beliefs?  Consider, for example, the recent concern over the Insider Movement, or the Federal Vision movement of Peter Leithart?  Just because the wider evangelical community may not be aware of these heady disagreements, they nonetheless represent serious affronts to the peace and unity Christ expects of us.

So, what happens when some Christ-follower gets really excited about something they think the church needs to know, or believe?  Or how do we respond when we see something happening that we don't support?  How do we distinguish between good things that risk destroying an unhealthy unity among God's people, and bad things that are destroying good unity?  After all, sometimes we can be unified around something that turns out to be incorrect.  Kinda like when most everybody assumed the world was flat.  Unity itself isn't worthwhile, unless we're unified around the right things.

First, of course, we need to determine what the Bible teaches about the divisive topic.  However, if scholars believe they can interpret what the Bible says in different ways, or that the Bible is "silent" on the particular topic, then in the interest of unity and peace, what's wrong with taking a practical approach?  Why not simply evaluate the party who benefits the most in the matter at hand?  If Christ is the Person who receives immediate benefit (and glory), then that is something around which we should be unified.  If any mere mortal, or denomination, or political party, or opinion receives immediate benefit, then we probably need to be careful about whether it's something over which unity should be risked.

Being stubborn about absolute truth is one thing.  Being stubborn about what we want to believe is another.

How interesting to note that while a form of unity can exist without peace, Christ wants both to exist among His people.  Which sounds impossible, doesn't it?  Fortunately, He's given each of us His Holy Spirit, Whose Fruit should be sufficient for guiding us through our individual desires, idiosyncrasies, convictions, and preferences.

But even if we have unity and peace, we're still supposed to be eager to maintain it!  Good grief - is God expecting us to be saints?  How perfect does He want us to be?  It's hard enough being eager to get to church every Sunday.  It's even harder to be eager to share our faith with hardened unbelievers.  And He expects us to be motivated towards unity and peace within our fellowship of faith?

In Ephesians 4, Paul says it can be done through humility, gentleness, and patience, "bearing with one another in love."

Obviously Christ had this in mind when He taught that the world will know whether or not we're a disciple of His by our love for one another.

So, what are we waiting for?  With eagerness?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Media Quick to Drop Shooting Story

Wow.  That was fast.

Today's Washington Post website features an article on its home page about suing Coca-Cola over pomegranate juice made with apples.  Plus an article entitled "The Slow Demise of the Frequent Flier Program."

They have nothing about Tuesday's school shooting in Oregon that left two students dead.  Apparently, that's yesterday's news.  Over and done.  Dropped from the front page.

CNN's homepage has an article about North Korea's Kim Jong Un and the dictator's fury over inaccurate weather forecasting.  Plus a photo album entitled "Scenes from Rio's Beaches," with a teaser pic of bikini-clad women.  Plus a list of "26 Movies That Will Make You Cry."

Stop.  The.  Presses.

It's a similar story over at the New York Times' website, which also has a home page story about the pomegranate lawsuit, plus a fascinating piece about Facebook allowing users to customize the advertisements they see.  It's the fourth story down in their website's center column, so it must be important news.

However, they've nothing about school violence, either.  Or gun control, or what might have motivated 15-year-old Jared Padgett to kill Emilio Hoffman in their school on Tuesday.  Padgett was reputed to be a devout Mormon who was likely troubled by his parents' contentious divorce, according to reports continuing to dribble out of his local community around Portland.  But that's mostly speculation at this point, since we're still only two days past yet another tragic event at yet another public school in yet another ordinarily quiet, suburban town.

Sure, we know America's media machine always strikes while a story is hot.  Reporters and talking heads kick up some dust, milk as much sensationalism as they can out of things, and then race off to the next big story.  Or the next story our mainstream media tells us is big.  Meanwhile, the American public crests and falls while being led along on these rapid-fire chases through headlines that, thanks to communication technology, get easier to publicize.  If not actually report.

What's interesting is how quickly Tuesday's shooting has lost the media's interest.

All most Americans know today about Tuesday's shooting is that it happened.  We don't know why, even if advocates of greater gun control legislation think they do.  And for the most part, our media is content to leave it at that.  Throw in a sound bite by President Obama about Congress being "terrified" of the National Rifle Association, and click the "Post" button.

Okay, next!

After all, we've got to make room for the 20th anniversary of O. J. Simpson's slow-speed freeway chase.  Then there's the World Cup starting today, which while an interesting topic for most of the world, is a yawner for most Americans.  And where would our media be without the relentless violence in Iraq?  And Hillary Clinton's relentless coyness regarding her presidential campaign?  Our attention span may be notoriously short, but for some topics, our media overlords seem to think that some topics are more worthy of overkill than others.

Granted, what's unfolding in Iraq this week is indeed sobering, and ultimately jeopardizes everything for which 4,400 American soldiers have died trying to provide the people of that country.  Even if we didn't have to invade it to begin with.  Do you ever wonder if George W. Bush loses sleep at night, racked with guilt for staging an invasion based on trumped-up charges?  And zero evidence?  Frankly, it's amazing our mainstream media isn't camped out in front of the Bush's gated Dallas neighborhood, demanding to speak with the guy who single-handedly destabilized the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

Sure, Hussein wasn't running an American-style democracy, but women and Christians enjoyed far more liberty under Hussein than they have since he's been gone.  If there's one thing we should be learning from the chaos that has unfolded in Iraq, it's that people don't necessarily need democracy to have freedom.

And even when a people group has democracy, what kind of freedom do they truly have?

When it comes to gun violence, proud advocates of the Second Amendment immediately rise in defense of their gun rights, afraid that one of these days, the broader American public is going to finally say "enough" to school shootings, and force elected leaders to enact even stricter legislation that supposedly will make gun violence more rare.  Conservatives say that would be an example of a democracy voting away their freedom.

Except that such conservative advocates of the Second Amendment have a pretty strong argument against such legislation:  guns don't kill people, people kill people.  On the one hand, it's a tired cliché, but its basic truth is hard for the anti-gun crowd to deny.  The NRA wields a lot of influence, but it's not because their stance doesn't have logic behind it.

Meanwhile, where's the logic in making it harder for law-abiding people to get guns?  By definition, gun violence isn't being perpetrated by law-abiding people.  Then, too, it's hard to define exactly what is so sacrosanct about the Second Amendment.  The Constitution is not an infallible document - shucks, it's been amended 27 times!  And...

Do you see why the media drops these school violence stories?  Over the years of responding to these shootings, the rhetoric on both sides has been honed down to the same debate, hasn't it?  There's nothing much new anymore when it comes to exploring whether or not more legislation will help put a stop to shootings and killings on school campuses.

The mainstream media doesn't even report every shooting - they only report the shootings they hope can frame the conventional debate, and could one day be the tipping point for the NRA's defeat.  Technically, there have been a grand total of 74 shootings at American schools just since the Newtown massacre in 2012.  But that total includes suicide attempts, gang fights, accidental misfires, and other incidents involving guns that happen to have occurred on the property of any educational institution, not just elementary or high schools.

In other words, they're not all incendiary examples that represent the politics of gun control.

Yes, any incident involving a discharging gun within close proximity to students can be dangerous.  But some of these shootings lend themselves more conveniently to the gun control debate than others, and those are the ones that most of the media reports to the public.  If not to present America with perhaps the definitive case for gutting the Second Amendment, of course, at least to remind the country that we have a festering sore of unfinished business.

And when the country doesn't take the bait, and rise up to the debate en mass, or if the details of a particular shooting fail to muster the appropriate emotions and push the right buttons, then the media seems more willing to drop it and move on.  After all, there will be another school shooting, probably sooner than later.  Maybe that one will resonate more with the public.  Look at how far gun control advocates were able to run with Newtown's fallout.

And so it goes.  With the only change seeming to be the speed with which media outlets cut bait and move on to other things.  And they still get to blame us, the consumers of their news products, since we're so fickle and attention-deficient, and we demand constant stimulation with new baubles.

Of course, the mainstream media doesn't stay in business by running stories it knows nobody wants to read.  So those photos of scantily-clad women in Rio, and the story about frequent flier angst, likely say as much about those of us who consume the news as it does those who package it for us.

Not quite sure what those stories about a lawsuit over fruit says about us, however.  But thankfully, by now, the school year should be pretty much over across the country for the summer.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Doing Battle Over Guns

Are gun rights wrong?  People certainly are doing wrong things with gun rights.

Yesterday we learned that yet another school shooting had taken place, this time in suburban Oregon.  Like clockwork, social media turned to questions about gun control, and whether our society is finally ready to pass new laws restricting the access of law-abiding citizens to bullet launchers.

Even I made the obligatory post on this blog, questioning the wisdom of additional legislation in the face of gun violence facts which paint the problem as being broader and deeper than simply a political one.

I'm not a gun owner, I don't plan on ever being a gun owner, and I don't know the difference between a Glock and a Beretta.  I even had to Google "Glock" to see if I was spelling it correctly.  But it seems pretty obvious to me that it's not guns killing people, but other people who are doing the killing.  Guns are simply a popular tool for that particular task.  Which means that additional legislation won't be an effective way to curtail gun violence.  By definition, "violence" is illegal, so people desiring to perpetrate violence don't really care about laws, and they probably don't care how convenient guns are.

In other words, if people are mad enough to kill - either emotionally or mentally mad - they're going to try to carry out their dastardly deeds one way or another.  As I learned yesterday while researching international statistics on gun violence, the Japanese and Chinese do their school violence with knives and cleavers.  If you're really angry, you'll find a way to vent it.

What motivates gun control advocates involves the desire to see if more laws can force wanton murderers to at least choose a weapon that's less effective.

Indeed, there's a lot of altruism, assumptions, assertions, and rhetoric on both sides of the gun control debate.  But I didn't expect to be confronted with the debate in real life, and in real time, yesterday evening!

After dinner, I decided to drive down to City Hall here in Arlington, Texas, to listen to some council business being conducted regarding a major piece of property in our neighborhood.  I didn't really have a burning desire or a critical need to attend this council meeting, but I went anyway, because it is a topic about which I'm mildly curious.

I timed my trip to City Hall so I'd technically be late, and miss all of the preliminary ceremonial activities that usually clog the start of our city council's agendas.  So when I arrived, there was no line, or group of people waiting to enter the council chamber.  But there was a metal detector standing there in the lobby of the chamber, which had never before been there in all the years I've attended city council meetings.

Now, I'm not a local policy wonk, or a council groupie, but I take my residency in this city fairly seriously, and I like knowing what's going on.  And one of the best ways of doing that is skipping the media and watching city council proceedings in person.  Sure, they're broadcast on cable, but I don't have cable.

So anyway, I stood there, assessing the new machine in the lobby of the council chamber, and I was not pleased.  A metal detector?  What is this?  Baghdad City Hall?  There were two young, good-looking police officers standing there, and they smiled broadly, inviting me to take off my jewelry and come on through.  It was all set up like any airport, with plastic bins and everything.

"I have to go through a metal detector just to watch a city council meeting?" I asked scornfully.  And the two officers, a man and a woman, both fresh-faced and earnest, were nodding and saying "yes" after every other word I said.  "It's something every other city in the area has been doing for years," they assured me.

Well, you know me - I'm not one to make a scene.  (Really - I'm not!)  So I obediently took off my metal watch, and my college ring, and put them into one of the plastic bins, along with my cell phone.  I walked through the detector, and it beeped.

"Why not try removing your glasses," the male cop offered.

"My glasses?  Seriously?" I retorted, intensely dubious that they contained the same amount of steel as a small handgun.  But they kept smiling and saying "please," so I took my glasses off, and walked through again.

And it beeped.

"Why not try removing your belt," the male cop offered.  And I balked.

"NO."  I declared firmly.  And then I laughed with incredulity.  "I'm not disrobing any further just so I can go in and listen to a city council meeting."  I collected my metal valuables, put my glasses back on, and stalked out, back to my car.

There was something intrinsically wrong about forcing citizens through a metal detector before they went in to watch democracy in action in their community.  But I know why our city council ordered it.  For a while now, some overly-zealous gun advocates have been harassing City Hall about our city's stance on carrying rifles and shotguns at street intersections.  You see, Texas has what's called "open-carry," which means as long as you're licensed for it, you can carry your rifle or shotgun in plain sight in public.  Only not many
Texans do such a thing, because, frankly, it looks a bit silly.

After things got a bit heated among some of these ardent open-carry advocates during a recent city council meeting, however, the council voted to install a metal detector to make sure other guns weren't being brought into their meeting chamber as a form of protest.

Okay.  I kinda understand that rationale.  It's simply another example of a group of people - in this case, the ardent open-carry folks - carelessly and selfishly exploiting their rights to the point that a government agency feels the need to step in with some extra rules.  Some extra inconvenience.  Some extra "nanny state" protocols.

Multiply this type of scenario over and over again, across the layers of jurisdiction we have in our country, and you can see why people complain about governmental over-regulation and the suppression of rights in the United States. 

And it's this type of nanny-state-creep that many Americans are fearing with the renewed talk, sparked by yesterday's tragedy in an Oregon school, of more gun control laws.  Sheer frustration with these repeated attacks on schoolchildren seems to be forcing a sort of nexus of social opinion regarding more anti-gun legislation, and with the President once again calling for action in Congress to curb gun violence, Second Amendment advocates are once again on the defensive.

We don't know a lot of facts surrounding this latest shooting, but we know the shooter was a 15-year-old young man who used weapons he accessed in his own home.  Which means his parents either didn't know how disturbed their son was, or they were too casual about locking up their family's guns.  But shouldn't any family that keeps guns in their home should be extra vigilant for warning signs that could precipitate any misuse of their guns?  They're not toys, after all.  Do we need to know every scintilla of evidence in this shooting before confirming that somehow, the family did not take its gun ownership seriously enough?

If we citizens don't do a good enough job of "policing" ourselves, taking responsibility for the liberties we have, and encouraging those around us to do the same, then we end up with city councils voting to have metal detectors installed, and people like me being turned away from city council meetings even though I've only shot a gun twice in my life.

And it was a BB gun.  On my second shot, I hit the empty aluminum beer can our family friend had set up as a target in the woods behind his suburban New Jersey home, back when I was in high school.  I figured hitting my target on my second shot - ever! - was a good enough record, entitling me to quit the gun-slinging business!

Hey, I have friends who hunt.  I have friends with whom I go out to eat, and I know they're packing heat.  Here in Texas, we have "concealed-carry," which is the reverse of "open-carry."  So I'm not afraid of guns, or the people who truly respect them.  And that's the key here.

You see, it's the folks who really don't take their gun ownership responsibilities seriously who should concern all of us.  They should especially concern the gun owners who are serious about guarding their Second Amendment rights, and are doing so respectfully.  Why?  Because responsible gun owners are the folks who will hurt the most if society indeed grows much more weary of school gun violence.

Violence perpetrated by a culture that doesn't understand how close it is to losing something it's not taking seriously enough.