Thursday, March 29, 2007

Update on Kareem - -the jailed Egyptian Blogger

I've been following the story of Abdel Kareem Suleiman for almost a month now (see my previous post). The Free Kareem website has translated some of his actual words that so offended the Egyptian authorities (from a post about the Alexandrian Riots of October 2005 in which a nun was stabbed on the street):

I have seen with my own eyes the thugs as they break into our Christian brothers’ stores after the whole area of Maharram Beh was completely out of control of the government authorities, and I saw them as they ransack the contents of the store right and left, amidst cheering and shouting extremist Islamic slogans, and I saw them stealing the money from inside the drawers of the cash registers and splitting it among themselves as if it is justified by being owned by what they call the infidels and the worshippers of the cross.

I saw them break into a liquor store owned by a Coptic merchant Labib Lotfy and I saw them smash everything they can get their dirty hands on, including the refrigerator and the scale and the boxes and liquor bottles. I saw some of them stealing liquor bottles so they can get drunk after a hard day’s work against the Coptic infidels.

It is worth mentioning that although some people may think that this Christian-owned liquor store was particularly targeted because the owner is selling the forbidden alcoholic beverages that is forbidden in Islam, but another liquor store in front of the Christian-owned store happens to be owned by a Moslem merchant, and none of the thugs dared to attack, as they did with the Christian-owned store. Now you can see the hateful sectarian actions.

What the Moslems did yesterday in a very vulgar and criminal and horrible way proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that they don’t acknowledge others or their rights of existence or their rights to live with the freedom of expression and also consider them less than them, and these actions should be fought and exterminated for is it right to leave these horrible human beings to do what they want and kill, destroy, steal, and burn??!!

WOW! Pretty harsh comments. As I understand it, Kareem is a Muslim (or at least a secularist from a Muslim background). And yet he has the courage to expose bad behavior exhibited in the riots. In America, we regularly enjoy the freedom to speak out -- for his trouble, Kareem is jailed and his lawyers are intimidated. The prosecutor openly admits "I am on a jihad here ... If we leave the likes of him without punishment, it will be like a fire that consumes everything."

Free speech .... a fire that consumes everything. This is what despots fear.

We here in America have our problems with free speech -- we have blowhards who abuse the right by spewing filth and hatred and degradation. Sadly, many of these mountebanks receive a fat purse for their reward. The romans discovered that beer and circuses kept the masses diverted.

I hope that, when we see the chilling story of Kareem, we'll exercise our freedom of speech with a little more responsibility -- using it to build rather than destroy. Using speech to promote what is good and right and true. Paul tells us "Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person" (Colossians 4:6). I hope that Kareem's ordeal spurs us to the wise use of our freedom of speech. Let us show the despots they're wrong -- free speech builds a culture, it isn't a fire that destroys everything.

The people at the Free Kareem coalition are tentatively organizing worldwide demonstrations for Friday April 27, 2007:

The Free Kareem Coalition has been contacting individuals around the world who have expressed interest in holding rallies next month at Egyptian Embassies and
Consulates in their country of residence.

We believe that all freedom-loving individuals need to make their voices heard with the rest of the world. The date of the worldwide demonstrations has been tentatively set to Friday, April 27, 2007.

Any form of support from you, be it your presence in the rally, promoting it, or organizing one in your area, would be a great boost to our cause to free Kareem Amer. If you can help in any way, please let us know!

I'm not sure how I'm going to participate on that day, but I just wanted to give you all the information. If you've benefitted from reading the Eagle and Child at all, perhaps you might return the blessing by writing a letter to the Egyptian embassy or your congressperson on behalf of Kareem.


Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Neuro-law -- is this a brave new world or dystopia on the horizon

I heard a chilling discussion on NPR's Fresh Air. Jonathen Rosen was talking about his NY Times Magazine piece on Neuro-law -- a whole new field of law that explores our neurological wiring and capacity for rational choice. Consider this quote from Rosen's article:
"To a neuroscientist, you are your brain; nothing causes your behavior other than the operations of your brain," Greene says. "If that's right, it radically changes the way we think about the law. The official line in the law is all that matters is whether you're rational, but you can have someone who is totally rational but whose strings are being pulled by something beyond his control." In other words, even someone who has the illusion of making a free and rational choice between soup and salad may be deluding himself, since the choice of salad over soup is ultimately predestined by forces hard-wired in his brain. Greene insists that this insight means that the criminal-justice system should abandon the idea of retribution -- the idea that bad people should be punished because they have freely chosen to act immorally -- which has been the focus of American criminal law since the 1970s, when rehabilitation went out of fashion. Instead, Greene says, the law should focus on deterring future harms. In some cases, he supposes, this might mean lighter punishments. "If it's really true that we don't get any prevention bang from our punishment buck when we punish that person, then it's not worth punishing that person," he says. (On the other hand, Carter Snead, the Notre Dame scholar, maintains that capital defendants who are not considered fully blameworthy under current rules could be executed more readily under a system that focused on preventing future harms.)
The NPR show highlighed privacy concerns and concerns that we can't hold anyone accountable for anything because we're ultimately hard-wired to do it. Implications are amazing! Would a move in this direction mean that our legal system believes there is no "ghost in the machine"? Vanderbilt Law school is leading the way in exploring this field, raising all kinds of questions about responsibility and behavior. Meanwhile, tech blogger David Duncan thinks this is all bluster -- like the weatherman's wide-eyed prognostications of storms that turn out to be nothing but drizzle:

Like many new worlds presented by technology, this one seems frightening, though as a self-proclaimed (by my brain) biopragmatist, I suspect that cooler heads will prevail. Indeed, my neuroscientist friends and acquaintances point out that the understanding of the brain is very crude right now. The mechanics of how tumors impact behavior and what it means when a region of the brain associated with criminal behavior fires up during an fMRI scan are poorly understood.

Personally, I'll stick with the poet Alexander Pope's hope that human beings will be left free. I also suspect that free will won't be in danger anytime soon; that we are decades if not centuries away from understanding the complexity of environmental inputs, genetics and physiology that impact what our brains will do or not do.
Meanwhile, I think we Calvinists have an opportunity here. We've always been caricatured as fatalists who viewed the world as dancing at the end of God's strings. The Westminster confession sure seems to sound this way "God, the great Creator of all things, doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy."

Our theology, however has always held a strong position for both Divine Soveriegnty and human responsibility. Westminster has a whole section on Free will "God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that it is neither forced, nor by any absolute necessity of nature determined to good or evil." Westminster goes on to posit that our free will is corrupted, not coerced, by the fall -- our strength for goodness is sapped from us. We become as weak as an end stage cancer patient, whose body fights a losing battle against the disease that will kill. It is by God's renewing grace that we receive miraculous spiritual healing so that we may choose:

"When God converteth a sinner and translateth him into the state of grace, he freeth him from his natural bondage under sin, and, by his grace alone, enableth him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good, yet so as that, by reason of his remaining corruption, he doth not perfectly, nor only, will that which is good, but doth also will that which is evil."

Simply put -- the predestinarian Presbyterians hold both to Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility. I think that we have a few things to say about this neurolaw development. We can say that the wiring of our brains is not a prision; We are not trapped in the box of "genetic predisposition". This is the message of amazing grace to us -- God works and brings grace into our lives, but we are not coerced. I hope that some of our deeper theologians will tackle this one head on.

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Bits and Pieces -- March 27 2007

No time for a thought out post today -- but here are some articles that are stewing in my mind:

Andrew Fountain muses on the importance of storytelling in shaping our understanding of reality: "Behaviour can be altered to some extent by external pressure (although ultimately it flows from the underlying layers). Teachings can be taught. Attitudes are far more difficult and need to be taught by example, as Paul and Jesus did. Worldview, however, and this was the interesting part for me, is changed by telling stories."

The Voice has this overview about the days of Holy Week -- their origins and meanings.

And Gary Sweeten writes about Social Capital and faith: "The activities, organizations and efforts that are valuable to our nation are considered to build our "Social Capital" and are important aspects of the "Social Glue" that makes America great and strong. Religion and spiritual practices are among the most important positive factors in making America a great Democracy."


Friday, March 23, 2007

Jefferson Awards -- what my parents taught me

The Jefferson Awards. From time to time, I used to see TV commercials that would solicit nominations for the Jefferson Awards, but never did I participate. It was only when our local Rotary Club joined with the local Jefferson Award process, that I began to learn.

As described on the website:

In 1972, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, U.S. Senator Robert Taft, Jr. and Sam Beard founded the American Institute for Public Service, a 501c3 public foundation, to establish a Nobel Prize for public and community service - The Jefferson Awards.

The Jefferson Awards are presented on two levels: national and local. National award recipients represent a "Who's Who" of outstanding Americans. On the local level, Jefferson Awards recipients are ordinary people who do extraordinary things without expectation of recognition or reward.

And so our Rotary club, an organization dedicated to "service above self" has become one of the major sponsors for the Jefferson awards.

Some things I noticed from this year's finalists -- almost every single one of them mentioned that they learned volunteering at the feet of their parents. Some of them applied themselves to situations that touched close to home (such as Mac Heidrich, who volunteers with the Redwood school, a school and rehab center for children and adults with multiple disabilities; Heidrich's son has Cerebral Palsy and has been blessed by the center. Mac felt like he had received so much that he was trying to give back), while others spent time in religious work (such as Peter Bushelman, the award winner for this year -- he has spent countless hours volunteering with about half a dozen Catholic Charities and doing personal work helping the elderly).

Each person seemed to learn giving from their parents -- it was something instilled in them at an early age.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

An Incubator of Wisdom....

Just this week, I received's latest update on Crowd Clout. They pointed me to some outstanding musings about a move from "Attention Economy" (in which producers vie for the increasingly scarce and fragmented attention of consumers) to the "Intention Economy" (in which consumers declare their intent to make a purchase and producers vie for their business). Omnipresent advertising is the coin of the former, while trusted relationship and shrewd negotiation is the coin of the latter.

We put this kind of thinking into practice when we purchased our van about 5 years ago. Tammy did all the necessary research to figure out what make, model, and features she wanted; then she emailed/faxed the dealerships within a hour's drive, saying "this is what we want, make us an offer" -- significantly reduces the haggling, the time wasting, and the hassle of buying a car.

John Hegel, however, sees that there is a realm that is untouched here -- the realm of "discovery". Consumers may not be aware of all the great options out there (for instance, how can I discover a great new writer who has something of a Faulkner style with Tolkein themes); on the other hand, producers are frustrated by diminishing capacity to capture consumer attention. The solution: trusted advisors (or vendors, or experts). As Hegel says, "The real winners in The Attention Economy will be those who can help expand our horizons by sorting through the growing array of options and introducing us to resources that matter based on a deep understanding of our interests and needs, rather than narrowly fulfilling our current intentions. Think of trusted advisors rather than transaction facilitators."

In other words -- Hegel suggests that the market will drive us back to something that has been dying -- the niche store filled with experts. The local bookstore where you could receive advice about what books are worth reading has been replaced by the megachain staffed by slightly surly people interested in selling coffee (This by the way was the theme of the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan comedy You've Got Mail). This seems to go right in line with my previous post about LifeLogging -- the overload of choice has left us with a dearth of wisdom. The real value in the information/experience economy will be provided by those who can tell us what is worth doing.

The force of this idea struck me as I spoke with a friend who is a personal trainer. His whole philosophy is to provide the service of personal transformation. "Advertising is a waste of money" he says. Rather, he provides great service by being the expert on health for his clients. He educates them about diet and exercise and helps them develop a plan that works for them. How does he market? Through his education efforts. He takes his clients on grocery store trips and shows them how to read labels and make smart food choices -- invariably, other people out there take notice and they ask for his card -- and the business grows and grows. He doesn't have to go out and demand attention, he's helping people with their pressing need and they're flocking to him.

This is both the great opportunity and the great danger for the church. The church needs to reclaim its role as an incubator of wisdom. Rather than shuffling zombie like behind the fads of the day ("duude --the new Left Behind video game is awesome -- it's like Tomb Raider -- only for Christians"), we can be the experts in helping people navigate the cacophony of voices and demands for attention and time. Perhaps we need to immerse ourselves in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job for a few seasons so that we can re-discover that just because something can be done, it doesn't mean it's worth doing.

I suggest that we need to sharpen our instincts in this arena. In a prior era, it was sufficient to say: "Christians don't watch movies; Christians don't wear makeup; Christians don't hang out with those kinds of people". No longer are such statements satisfactory. I suggest that we move away from sin management to sacramental living. Not to say that we stop teaching about sin and holiness -- only to say that we spend our best energies on holding forth the compelling positives -- how we ought to live. For it is only in the context of our compelling positives that any prohibitions make sense.

With such an emphasis on wisdom, we can stop turning on our beds in anxiety over how to sell the church. We can relinquish our need to be cool while vieing for attention in the "marketplace of ideas". Is it possible that we can be known by the caliber of our people rather than by the quality of our coffee?

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Thinking about 300

I made a choice not to go see 300. From the trailers, I could tell that it was in my genre of favorite films -- "sword and fire" films, as Tammy names them -- but I could also tell that the highly stylized violence was over the top. Instead, I went to read the graphic novel by Frank Miller (the film is basically a panel-by-panel recreation of this graphic novel).

What I read was vintage Frank Miller -- which clarified for me why I didn't want to see the film. However, listening to the discourse about this film, I'm confused about several things:

1) Surprise at its success. Some commentators are surprised that anyone is going to see the films -- thinking it's "out of step with the times" or that it's a disturbing development in filmmaking. Perhaps they're surprised at the subject matter being interesting. However, they don't realize that this is a Frank Miller piece -- to fans of graphic novels, this would be like a new Grisham movie. Frank Miller did for the genre of comic books (which we now call graphic novels) what JK Rowling did for Fantasy literature -- he reinvented it. Rowling moved us away from sweeping epics like Lord of the Rings toward a very personal coming of age story of young Harry Potter. Meanwhile Miller moved comic book stories away from cheesy action adventures toward gritty tales of tough men against Machiavellian power brokers of a dangerous world. Miller re-invented Batman as the troubled, near psychotic Dark Knight; he gave us the dystopic world of Sin City. He's huge with a gigantic built in fan base. Throw on top of that the popularity of sword and sandal epics (Troy, Alexander, Gladiator, etc) -- and how can it be a surprise that this film is a success

2) Shock at the Violence. Any commentator that praises Quentin Tarentino's work as "artistic and deep" and then questions the violence of this film has lost any credibility in my mind. Where were the cries of dismay with Saw, Descent, Hostel, The Hills Have Eyes and other gross over the top bind and torture and kill films? We expect violence in war movies; but these torture films I find much more disturbing.

3) Offence at the Message. Some commentators read into this film a rhetorical pro-Iraq war message that makes rugged westerners into good people and decadant non-whites into bad people. Yes, the film does paint the hues in more black and white than was truly the case (the Spartans were cruel oppressors of their neighbors; Persia was a somewhat tolerant empire) -- however, a quick look at Heroditus will show that his history sees the struggle in the terms of East vs. West. Heroditus begins his histories in myth and legends but then ultimately in the Battle of Troy -- the first great East/west conflict. And he moves forward through his sociology of the conflict of the Western greeks and the Eastern kingdoms all conquered by Persia. Heroditus gives us the overall theme of cultures in conflict -- it's not a new theme invented by Miller -- nor is it an irrelevant theme for our times.

Indeed, I'm surprised that peace activists haven't seized upon the film. A peace activist can give this reading: A massive polyglot coalition of the willing invades a small landmass where the indigenous people are divided among two main factions -- however the factions unite against the invaders, championing local autonomy over imposed external "peace" at the expense of submission to imperial power. The noble indigenous people fight bravely, losing the initial battle, but ultimately winning the long protracted war.

4) Why aren't religious people more critical? A key component of Miller's work is his reliance upon the tough independent ruthless hero who may be unpleasant, murderous, and cruel, but he's better than the arrogant stuck up shysters who want to rule over everyone else. These tough heroes don't need anyone -- and by their great deeds, they undercut the false pretensions of rhetoric used to control people. Rhetoric like patriotism (in the Batman series) or religion (in 300). In the graphic novel, Leonidas grudgingly goes to the priests for an oracle. The priests are greedy for bribes; they keep a young drugged up girl as their personal slave; and they sell out their country to the Persians. Make no mistake, Miller's message is anti-faith here. Leonidas depends on no-one but himself -- all those who would talk of faith are those who would seek to control you by coercion. I haven't heard anyone else talk about this aspect.

Indeed, Miller's read on Leonidas is that he is the great secular hero. This is what you get when you throw off the restraints of religion and rely upon reason. Take a long look at Miller's vision and shudder -- for that vision of the world is that life is nasty short and brutal, and that only the strong should reign.

5) Why doesn't anyone talk about the human elements? I hear a lot of criticism about the speeches and the over the top acting and violence. However there is at least one very powerful human story -- the story of Ephialtes. Ephialtes is horrendously deformed, and in Spartan society, he's an outcast. Yet he trained all his life to be a warrior -- ready to defend the honor of his homeland. When he offers his services, the Spartan warriors mock him, but Leonidas silences them. Leonidas takes Ephialtes aside and explains the rigors of the battle formation used in Sparta. He asks the deformed hunchback to stand as high as he can and raise his shield. By this request he shows how Ephialtes' deformity keeps him from being able to be a part of the Phalanx battle unit: he can't raise his shield high enough to protect the next man's shoulder. Crushed, Ephialtes throws himself from a cliff in a suicide attempt -- but fails.

Here's where the human story comes in. Ephialtes makes his way to Xerxes tent and offers his services. Xerxes says "Leonidas asks you to stand, all I ask is that you kneel" -- a good line. But that's not the end of it. Ephialtes betrays the Spartans, leading a rear guard action behind their lines. The Spartans are surrounded and defeated. Xerxes offers still the chance for surrender and even a position in the army as a general -- and here's the interesting piece -- in the graphic novel, Ephialtes hovers in the corner, quietly begging Leonidas to accept the offer. His act of revenge is blunted by his ongoing love of Leonidas and homeland.

Like the story or not -- this one character gives a fine look into the psychology of betrayal, vengance and remorse. And yet no-one seems to be talking about it.

I decided not to see the film because I didn't like Miller's anti-faith vision. That doesn't mean that it doesn't raise lots to talk about. The graphic novel is readily available in most libraries. I'd be interested in your thoughts on the buzz about this film.

Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, March 19, 2007

Life in the city

If you've been interested in city/urban planning or living or culture, then you may have heard about "new urbanism" -- the movement of people out of suburban gulags into the vibrancy of city neighborhoods that are within walking (or cycling) distance of shops, restaurants, and local establishments.

This week, World Magazine gives us a whole issue dedicated to Christian opportunities in new urbanism. This issue includes profiles 10 cities that are undergoing urban renewal; gives a short review of 5 major books on urban life and planning (including the over-ballyhooed Rise of the Creative Class); and talks about various Christian ministries that are doing ministry in urban settings (including Redeemer Presbyterian in NYC and La Fonderie, a Parisian artists community). I'm not done with the issue yet, but I'll be chewing it over greatly for the next couple of days.

Then, as if by coincidence (I prefer the term Providence), I check Rod Dreher's blog to see this link to Common Task, a group of Christian thinkers who are working on a distinctively Christian way of viewing new urbanism -- they talk about the idea of "liturgical cities" -- and they provide this challenging quote "The celebrated architect Christopher Alexander has written in his recently-published "The Nature of Order" that only by making things as a gift to God can we learn to create again an environment that is beautiful and alive, that allows us to be human." Sadly they look to the root of the problem as free market capitalism rather than as the human sin nature. Even so, they ask provocative questions that are worth wrestling with.

Soli Deo Gloria

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Now Playing: Amazing Grace

It's time that I chimed in on the Amazing Grace bandwagon. Like many of my colleagues, I echo the sentiment "It's a great film. Very moving. We should go see it."

Check out what some Presbyterians have been saying about it:
Dennis at The Reformed Angler takes issue with the critics who say that Wilberforce's faith is downplayed in the film.
Andy at State of Mind talks about the power of the film in challenging his church's youth group.
Bill at Faith Matters raises the interesting observation that some are making a connection between pro-life activism and Wilberforce's anti-slavery activism. The comments on this post are a doozy!

All these theological and practical reflections are worth reading -- and pretty stimulating. I don't have a lot to add from these angles. However, I'm intrigued that history buffs haven't chimed in. For instance, I found it amazing to discover the reappearance of one of the great villains of history, Banastare Tarleton.

Tarleton in the film (and in history) was the British Minister of Parliament who staunchly opposed Wilberforce. The wikipedia article tells us that members of his family were in the Liverpool slave trade, and he was protecting their interests. He's played as just the kind of arrogant villan that makes for good movies. However, when his character is first introduced, he is making a speech denouncing Wilberforce -- saying that first wanted to give away the colonies and now the slave trade, while Tarleton went to America to fight, and now he's home to fight for the British Economy.

My mind began to click back through the name Tarleton -- and then it occurred to me that he was none other than "Ban the Butcher" who ravaged South Carolina during the war of Independence. He was hounded by Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox (one of the great heroes of South Carolina, depicted under a different name in Mel Gibson's The Patriot.). Tarleton also had a run in with a young Andrew Jackson, who was caught running messages for the American patriots. He had Jackson whipped. After the war, he returned to England a hero and became a politician -- where he faced off against a different determined foe.

Another interesting historical piece that is lost: The bill that Newton pushes through to undermine the slave trade. In the film, it is portrayed as a "sneak attack" -- a bill that declares that all ships flying neutral flags (ie -- American Ships) would be subject to search and seizure. It was played as a brilliant victory on Wilberforce's part -- appealing to British patriotism in the war with france, and cutting out the capacity for slave ships to fly the neutral flag. However, this action was one of the deciding factors for drawing the United States into the War of 1812 (from which our national anthem was penned).

History always has story that preceeds it and flows from it, and the Wilberforce film is no exception.

Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Bits and Pieces

Rod Dreher responds to a post about "Why Republicans don't write good novels" -- "Larison's post crystallized for me why I find myself so alienated from mainstream conservatism: it has no room for a tragic sense, and too often suffocates mystery and ambiguity in syrupy nationalistic uplift or platitudinous moralizing. Besides, I think most people on the right -- shoot, most people, period -- don't trust art any more than they trust religion (real religion, the wild and terrifying stuff, I mean, not just bourgeois churchiness). The more intelligent people on the right understand that culture is more important than politics, but have no idea where to begin creating works of art that live and breathe. " As a whole, the post is pretty thoughtful, but I don't think the problem is with conservatives and literature (Dreher forgets that Tolkein was a great conservative, as was Chesterton). The problem is with literature and agenda (and liberals are just as culpable as anyone else on this one). Dreher's main point is that good literature is a function of wanting to make good literature -- not a function of propagandizing a point.

The Donor Power Blog (a blog for nonprofits) points to this interesting finding -- brain scientists have shown that altruistic giving activated areas of the brain that are associated with pleasure and with social connection. In other words, brain chemistry seems to show that giving to other people is good for you. Now this seems patently obvious -- and materialists might point a finger and shout "see! it's all a function of the brain!" -- however I tend to think that God designed our brain in such a way that we should get pleasure out of being a blessing to others (and that God designed our brain in such a way that we should get pleasure out of worshipping Him too). This news should make Church stewardship committees celebrate heartily.

Al Mohler gives two great blog posts about family dynamics:
The first highlights the supposed tension between family time and church time -- it seems that church mid week activities are suffering because children are hyper scheduled and parents don't have so much time with the children. Here's a telling quote from Carol Welker: "....the church isn't helping by segregating families once they arrive on campus. "Shouldn't we as a church try to bring families together?....Instead what we do is bring them to church and then put mom and dad in this room, the high school kids in that room, and the elementary kids down the hall. It's no wonder families are spending more time doing family things than they are spending at church." Folks at Covenant-First know that I've got some definate thoughts on this -- that ministry to families needs to move away from the ghetto concept to the covenantal concept. But that's fodder for a different post.

The second post talks about the importance of involved fathers in the lives of their children. It seems then that if we want to have a healthy balanced next generation, we need to make sure that dads are doing their job as dads.


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Now Up -- Brook Perkins' Devotional through the M'Cheyne reading plan

I am continually amazed by the breadth of activity in our little congregation. One of our members, Brook Perkins, had followed the Bible in a year reading plan devised by Robert Murray M'Cheyne. Then, through 2006, Brook led an email connected study group through the reading plan by writing devotionals for each day that tied the four readings together. This year, he's been editing the devotionals and making them available through the self-publishing website (see my previous post announcing the first edition).

I'm glad to say that Volume 2, covering the months of April, May, and June, is now available from I hope that many of you will consider taking a look at the devotional. Even if you missed out on January through March, anytime is a good time to start reading through the Bible in a systematic manner. The Lulu website also allows you to preview the first few pages online, so you can get a feel for the format.

Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, March 12, 2007

Bits and Pieces -- March 12 2007

  • The Wall Street Journal Econblog asks the question -- do stable democracies promote economic growth, or does economic growth promote stable democracy? They write "I think the relationship between democracy and wealth reflects the power of human capital -- education -- to make countries both rich and democratic. If you put enough smart people together, they'll figure out how to govern themselves and gravitate towards democracy." The link they provide is to this interesting paper examining the connection between education levels and democratic stability in a country (skip the complicated economics formulae and skim through the paper as a whole -- Around page 25, there's some nifty historical analysis of various revolutionary movements and their rooting in education -- they take note that the Puritans were some of the most educated people around)
  • NPR's talk of the nation yesterday gave us a segment on the recent Project on Excellence in Journalism report on the state of Journalism -- it's a sad state. What caught my ear was the grudging acceptance of blogging as a valued news source (Note that NPR has their own blogs -- and I'll link you to the blog post on this story -- featuring an audiofile of the whole story -- the commentary on blogging comes about 13 minutes into the audio). This story is old news. It seems the news establishment is finally learning to embrace user-driven media.
  • On a related topic -- here's a post asking the question "Are Blogs the New Resumes" -- "When you hire someone, you do not know exactly how they are going to work out. There is a quality distribution. The resume, cover letter and interview give you some information. Based on that information, you can guess on average how the candidate is going to work out. You might guess the exact same quality level for the blogger candidate, but because you have more information from all the blog posts, all the links, searching on their site for instances of how they have handled angry comments, you get a much better idea of how that candidate is going to perform."
  • This is one I'll have to come back to -- courtesy of the PSFK Trendwatching, I found the 6 Billion Others project. It's Studs Turkel on Steroids -- interviews with over 4000 people from around the globe sharing their joys, pains, and where they find meaning in life. It looks like a fine reminder of the dignity of all people made in the image of God. Odds are, this might make fodder for a full post when I get the chance to really explore the site.

Soli Deo Gloria

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Intellectual Snacking -- just be sure you eat healthily

A quick insight into my methodology. I've started these "Bits and Pieces" posts as a way of sharing with you articles that I find interesting, but haven't had time to thoughtfully digest, analyze, and connect with other ideas. How do I put the posts together? I set up a file and dump little paragraphs about each article into that file until I have about 4-5 things to share -- then I post. It doesn't take much time, and it enables me to share interesting things without spending a lot of time on them.

Apparently, if Al Mohler is right, this practice makes me a purveyor of intellectual flabbiness. He points to this interesting article in Wired about how information and media comes to us "snack sized" for greater consumption. From the Wired article: "Music, television, games, movies, fashion: We now devour our pop culture the same way we enjoy candy and chips - in conveniently packaged bite-size nuggets made to be munched easily with increased frequency and maximum speed. This is snack culture - and boy, is it tasty (not to mention addictive)." I hope that my posts are tasty -- doesn't any author/speaker hope that his/her audience enjoys (or at least is challenged by) their work?

But Dr. Mohler sounds a note of concern: "All this may be great for the marketers, but it spells further challenge for educators, parents, and preachers. How will people be able to listen to a serious biblical sermon if their minds are set to pay attention only for a few minutes -- or even less?" In this concern, he echoes Neil Postman's warnings going all the way back to his book Amusing Ourselves to Death. (a stinging and thoughtful critique of television's influence upon our culture). The perennial worry is that new technologies sap our critical thinking, analysis, and reflective skills. With every blessing there comes a curse, to be sure, and Postman (and Mohler) are very good at sounding the warnings about these curses.

Mohler and Postman have strong points -- these technologies enable us to quickly indulge our basest instincts and we have used them to reward boorish behavior and to set up a society of a million Little Brothers (always watching, always recording, potentially revealing your secrets on the web). There is a great need for us to cry in the wilderness for wisdom as we approach new technologies (see my previous post on Lifelogging for further thoughts on this). I'm thankful for both men as they help me think through the consequences of my choices.

Wisdom, however, demands restraint. I tire of the panicked cries that "our children can't sustain their attention any longer." We must realize that, as the saying goes, "brevity is the soul of wit." The Wired article rightly reminds us that the capacity for concise targeted statements is not unique to our culture "Neither Nabisco nor Apple was the first to distill things to their essence. Moses gave the world its first Top 10 list long before Letterman (on handheld tablets, no less). Old Farmers Almanac, Readers Digest, and CliffsNotes pared information down to pithy synopses. But cultural snacking isnt just distillation, its elevation. In 17th-century Japan, teenage poet Basho popularized the haiku, an early, lyrical version of the IM. Abraham Lincoln delivered his 272-word Gettsyburg Address in a YouTube-friendly two minutes." Indeed, the entire book of Proverbs is a collection of short, memorable maxims. Popcorn sized for your easy consumption. Brevity in of itself is not a cause for concern. Great intellect has always had both the capacity to snack and the capacity to feast at the banquet.

Neither should we be concerned about losing the ability to attend to subjects for long periods of time. I point you to Adam Cleaveland -- Adam has embraced new technologies and new ways of communicating, yet on his reflections about teaching methods, he gives us this unexpected nugget (The bold emphases are mine, not Adam's): "When I first heard that professors read manuscripted lectures at Princeton, I was so disappointed. I couldn’t believe they would teach in a way that was so un-interactive, so boring. I was not looking forward to those classes. And then…after a few weeks of sitting through Intro to Old Testament, and then later in the year, Systematic Theology, I got used to it. In fact, I was appalled when another student would raise their hand during a lecture (especially a woman we dubbed as “Question Lady“). “This isn’t your time - put your hand down - we’re here to learn from the professor!” So I had become used to the “Princeton way” of doing things. Not that all of my classes were like this; they weren’t. We had some great discussions in some courses, but it was rather funny to see how quickly I became a supporter of these types of lectures."

It seems that Mr. Postmodernity himself has no problem adjusting back to long guess is that the reason he had no problem adjusting is that they were good, thoughtful and engaging. How about the thousands of young postmodern adults who go to hourlong sermons at Mars Hill Church? They don't seem to have much of a problem adjusting. The challenge for us is not to bemoan the new technologies. It is for us to learn to use them wisely and to use them well. The challenge for us is to write and speak in ways that are engaging. If we are going to snack (and to make snack food), it is up to us to snack on friut and granola rather than chips and fries. Just like in our dietary choices, snacking isn't so much the problem as what we snack upon. (Yes, Mom, I remember all those warnings about "empty calories" in cookies and chips).

Technology doesn't save us, only Jesus does. However, we must also remember that Jesus calls us to be salt and light, using technology in redemptive ways. The Holy Spirit empowers us to learn how to be wise in our intellectual snacking and in what we offer up as snack food in this new technological realm.

Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Off the Shelf: World War Z (an oral history of the zombie war)

Disclaimer: I don't do horror/monster stuff well. Interview with the Vampire creeped me out so bad, I couldn't sleep. I refuse to watch horror movies anymore because they don't sit well with my overactive imagination.

Max Brooks' World War Z is not a horror book. It uses a motif from horror (the undead rising up to plague the living) as a plot device to tell the story of an international struggle against a highly contagious plague. Neither is it an action book; even though it tells the story of a war, it is written as "oral history" -- meaning that it is written in the voices of survivors of this fictional conflict. The survivors look back with the eye of "how did this happen", "what did we do well", "how did we triumph", and most importantly "how do we move on". Because Brooks choose this narrative style, his book reads more like a highly engaging PBS documentary script than it does a plotline for Dawn of the Living Dead.

It would be easy to dismiss the book without ever reading it: "Zombies -- oh, that's pulp fiction; don't waste my time." or better yet "I only read serious fiction". Don't make this mistake. Brooks has written what I believe to be one of the best pieces of social commentary that I've read in a long time. At the same time he finds a way to appeal to the inner William Wallace within us -- we can overcome great adversity and at the same time affirm that which essentially makes us human. This book demonstrates a familiarity with international politics, military strategy, sound economic practice (he actually deals with the problem of how does a country reconstruct itself after almost being overrun by zombies), tough ethical questions, materialism and celebrity culture, and the psychological toll of war.

What's even more engaging is that each character has his/her own voice. Brooks makes these characters breathe. As they tell their stories, they feel fleshed out and real. I cared for these characters; I celebrated their triumphs and ached for their struggles. I'm not alone in thinking this is a far more serious book than the title lets on. Read this excerpt from Jeremy Taylor's review:
World War Z is interesting and compelling and horrifying and heartwarming all at once. I would characterize it as being extremely well written, insofar as each of the three-to-four-page first-person accounts are told with a unique voice. Very often, items in a single-author short-story collection tend to run together and become almost indistinguishable from each other because all the stories, being written by the same author, have the same general voice. They all feel sort of the same, even though the subjects are different. That’s not the case with this book. Brooks was able to infuse different motivations, emotions, disappointments, and struggles into each different narrator with the end result being a real sense of collaboration rather than simple narration.Brooks’s sense of how the world would respond to an existence-threatening crisis is fascinating as well. Predictably, and probably accurately, the U.S. responds with collaborative military force. China responds by shutting down the flow of all incoming and outgoing information. Russia responds by returning to its Orthodox religious roots. Britain and Israel respond pragmatically, looking after their own citizens at the expense of all others. Discussions of political and military strategies, detailed examinations of the strengths and weaknesses of various weapons systems, and realistic military-sounding jargon and nicknames for the undead enemy add realism and a sense that events really could play out this way were the dead to rise.
Faithful Eagle and Child readers may remember last summer's series on the Fourth Turning. In it, Strauss and Howe posited that every 80-100 years or so a society wide crisis grips the culture and shakes it from top to bottom. This crisis creates the basis of a new societal arrangement and it brings into sharp light the failings of the previous era. That's exactly what Brooks does for us in this book -- he imagines the crisis and the kind of moral strength it will take to survive the crisis.

Be forewarned -- there's violence, there's profanity, there are bad people who do bad things (Brooks is honest about sin and its consequences). Yet overall, I found it actually inspiring. I believe it is a fine example of the kind of book that teaches - it makes one want to be a better person (much as Michael Flaherty suggests in this month's Imprimis article).

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Bits and Pieces - May 7

More interesting reading for your edification and education:

  • If you've never seen Imprimis the speech digest from Hillsdale College, you need to check it out. Hillsdale brings in some of the most interesting speakers on diverse topics -- and they'll send you the digest of their speeches for free (gratis, without charge, no further obligation -- you get the idea). This month's issue features a speech by Michael Flaherty, the president of Walden Media speaking about his mission to get children reading -- using the great stories of great books and great historic figures to challenge children to read again. "You are what you read. We are shaped and influenced by the books that we read. They prepare us for more than interesting conversations -- they actually prepare us to face real crises that we encounter in life." Check out the speech online -- it's worth it.

  • Scary news from Al-Ahram Online (an Egyptian daily newspaper) -- commentator Ayman El-Amir reflects on the growing arms race in Persian Gulf States, and he speculates as to why. "Gulf Arab states are going on a shopping spree for the purchase of sophisticated Western weaponry at an estimated cost of $60 billion. A recent report in The New York Times, of which The Daily Telegraph had published another version two months earlier, said the lethal weapons order would include Apache attack helicopters, cruise missiles, Typhoon fighters and tanks, in addition to other war accessories. Saudi Arabia, which already has US-installed and operated Patriot anti- missile batteries, will reportedly spend $50 billion, representing the lion's share of the military package. The UAE has earmarked almost $8 billion to buy fighter aircraft, missiles and other military materiel. Other states vying for modern armament are Kuwait and Oman. And money is no problem. The oil revenues of Middle Eastern producing countries in 2006 is estimated at more than $400 billion, based on an average price of $57 per barrel. Suddenly, the Gulf Arab region has become a vendor's paradise for Western arms manufacturers. An arms race is accelerating in the region, with incalculable consequences. The question is: for what purpose? "

  • The Wall Street Journal has this fine article on becoming a leader from below (not a CEO, but leading as a middle manager or even an employee) -- this has implications for nonprofits and churches as well. Here are some key points: Make the decision to be a leader, Focus on influence rather than control, make your mental organization chart horizontal rather than vertical, work on your "trusted adviser skills".



Happy Independence Day -- for Ghana!

I heard on NPR's All Things Considered that today was Ghana's independence day. Not only that, but it is their 50th anniversary of independence. They were the first sub-saharan African nation to gain their independence, and though they've had a rocky past, they are now a pretty stable democracy

Why, you ask, should I care? I care because I sponsor a Ghanan entrepreneur, Yesutor Yevu, through She runs a building supply business which she hopes to double in size -- helping to create affordable middle class housing in West Ghana. Because I've been a part of a small microloan to her, I have a vested interest in the health and welfare of her country.

I care because I believe small entrepreneurs are a great source of hope for bringing stability to the developing world. The more stable Ghana is, the greater the possibilities for stability in other nations of Africa. Ghana also has a flourishing Christian population working to make the nation strong.

Take a few moments and pray for the church in Ghana as they continue to be salt and light in this young republic.

Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, March 05, 2007

Bits and Pieces for March 5 -- and Post number 300

According to Blogger, this will be the 300th post I've put up on the Eagle and Child. I think I might just treat myself to a Strongbow Cider this week in celebration. Thanks to all you who read, comment, and take part in this really cool conversation on the web. Here's some fodder for thought for today:

The Wall Street Journal reports on the tension that arises when the children of secularist parents become devoutly religious. This is a thoughtful and interesting read -- it covers not just Christianity but Judaism and Isalm. Hat tip to Presbyweb for putting this one on the radar.

After Newsweek's article about The Secret, I've become convinced that Steve Carr is prognosticator of the year. He predicted weeks ago that this frothy little self-help book would be the next DaVinci Code. And then he devoted a couple of posts to examining the book in detail. Check out his three posts (post one -- in which he introduces us to the basic concept of The Secret, post two - in which he examines the viral marketing methodology of The Secret, post three - in which he compares The Secret to Biblical Christianity)

Adrian Warnock has this thoughtful commentary about a New York Magazine article all about how to effectively give praise to kids. Apparently, generic affirmation ('you're so smart') destroys children's ability to tackle challenges while specific praise ('you did a great job on that paper') fosters such ability. Adrian Writes "Our very affluence and lack of adversity may be producing the depression we seem to struggle with so much more than those in developing nations. " Both his reflections and the New York Magazine article are worth a read (or at least a skim)