Thursday, February 28, 2008

Stupid is the new Cool.....?

Tony Hicks of the Mercury News posted this interesting article titled "Is Stupid the New Cool?" A thanks to YPulse for the reference).

It's a topic that has come up in conversation many times....that dumb behavior has moved from the realm of private antics to public entertainment.

"It's like junk food in a way," says Susan Jacoby, the author of "The Age of American Unreason," in which she chronicles America's increasing pre-occupation with "anti-intellectualism" and "junk thought." "You can still get what you crave, without having to cook or go out for dinner. The portion of people who watch TV without regard to what's on has gone way up. We don't know how to entertain ourselves anymore."

If it seems like pop culture has hit a zenith of mindless entertainment, there are plenty of potential reasons, from society needing distraction from hard financial times and war, to the Internet granting practically anyone a chance at 15 minutes of fame, to a recently ended writer's strike producing even more reality shows from desperate networks.

The article cites those who are worried by this development and those who see no harm in it. After all, in a world with so many problems, what's a little mindless entertainment. Once person intereviewed in the article says "Think of it as the theater of the absurd. It's easier to create and follow these kind of foolhardy dramas then to try to absorb or make sense of the real dramatic issues that confront us in the 21st century." Great....Jerry Springer, South Park, Tia Tequila, Howard Stern...they're all theatre of the absurd.

Then there's the other explanation of how looking at other people's idiocy makes our problems seem all the less. "Watching anyone make an idiot of themselves or, from their perspective, having fun, can help ease our own inhibitions and smile at our own shortcomings."

I suggest an alternative version....sin. Underneath, we're rebels at heart. We would like to have the universe ordered our way. Sure, we might be generous and be willing to let other people have their way too so long as it really doesn't conflict with our way...but we'd prefer just to have it our way. Even if our way defies the laws of commonsense (I can drink myself into oblivion, act like a monkey on ritalin, and expect people to respect me), logic (I spend every dime I receive on whatever frivolities attract my attention, and yet still expect that I'll be able to take care of myself in an emergency), or just plain decency (I can be as outrageous and rude as I want to be and still expect people to cater to my whims).

Don't think that I'm just lashing out at those nasty pagans....Christians fall into this trap too. What is the health/prosperity gospel but an expression of the same thing (I want to live like a fool, but have God ride in like the lone ranger to rescue me); or certain expressions of the church growth movement (we want people to feel cozy at church, but we still want spiritual growth); or mainline struggles to exist (we want to keep doing church like we did in the 1960s, but we expect 21st century people to flock to our doors). Is it any wonder that we have dumbed things down in the church as well? After all "What do we have to do to get people in the doors?"

Martin Lloyd-Jones had a great answer. Ian Murray's great biography of the Welsh preacher (published by Banner of Truth) has this story of what the good doctor said during a discussion among his congregation at Westminster Chapel about what to do to get more people in the doors:
He then rose and asked what they would say if he told them he knew a way to ensure that every seat in the Chapel would be filled on the following Lord's Day. He assured them that he did, in fact, know how this could be accomplished. 'Tell us! Tell us!' they said, and 'Let's do it!' 'It's very simple,' he said. 'Simply put a notice in the Saturday edition of The Times that I shall appear in the pulpit the next day wearing a bathing costume!' This was followed of course, by a period of shocked silence. He then went on to expound the biblical basis for proper worship, using as counterpoint the error, then just beginning to be prevalent, of introducing various forms of entertainment into the worship service as a means of enticing people to attend. (vol 2, pg 112)

The really funny thing is that the joke is lost on us, because our entertainments have gone so far beyond a bathing suit. To get the shock, he would have to say "stark naked" now. People will come for a show....but a show alone won't feed them. For people's problems aren't entertainment. The dumbing down of everything is just a vast expression of how very very bored we are as a culture. Again from the Lloyd-Jones biography, a direct quote from the good doctor "I used to be struck almost dumb sometimes in London at night when I stood watching the cars passing, taking people to the theatres and other places, with all their talk and excitement, as I suddenly realised that what all this meant was that these people were looking for peace, peace from themselves...." (Vol 1, 94-95)

How do we respond by the rampant stupidity? By accomodating? By wringing our hands. No. We need not fear. We simply go about our calling of building better culture. Let Christian entrepreneurs roll up their sleeves and do the work while others wait for the right compensation package; let us write books that actually have stories that will last beyond our generation. Let us make art of such beauty that people in a hundred years will want to see it. Let us invest in others, rather than ourselves. For Christ redeems us so that we might build Godly culture....culture that is refreshing and affirming, and good.

The stupids...they'll be forgotten and pass like tumbleweeds on the plains. Let them be stupid. we don't have to be....

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Bits and Pices Feb 26, 2008

Another miscellaney of good stuff.

First out of the gate is my friend Tim Fary, finishing up his third 15 month deployment in Iraq, he reflects on how even the great joy of anticipated homecoming is still a lesser joy than knowing Christ....

I’m completely immersed in a culture that has our reunion with friends and loved ones already seated squarely on the thrones of its heart and mind. These are all great affections, but not THE AFFECTION. God’s Spirit has gently convicted me that only Jesus rules there. I’ve been reminded and encouraged to seek His face and find Joy.
Rounding the bend, John Schroeder talks about how old things and the arts deepen our capacity to grasp God's transcendence.

Ralph Wood, writing at First Things reviews a book on Chesterton and Tolkien that sounds remarkable. The central thesis of the book is that though both men appeared stuck in antiquity, both addressed modernity with great relevance and insight.That is a theme I have hammered on this blog several time. I fail to understand our culture, and especially our church culture's, demand for the "new." So many problems have been solved and yet we insist on trying to solve them again, and usually making a botch of it, since we disregard the millennia of work that has gone into the problem before us.
On the back stretch we have the Dallas morning news on working with Generation Y (the so called Milleneals, who came of age at the turn of the Millenium)....

It's not that millennials lack the creative genius or technological know-how that he's looking for. Far from it, he says. It's more that they lack the real-world grounding it takes to deal with responsibility, accountability and setbacks.

"They wipe out on life as often as they wipe out on work itself," says Mr. Hannay, who let go more than a dozen millennials from his 130-person staff over the course of 2006.

That's when he stopped hiring them. "They get an apartment and a kitty, and they can't cope. Work becomes an ancillary casualty. They're good kids with talent who want to succeed. That's what makes me nuts."

Coming around the second bend, we get this rebuttal from students at Kansas State University. an interesting video on how technology is changing university life from anything that I ever knew.

And crossing the finish line...the recently released Pew Survey on American Religious life. It's been making the papers and heating up the blogs....why don't you read it for yourself and make your own judgments.

That's it for now...the comments box is open for future suggestions for Bits and Pieces

Monday, February 25, 2008

Fundraising, capitalism, and methodology

This just interesting commentary from Bradley Wright on the seeming zero sum game that social movements get into in vying for attention in the public sphere. He uses as an example this very funny commercial put together by International Panda Rescue.

It's funny, and yet so true. Many nonprofits (churches included) see themselves in a zero sum competition with other nonprofits for resources (attention, volunteers, dollars....etc).

Now, my understanding is a little bit different. First, I understand that the soveriegn God reigns over all...he has the proverbial "cattle on a thousand hills" and can provide for our church's (or any of your nonprofit's) resources. So first and foremost, a prayerfulness and reliance and dependence upon God is key.

Then, my understanding of the "marketplace of resources" is a little bit different. We don't have a fixed slice of pie that we're all competing for our share. We don't have to play a zero sum game. If we in nonprofits can be a little bit smarter about how we use resources, then theoretically the pie grows and everybody wins (this is basic capitalism, is it not?) I actively encourage our members to be involved in nonprofits beyond the church...but I remind them that their service there is ministry. If someone doesn't have time to come to a church event because they're serving in another capacity....all to the good. I truly believe that in the end we'll benefit all the greater.

So, I'm not so sure that the idea of "don't save the pandas" (as in the above commercial) is all that hot of an idea.

I don't know...what do you all think?

Friday, February 22, 2008

Bits and Pieces - Feb 22 2008

Ah, to revive an old feature...some bits and gleanings from my reading and media digestion:

Out of the gate....From the Speaking of Faith website: Reflections of a British Muslim Extremist. This chilling interview shows us a bit of what civilized society is up against in muslim extremists. This former extremist talks about how seemingly normal people are recruited and radicalized, he explains how moderate Muslims (and they do exist) are the first ones threatened by radical Islam. And here's a gripping quote on his thoughts on the "war on terror":
...but it must be said that al-Qaeda is just a name. It's really a mind-set
that we must be tackling
, literalist, rejectionist, Islamist worldview. And not
necessarily al-Qaeda as an organization because that can become defunct, but
those ideas still remain. So it's not a war on terror as the American government
has gone out of its way to suggest, but it's actually a battle of ideas. (emphasis mine.....see the earlier post on Winning the War by Being Better for a Russ cross reference)

Rounding the curb is this article from Forbes on Long Distance Marraiges...apparently 3.8 million people in america are living apart from their spouses in a different city (admittedly, many of these are due to soldiers serving overseas; however there are still millions who live apart for professional reasons). The article talks about various technological solutions such as the "Hug Shirt" the "Kiss Phone" and others.

On the stretch...this article from the Economist about the persecution of Christians in India. Turning the back corner is a related article about religious freedoms (or the relative lack thereof) in Egypt.

And finally crossing the finish line for this installment of Bits and Pieces...Liz Bowater's broadside against Open Theism ....well thought out, forceful, and right on.

Happy Reading faithful readers....

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Rotary President Wilfrid Wilkinson -- business is about more than profits

We had a big shebang at Rotary today...the International President, Wilfrid Wilkinson, came to speak at our club.

You may think of Rotary as the martini soaked gathering of local power-brokers, or perhaps envision it as a phantasm begging us to remember the glories of a society of "voluntary associations". Perhaps you think Rotary is something just old-fashoned that needs to be retired.

At first blush, Wilkinson doesn't help the image. He looks every bit the part of elderly, reserved patriarch. But then he speaks. And he speaks from his heart about the work of Rotary around the world.

Today he spoke of meeting with the Secretery General of the United Nations to present him with an award. The Secretery General, Ban Ki-Moon, says "The UN should be giving Rotary an award of honor" After all, Rotary had been in the business of promoting international peace and co-operation for decades before the UN came into existence. Rotary has been on the frontlines of improving health and human welfare around the world. (And I might add that ...Rotary is a volunteer organization existing off the free will offerings of members and friends...rather than a semi-governmental organization existing on the taxes of people across the globe)
Today he spoke of his experience in Pakistan in 2002, working in a refugee camp just 2 miles from the Afghan border...he personally administered Polio vaccines to children in the camp and saw how Rotary was providing aid and shelter to refugees from the Taliban. He spoke of Rotary's receipt of a $100 million dollar grant from the Gates Foundation to finish off the work of eradication of Polio.
But what caught my attention most was when he spoke as a businessman... a successful accountant who founded his own firm and thrived in it. He reminded us that the bottom line isn't really the bottom line. "In an age of corporate scandal, ethics seems antique. In Rotary, it's how we live. Profit can never be the sole motive of business. Focusing solely on the bottom line is a recipie for disaster"
Wilkinson attributes his business success to the Rotary tenets: "Is it the truth; Is it fair to all concerned; Will it build goodwill and better friendships; Will it be beneficial to all concerned." (echoes of "love your neighbor as yourself" resound in my ears). Simply put, the accountant encourages business people to look to the interests of employees, customers, the community.
He put me in mind of the Economist's recent report on the trend of Corporate Social Responsibility. It seems it has become quite fashonable for companies to tout their "committment to Social Responsibility" ... the problem is that when companies fail to live out their statements. The Economist concludes of Corporate Social Responsibility: "done badly, it is often just a figleaf and can be positively harmful. Done well, though, it is not some separate activity that companies do on the side, a corner of corporate life reserved for virtue: it is just good business. "
Simply put, these ideals are more than veneer to tack on...they are meant to be integral to the core of a business. That's the kind of life Wilkinson has lived. Not martini-powerbrokering...simply living a life of service above self.
Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Disney Trip -- Christian imagery embedded in EPCOT

So we just returned from our trip to the mouse...the big mouse (Disney World that is). Lots to post on (and I will endeavor to ramp up my posting volume again, faithful readers).

Today, I just wanted to share some photos. It seems that even with the secular utopian ideals presented at EPCOT, there were still glimpses of the gospel available. Take for instance this lovely painted egg that I found in the German pavillion...nestled in amongst eggs painted with various Disney characters was this one truly beautiful work. Also in the center of the german pavillion is a fountain topped with a statue of St. George slaying the dragon. Admittedly, St. George is a medeival legend, but it is a legend that greatly influenced Christendom and chivalry.

Moving on from Germany to Italy, we found all kinds of Christian imagery...from the angel statue to the statue of an archangel high upon the pillar, to the images of the winged lion (the traditional symbol of Mark the evangelist).

Finally, we came to the American pavillion, where the fife and drum corps came marched forth with a some inspiring music. At the tail end, the corps leader led all the crowd in the Pledge of Allegance, followed by inviting the crowd to join him in singing "God bless America". Admittedly, this was specifically Christian reference here. Even so, it was a very nice experience.

Finally, inside the Spaceship Earth ride, we still see Michaelangelo painting the creation scene from the Sistene Chapel ceiling.

All told, it's minor. Not much to speak of. It's simply a head nod in the direction to the spiritual heritage of these various lands. Even so, I find it pleasant and sweet to see that even at EPCOT, Christ is honored. More to come later.....

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Bodies:The Exhibition ... trying to think through this thing

I confess, the idea of going to see Bodies: The Exhibition creeps me out. This is, after all, an exhibit of real human bodies, cut open and displayed for all to see. For that reason alone, I've made the personal decision not to go. We all must know our limits, after all....

I keep thinking about that episode from Tales from the Crypt (Hey, I had to have some downtime in college...and Star Trek wasn't on 24/7). It's the one where Mimi Rogers plays an aging model named Helen who longs to hit the big time. Her roommate gets an invite to a certain beauty pageant, with a note "guaranteeing" that she'll win. In her jealous rage, Helen slips her roommate some sleeping pills so she'll oversleep on the day of the pagent...and accidently gives her too many (thus offing the roommate). When Helen arrives to take her place, she meets a beautiful contestant who is likely to be the real winner; not wanting to take chances, Helen offs the contestant as well...and she goes on to win the contest. Now, here's the Tales from the Crypt twisteroo....the contest was for Miss Autopsy. And so the closing scene shows a now deceased Helen, in gown and tiara, pinned to a giant rotating disc, and her body dissected like some 8th grade formaldehyde soaked frog.

Yeah....that's the mental image that stuck with me. See why I'm creeped out?

Beyond the macabre factor, this exhibt has stirred up some passionate discussion here in Cincy. Thus, I thought I'd throw in my two cents worth.

The controversey centers on two issues: human rights and the dignity of the human body.

Human Rights
The bodies used in the exhibit were obtained from the Chinese government, and all the dissection performed at the Dalian University in Laoning, China. The promotial literature from Premier Exhibitions (a publicly traded exhibition company) reassures that the bodies were obtained legally and that the individuals had died natural deaths. However they were unclaimed bodies...meaning that no next of kin had been there to take the remains of the deceased.

The main concern is that we have no way of knowing the origin of these corpses...China is not well known for their human rights record. From the Amnesty International 2007 report on China:

The death penalty continued to be used extensively to punish around 68 crimes, including economic and non-violent crimes. Based on public reports, AI estimated that at least 1,010 people were executed and 2,790 sentenced to death during 2006, although the true figures were believed to be much higher.

The National People's Congress passed a law reinstating a final review of all death penalty cases by the Supreme People's Court from 2007. Commentators believed this would lead to a reduction in miscarriages of justice and use of the death penalty.

Executions by lethal injection rose, facilitating the extraction of organs from executed prisoners, a lucrative business. In November a deputy minister announced that the majority of transplanted organs came from executed prisoners. In July new regulations banned the buying and selling of organs and required written consent from donors for organ removal.

• Xu Shuangfu, the leader of an unofficial Protestant group called "Three Grades of Servants", was executed along with 11 others in November after being convicted of murdering 20 members of another group, "Eastern Lightning", in 2003-4. Xu Shuangfu reportedly claimed that he had confessed under torture during police interrogation and that the torture had included beatings with heavy chains and sticks, electric shocks to the toes, fingers and genitals and forced injection of hot pepper, gasoline and ginger into the nose. Both the first instance and appeal courts reportedly refused to allow his lawyers to introduce these allegations as evidence in his defence.

While the Amnesty Report does mention some laudible progress, they still report chilling statistics....over 1000 industry of organ harvesting from executed prisoners. Given the Chinese government's reputation for transparency and honesty, the reassurances regarding the Bodies Exhibition amount to squat. (see this New York Times Article going into greater depths on the "body harvesting" industry in China)

We're working through Isaiah right now on Sundays...the themes of justice come out clear in the first few chapters "Your hands ar efull of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow." (1:16-17)...these challenges should lead us to examine our own society. But, since it is an American company staging these exhibitions and going to China and bringing them here to profit from ticket sales to us, then suddenly the problem of injustices in China don't seem so far away anymore.

Of course, the good that might come of this is attention for China's gross human rights violations. According to Voice of the Martyrs, China has jailed more Christian prisoners of conscience than any other country in the world. As the Beijing Olympics draws closer, we have an opportunity to offer more scrutiny to the operations of the Chinese government and to encourage them that it is indeed good business to be a more just society.

Dignity of the Human Body
The Local Catholic Bishop issued a statement that Catholic schools shouldn't be organizing trips to this exhibit, though the choice to attend was certainly in the hands of the parents. A primary concern is how the exhibit dehumanizes the human body. The idea is that such an exhibit treats us like lumps of for taxidermy or fit for consumption, just like the Bass fish on our wall. And there's certainly a sense to this....though this is an educational event, it is also a showbiz spectacle put together to make money. Nothing wrong with making money, but when you treat human remains as yet another commodity that has to be factored into supply costs, then we seem to have crossed a line.

This even more so when we read about the next plans from the Dr. Gunther von Hagens, who pioneered this type of exhibition. Germany's Der Spiegel reports that he is offering private individuals the opportunities to purchase sliced cross sections of human remains:

Until now, he has only sold cross-sections, where plastinated organs are clearly visible, to universities as teaching materials. But now private individuals will be able to buy slices of corpses too. Von Hagens' assistant Nadine Diwersi told the newspaper: "We are able to quickly produce large quantities with high quality and for a good price."

A cross-section down the length of the body will cost €12,000 ($17,800), while a cross-section across the body will be priced at €250, or €1,600 for a 16-slice set. A typical corpse can produce eight vertical cross-sections or 230 horizontal cross-sections.

Honestly, that is way over the top. It's beyond the scope of the exhibition, but it seems to be a natural kind of merchandising of the concept.

However, there is a contrary perspective. I can very easily see how such an exhibit would lead us to cry out with David "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mothers' womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well." (Ps 139:13-14). This could well be an opportunity for us to gape in awe and wonder at the complexity, the lovliness, the simply amazing workings of the human body...and to praise God for his design.

Interestingly, this seems to be exactly what the Cincinnati Museum Center wants us to ponder, for they have on their website an article by Josh Brahm of Georgia Right to Life. Brahm comments on one section of the exhibit that shows fetal development (from the preserved remains of miscarried children). You can see that a 10 week old fetus is really and truly a little child with little fingers and a little beating heart. This isn't some lump of protoplasm that can be readily disposed of because it is inconvenient. At 10 weeks, what is in the womb is clearly a child. Brahm comments on some of the Notes left at the customary "tell us what you think" notebook that is at the end of every special museum exhibit now:
"A strong case for the anti-abortion position.”
“I know life begins at conception.”
“…I don’t understand how someone could have an abortion after seeing all the embryos.”
“…I’m convinced that life begins far earlier than our society believes.”
“I really liked the part about the babies.” ~A young girl
“We truly are fearfully and wonderfully made.”
“I don’t know how you could not believe in God after seeing this exhibit.”
“I was fascinated with the fetuses – I did not know they were so well formed even at
seven weeks – who could ever abort a child?”
“There is no way I’m going to have an abortion…” ~A 12-year-old girl
Perhaps it's not so dehumanizing after all. Maybe, just maybe, this might be a teaching opportunity to help people wonder about the human body and our responsibility to care for it (the exhibit also shows a smoker's lung and a healthy lung). And that wondering may lead us ever more to praise our Father in heaven, and to seek forgiveness through our Redeemer Jesus Christ for the way we disregard God's wonderful creation.

Even so.....I'm still creeped out.

Soli Deo Gloria

Related topics:
Amnesty International calls for end to executions in China
Wikipedia article on Bodies: The Exhibition (useful for the links to articles covering the controversies)
Georgia Right To Life homepage.
Premier Exhibitions homepage (they brought us Titanic: the Artifacts, as well as the Bodies exhibition)
The Oak Leaves blog post on the new plan to sell slices of plasticized humans to private individuals.

Russ's interesting that a quick search on the great evangelical leaders' websites reveals no commentary on this kind of thing whatsoever...I looked to Al Mohler, Chuck Colson, and Focus on the Family. Nothing.