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Friday, May 28

PRESIDENT BUSH ON FAITH & CULTURAL CHANGE

When President Bush met with a small group of religious journalists at the White House on Wednesday May 26, he made it clear that he views part of his role as President to be “a voice for cultural change.” He said it was “one of the reasons I got into politics.”

Some of the issues that require change? Moving away from a culture of “if it feels good do it” to one of moral responsibility: promoting a culture of life where “every child is welcomed into life and protected by law.”

He also called his “Faith Based Initiative” efforts one of the most important efforts of his presidency. “Government can hand out money, but it can’t put love in peoples’ lives,” he said. Government should help support institutions that get results, whether they are religiously motivated or not. Religious ministries that change hearts are “important part in changing society, one heart at a time.” The latest idea is to provide vouchers to individuals needing, for example, alcohol or drug rehabilitation and et them choose which programs to use, faith-based or otherwise.

The President also singled out faith-based-organizations as “the leading edge of compassion around the world.” They extend “way beyond the US government” in their reach. He credited the presence of faith-based-initiatives in Southern Sudan for helping to bring greater attention to the situation there and a possible resolution as peace talks are underway now.

He did note his concern about gay marriage, pointing out that he had publicly called for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution defining marriage as being between one man and one woman. He spoke of the “sanctity of marriage” as the “cornerstone of civilization.” He also said in response to my question about his efforts on gay marriage that he is only “one voice” and could only do so much. Many more people have to speak up on the issue, and that as far as being a “prairie fire,” it was only “simmering at best.”

Asked what he might say to Pope John Paul II in an upcoming visit scheduled in June, the President said that when he visits “the Holy Father” he goes to listen to him, not tell him anything. (This will be President Bush’s third visit with the pope.)

The President doesn’t worry about how history will regard him: “I will never know” for one thing. He admires Lincoln for his great vision for the Union and for his Emancipation Proclamation; Reagan for “lifting the spirits” of the American people, and FDR, who faced another “ism” (fascism). President Bush noted that America grew stronger even as FDR grew physically weaker, almost as if he gave over his strength to the American people.

The President spoke about his spiritual life. He is currently reading Oswald Chambers every morning, which helps “me understand how I am doing in my walk.” Prayer? “I pray all the time.” He prays regularly for “God’s blessing, forgiveness, strength, and love.” Perhaps the most outspoken president about faith in recent memory, he said, “I can’t hide how I feel personally.” He mentioned several times his appreciation for the prayers of others and how he had noticed a change recently: when he shakes hands along the rope lines, one-third to one-half of the people tell him, “I pray for you.”

The hardest aspect of his job? “Death.” With the war going in Iraq, facing the grief of the bereaved, he said, “I try to comfort as best I can,” but oftentimes he is the one who is inspired by those who he seeks to comfort.

On Islam, he noted that the terrorists “have corrupted a religion to suit their own purposes,” producing “blackmail, murder, and fear.” He thanked Fr. Richard Neuhaus for coming to his defense when he said in Britain some months back that Muslims worship the same God as Christians, a statement he knew would draw criticism.

When asked whether he believed that modern Israel is the land promised to the Jewish people by God, he said, “I view it a little differently.” Israel is a “friend, ally, a democracy” in “a rough neighborhood.” “We will stand by her if someone tries to annihilate her.” He also supports the existence of a separate Palestinian state.

President Bush is a United Methodist, and was named United Methodist Layman of the Year in 2002 by United Methodist Good News, a renewal organization in the United Methodist Church. Jim Heidinger, head of Good News was present at the meeting. The President said, he prays that “God’s light shines” on him as best it can “no matter how opaque the window.”


6:30 PM


WHEN YOU FIRST WERE YOU

It’s one of those little things that should be noticed: A couple of days ago I heard a little news story at the end of the CBS Radio hourly news program on the local affiliate (WBBM). Often when it is a slow news day the last story is a little dessert: something funny, weird, or just FYI in case you didn’t hear.
I don’t even remember which day it was, but it was a short bit on the discovery of the gene for “bad hair.” You know, some folks have lifelong cowlicks, sometimes even two spots where the hair swirls—-it just won’t stay down or look neat without some extra help. Some gene determines this, apparently.

Well, the hair is not my point: the announcer ended the story by saying that if you have bad hair, you didn’t recently get it. You were stuck with it way back “when you were an embryo.”

I hope whoever wrote that script doesn’t get fired. While I don’t prefer the word “embryo,” I will take the point nonetheless: There was, in fact, sometime in my personal history, when I, this writer, this very human person, was an embryo. It really was me. I don't happen to remember it. But then again I don't remember my first birthday party at my grandmother's house, even though I have a photograph of it. But I was still there.

And “I's” and “you's” always have right to life, no matter whatever other names (“embryo”) we might use. And something worse than a bad hair day may await those politicians and voters who offend against the innocent. First things first: your life is sacred, isn't it? And when did your life begin?


10:45 AM


BUT WHAT SPIRIT?

I was going through the press releases I’ve gotten lately and found one that some of you may find of interest, from a group called “The Catholic Diocese of One Spirit,” which, of course, is not Catholic at all. It announced in the headline that it was ordaining a woman to “the Catholic priesthood.” The subject

is the author of a forthcoming book on Celtic Spirituality. Penny is married to the Rev. Stephen Mead Johnson, an ordained Unitarian minister.


Celtic spirituality? Really? How could we have guessed that? And married to a Unitarian minister, too. The press release went on to describe the group (note the not entirely literate last sentence of the first paragraph, which is not a good sign in a press release).

The Catholic Diocese of One Spirit is part of a group of ecumenical Catholic faith communities across the nation that celebrate the richness of Catholic spirituality and its traditions. As a generic (i.e., not “Roman,” “Coptic,” “Orthodox” or other rite) Catholic faith community, One Spirit honors the Pope and other religious leaders, but is not under their jurisdiction nor subject to their canon law nor the guidelines of the Roman or any other individual portion of the Catholic Church. Although One Spirit shares a common Catholic theology and liturgical tradition, it differs significantly in many of the disciplines and rules that govern the Roman rite of the Catholic Church.

One Spirit practices a generically Catholic model of Christianity — as the early Christians practiced it. One Spirit welcomes all Christians to communion and the sacraments. It welcomes divorced and remarried people without the need for annulment, and gay and lesbian people. One Spirit ordains married men and women, and does not dictate what people must believe. The Diocese currently has two bishops and four priests, with others in discernment for ordination.
Notice that “generically Catholic model” ascribed to the early Christians and the four sentences following that explain what it means. Then think of St. Paul or St. John or St. James. Or St. Ignatius or St. Irenaeus or . . .

I should explain, for those of you who don’t follow these things, my sarcastic reference to her book on Celtic spirituality. “Celtic spirituality” has been for some time a fad in spirituality circles, the reason being that we don’t know much about it and therefore people can invent a spirituality and try to draw on the romance and authority of the word “Celtic.”

Real Celtic spirituality is a great deal more dogmatic than its popularizers will have you think. As I pointed out in my little book Knowing the Real Jesus, in his autobiography St. Patrick bursts into a recitation of the Creed near at the beginning, at the point we moderns are expecting him to talk about himself. For St. Patrick, the creed and the truths it conveyed were part of his life, framed, guided, and directed his life. I think he would be genuinely puzzled by much of the a- or anti-dogmatic spirit expressed in much contemporary "Celtic spirituality."


10:20 AM


TO DO WITH THE ACLU:

In response to the writer who wrote in yesterday’s “ACLU, a Clue,” that he did not know of any Christian organization doing the same work as the ACLU, readers wrote in with several suggestions:

— The Alliance Defense Fund

— The Liberty Counsel

— The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education or FIRE

— The American Center for Law and Justice.

I don't know much about these groups and am passing on the addresses as our readers' suggestions. (By which I don't mean to cast any doubt upon them: I just don't know them and since some readers take everything one posts as having one's support, needed to say so.)


10:18 AM


DON’T PLEASE STEVE:

Anyone who writes on worship knows that he will be read with passion, whatever he says. I searched the web the other night for responses to Steven Hutchens’ Please Me, O Lord from the May issue, and found a lot of references. (I do this from time to time to help me judge the effect of our articles.)

As you would expect, some people thought that he was right, others disagreed with him but thought that he raised some important questions, some thought him wrong, and others thought him a bad man, with a few declaring he just wasn’t a real Christian. Accusing him of misogyny was a staple, as was accusing him of snobbery, elitism, and coldness of heart.

One of the more interesting responses can be found here. You will find in the responses to the blogger’s comments examples of the responses described above.

I might just note that several of the websites reprinted the article whole, without even giving a link to the magazine’s website. This is stealing. In fact, I found one politically conservative site on which several of our articles had been reprinted — this being a site on which readers complain about the moral decline of America.


10:13 AM


Thursday, May 27

INSTINCTIVE CREATIONISTS:

Rev. Steve Harrison sends this interesting remark from an interview with the Harvard professor of education Howard Gardner.

Q: One of the major ideas in your book is that it is important to know one's audience when seeking to change minds. What does this imply, if anything, about teacher-student relationships?

A: As I mentioned, the mind changer has a number of arrows in his quiver, and it is important that he selects the most appropriate ones for a given situation. This is why it is important to know your audience. If I am trying to convince a colleague to try something new, I need to know whether that colleague is most persuaded by argument, by research data, by rewards, by real-world events, by humor, or some other form of proof.

Teachers need to heighten their awareness about individual students, particularly when problems or challenges arise. But they also need to know about the general properties that characterize students of a certain age. We know, for example, that eight-year-olds are creationists, independent of whether their parents are fundamentalists or atheistic scientists. Presumably this is because eight-year-olds are interested in origins, and the default assumption is that the world was created at a certain time, with its requisite plants and animals, and has never changed.

Teachers in the primary grades can assume that this feature applies to all of their students. However, what might convince one student may well be different from what convinces the others, something that blends my ideas about changing minds with my multiple intelligences theory."


6:14 PM


ACLU, A CLUE:

A Canadian reader responds to the following item, "Oh, Canada":

There is really a great deal to be admired about the ACLU, and I have never understood the general conservative contempt for it. Yes, they come down on exactly the wrong side of some issues (against the civil liberty of the Boy Scouts to set their own leadership policies, for example) but their mission is a vitally important one. I would be more willing to disregard them if there were a comparable conservative organization equally committed to defending the Bill of Rights (and if there is one maybe you or one of your readers will let me know so I can start sending it money).

It has been sad for me to see the reaction of conservative religious leaders in Canada to the recent hate crimes bill -- all the commentary I have seen is against the addition of sexual orientation as one of the protected categories against which hate speech is not allowed. Few Canadians seem to believe that the real problem is having a hate speech law in the first place.
And there's also the problem of the ACLU's support for abortion and abortionists as a "civil liberty," without as far as I know ever explaining how the right to kill the unborn become a liberty when it had been a crime. They appeal to the idea of "civil liberties" as if such liberties were something objective that everyone can recognize, and should recognize, which only hides the ideological nature of much of their enterprise.

Although, that said, I agree with our correspondent.


6:06 PM


OH, CANADA:

A reader writes in response to yesterday's Our Propaganda that:

Lucky for you that you don't live in Canada. You might soon be getting a felony on your record.
It is striking how much the totalitarian mind has afected Canadian life and law, particularly in limiting speech, including Christian speech. As generally annoying as we may find the American Civil Liberties Union, they're on to something.


12:23 PM


JUNE IS UP:

The two "teaser" articles from the June issue have been posted on the homepage:

— Roberto Rivera's Of Pandas and Men; and

— Addison Hart's A Sensible Growth in God.

As has the full table of contents for the issue.

Readers induced to subscribe should click here.


12:19 PM


THE ARIAN METHOD:

Our new contributing editor Russell Moore — for some reason I started to type "Russell Baker" — has just written an article for the (Southern) Baptist Press titled 'Mother God' goes to children's
church
, about a new musical with peppy lyrics like:

"Our God is a Mother and a Father too,
and God is a Friend who will always see us through
Our God is a Sister who loves you and me,
and God is a Brother who sets us free."
For what it's worth, I think it interesting that this little feminist ditty is itself "gendered," withe the sister the image of love and the brother the image of liberation. A more alert feminist would have switched the roles.

Anyway, Russell describes the musical and offers a theological analysis, which I think exactly right. The musical's co-author, a Baptist theologian named Jann Aldredge-Clanton,

argues in the preface of the musical that such language -- indeed all language for God -- is "metaphorical" and thus there are many ways the church can "imagine" the Deity. Marshall's comments [he is referring to Molly T. Marshall, "until 1994 on the faculty of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and now perhaps the preeminent theologian of 'moderate' Baptists in the South"], as brief as they are, are tortured in their attempts to avoid using personal pronouns for this genderless Deity: God doesn't reveal Himself or Herself or Itself, but just "Self." This is precisely the problem. Feminist theology abandons all of God's self-revelation to "metaphor," at the cost of the personal nature of God. God no longer is Father; He is like a Father -- or a mother or an eagle or a baker-woman.

Thus, it is a sad trajectory to watch as feminist theologians continue in their respective journeys, speaking of God ultimately in impersonal terms such as "the Divine" or the "ground of being" -- anything to avoid speaking of Him as "Him." Such an impersonal vision of God is closer to the unblinking Allah of Islam than to the "Abba Father" of Jesus and the apostles.
In addition to the theological analysis, Russell makes a pastoral point similar to Steven Hutchens' Please Me, O Lord in the May issue:

Most evangelical churches would never see such a bizarre musical performed. And yet it is a reminder of how serious the stakes are for the theological grounding of our children. We must remember that the heretic Arius spread his views of Jesus as a created being by teaching children to sing ditties about the time when "He was not."

Today too many of our churches see music for children not as an opportunity to pass on the faith once for all delivered to the saints, but as an entertainment opportunity for adults to watch their children "perform" for them. Too many of our churches see children's Bible study as babysitting, and so we choose Sunday School teachers more gifted in crowd control than in the teaching of the oracles of God.


Russell has written a report on the Southern Baptist Convention's leaving the World Baptist Alliance for the June issue (now in the mail) and has an article in the View section of the July/August issue as well.


12:04 PM


PRESBYTERIAN REPAIR:

I've repaired the link in yesterday's "Mothers, Don't Have Presbyterians," for those of you who want to read the whole resolution.


11:36 AM


POLARIZING FILTERS:

An article perhaps of interest to parents and those adults wise enough to screen their own movie viewing: Add 'Cut' and 'Bleep' to a DVD's Options from today's New York Times, on RCA's new dvd player (DRC232N) "that automatically skips cinematic violence, sex, swearing and drug use." Hollywood doesn't like this:

eight movie studios and the Directors Guild of America have taken ClearPlay and a group of similar companies to court. "ClearPlay software edits movies to conform to ClearPlay's vision of a movie instead of letting audiences see, and judge for themselves, what writers wrote, what actors said and what directors envisioned," the Directors Guild says.
One laughs a little at this. The average director of the average movie, however good he is, is not Bergman or Fellini and planned every shot for a single purpose: he's a guy who put together a movie and made sure he included some sex and violence to keep the viewer happy, which sex and violence rarely advances the story in any artistically necessary way. Or a guy who made a movie that is almost all sex and violence to keep the viewer happy. To hear them go on about "what [the] directors envisioned" is somewhat like hearing a prostitute describe her work in terms of "my vision for improving interpersonal relations."

The article is predictably critical of the technology and the company that provides it, but not just because the writer considers cutting scenes from movies bad in itself. The writer claims that the companies choices for cutting — or filtering — these movies don't make complete sense even from its point of view. If they watched the movies, the critics

would discover ClearPlay is not objectionable just because it butchers the moviemakers' vision. The much bigger problem is that it does not fulfill its mission: to make otherwise offensive movies appropriate for the whole family.
The writer goes on to give examples of what do seem to be peculiar choices of what to skip and what to keep — though some are simply the result of the limits of the technology.

ClearPlay works fine on movies that might, in fact, be considered family-friendly if relieved of the occasional gory injury or strong language - say, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" or "Freaky Friday."

. . . as it is, the evidence suggests that ClearPlay's technology is not intended for families at all. It's for like-minded adults, specifically those who are offended by bad language and sexual situations but don't mind brutality, destruction and suffering.
I suspect the writer may be right. I have known a good many of conservative Christians who react with disgust to sex scenes and swearing but will placidly watch a great deal of violence, especially if it's emotional violence.

The question we ought to be asking is: if sex scenes both induce their watchers to lust and make public what ought to remain private, what do violent scenes do? We cannot believe that one type of scene is spiritually or morally dangerous and the other not.


11:12 AM


Wednesday, May 26

OUR PROPAGANDA:

For those of you interested in such things, here is a response our marketing director just received from someone in Texas, in response to a mailing we did.

Dear Sirs,
I do not know how I got on your mailing list but I wish to be unsubscribed and never receive any of your propaganda again. I find your ideals to be discriminatory, hypocritical and extremely un-Christian. We clearly do not share the same beliefs regarding Christian ideals and values and I wish to never be affiliated with or offended by your prejudiced, homophobic, very naive publication. It is not an intelligent publication, nor is it a Journal of Christianity, Mere or otherwise.

I will not change your beliefs,as un-loving and prejudiced as they are, and you will not alter my value system. I wish to no longer contribute to the waste of paper and resources simply for my benefit, as I have no need whatsoever for you [sic] evangelism.
"Homophobic" is probably the key to interpreting this.


12:02 PM


MOTHERS, DON’T HAVE PRESBYTERIANS:

Andy Scott sends this link to a resolution being presented to next month’s General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church: Overture 0448. On Global Population Stabilization and Reduction, offered by the Presbytery of Lackawanna. It includes:

4. The General Assembly calls upon young people and couples—Presbyterians, those of other denominations and other faiths, and all who acknowledge responsibility to serve the common good—to make their private decisions about procreation in the light of the compelling need to reduce the human impact upon the planet, so that the degradation and depletion of natural resources, the disruption of natural systems, and the losses and extinctions of nonhuman species may cease, in accordance with the CreatorRedeemer’s will for the harmony, liberation, and fulfillment of the whole community of life.

5. The General Assembly continues to encourage all who make decisions about having children to consider conscientiously and prayerfully their options, including that of remaining birthfree and considering the possibility of adopting children.
I am not sure whether they chose the word “birthfree” rather than the normal word “childless” in order to maintain a belief in abortion, or being religious activists just like jargon, or both. The resolution is filled with generic names for God, like that “CreatorRedeemer” (no space, hyphen, or slash in the original).

Anyway, far be it for a Catholic to make any comments on a call for fewer Presbyterians. I’d like to keep my Presbyterian friends, but I can see that one could make a good argument for reducing the number of Presbyterians in Lackawanna. Mr. Scott, whom I assume is a Presbyterian (and one worth keeping) concludes his message:

I find some consolation in the knowledge that 04-48 has no chance of being enacted, but I'm still amazed that a denomination that bleeds tens of thousands of members annually and has no effective evangelism program would undercut its only significant source of new members. Suicide is the only appropriate word.


He also notes that in the paragraph in which the resolution lists all sorts of pro-abortion and similar organizations by name, it says only “any pro-life organization.” Are we to assume they didn't know of any?

The last paragraph of the resolution’s rationale reads:

By 2003, according to the Population Reference Bureau, twentysix nations had Total Fertility Rates (TFRs = average birth per women) of 1.3 or less; this means that they are at the point, or very close to it, at which births are fewer than deaths. Most of these nations are European, eastern and western, but they include Russia, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan. Five years earlier only thirteen nations had TFRs of 1.3 or less; this represents a rapid movement toward fewer births and population stabilization and reduction in a significant number of countries—a movement, however, that will require strenuous, concerted efforts if it is to be extended throughout the world, including our own country.
As many people have pointed out, the future belongs to the future. These Presbyterians might as well sponsor a resolution titled “On aiding the Islamic takeover of Europe.”


12:00 PM


A REAL BLONDE:

Today’s Salon.com offers an interesting article on the Waldorf Schools and their founder, Rudolf Steiner, What’s Waldorf?. Steiner (1861-1925) was

an Austrian-born philosopher, self-proclaimed clairvoyant and occult scientist who, in his heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, produced dozens of books and essays, lectured widely, and founded Anthroposophy, a philosophy resembling a mystical twist on Christianity that incorporates belief in, among many other things, reincarnation, karma and gnomes. . . . Steiner’s philosophy . . . was founded on racist and anti-Semitic beliefs.
For example:

“Jewry as such has long since outlived its time; it has no more justification within the modern life of peoples, and the fact that it continues to exist is a mistake of world history whose consequences are unavoidable,” said Steiner in an 1888 article in the German Weekly. Steiner's theory of reincarnation states that souls travel an upward path of consciousness, beginning with the “sub-races” (Africans) and ending with Aryans — the most “enlightened” race. Said Steiner, “If the blonds and blue-eyed people die out, the human race will become increasingly dense . . . Blond hair actually bestows intelligence.”
The writer is not comfortable with the schools, and most of the article quotes people on both sides arguing whether or not the schools promote Steiner’s philosophy. It includes a link to OpenWaldorf.com, a critical site offering information on the schools and their founder and his religion.

C. S. Lewis’s close friend Owen Barfield was an Anthroposophist and apparently remained one to his death, despite having been baptized into the Church of England in late middle age. I have never been able to get a clear idea of what Barfield believed on these matters and how he managed to reconcile Christianity with Anthroposophy. Christians in Lewisian circles tend to ignore the fact that he was a heretic, if not an outright crackpot in his religion. He is, for example, one of the seven Christian writers the Wade Collection at Wheaton College — a excellent enterprise worthy of support, I should note — was founded to collect.


11:53 AM


CALL TO ORDER:

One of the happier events of this otherwise anxious season is the attention being paid to the publication of a promising new book on the uncategorizable, and too often underestimated, American conservative writer Russell Kirk. Best known as the author of the 1953 classic The Conservative Mind, Kirk was also an enthusiastic supporter of Touchstone in its early days. Not surprisingly, he is widely ignored by historians of American life and thought. Perhaps only slightly more surprisingly, he seems to be more honored in the breach than the observance by many American conservatives, who seem to invoke him without having read him, or taken him to heart. All the more reason to be grateful for W. Wesley McDonald's book, Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology, now available from the University of Missouri Press, which was given extensive, and highly favorable, treatment in the May 7, 2004 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required), of all places. Cheerfulness, as Kirk once put it, keeps breaking in on the gloom.

If one could highlight only one insight from Kirk's work that bears remembering at the present moment, it would perhaps be the one made so memorably in the opening chapter title of his valuable 1974 tour d'horizon of Western civilization, The Roots of American Order---"Order, The First Need of All." That title says it all. But almost every word in this eight-page chapter is lapidary and wise. It would prove a surer guide for our leaders, and a more universally applicable insight into the necessary foundations of human liberty, than some of the grand and well-meaning, but often hopelessly utopian, language now in use.

In this regard, one has reason to feel grateful for the example of George Will, as a serious conservative operating in the Washington milieu who has kept his head and his balance through it all, and has not hesitated to be constructively critical of the elements of grandiosity in the Iraq effort. Will's column in today's Washington Post detects, and encourages, a more hard-headed strand of thinking emerging in President Bush's Army War College speech earlier this week. I hope he's right in detecting this, and I hope we will see more of this in the days to come. In the meantime, Kirk's little chapter would make for excellent reading at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and thereabouts.


10:35 AM


Tuesday, May 25

A LESSON FOR WISE PREACHERS:

In response to yesterday's More Preaching Stories, contributing editor Fr. Robert Hart writes:

I heard one man tell, how many years earlier, he was preaching a sermon, and heard the people laugh when they should not have anything to laugh about. Then, he heard them laugh so hard that he gave up. Later he learned what happened. What he had said was "And Abraham said to God, 'how can I have a son when I am an old man, and my wife is an old man too?' " The first bit of laughter followed, but he perservered: "And God said, 'is anything too hard for the Lord?' "

One suggestion, which I learned from hearing my own verbal "typo" on tape, after a live radio address many years ago, is to do as the late Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey taught: Write it down and read it. It really is better and a whole lot safer. Otherwise it is all too easy make oneself, as the other blog mentioned, the Lord's little ass.


11:24 AM


THE UNITARIANS GO DOWN:

Two responses to Sunday's Rally Round the Unitarians. The first comes from a reader in England, who sent along a story from yesterday’s Times, which announces that a senior Unitarian minister believes the chu . . . enterprise “is in terminal decline and will be extinct within decades.” It claims 6,000 members in its 180 chapels, half of whom are over 65. Though the group began in a traditionally heretical denial of the divinity of Christ, it has evolved since:

Unitarian ministers conduct naming ceremonies and most will perform same-sex blessings. They hold Sunday services with hymns and “worship of the divine”.
The senior minister quoted offered two responses to his group’s decline that will be familiar to anyone who has listened to the apparatchiks of the mainline churches in this country: everyone else is having problems too (this is the easy line to take) and (this is the bolder one) we’re failing because we succeeded. There is something to the last, alas:

As a proponent of rational, scientific inquiry combined with belief in God, Unitarianism was a natural home for post-Enlightenment scientists, writers and philosophers who rejected the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

But now that it is no longer illegal to embrace a non-Trinitarian belief, and many churches turn a blind eye to “believers” who have liberal views on traditional doctrines, there is not the demand for the Unitarian movement that there was.
Translated this means: “It was a natural home for heretics until the mainstream churches started letting the heretics stay, even in the ranks of the higher clergy.” Maybe the English Unitarians should sue the Church of England for liberalizing and taking away their market.

The story goes on to quote the Unitarians’ president, Dawn Buckle, “a retired lecturer in education” (what else?), who offers the answer those of us who have listened to the apparatchiks will recognize instantly: “Okay, things a little tough now, but things aren’t as bad as the critics say, and in fact this is a chance for real change and grow and it’s happening already, and I’m just soooooo excited.” The mechanism for bringing this growth is always a committee, by the way. Ms. Buckle

denied that the movement was in a terminal phase.
A task force has been set up by the general assembly to find ways of reviving it. Mrs Buckle said that she was experiencing a “real buzz” from the movement and described it as a “thriving community capable of sustaining growth”.
Which is somewhat like describing a bridge foursome at a local nursing home as “serious athletes capable of winning the relay at the Olympics.”

The second response comes from a regular reader, who writes:

I’m a long-time subscriber to Touchstone and a daily reader of Mere Comments. I dunno, but I think I gotta support the Comptroller on this one (but not in her effort to unseat Gov. Perry). For sure, the Unitarian church here in Austin ain’t a church: it’s a hyper-liberal political organization. Yeah, I know about the slippery slope, but this country needs to tighten up a bit. And if the law provides an exemption for “churches” then the Comptroller’s the one thats gotta draw the line.
The problem with this, I think, is that the average Unitarian minister would say that their hyper-liberal politics expresses their faith. We may have our doubts about this, and suspect that their politics is pretty much all their religion, the unitarian divinity they worship being a nearly pure abstraction, but this is a judgment we are not safe in letting the state make.

The state may make the same judgment against the Catholic Church and Evangelical groups who oppose abortion and sodomite marriage, as these become yet more socially accepted and legally intrenched. It is, at this point, hard to think of a state doing so, but it would be safest for us to protect the extremes, just in case.


11:17 AM


CHRISTIANITY’S HOPE FOR THE WEST:

Here is a link a friend sent me, which I thought quite interesting: The Theologian, the Philosopher, and the Bishop, subtitled “Three Lessons for the Church and the West.” It reports on three talks on Christianity, secularism, and the future of the West by Cardinal Ratzinger, the philosopher Marcello Pera, who is not a Catholic but is the president of the Italian Senate, and Carlo Caffarra, the Bishop of Bologna.

They all assert the necessity for Europe to reclaim its Christian identity, for its own sake and the sake of the rest of the world. Cardinal Ratzinger writes, for example:

“There is a self-hatred in the West that can be considered only as something pathological. The West attempts in a praiseworthy manner to open itself completely to the comprehension of external values, but it no longer loves itself; it now sees only what is despicable and destructive in its own history, while it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure there. If it really wants to survive, Europe needs a new – critical and humble, of course – acceptance of itself.

“Multiculturalism, which is continually and passionately encouraged and favored, is sometimes mostly the abandonment and denial of what is one’s own, a flight from what is one’s own. But multiculturalism cannot subsist without shared constants, points of orientation that begin from one’s own values. It can certainly not subsist without respect for what is sacred. Part of multiculturalism means coming together with respect for the sacred elements of the other, but we can do this only if the sacred, God, is not extraneous to us.

“Of course, we can and we must learn from what is sacred to others, but to others our duty is precisely that of nurturing within ourselves respect for what is sacred, and showing the face of God, who has appeared to us – of the God who has compassion for the poor and the weak, for the widows and orphans, and the stranger; of the God who is so human that he himself became a man, a man of suffering, who, suffering together with us, gives to pain dignity and hope.

“If we do not do this, we not only deny the identity of Europe, we fall short of a service to others to which they have a right. For the cultures of the world, the absolute profaneness that has been forming in the West is something extremely foreign. They are convinced that a world without God has no future. So among other reasons, multiculturalism itself calls us to reenter again within ourselves.

“We do not know what will happen in Europe in the future. The Charter of fundamental rights may be a first step, a sign that Europe is deliberately seeking again its soul. In this, we must agree with Toynbee that the destiny of a society always depends upon creative minorities. Christian believers should conceive of themselves as such a creative minority, and help Europe to recover the best of its heritage, and thus be at the service of all of humanity.”


11:15 AM


Monday, May 24

YOU LITTLE ASS:

In Forum Letter, which is published by the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau but is not, alas, available on the web, the editor quotes a verse from John Mason Neale’s translation of the great hymn “All glory, laud, and honor,” which lots of us belt out on Palm Sunday. Pr. Paul Saltzman (who has written for Touchstone in the past) writes:

While Neale was faithful to the Latin in every way, almost no American hymal ever repeated this verse:

Be thou, O Lord, the rider
And I the little ass
That to the Holy city
Together we may pass.


The image is a perfectly good one, but not an image one could safely sing in church. And that Victorian "little" makes it worse. It might be more safely singable if "little" were changed to "quiet." But probably not.


12:02 PM


MORE PREACHING STORIES:

Another story from Oh, Come On All Ye Faithful! by Derek Nimmo (Coronet Books, 1987), which readers might enjoy (I’ve changed his telling a little):

The bishop was particularly struck by a sermon delivered by a young parish priest named Jones, whose parish he was visited. The priest had opened the sermon with “The happiest days of my life were spent in the arms of another man’s wife . . .”. There was a pause while the congregation waited in horror and fascination, till Jones continued, “My mother!” From then on he had them in his hands.

The bishop was very taken with this and decided to pinch the idea for his next sermon at the cathedral. “The happiest days of my life were spent in the arms of another man’s wife . . .” he began confidently. The congregation sat up straight in astonishment, which pleased him greatly, so greatly that he lost his train of thought. Trying to remember the punchline as the silence grew longer and longer, he finally blurted out, “Mr. Jones’ mother!”
Nimmo's version ends with the bishop wailing "But I can't remember whose!" but I like better the version I first heard.

Here’s another, while I’m at it, this one fairly famous in various versions:

Bishop Boyd-Carpenter of Ripon was once challenged by an unbeliever in the course of a sermon, when the man called out, “Do you honestly believe that Jonah was swallowed by the whale?” “When I get to Heaven I will ask him,” answered the bishop. “And suppose he isn’t there?” “In that case — you will have to ask him yourself.”
And a sweeter story, this one about

a student of Spurgeon’s [Charles Spurgeon, the great 19th century English Baptist preacher] who was asked by the great man to Give an off-the-cuff sermon on Zaccheus. “First, Zaccheus was a man of small stature; so am I,” he began. “Second, Zaccheus was very much up a tree; so am I. Third, Zacchesus made haste and came down; so will I” — and immediately sat down. His fellow students called for more, but SpurgeoN silenced them, saying, “No, he could not improve upon that if he had tried ever so much.”


11:59 AM


THEY’RE NOTICING

The New York Times has just published an article on the Institute on Religion & Democracy: “Conservative Group Amplifies Voice of Protestant Orthodoxy”. (I am on IRD’s advisory board.)

With financing from a handful of conservative donors, including the Scaife family foundations, the Bradley and Olin Foundations and Howard and Roberta Ahmanson's Fieldstead & Company, the 23-year-old [IRD] is now playing a pivotal role in the biggest battle over the future of American Protestantism since churches split over slavery at the time of the Civil War.

The institute has brought together previously disconnected conservative groups within each denomination to share resources and tactics, including forcing heresy trials of gay clergy members, winning seats on judicial committees and urging congregations to withhold money from their denomination's headquarters.
Actually, this is not quite true. The groups were not “previously disconnected.” IRD came into an already existing ad hoc group of denominational leaders that had been meeting regularly in the 1980s. I attended many of those meetings, including the one at which the DuPage Declaration was issued. The sharing of resources and tactics was natural enough, but the IRD was not the organization that started the ball rolling. This is not to take anything away from the IRD’s helpful hosting of the meeting over the last number of years and their assistance in forming the ad hoc group into the Association for Church Renewal.

Although the institute has an annual budget of just less than $1 million and a staff of fewer than a dozen, liberals and conservatives alike say it is having an outsized effect on the dynamics of American politics by counteracting the liberal influence of the mainline Protestant churches. Together, the Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopal churches have 12.5 million members, and for decades they and other mainline denominations have provided theological backbone and foot soldiers for liberal causes like abortion rights, racial and economic equality, the nuclear freeze, environmentalism and anti-war movements.

More liberal Protestants argue that the institute's financial backers are interfering with the theological disputes mainly for broader, secular political reasons. "The mainline denominations are a strategic piece on the chess board that the right wing is trying to dominate," said Alfred F. Ross, president and founder of the Institute for Democracy Studies, a liberal New York-based think tank which produced a research report in 2000 on the Institute's influence in the Presbyterian Church.
As if the “left wing” minority elite at the top of the denominations have not tried to dominate their denominations with liberal theology.

"It will give them access to three important pieces," said Mr. Ross, a lawyer and former official with the Planned Parenthood Federation. "One is the Sunday pulpit. Two is millions of dollars of capacity internally, with control of church newsletters and pension funds. And three is foreign missions," the agencies that dispense missionaries, and with them their brand of Christianity, around the world.
I’m glad to see Planned Parenthood mentioned in passing, since the liberal leadership of these denomination support “choice” when it comes to taking innocent human life, the choice of the most powerful over the voice of the weakest, in this case.

About that last bit: Mission. Yes, the folks with whom I have been meeting for the past 15 years do have a passion for missions and upholding and sharing the Gospel at home and abroad. Notice that little comment about “their [our] brand of Christianity.” OK, mainline liberals: take your “brand” of pluralist Christianity and push it in Africa and Asia. Good luck. If its success in the U.S. is any indication, you will need it. In the meantime, I am pleased to salute the work of IRD.

And if, as the article seems to worry, some denominations end up splitting, it will hardly be the doing of IRD, but rather the result of recalcitrant heresy turning denominations into religious organizations having only some historical but now inactive connection to Christianity, no longer resembling the founders' faith and commitments.

The mainline denominations have long reconciled themselves to current divorce standards in America. They should realize divorce may be coming their way — and live with it.


11:11 AM


Sunday, May 23

THE TRIALS OF YOUNG MEN AND WOMEN:

Two articles by Terence O. Moore, a writer I've just learned about and recommend:

Wimps and Barbarians, subtitled "The Sons of Murphy Brown"; and

Heather's Compromise, subtitled "How Young Women Make Their Way in a World of Wimps and Barbarians".

Both appeared in the Claremont Review of Books, which I recommend. You can find other articles of his on the Ashbrook Center website.


11:30 PM


RALLY ROUND THE UNITARIANS:

A press release from the Institute on Religion and Public Policy you may find alarming.

State of Texas Denies Religious Rights of Unitarian Church

Washington D.C.—May 21, 2004

Washington, D.C.—The Institute on Religion and Public Policy condemns the action taken by Texas State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn in denying tax-exempt status to a Unitarian Church on the grounds that it “does not have one system of belief.”

“The Constitution of the United States denies and the courts have clearly demonstrated that governments do not have the authority to define what is or is not a religion,” stated Institute President Joseph K. Grieboski.

Even Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, form 872-C, states clearly that:

Because beliefs and practices vary so widely, there is no single definition of the word “church” for tax purposes. The IRS considers the facts and circumstances of each organization applying for church status.

The IRS maintains two basic guidelines in determining that an organization meets the religious purposes test:

1. That the particular religious beliefs of the organization are truly and sincerely held, and

2. That the practices and rituals associated with the organization’s religious beliefs or creed are not illegal or contrary to clearly defined public policy.

Jesse Ancira, the comptroller's top lawyer, said Strayhorn has applied a consistent standard and stuck to it. For any organization to qualify as a religion, members must have "simply a belief in God, or gods or a higher power," he said.

But the lack of a single creed is a hallmark of Unitarianism. Unitarian Universalists have seven guiding principles, including "respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part."

Since Strayhorn took over in 1999, the comptroller's office has denied religious tax-exempt status to 17 groups and granted it to more than 1,000. The rejected groups include atheists and agnostics, a New Age group and an organization of witches.

“This decision by the State Comptroller is unequivocally a denial of the Unitarian Church’s First Amendment rights,” Mr. Grieboski continued. “This decision is the first step down a slippery slope that ends with registration of religious organizations as seen in the former Soviet Union.”
I recognize the difficulty a government will have once it decides to gives religions certain benefits, not least the problem of figuring out the difference between a religion and other groups organized around a creed or worldview or philosophic position. The judgement is made more difficult in this case because modern Unitarianism is much closer to a philosophic fellowship than the doctrinal organization it once was, and the philosophic position it now holds is awfully vague (that "web of all existence," for example).

However, I think Christians should support liberality in these matters, because we want the government as far away from defining religion as possible. I'm much more comfortable letting a few crackpots avoid paying taxes than having the government setting precedents for itself in making judgments on what is, and is not, true religion. And if Unitarianism is not, with its long history as a religious organization, indeed a church (of sorts), what might the doctrinal exegetes of the Texas comptroller's office find un-religious next?

Mr. Grieboski is, by the way, the author of "The French Model: The Threat of France’s Anti-Sect Laws to Religious Liberty in Europe & Beyond" in the March issue (not available online) (sorry) (but that's what subscriptions are for).


11:07 PM


SOME USEFUL, OR AT LEAST INTERESTING, LINKS:

Some links you may find of interest, which came to me from various sources.

First, two articles on Russell Kirk:

John Miller on the new book on Kirk; and

David Frum on Kirk from a past issue of The New Criterion.

Kirk was one of the early friends of the magazine, giving both encouragement and helping Touchstone get funding. You can find one of our recent articles on him at here (the other isn't posted).

Second, an article from the New York Times on

the Institute for Religion and Democracy.

By the way, IRD’s Faith McDonnell has written a report on Sudan for the July/August issue. IRD's Mark Tooley is one of our correspondents, who has promised a report on the state of Methodism in America for the September issue.

Third, also from the New York Times, the editor of their letters section

— explains The Letters Editor and the Reader: Our Compact, Updated

To those of you who write letters to the editor, particularly to liberal newspapers and magazines, I commend his suggestions for getting published. Especially the one about writing short letters.

I am afraid that too many conservative activists insist on writing long letters and then feel discriminated against when their letters don’t appear, when the newspaper’s own bias had nothing to do with the decision not to use their letter. For good or ill, the medium requires short letters and if you write long letters you won’t get published.

Editors being no more energetic than anyone else, a letter written to the newspaper's form will have the advantage over one that isn't. If the editor has two letters on his desk, one he can run as it is and the other he can run only if he spends ten minutes abridging it, sends it to the writer, waits for the response, and works on it some more if the response doesn't give him what he needs, which often happens . . . well, you can guess which letter he's going to run. If it happens to be more liberal than the other one, well, you know, he'd like to be as even-handed as possible, but it's late and he's been at this all day, and he has a train to catch . . .

And, though I hate to have to bring this up, some of these activists’ long letters just aren’t worth running. Their point is either obvious or missing, or they focus on minor matters, or they repeat slogans and clichés as if they were arguments, or they just abuse their subject. The writers feel the liberals are keeping them out of print when in fact a prudent conservative, anxious to present the conservative cause in the best light, would keep them out of print as well.

Fourth, two articles on bioethics, one probably personally useful and the other interesting, in a sad kind of way:

Value of Living Wills Under Fire. It announces that

Writing in the March-April issue of the bioethics journal The Hastings Center Report, Fagerlin and co-author Carl Schneider, a University of Michigan law professor, reviewed the results of hundreds of studies on the effectiveness of living wills. Their conclusion: “The living will has failed, and it is time to say so.”
It goes on to explain why and to suggest an alternative.

Our former contributing editor, John Haas, advises against living wills and in favor of appointing a guardian, partly because living wills simply can’t cover all the issues that will arise should you be incapable of making the decision for yourself. Dr. Haas runs the National Catholics Bioethics Center, whose website includes information on this.

Love for pregnancy makes Jill Hawkins a baby factory!. It tells the story of Jill , who does not want children but long wanted to be pregnant and be a surrogate mother. It ends:

Jill, who has already given birth to five babies over the past 13 years and is now expecting her sixth, admits that getting pregnant gives her a high and makes her really happy.

“Even though carrying the baby and feeling it kick was the most amazing thing I’ve ever experienced, the baby never felt like mine. I didn’t speak to it, or give it a name and I felt no love for it,” Jill says of her pregnancy experiences.

“I’ve never had a problem getting pregnant and I can’t imagine what it would be like to desperately want a child and then discover you can’t have one. What could be so wrong about helping someone reverse that situation? Having said that, I don’t want anyone to see me as some kind of saint. I’ve got something out of it too. I’ve experienced the most amazing thing that anyone can experience — being pregnant and giving birth,” a gushing Jill admits.


These links I got from the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, which offers a useful weekly news digest with links to such stories.


9:01 PM




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