Thursday, December 14, 2006

It's the week after Christmas Conference--our annual retreat with the people who are funding us, along with people who are being and have been funded by the same source--and so it's time for me to make my fast-becoming-annual plug for Wesley Ministry Network. (The scholar who is heading it up, Craig Hill, was funded by the same program, and updates us on his progress every year.)

This program is a video series much like the Disciple series, only with a broader focus: Disciple is predominately a Bible study, while WMN ranges all over. It's also much shorter, so that participants don't have to commit to an entire school year. But the basic principles are the same: in-depth, high-quality teaching, done by top-level scholars who care about the church and its ministry, along with serious reading and preparation by the participants.

If you have anything to do with your church's education program, and are tired of "How does that make you feel?" bible studies, please consider the Disciple series, followed by the Wesley Ministry Network series. Disciple should come first, not because it's better, but because biblical literacy is crucial to any theological thinking. But as a follow-up to Disciple I, for those whose appetite has been whetted for serious thinking about their faith, WMN is ideal.

It's shorter, so you don't have the seriously committed laypeople that Disciple I tends to produce going "out of commission" for an entire year. (I recommended that participants drop all but one other small church commitment the year they did the study with me. Two if they were retired or stay-at-homes.) I'm glad to see that Disciple now has short-term studies that can serve the same purpose. I didn't like the way Disciple II, III, and IV would suck graduates in rather than pushing them out to serve in the church.

Do look into them both. Seriously.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Well, aside from the sexism, the frontier-era machismo, the religious liberties violation, and the part where he all but said that police officers have more important things to do with their time than protect and serve, I think this is a grand idea:

Pennsylvania town mulls mandatory arms requirement.

Good thing there are no United Methodist seminaries in Cherry Tree, PA.


Saturday, October 28, 2006

Dove Evolution

Now, it's probably true that Dove has simply found a more devious way than most of marketing their beauty products. It's probably not the case that they care about your daughter's self-image.

But for now, I'll take it.

Reading Thomas

Reading Thomas is a dangerous thing.

I find his style engaging and thoroughly understandable. (There are those who will take this as evidence of mental deficiency on my part, I know.) At the end of the day, his systematics suits me less because of what he says than because of how ruthlessly interrelated it is.

There is nothing piecemeal or situational about Thomas. Everything is set in the context of . . . well, everything. One reads his moral theology and realizes that he is covertly doing Christology. One reads his eschatology and realizes that he is covertly doing ethics. There is nothing that he writes that has not been brought into thorough and exhaustive conversation with any- and everything else he writes.

This makes it very difficult to write on Thomas.

I started a year ago by reading the Treatise on Happiness and the Treatise on the Virtues from the Summa Theologica(having already read the fourth section of the Summa Contra Gentiles, several important selections on nature and grace, a smattering of his political theology).

Hauerwas made a passing comment--"Now, where this all really gets interesting is in the Treatise on the Passions. That's where you see how it all hangs together."

So, I decided to read the Treatise on the Passions.

And I didn't see how it all hung together. Not because it wasn't clear, mind you--just because there was more to it. I found myself thinking, "Well, yeah, but . . . I really need to read the Treatise on the Incarnation to know how this all hangs together."

So, I decided to read the Treatise on the Incarnation.

And now I find myself thinking, "Well, yeah, but . . . this really all depends on what he thinks about the Beatific Vision. Can't really see how it all hangs together unless you read his eschatology."

So, I'm starting to read . . .

. . . well, I hate to say it, but I think I'm reading . . .

. . . too much Thomas.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A lighthearted look at the difference between what sells movies and what earns academic merit: Indy denied tenure.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Journalistic Ethics

Here's how I imagine the conversation went.

- Bob, we've gotta have something about the Amish thing in here.
- Stan, we've got three minutes until press time.
- C'mon, we can't go to print without it. Can't somebody throw something together?
- Nobody's had time to write anything yet!
- We've gotta have something.
- Hey, how 'bout a photo essay? You only need one paragraph for that. And people like photos.
- Great. Make it happen.

And so, this week's Time Magazine includes a photo essay on the Amish mourning their children.

A photo essay on the Amish.

A photo essay on the Amish.

Did this not scream "problem" to anyone? How is it that no one said, "Uh. . . guys, aren't those the guys who don't like their picture taken?" Or maybe someone did say it. Wonder what the response was.

And I wonder who decided that newsworthiness covers over a multitude of sins. And that "what sells" is a close enough substitute for newsworthiness that it can, too.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Why I won't be teaching business ethics

Business students most likely to cheat.

Teaching Christian Ethics is fun. Teaching Christian Ethics is about taking a bunch of people who already follow the rules and challenging them to get really radical. Challenging them to get beyond just following the rules.

Sure, there's some cheating--they don't all already follow the rules, and the stress certainly does get to some of them. But the basic presumption among people who take Christian Ethics is that something like "following the rules" is a good thing.

What on earth do you teach people who don't even follow the rules they already know about? Who think that "following the rules" is something idiots, wimps, children, or prudes do? Who pride themselves on their own cleverness in cheating successfully?

How do you even talk to them?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Duke forbids exotic dancers - News

Students criticize reinstatement of the policy

Is it even worth trying to respond?

Student leaders are objecting to regulations that prohibit exotic dancers at official university events, calling it "moralistic" and "paternalistic."

I mean, really. The regulation is so pathetically circumscribed that I object to it on the opposite grounds. The judicial representatives admit that the regulation has no impact on private on campus parties, much less off-campus residences. It only applies to "open" parties, where everybody's invited.

I'm a little ashamed to go to a school where strippers may be hired for on-campus parties, as long as they aren't "advertised."

Saturday, September 16, 2006

When I was an undergrad, I did a stint as a teacher and residence advisor at a summer boarding school. This school had a niche preparing international students to enter American schools, so we always had a strong contingent of internationals, particularly from Thailand.

I helped teach writing (with another, more experienced ESL teacher) to these kids, and I quickly learned about the differences between American and non-American education. Essay-writing in the U. S. is a strange business. Children who have no exposure to any sort of scholarly research on a novel are expected to craft arguments about that novel, after a single read-through and with nothing but their opinions to guide them.

My Thai students frequently commented, when learning of their assignments, "But I don't know anything! How can I write this kind of essay? I'm not old enough to give my opinion!"

I have recently found myself feeling just like those students. The transition from "writing papers for a class, which no one but the professor will see, which will receive grades and then be thrown into the fire to be burned" to "writing articles, which will be published for all the world to see, and will constitute a permanent record, allowing things that I wrote ten or twenty years ago to come back to haunt me" has not been an easy one. I find myself thinking, "But I don't know anything! How can I make constructive proposals?!" Where I used to write with ease and fluency, I now write only with great and painful effort.

From time to time, I evaluate my knowledge base a little more realistically. I actually do know a few things, and I might have something remotely interesting to contribute to The Conversation. But most of the time, I am keenly aware of my knowledge deficits.

How about you? Has grad school sharpened your sense of your own inadequacies, or do you claim mastery in your discipline? Or can you remember a time when you started to feel more competent as a scholar than you felt, say, during your third year of doctoral work?

Friday, September 01, 2006

Oh, Really?

I once took a class, as an undergrad, called "Folkloristics."

I had more fun in that class than in any other class I've ever had.

That's not to say that I liked that class more than any class I've ever had. I had fun. Most of that fun very, very subtly at the teacher's . . . in fact, the entire discipline's expense.

The point of the class was to take verbal and written constructions of any sort--stories, myths, jokes, newspaper articles, anything--and discern the hidden political (in the vague sense--not in the actually-related-to-governments sense), semi-historical, and emotional content of the construction.

So, we looked at the traditional Beauty and the Beast story and decided that it was a morality tale designed to get girls to love the husbands being forced on them by their families, no matter how beastly the husbands' behaviors. It buttressed the lamentable insititution of arranged marriages, palliating the victims with the tepid platitude, "But he's not as bad as he looks, and you're doing something good for your family."

We looked at the urban legend which inspired the "Stranger Calls" movies--a babysitter receives a telephone call from a stranger, only later to discover that the call is coming from (cue scary music) inside the house. We discerned that it was a tale designed to frighten principally mothers, to urge them not to surrender care of their children to babysitters, who can't be trusted not to know when someone is smothering, decapitating, or otherwise harming the children, and who probably enabled the whole operation by sending the kids to bed unnecessarily early.

And so on.

The point was that nothing was what it was--it was whatever you found it convenient to be. As long as you used the right code words in describing what it really was, you decided what it really was.

I discovered very quickly what the code words were.

I felt a little bit like Jane Austen. Not in that I was a brilliant intellect, a devastatingly incisive observer of human character, or even terribly literate. But she wrote novels that were, simultaneously, a sharp critique of the sorts of sentimental novels of her time and the height of what sentimental novels could achieve.

I didn't speak or write one word in that class that wasn't a mockery of all it stood for. I willfully imposed the most spurious possible interpretation on anything that came my way. None of what I said had any basis or justification other than my own desire to say something.

I recounted a joke that my father-in-law told my husband and I, early in our marriage. (Why don't Baptists ever have sex standing up? Someone might see them and think they're dancing.) I uncovered his "hidden" motivations. He thought he was telling us a funny joke; what he was "really" doing was authorizing our sexuality, which had been legitimated through marriage, and proposing a method for dealing with our religious differences (I grew up Baptist, they were Methodists).

I compared the two amateur videos taken at our wedding, and uncovered the "hidden" structuring principles behind each one. One, taken by "Aunt Vicki," had a subtle but discernible (to my trained eye, of course) desire to tell a story of how my husband's side of the family felt about our marriage. She thought she was recording a happy family event--but in fact she "really" was documenting their approval of it. Her camera angles, her inclusions and omissions (and we could tell what she omitted because of the other video), her voiced-over interpretations of the events all combined to betray her effort to legitimate the marriage by displaying its emotional acceptance.

The other video, taken by "Anita's boyfriend, what's-his-name," had other intentions. He thought he was doing a favor for his girlfriend's friends; what he was "really" doing was legitimating the marriage by displaying its adherence to the traditional form of the liturgy. His camera angles, inclusions and omissions, etc., all constructed a story whose "real" purpose was to show that the marriage had taken place: I had walked down the aisle; the groom was in the proper place; the pastor did say the usual hocus-pocus at the appropriate time; there were witnesses; there was a tasteful number of attendants; etc. etc.

Did you notice the code words? I'll bet you could do it now, too. Try these: "authorize," "legitimating," "hidden motivation," "privileging a story," "power differential," "societal traditions."

I got a 100 in the class. Did you catch that? I didn't just get an A. I got a 100. I was without flaw. There was not a single error in any one of my contributions. I had no deficiencies.

And in what was I not-deficient? In wrestling meaning from cultural artifacts. In "teasing out" what was "really" going on. In short, in imposing my will on people and cultures and leaving them no possible way to answer me.

How could my father-in-law say, "Well, no; I really was just telling a joke!" I had shown what he was "really" doing, whether or not he knew it. How could "Aunt Vicki" say, "But I had to change batteries--that's why I omitted the sermon!"? I had shown why she "really" did it.

Now, I'm grateful to have been made to realize that, for example, news articles aren't just news articles--that their placement on the page, whether and how they are illustrated, etc., all have an effect (often an intended one) on the reader. Or to be able to see how an advertisement is constructed--Our product will save you from the embarrassment when your mother-in-law arrives; Our product will make you more sexually attractive to the Swedish Synchronized Swimming team; instead of Our product will clean your clothes reasonably well or Our product tastes good. It's useful to recognize propaganda.

But it troubles me, deeply, that I have been given power with no restraints. There were no limits to what I could prove. There were no limits to how forcefully I could twist the meaning of an event. I had tools in my toolbelt, but nothing and no one to ensure that I was hammering nails rather than heads. Intellectual power with no restraints is no less dangerous than political power with no restraints. Demagogues and tyrants aren't terribly different. It's just that the latter leaves more visible proof of his power because it is wrought on bodies rather than on minds and wills.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

I don't like to toot my own horn. . .

So I'll let R. R. Reno do it for me.

Ok, so it's not MY horn that he's tooting; however, the strong implication is that my perspicacity in choosing Duke is highly commendable.

Not incidentally, all the people he mentioned at Duke have recommended that I read Reno's book(s). So I guess the feelings are mutual.

Monday, August 28, 2006

In praise of speed bumps

I know that journalists have to report on both sides in order to claim objectivity or balance for their work. And I realize that whenever there is any law is proposed, someone must oppose it, if only for form's sake.

But I have to admit: the "con" side reported in this article doesn't strike me as particularly cogent.

The difference between therapeutic or reconstructive surgery and elective or (merely) cosmetic surgery is well-established, in theory, practice, and insurance codes. I find it hard to believe that the law being proposed would somehow eliminate this long-standing distinction to the detriment of those who actually need care. The proposals on the table put procedural speed bumps in the way of minors seeking elective surgery. Not even roadblocks--speed bumps.

I can't fathom the person who can't tell the difference between a sixteen-year-old seeking reconstructive surgery after a radical mastectomy and a sixteen-year-old seeking breast implants in order to make the cheerleading squad. The proposed law does not even keep the latter from doing it; nor does it take away her parents' authority to direct her medical care. It just says, "Whoa. Slow down." (Honestly, she needs someone to tell her that her wellbeing does not, in fact, depend on those implants. If her parents don't, perhaps the shrink will.)

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Just in case you were wondering . . .

Graduate stipend not enough? You could always sell your reproductive services. Sound a little odd? Wait'll you see the fee structure:

Surrogacy Fees

Egg Donation Fees

I found the following site via an advertisement at the McCalls sewing pattern website. Yes. I was shopping for skirt patterns and saw an ad: "Surrogate Mothers Wanted. First Timers. Stay Home with your Family. $18K to $25K."

I could more than double . . . almost triple my annual income by gestating. Doesn't sound like near as much work as grading an extra section of papers for a tenth of the income.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


I absolutely cannot stop laughing.

Thanks to Jana for sending this via email.


I just caught sight of the tag: IngniterMedia. Obviously, this fauxmercial is a parody of hyper-accomodating churches in general, but "IgniterMedia" does seem to be a reference to the United Methodist Church's current ad campaign, produced by Igniting Ministries. If you'd like to watch some of those spots, try here.

I actually like some of these. Or, rather, there are two things that strike me as "not as awful as I feared" about some of these.

One, they are precisely not the sort of commercials the spot above is parodying. Watch "The Gift." A woman goes all over her town, leaving various-sized packages in a number of different locations. After giving away numerous gifts (some hard to deliver), she comes home and is surprised to find a medium-sized package on her own doorstep. The voiceover proclaims, "If you're looking for ways to share your gifts with others, and possibly even receive something in return, . . . " (and so on). I think that's a vision of a real church. Sure, it doesn't mention Jesus. (Ok, so that's a big problem.) But it doesn't picture church as a place where "it's all about you."

Two, they are also not the commercials that the UCC is currently running. I've only seen one of them, but it sickened me. It "worked" by a harsh, thinly-veiled criticism of other churches and denominations, proudly proclaiming, "We're better than they." That was truly repugnant. (Oh, and that one also failed to mention Jesus, didn't it?)

I think IgniterMedia's next fauxmercial should parody that commercial. "MeChurch. We're better than everybody else."

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Professors, pastors,

. . . and others in high-demand jobs, consider using this the next time you are away from your email:

Dr. So-and-so Such-and-such is out of the office until This-particular-date. She is being held in a secure undisclosed location with severely restricted access to email until then.

She is, alas, unable to: read drafts, write letters of recommendation, write reviews, evaluate book proposals, grade long-overdue incompletes, offer tenure evaluations, discuss grade changes, sympathize with your plight, share in your joys, ponder with you the wonders of life, imbricate, aspirate, mediate, interpolate, intoxicate, inculcate, adjudicate or exfoliate. Rest assured she would like to do all these things, really she would, honest; but Powers Far Greater Than She forbid it.

(Sent along to me via email.)

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Is this a good thing, or a bad thing?

I was rejected twice yesterday.

The second rejection I not only understood but positively courted. I was in a jury pool for a medical malpractice trial that was slated to last two months or more. The details of the case involved a premature infant who did not survive, doctors who may or may not have made good care decisions, a mother who may or may not have smoked a pack and a half a day during the length of her pregnancy, disputes about causation, disputes about medical judgment, etc., etc.

Since I know more than I care to and have rather strong feelings about malpractice law, action theory, medical paternalism, and the ethics of maternal substance abuse, I felt no guilt about sharing my extensive education and strong convictions concerning the disputed facts of the case.

The principles bid a hearty and cheerful adieu to me and my strong convictions.

But the first rejection, I have to admit, stung a bit.

It was for a criminal case involving a charge of Driving While Impaired and Running a Red Light. It was only supposed to last a day and a half. The judge gave a stirring lecture about the solemn responsibility of jury duty, giving each party a fair hearing and participating most directly in our democratic process and so on, and I was rather . . . ok, I admit it, moved. I really wanted to do this.

The jury selection started with some very general questions designed to weed out people with clear and insurmountable biases.

Have you ever been the victim of excessive force by a police officer, such that you would have problems believing the testimony of this police officer?
One gentleman had been the victim of police brutality as a teenager--he even remembered the officer's name, thirty-five years later--but didn't feel any general prejudice against police officers, so he was retained.

Have you ever served on a jury before, and was there anything in that experience that gave you reservations about the criminal process?
Several had served on juries before. All thought it was an acceptable criminal process.

Were you the foreman of the jury on which you served?
None had been. But I took quiet note of the question. What did this have to do with removal for cause? Why would serving as the foreman be cause for dismissal?

Have you ever been charged with this offense?
None had.

Have you ever lost a loved one to a drunk driver?
Two people had, and confessed themselves unable to think of the defendant as innocent, even without hearing any facts in the case. The judge lectured them sternly about burden of proof and the defendant's right to a fair trial, but they persisted in the face of his disapproval and got themselves removed for cause.

Another man claimed to have lost four college friends, but he believed himself able to give the evidence its proper weight and had no partiality for either side. He was retained.

Do you know any of the parties in this case?
One woman knew the defense attorney, because he was her brother-in-law's attorney as well. She was not immediately dismissed, however, because she was not privy to the details of her brother-in-law's case and felt no bias toward or against the defense attorney.

And so on.

And then we were asked about our places of employment and our spouse's place of employment. The prosecutor asked various clarifying questions of us all: Do you like your job? In the course of your job, do you evaluate other employees and make decisions about hiring and firing? (Again, I quietly noted the question.)

And then she got to me.

DA: Please state your name, your marital status, your occupation, and your spouse's occupation if appropriate.
Me: My name is Sarah Sours; I'm married; and my husband and I are both students at Duke.
DA: What do you study?
Me: Theology and Ethics.
DA: Your Honor, the State would like to thank Ms. Sours for her time, and ask that she be excused.
Judge: Thank-you, Ms. Sours, for your time; you are excused.

Well. That was an adventure. The gentlemen who thought that their past experiences might not be a hindrance to their objectivity were fine, but my occupation--which is, of course, a preoccupation with the relationship of justice and mercy, precisely the drama that would be played out in miniature in that trial--was enough to prompt a peremptory challenge. She used one of her few peremptory challenges on me. Because I study theology.


It wasn't the student part. She kept a med student, an undergrad, and a technology student.

It might have been the "strong leadership" part. If they were weeding out jury forepersons and people who hire and fire, they might want to weed out someone with enough leadership and personal presence to stand in front of a large classroom. And, actually, as soon as I said, "Theology and Ethics," about five of the potential jurors swiveled their chairs around to look at me. But then again, they kept the investment banker who had served as a marine infantry officer.

I suspect it was the theology part.

We don't want pastors and theologians deciding matters of justice and mercy. 'Specially not women pastors.

No siree. That would be dangerous.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

As a theologian-ethicist, I hear a lot of "What's this world coming to?!" statements. Certainly, I have a professional obligation to perpetuate them myself. (And I haven't hit my quota for this month--I might not get my Christmas bonus this year!)

Most people, upon meeting me for the first time and discovering my occupation, offer such statements.

"I can't believe that the President is going to VETO that stem cell bill. The President of the United States is going to veto funding that will save people's lives. What's this world coming to?"


"I can't believe how utterly vampiric this world has become. People are culturing vaccines in aborted fetal tissue. What's this world coming to?"


"Stupid d@mn Gay Marriage Amendment. It's not gonna pass. How can people not know how wrong this is? What's this world coming to?"


"Stupid d@mn Gay Marriage Amendment. How did it ever get proposed?! How can people restrict our freedoms like this? Oh, the Spanish Inquisition is upon us again! What is this world coming to?"

And so on.

Frankly, I think all these comments are slightly off.

It is not a certain medical or sexual issue that heralds the downfall of life as we know it.

It is this patent grant.

What is this world coming to??

Friday, July 28, 2006

Duke Names New Lacrosse Coach

My favorite quote from this article:

"John Danowski is a great coach, on and off the field," Alleva said. "He’s well known in the lacrosse community not only for his championships but also for his character and integrity, and for bringing out the best in his players."

Oh, thank goodness. We could use a little of that around here.

I wonder how hard they looked at coaches who knew how to "bring out the best in their players" and yet weren't eight-time conference champs.

Friday, June 30, 2006

The next lecture of the conference was given by Cheryl Bridges Johns, a Pentecostal (Church of God) theologian.

She gave a very general lecture on what salvation means in the Pentecostal traditions, but she used the very helpful lens of her attempt to engage liberation theology with charismatic traditions.

Her most striking statement--and the one that subtly undergirded all she said--was more-or-less as follows: "Those who are influenced by liberation theology tend to emphasize the plight of the poor, and affirm the dignity of the poor, while holding in contempt the religion of the poor."

One can immediately see her point. Of all the Christian traditions, Pentecostalism and Catholicism simply include more low-income and poverty-stricken people than the others (I suspect that's both in total numbers and in percentages.) Yet these are the two least "respectable" faiths in academia--particularly as they are expressed within less educated or less economically comfortable communities. You may remember the kerfluffle when Candidate Kerry attended Eucharist (cameraman in tow) immediately after the Vatican announcement that pro-choice candidates should refrain. One of the staff members of his church gave an interview justifying the priest's choice to serve Kerry Eucharist. He spoke glowingly of the intellectual and political sophistication of his church's members, and practically crowed, "We're not Saint Around-the-Corner."

Those faithful Catholics who are less sophisticated, less educated, and less well-off than this man, who find peace and strength and life at Saint Around-their-Corner, were found by him to be lacking. I'm sure he would look with equal disdain on those who attend Around-their-Corner Assembly of God. As far as such men are concerned, the poor should be helped out of both their material poverty and their religious superstitiousness.

Now, to be fair, my husband pointed out that Gutierrez, for example, would be aghast at such a statement; he once gave a sermon at Duke in which he advised that anyone wishing to help the poor should first live with them and . . . prepare for a shocker, here . . . ask them whether and how they should helped.

But Johns was going even farther in her lecture. She was suggesting that not only do the poor know something about what kind of help they need. They also may know something about our salvation that we need to hear from them.

How very provocative.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

I've just returned from the annual Center of Theological Inquiry conference in Sedona, Arizona, and will attempt to share with you my educational experience. (I have already shared my airline experience elsewhere.)

If you don't know anything about CTI, the short, short version is that it is one of many (Lilly-funded) efforts to bridge the gap between church and academy. It takes intellectually-inclined pastors and puts them together with high-quality, church-oriented scholars; presumably this strengthens the ties between both and affords a space for useful cross-pollination. The annual meeting features presentations from those scholars, centered around whatever theme that year's focus has been.

This year's focus was "Salvation and the Church." The lectures addressed whether and how the Church functions in God's salvific plan.

First up was Robert "Jentz" Jenson.

He used our experience of embodiment as a metaphor for the experience of being Christ's Body, the church. Just as, he said, we sometimes experience ourselves as indistinguishable from our bodies, while at other times we experience ourselves as a soul/mind having a body, so also the Body of Christ sometimes experiences itself as indistinguishable from Christ's living presence and other times experiences itself as a Body directed by its head, Christ.

Unpacking that a bit . . .

Our bifurcated experience of embodiment:

Imagine a world-class athlete, swimming the race of his life in the Olympics. He is one with his body. It does exactly what he wants it to; but he doesn't have any awareness of it as separate from his essential being. His mind and soul and will are tied so intimately together with the performance of his body as a body that it does not seem to him that he has a body. He simply is himself, and his self is an embodied one.

Now imagine a world-class scientist with a physically degenerative condition. Her mind and soul and will are simply on a different track than her body. Her body is falling apart--it's not obeying her will, it's not aiding in the performance of her essential being. She is still herself, but her body seems not to be part of that self: it is "other" than herself.

Now, it's important to realize that both experiences are intrinsic to the human experience of embodiment. You are your body, and you have a body. Both statements are wholly true, at all times. But your experience may highlight first one, then the other reality; or your life may seem to include only one (at least, up until death). But neither one is more essentially true of humanity than the other, even though they seem to be contraries.

In the same way, Jensen claims, the church experiences herself, the Body of Christ, sometimes as being Christ's living presence, sometimes as being headed, directed, or even chastised by Christ as her head.

So, like the athlete whose body is in perfect continuity with his will, the Church is in perfect continuity with her head, Christ, and thus experiences herself as Christ-in-and-with-the-world. Since Christ's presence is a saving presence, the church can even experience herself as a saving presence.

But, like the scientist whose body functions (and dis-functions) apart from her will, so the Church is NOT in perfect continuity with her head. She experiences herself as broken, wayward, imperfect, and being corrected. In that case, she is herself being saved--the salvific presence is enacted upon her.

Both of these, according to Jenson, are wholly true at all times; but it is natural to our experience as the Body of Christ that one or the other seems to predominate at any one moment.

My concern with this lecture--which I found thoroughly persuasive, as far as it went--was that in trying to unite the two poles of embodied existence in such a tenuous way (in effect: well, it doesn't look it, but it's true anyway) would lead to incomprehensibility, especially for those whose own theology emphasizes one or the other pole of bodily existence or soteriology.

And, lo and behold, one of the attendees was "provoked" ("But, I mean that in a good way!") that Jenson used headship language of Christ.

Imagine that--headship language of Christ!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

"I am certainly the most fortunate creature that ever existed!" cried Jane. "If I could but see you as happy! If there were but such another man for you!"

"If you were to give me forty such men, I never could be so happy as you. Till I have your disposition, your goodness, I never can have your happiness."
(Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)

Among all of Austen's strange ideas, this is the one that must be strangest to her twenty-first century readers. That someone's happiness must be dependent upon his character, irrespective of the accidents of history which it produces? That it is not the circumstances of one's life but the disposition of one's soul that determines happiness?

An opinion piece in last week's Time magazine suggested that it was unsurprising and unproblematic that studies show childless couples and empty nesters to be happier than parents in the midst of childrearing. It is normal, the author suggested, to be happier when relieved of burdens and able to pursue one's wishes unencumbered by dependents. Children are a burden, he says--no use pretending otherwise. Sure, they give a certain sublime pleasure to their parents, but those pleasures are few and far between, and easily overwhelmed by the unpleasantness of caretaking.

What a self-absorbed view! What a shallow experience of happiness! I can feel pity for those parents for whom the demands of caretaking are so overwhelming that moments of joy are not possible. And I can feel nothing but awe for those parents who find joy in caring for children who will never attain independence and "full" adulthood, who will always be in need of care.

But what about those unexceptional cases represented by these studies--the "normal" parents of "normal" children, who appear to equate happiness with freedom from burdens, from inconveniences, from dependents and caring? In short, from difficulty of any kind? I suspect that Austen is right (and she takes her cue here from the ancients: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas)--that it takes a certain moral fiber to be able to be truly happy. And that moral fiber, if one has it, allows for, or rather produces, happiness irrespective of the immediate presence of pleasure and the absence of pain.

In another book, one of her heroines experiences a moment of joy that is too intense for celebration--she describes it as rather solemn and sobering. Those who have had such moments should not be able to mistake pleasantness for happiness. Perhaps the best reading to be given the studies referenced in the Time opinion piece is that those who were polled failed to distinguish between the two.

But how sad, nonetheless.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Well, France has the Eiffel Tower

We've got the Grand Canyon; Turkey has Pauline archeological sites.

It's only fair that Namibia get to exploit it's newly discovered tourist niche:
Celebrity Baby Hospital

How would that be counted in your GDP? Tourism? Or medical services?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Proof That Brilliance in One Field

. . . (say, physics) doesn't lead to any particular knowledge or wisdom in another field (say, economics or politics or anthropology).

Or maybe it's proof of the imperialist imperative of science.

Humans Must Colonize the Universe!

Whichever the case, I was amazed at the sheer fantasy involved in Hawking's prescriptions and predictions. 20 years to a viable settlement on the moon? 40 years for Mars? Hawking is clearly a scientific genius but an economic neophyte and a sociological idealist.

Exactly how much would a settlement on the moon cost? And we're supposed to pay for it . . . how? And how justly will the benefits and the costs be distributed?

Hawking's program is the classic example of a spendy, sexy, scientific solution to an anthropological problem. Our problem is greed and oppression, not lack of available resources. Our problem is selfishness and short-sightedness, not insufficient opportunity. More opportunity and more resources will not reform the character of the people who dispose of them.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Way back in the Twenties and Thirties, social and biological scientists were looking at fertility rates and noting that the "lesser" ethnic and racial groups reproduced more than the "better" ones. In the words of one respected scientist, "Fertility decreases as one rises the hierarchy of being." (Translation: non-whites reproduce like rabbits because they haven't evolved quite so far away from their animal roots as have whites.)

It was, obviously, a convenient way of marking class, social worth, and intellectual responsibility, as well as encouraging certain behaviors in the respective populations. So, one could encourage immigrants, blacks, and Catholics to reproduce less in order to attain better social status; and one could also encourage limited, planned reproduction among the well off, both so that their "better" genetic stock would be maintained and so that they would not descend into rabbit-like production. The two-child family was both a status marker and a social responsibility.

Today's social scientists are a little more subtle in their efforts to manage reproduction, but there is still a certain social program implicit in various apparently scientific or merely demographic "news" items.

Case in point: The Liberal Baby Bust.

Note the markers of scientific rigor: these comments are based on (cue reverent music) statistics.

Note the lack of even a pretense of charity towards difference: conservatism, patriarchy, Mormonism, and religious fundamentalism are as good as identical, and are highly correlated with high fertility, while progressivism, secularism, feminism, and freedom are all of a piece, and all in danger of extinction-by-reproductive-attrition.

Note the unstated implication: two-children families are once again affirmed to be the most progressive, most intelligent choice.

Foucault was right: the modern nation-state has no need of force. Social programming can be achieved far more effectively and efficiently by the judicious use of a little gentle propaganda.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The only bright spot to this article is the last three words of the first paragraph.

The really, really sad part is that such an egregiously repugnant platform will make the merely immoral seem moderate by comparison.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

So, I guess the fact that (in the Catholic tradition) widowed persons can remarry and divorced persons cannot does not much matter to these folk.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

It's a cruel world out there

Yes, it is. A recent study suggests that healthy lobsters avoid sick ones like . . . well, like the plague. This is a very effective means of infection control, of course, so we can't blame the crusty old beasts.

I could make some comments about how humans do this too--how modern medicine allows us to shunt the sick off into some other place, where we only have to see them at our leisure--but I won't.

Because, in fact, I think the important part is that it is, to use Thomas's words for an idea with which he may not agree, proper to humans to care for the sick, even at their own peril. It is morally praiseworthy in most societies, and positively obligatory in Christian ones, to risk infection, inconvenience, and intimacy by caring for one whose body is in revolt.

Thomas says that man's proper activity--the activity that distinguishes man from other animals, the activity that is most emblematic of man and therefore whose exercise is most necessary to man's happiness, the activity without which man would not be man--is Reason. Rationality is that activity which man shares with the higher beings (angels, God), and in which the lower ones (animals, even the highest non-human animal) do not participate. It might almost be said to be the imago dei.

Sometimes I buy this, but other times I sense that Thomas was dead wrong.

Sometimes, I think self-sacrificing compassion is the imago dei, man's proper activity, the activity without which man would not be man.

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Least Stressful Test Ever

Well, I passed my French language exam.


Actually, I did have a scary moment or two. I had been reading Lossky's Theologie Mystique de l'Eglise d'Orient to prepare for the exam. Tough stuff--great writing, very heady. But the exam was two pages of what appears to have been a preacher's manual. It was a pop-level analysis of the Parable of the Dishonest Steward. It had colloquialisms. I almost panicked. But fortunately, my RogerCollins had colloquialisms. I passed.

Fortunately, it wasn't street French. That's indecipherable.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

And in another shocker, research reveals that funding may bias findings.


I wonder who funded this study?

Just kidding.

In all seriousness, y'all knew about this anyway, right? Do you know how it happens? When self-interested profit-making enterprises (read: drug companies) fund studies, they fund the same study in many, many cities. Then, they keep tabs on the studies in all the cities. When a particular city's study is not going well, they *yank the study* before its completion, so that they don't have to report adverse findings. If a study is not completed, it has no findings to report.


I'm sorry to say this, Bacon and Descartes, but even the Scientific Method is prey to the vicissitudes of human self-interest.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Those who make predictions about such things are predicting a precipitous decline in the number of dissertations completed in the next ten years.


Because of this. Alarming news indeed.

Monday, May 15, 2006

I'm always . . . shocked? baffled? incredulous? at the arguments offered by reproductive endocrinologists when they are questioned about the ethics of this or that aspect of their work. I'm often led to wonder how our educational system can allow someone that deficient in basic logic not only to graduate from high school but to have an advanced medical degree.

This article on sex selection in the US really contains some doozies.

My favorite, of course, is the most wide-ranging, the one which blesses all:

"In the United States we really guard and cherish reproductive choice and we are very reticent to allow the government to impinge on that."

(This is from the reproductive endocrinologist featured in the article, a Dr. Steinberg.)

Note how "choice" itself is a value--a virtue?--irrespective of the actual choice made. Because we value choice, he's saying, the government is not allowed to discriminate between good and bad choices. What's interesting, of course, is the implication that neither is he. He is a service provider; he is under no obligation to exercise judgment over his clients' choices; indeed, he too must honor their choices, whatever they may be.

Now, even if one grants the inadvisability of government intrusion in certain life choices (I do not, but I'll play along), one does not thereby require that individuals lend their aid to those making choices. It is perfectly legal for a man to drink himself into a coma every night of the week, and twice on Sundays, but no bartender, liquor store owner, or airline attendant is legally required to provide him with a single drop of alcohol. It is perfectly legal for a woman to take an entire bottle of Tylenol in the hopes of killing herself, but it is not legally required that her husband help her with the child-proof lid. It is perfectly legal to fire someone for having red hair. It is perfectly legal to . . .

Well, I could go on. But the point is that legal permission does not on any account equal moral obligation. One cannot point to the law and say, "See, it's allowed, so I must help!" If there is a realm of judgment into which we are reluctant to allow the government, that realm does not suddenly become a judgment-free realm.

But there are others!

The article, of course, brought up some of the ethical problems with Steinberg's work. One was the potential demographic effect: if parents were allowed to choose the sex of their child, demographic imbalance might result. (I am confident, by the way, that whichever way the demographic imbalance swung, it would be bad news for women. Too many men, too few women? The women would become the slaves of the men. Too many women, too few men? The women would become the slaves of the men.)

One ethicist's response to this problem was. . . well, it bordered on hilarity: the particular procedure that Steinberg uses (pre-implantation genetic diagnosis) is too expensive to make much difference in global demographics.

So, poor people in India and China resort to infanticide (they peek at the genitals and kill newborns who have the wrong ones), but rich people can afford to do it differently, so we don't have to worry about them. The moral weight of their act is excused because it is presumed to have little statistical impact. Even if this were the case, we all know better than to do morality-by-statistic, don't we? But in fact, the recent research on this very topic demonstrated that the wealthiest provinces in India have the greatest gender imbalance. Precisely because the wealthy can afford to fly to the United States and do what is illegal in their country.

The article also referenced concerns about waste embryos. (We can talk some other time about how the journalist cast this as a concern only of "conservative Christians.") When a procedure produces five to ten "waste" embryos for every two implanted, oughtn't we be concerned about the reasons people are using it? Can't we prioritize? Doesn't "family balancing" seem a little inadequate to the moral weight of discarding ten embryos in order to implant two?

No, no! Dr. Steinberg responds: "His clients mostly opt to keep fertilised eggs in his eggbank rather than discard them."

Oh, well that changes everything! They're not throwing the embryos away--they're just storing them for all eternity. That's totally different.


In fact, Dr. Steinberg has a ready response to any ethicist that suggests negatives to his work:

"People have been warning of that slippery slope since the first in-vitro baby was born more than 25 years ago, but we haven't gone down it yet."

Do you remember some of the things people were worried about 25 years ago? I do.

That post-menopausal women would use IVF to bear children.

That excessive numbers of waste embryos would be created. (Current estimates on the number of stored embryos ranges from 100,000 to 400,000. No estimates exist on the number of embryos simply discarded.)

That such embryos would be treated as research material.

That people would use the technology to select for the sex of their baby.

I wonder what would count as evidence that we're on that slope.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

I'm not sure they're ready for him!

Stanley Hauerwas told me this morning that he's finally being translated into French. They--whoever "they" are--are translating The Peaceable Kingdom; he is going to Paris in the fall for an academic Hauerwas extravaganza.

This truly boggles the mind. I really think he will hit them like a depth charge. I can't think of any theologian less amenable to the French mindset than Hauerwas.

But we both hope that he'll catch on.

He hopes that his work will help break up the logjam between liberals and conservatives, as well as finally move France past the Revolution, where it is still hopelessly mired.

I hope that French-speaking Europe will suddenly be looking for Hauerwas students (e.g., ME) to teach in their schools.

Monday, May 08, 2006

So That's Where He Got It!

One of the many things I enjoyed about David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite was his analysis of the modern market mentality.

As I've written in a fuller review elsewhere:

Where most Christians criticize the market for being too "materialist," he accuses it of disguising or rejecting material reality. What the market buys and sells is not "things" and "stuff," but novelty, popularity, or happiness. (Looking at advertising throughout history is always an enlightening activity.) It is not the physical, material worth of an object that determines its price, but its immaterial value. The reason for this, he says--and this is a brilliant point--is that material needs can be fulfilled, at least for a time. When you've eaten enough, you leave the table. But when your needs are not physical or material, they are eternal, and will never be satisfied. You'll always buy more--especially when your need is for novelty!

I thought this was (as I said) a brilliant point, but it was not original! Apparently, Hart has read his Thomas. (Big surprise.)

From the Treatise on the Passions, ST I-II 30.4:

I answer that, as stated above, concupiscence is twofold; one is natural, the other is not natural. Natural concupiscence cannot be actually infinite: because it is of that which nature requires; and nature ever tends to something finite and fixed. Hence man never desires infinite meat, or infinite drink.
[Thomas then makes the point that humans desire food in successive infinity--that is, we will get hungry again--rather than actual infinity.]
But non-natural concupiscence is altogether infinite. Because, as stated above, it follows from the reason, and it belongs to reason to proceed to infinity. Hence, he that desires riches may desire to be rich, not up to a certain limit, but to be simply as rich as possible.

In other words, any desire that is prompted from our animal nature is a desire that belongs in the natural order of things, and will be limited. I hunger, I eat, I am filled. I feel cold, I clothe myself, I am warm. Any desire that comes from our reason, however, which pertains to our infinite soul and is designed to perceive things as rational beings (God, angels) perceive them, is at least potentially infinite in scope and duration. But as his example makes clear, either the object of the desire or the working of the Reason may be wrong. My fallen Reason may perceive something as good, though it is, in fact, bad, and lead me to desire it infinitely.

But there is a second way in which infinite vs. finite desires may be parsed: whether they are means or ends.

Another reason may be assigned. . . . Because concupiscence of the end is always infinite: since the end is desired for its own sake, e.g., health: and thus greater health is more desired, and so on to infinity. . . . On the other hand, concupiscence of the means is not infinite, because the concupiscence of the means is in suitable proportion to the end. Consequently those who place their end in riches have an infinite concupiscence of riches; whereas those who desire riches, on account of the necessities of life, desire a finite measure of riches, sufficient for the necessities of life, as the Philosopher says.

This starts to sound like Augustine (although he's taking it from Aristotle, of all people!!): whatever object is desired as an end will be desired without limit. But the implication is that placing the wrong object in the position of "end" will lead to an inordinate desire of it. There are appropriate ends to desire--good health, happiness, friendship, and, ultimately, God. These things ought to be desired as ends, and certainly God ought to be desired infinitely. Placing that which ought to serve as a means in the place of the ends--money, food, reputation, "stuff"--disorders their pursuit, such that one pursues them with the infinite desire with which one ought to pursue the truly good (ultimately, God).

Brilliant stuff.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Well, I don't envy Broadhead his job.

When I'm in front of my ordination board, I talk about vocation and giftedness. I say things like, "My calling is clearly to teach pastors. My seminary professors--particularly the ones who were ordained themselves--made such a difference in my understanding of the pastoral life that I want to share it. Seminary professors are crucial members of the ministry of the church."

And so on.

Really, in my heart of hearts, I just. don't. want. to deal with this. I have no interest in playing nursemaid and policeman to a bunch of over-privileged, over-grown toddlers. I'd rather be teaching remedial grammar to second-career pastors than remedial ethics to well-educated undergrads.

Now, I'm not naive about the problems that go on in seminaries. (Our own institution dealt in its recent history with a professor and one of his graduate students leaving their respective spouses for each other.) But it's a different set of problems. And dealing with them is different when there is an underlying agreement that something called Christian Ethics might exist, even if we don't always know what it is and how it relates to us.

When everything's up for grabs, you can't even begin the conversation.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

So, Children and Family ethics specialists out there, tell me:

Is this a good thing, or a bad thing?

I wonder when the studies on the "Brangelina Effect" will start.
And now you can be there too!!!

Duke has put last week's lecture/debate on their website: yes, an audio recording of THE WHOLE EVENING.

I think this Internet Age thing might not be so bad after all.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Two nights ago, I attended a lecture/debate featuring Richard Hays and Bart Ehrman. They used The DaVinci Code as a jumping off point to discuss the classic issues of biblical scholarship: whether the Gospels tell us anything reliable about Jesus, whether the Church has suppressed all but the "orthodox" views of Jesus, whether text corruptions have obscured what we can know about the authors' intent.

Although I learned nothing new in terms of content--I am familiar (to put it mildly) with both scholars' work, and NT studies will form a significant part of my dissertation research--I did learn a lot about holding such events.

First of all, the room was packed out, standing room only, in the biggest lecture hall the Divinity School has. (We moved to the new Chapel, which was also too small, but I don't think we were supposed to. Don't tell anyone.) Five hundred-odd community people came to hear two scholars debate on the technical details of biblical scholarship. Who'd'a thunk it?

Two, the debaters clearly had fun doing this--and their enjoyment was contagious. They cracked jokes (often at each other's expense, but not in a vicious way), they ruthlessly mocked Dan Brown, they put their whole selves into making their points. It was lively. Imagine that--scholarly debate. Lively.

Three, I really admired Hays's debating style. While he wasn't afraid to toss a well-aimed dart or two (the first audience questioner asked, "From the flyer, I thought we were going to talk about The DaVinci Code, not all this Bible stuff. Why aren't we talking about The DaVinci Code?" and Hays's response was, "Because it's not worth talking about!"), he made a point of speaking about his debating partner with profound respect. While it was clear that they had some serious disagreements on substantive issues, he would make a point, again and again, to highlight commonalities. ". . . And I know this is where Bart and I agree." "I want to highlight the importance of what Bart just said about . . ." At one point: "This is a lot like a presidential debate, in that there's never enough time for the candidates to tell you what they really think about an issue. Of course, the major difference is that Bart and I actually want to tell you what we really think about these issues." In fact, he came off rather better than Ehrman in this respect.

He was able somehow to combine vigorous and actual disagreement with respect in a way that I almost never see done (or done well). Never once . . . well, ok, except for when he talked about Dan Brown. . . did he display any of that pseudo-scholarly snobbery that passes for intellectualism in some circles. He answered unsophisticated questions with grace and gentleness. ("Why can't we just believe that the Gospel writers saw this all in a vision? Why do we have to think they had sources?" "Well, I'd want to focus on the claims that the text makes for itself, and no NT test except Revelation claims to be received in a visionary experience. The author of Luke tells us that he has done research and listened to eyewitness accounts. I think we should take the author's claims for himself seriously when we talk about how he might have written his texts. That doesn't at all discount visionary experiences--but it respects the text a little better, I think.")

It would be worth my while to practice this kind of graceful argument. It's certainly not one of my natural strengths.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Well, here I am, in my first official, professional-type credit:

ATLA Digital Library

Isn't that exciting?

I actually digitized and manipulated (via Photoshop) all the images in the collection. Every single one of them is "Photo by Sarah."

If you'd like to see some of the images in our sub-collection, try here. Click, on the left, "Browse the collections," and when you get to the search screen, put a check mark in the box next to "Images of mainline protestant children . . ." Then "submit." (I tried to link directly to the collection for you, but it wouldn't let me.)

My favorites, if you page through the collection at all, are the advertisements. Oh, what a hoot!

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A fascinating article on higher education faculty salaries: Chronicle Article on Salaries

A few interesting things:

* Obviously, the male-female salary gap. And this is in education, where people tend to be more liberal than the general population. I'd hate to see stats for businesses.

* The break-down by type of institution. Church-related doctorate-granting institutions have average salaries somewhere in between public and private schools, while church-related bachelors-only schools have the lowest average. I wonder whether that's related at all to political leaning, population served, or denominational politics.

* My reaction to the listing. I'm salivating at the thought of earning a Lecturer's salary at a community college. "Wow!! What would we DO with ALL THAT money?!?! Thirty-five thousand dollars, for just ONE of us!! Wow! We'd be RICH!"

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Killing the Black Body, by Dorothy Roberts

My mentor suggested this book as a "relief" after I finished reading Beauchamp & Childress's Principles of Biomedical Ethics. I've written elsewhere about why I might need "relief" after reading B&C. Roberts certainly offered a challenge to the dominant mode of bioethics (as represented by B&C, whose work is not just the standard read, but the gold standard), but perhaps not challenging enough.

If you're not up on why people might challenge the standard read, the short version is that it is heavily invested in moral reasoning that privileges autonomy or maximizing choice. In Beauchamp and Childress's case, even though their bioethical principles include justice, beneficence, and non-maleficence as well as autonomy, when you read through their chapters on the three other principles, the other principles are defined in terms of autonomy. So, their definition of distributive justice is a distribution that mitigates inequities for which one is not responsible (which one didn't choose). Their definition of maleficence is anything that impinges on the freely chosen life plan of another. Obligations of beneficence are optional when they involve more than minimal inconvenience.

So, ever since the Nuremburg trials, the understandable and admirable goal of various proposed or enforced laws, policies, professional ethics statements, and so on is to protect or maximize the autonomy of the individual chooser. Never again should non-consensual medical procedures be performed; never again should doctors lie or coerce; never again should the search for knowledge justify cruelty. All well and good.

Now, this interest in personal autonomy has channeled the discussion of reproductive liberty into a certain predictable course. When one speaks of reproductive liberty and whether and how it should be abridged by the state, one assumes certain things about reproduction: that it is an activity undertaken by an agent whose choices and life plans must be honored even by those who may not agree with her choices and plans. That which is good, reproductively speaking, is that which enables the agent to make better, more informed choices, or to carry out those choices more effectively and efficiently. Distributive injustice occurs when technologies and information exist, but are not available to a certain chooser because of the selfishness, paternalism, or economic policies of people or nations. (So, even though IVF produces waste embryos, it is good because it helps couples realize a particular goal; failing to offer pre-natal diagnostic tests is a paternalistic refusal to allow a woman to make a choice about the course of her pregnancy; etc.)

Roberts does not challenge autonomy as a pre-eminent value of bioethics; she challenges how the standard read ignores the racial dimension inherent in the discourse of reproductive liberty. She traces the history of reproduction among African-Americans, highlighting how reproductive liberty has been an elusive dream for Black women. (I'll use Robert's self-designation for the rest of this review.) Under slavery, their wombs and the fruit thereof were the property of their masters; Margaret Sanger, late in her career, joined with eugenicists to plant clinics in predominantly black and immigrant areas (Roberts wants to believe that Sanger's motives remained pure, though, despite her evil bedfellows); welfare reform proposals often seek to limit the "irresponsible" fertility of minority women; doctors who treat infertile Black women often push adoption rather than referring them to a reproductive endocrinologist; even members of the early Black Panther movement instructed Black women that it was their duty to reproduce for the sake of the race--no liberty to be had, even in the fight for liberty.

She challenges both classic pro-choice discourse as well as pro-life discourse. Pointing to one practice for disciplining pregnant slaves--digging a hole in the ground just large enough for her belly, so that she could be whipped without damaging the valuable commodity in her womb--she suggests that any discourse which seeks to protect a fetus at the expense of its mother's choices participates in this slave-holding mentality. (I cannot agree with this as a blanket statement, but it is certainly a provocative read on, for example, laws that seek to criminalize prenatal drug use among minority women.) Yet she also suggests that pro-choice activists focus too much on securing birth control and abortion services for minority women, at the expense of efforts to secure pre-natal care and funding for child assistance programs. They assume, in other words, that offering liberty and justice to Black women means offering them ways to have fewer children, not more. When economic reality forces women to choose between food and childbearing, Roberts suggests that offering access to abortion is not enough. The economic reality must be changed, so that the woman can have real choices.

In the end, however, her constructive proposals fail to offer anything new, save a powerful read of the history of reproduction as influenced by racism. Her analysis of the ways in which poor and minority women are overlooked or ignored (and even demonized) in many discussions of distributive justice is convincing. If one is committed to maximizing autonomy as *the* appropriate goal of justice (distributive and otherwise), one will appreciate her challenge to give greater attention to maximizing the autonomy of minority and low-income women. One may wonder how on earth the government is supposed to finance this autonomy-maximization (which necessitates, for example, infertility treatment for any who might want it, including the destitute). But one will have no serious objection to her basic argument: if autonomy is to be protected at all, it must be protected for Black women.

If one would like to hear a more serious challenge to the role of autonomy in the pursuit of the justice, the common good, or individual happiness, it's not here.

Friday, April 21, 2006

There are two genetics-related stories on my internet news wrapup today. I can't not click on them anymore. (The sad, sad byproduct of taking a class in something--you see it everywhere and have to know about it.)

In the first, Genetics plays role in chronic fatigue syndrome, genes are demonstrated to have a possible health outcome:

The research is being called some of the first credible scientific evidence that genetics, when combined with stress, can bring on chronic fatigue syndrome — a condition so hard to diagnose and so poorly understood that some question whether it is even a real ailment.

But note the secondary function genetics is playing. A condition whose existence "some question" is demonstrated to have a genetic component. It, therefore, can be presumed to be real. This is testimony to the very strong explanatory power of genetics in our culture. If a patient reports symptoms, her report may or may not be accurate and/or helpful. If her genes report an anomaly, now that's something. DNA testing is supplanting even that forensic favorite "the eyewitness" as a sure-fire jury convincer. (Hmm. . . wonder if that will come up at all in a certain upcoming Durham legal battle.)

Of course, this is a subset of a more broad acceptance of the explanatory power of tangible medical data. One of my classmates read a book on "jury nullification"--cases in which the evidence for a defendant's guilt was uniformly understood to be conclusive, but the jury nonetheless acquitted. She said that in the majority of those cases, defense counsel gave some sort of physical, medical evidence that won the jury's sympathy. So, if a defendant claims to have been physically and sexually and emotionally abused all his life, the jury believes this history not to have any mitigating effect. But if the defendant claims some sort of structural injury, which can be shown on, say, a brain scan or a genetic test, juries are more likely to accept that explanation.

Is this a good or a bad thing? I'm not sure I know.

In the second story, Liver Transplant Saves Babies, mothers carrying a genetic defect which is uniformly fatal to their infant sons (but not their daughters) were spared the tragic consequences of their genetic defects. Early liver transplants saved the lives of two baby boys, easily the youngest ever recipients of liver transplants.

Keeley Gibbs knew it was risky to get pregnant. Doctors warned that she and her son born in January could have died. The young woman from Eldorado, Ill., like generations of her family's females, carries the gene for a rare metabolic disorder of the liver. OTC-deficiency is fatal in males, and in utero tests diagnosed the fetus with it. Gibbs wouldn't consider abortion. She survived the pregnancy and birth, and her son, Jacob, received a lifesaving liver transplant at St. Louis Children's Hospital at the youngest of ages, 10 days.

Now, perhaps the broader availability of cadaveric and live-donor livers accounts for the positive tone of this story. The subtext of this story, which you will easily pick up from the full article, is, "Isn't it great that medicine is overcoming genetics?" I'm guessing that a similar article might be written if kidneys were the subject.

I wonder what the tone of the story would be if the affected organ were the heart, or the lungs. The overwhelming attitude toward the more hard-to-come by organs is expressed by the all-knowing, all-powerful writers of bioethics scripture, Beauchamp and Childress: when a resource is scarce, guarding against "waste" is the most pressing moral obligation.

If Ms. Gibbs were the carrier of a genetic anomaly that uniformly destroyed the heart of her male sons, would doctors have been so sanguine about her "choice" to conceive and bear a child? Would she have received more pressure to abort, or at least use IVF combined with pre-implantation genetic screening? Or, if she was rabidly pro-life, to use one of the two available sperm-sorting techniques to bear only daughters? Would there have been some reaction to her failure to make a more "responsible" choice? Some blame-placing that justified keeping her child(ren) off any transplant list? Something along the lines of, "You know, this heart could have gone to a baby that was in a car accident, or had cancer. Some other child will die because this mother didn't use the reproductive technologies that are already out there to avoid this!" Would the afflicted child have been placed on a priority list at all?