Thursday, June 16, 2011

Common Sense Methodists?!?!

Convinced as I have been--and, it must be admitted, remain--that the Methodist church's adoption of sacramental grape juice in place of wine was a grievous error, thanks to Jennifer Woodruff Tait's fine new book, The Poisoned Chalice, I promise never again to consider it a nonsensical or untheological one.

This is a good history of the movement that resulted in the substitution of grape juice for wine in the churches that were to become The United Methodist Church, giving due credit to people whom it is easier to caricaturize, especially for those of us that disagree with them. Woodruff Tait debunks the myth (common among us sacramental oenophiles) that the movement was driven largely by relatively shallow social and cultural concerns rather than substantive moral, theological, or symbological ones.

That is not to say that the moral and mystagogical theology expressed by the grape juice devotees is persuasive or impressive in any way. But Woodruff Tait manages the historian's delicate job of portraying the occasionally ridiculous comprehensibly, at times sympathetically, and without overt mockery. (One sometimes catches a playful smile barely hidden behind the hand, but it is never a smirk.)

More importantly, Woodruff Tait isolates and draws out the many interwoven threads that manifested themselves in the movement towards sacramental grape juice--the interaction between theology and science, rationality and sobriety, hygiene and social utility. The confluence of concerns is rich and sometimes surprising, and Woodruff Tait's deft handling of the material makes it somewhat less incomprehensible than it might otherwise be.

She relates this cultural constructs accessibly and engagingly, and the book would be easily and profitably read by anyone interested in any one of the many concerns it engages.

If one had to name a complaint (and one has to, in order to have one's reviews taken seriously), it might be that there seem a relatively few primary texts being worked with here. Each chapter covers a different facet of the same few texts, intelligibly and persuasively, but one occasionally wonders whether a broader selection of writings from the period would tell the same story. (Surely if one broadened the sample a bit, one would find those nonsensical and untheological voices arguing from sheer stupidity--Fred Phelps is but the most modern incarnation of an old phenomenon.) Still, a scholar does have to work within limits in order to learn or to say anything meaningful, and this hardly seems a complaint worth making.

As I read, I could not help but think of companion readings (not to supply the book's deficits, but because good reading always invites company). Those who are primarily interested in the history of the period should read this alongside Christine Rosen's Preaching Eugenics (especially if the author's references to the eugenic concerns of theologians and pastors seem too fantastical). Intellectual historians might profitably follow this with Amy Laura Hall's Conceiving Parenthood, for the sequel to American Protestantism's love affair with scientific hygiene and purity.

Theologians and ethicists might read this with Thomas, with whom a comparison is never unprofitable (indeed--those familiar with the Summa might have recognized the concern for the effects of alcohol on reason as one of Thomas’s concerns and, perhaps, chuckled at the picture of rabidly Protestant ministers unknowingly propagating Thomistic moral theology) or, for contemporary issues with perhaps a similar constellation of concerns (scientific orthodoxy, social justice and the common good, purity, the effects of technological innovation), Rayna Rapp’s Testing Women, Testing the Fetus or Maura Ryan’s Ethics and Economics of Assisted Reproduction.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Integrity + Equality = ???

Lovely thoughts from a wise friend on how gender equality may have changed the way one intentionally cultivates marital fidelity:

In the Shadow of Modesto

It's true that the standard "adultery prevention" tips, as laudable as their intentions are, do cast women in a single role--that of tempter. As the frequency and type of co-ed interactions increases, it is certainly true that the temptation to infidelity would increase, just as the possibility of more predatory interactions would increase. (A sad truth for women--the more doors that open for them, the greater the chance that a wolf is lurking behind one of them.)

But women are more than tempters. They are colleagues, friends, bosses, shipmates, advisers, counselors, superiors, and dependents. Christian men who are sincere about cultivating the virtues of marital fidelity--both in their own lives and in broader society--need to figure out how to do this in the context of an exploding web of co-ed interactions that can no longer be simply avoided.

I might also add the conversation over how women might cultivate those same virtues--personal sexual morality and respect for marital integrity in the broader society--is a complicated one indeed. Adding in the dynamic of the all-too-prevalent incidence of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment only increases the complexity of the conversation. I'm not sure I'm up for it.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Living Christ in Memphis

Surprising and lovely story this morning on NPR (yes, NPR):

Memphis Churches Leading The Way in Disaster Relief
(Red Cross cautiously pleased. "It's not necessarily a bad thing.")

Aside from my amusement at the Red Cross spokeswoman's clear unfamiliarity with the legitimacy and efficacy of interfaith cooperative efforts, this story prompted two thoughts.

First, thank you, Memphis churches for offering a clear witness to the gospel. Thank you for being the Body of Christ right there in your hometown.

Second, I've been receiving some criticism from my evangelical friends--or rather, from my evangelical friends who tend conservative on political matters--about my public statements to the effect that, if the church does not feed the hungry, heal the sick, and bring relief to the poor, I'm happy for the U. S. government to pick up the slack.

I want to state clearly and unambiguously that the day news stories like the above are no longer news--the day NPR says, "Churches are solving the poverty problem? So what? That's not news," the day Red Cross has no choice but to say, "Well, of course churches are providing the bulk of the shelter/food/clothing here. They always do"--is the day I start campaigning vigorously for an end to all government aid to the needy.

Any and every tax cut you ask me to vote for, I will.

Any and every government program you want to cut, I will be your fiercest lobbyist.


Go ahead. Get busy.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Instantly Erroneous

I've been perusing the usual news sites last night and this morning, along with news sites I don't normally visit, thanks to the furious barrage of links and comments and speculation on my friends' facebook pages.

I've discovered that Fox News was reporting that Usama bin Landen [sic] was confrimed [sic] dead. Half an hour later, someone thought to become a professional and the two misspellings were corrected.

I've seen several websites (including wikipedia) announce confidently that Osama has been dead for a week; most of those sites now report that he was killed on May 1, 2011.

Some sites are currently reporting that Osama has been buried at sea, citing Islamic tradition and a general disinclination among the world's leaders to pollute their soil with his remains. Other sites are reporting that the US is maintaining its custody of his body in order to ensure acceptance of its claim to have killed him. I'm sure when an official statement is made as to the disposition of Osama's body, everyone will revise his website accordingly.

Some of my friends, especially those disinclined to trust anything with a liberal provenance, are already generating conspiracy theories to account for the discrepancies between Obama's official announcement and the maelstrom of unsubstantiated "facts" that overtook cybernews outlets while we were all waiting for that announcement.

Peace, be still, my friends.

There is no need for such speculation.

The explanation is far simpler and far more troubling.

The intentional impermanence of cyberspace combined with the demand for incessantly instantaneous news has created an ethos of irresponsibility in online reporting. Getting it out trumps getting it right.

In print media, the error abides; it gazes up at one, accusingly, preserved in library archives (what is the new microfiche?) for posterity. The penance only perpetuates the failure: the necessary published retraction ensures that there are two artifacts instead of one. The damage to the reporter's and the paper's reputation was tangible.

There is no failure in online reporting. There is no retraction, no mea culpa. There is only perpetual revision. Reputation need not matter.

And, of course, affiliation counts for more than accuracy these days anyway, doesn't it? One's political leanings (whether implied or avowed) are far more important for developing a loyal readership than one's accumulated record.

And if there is no more accumulated record? So much the better.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Is It Schadenfreude If They Deserved It?

I never take joy in the suffering of others, even when that suffering is deserved.

But . . . sometimes . . . I allow myself a hearty nod of approval when someone is given the gift of logical consequences:

Paper Mill Ghostwriter Loses His Law License

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Stop Knocking the Old Folks

When my husband and I returned to Duke for our PhD work, we found ourselves free to choose a church for the first time since . . . well, for the first time, honestly.

When we were MDivs at Duke, we attended churches where one or the other of us was assigned as a student intern, or we attended the church of a fellow seminarian whose ministry we wanted to support.

When neither condition applied and we were free (or was it obligated?) to choose, we warily and dutifully did the rounds of all the United Methodist churches in Durham.

We were open to a fairly wide range of styles of doing and being church--contemporary or traditional or "blended," program-driven or people-oriented, faithfully struggling or humbly succeeding: it was all, at least potentially, good.

The only churches we rejected out of hand and without a second glance were churches where someone came up to us after the service, grabbed us by the shoulders, and staring into our eyes gushed, "We need people like you in this church."

By "people like you," they meant, of course, young people. (And, in my husband's case, young, attractive people.)

These churches had bought the line that youthfulness was a sign of spiritual value, a more wrongheaded notion than which I've rarely encountered. Our presence qua young people--quite apart from our spiritual maturity, our faithfulness, our integrity, our willingness to tithe--was judged to be an asset to the church.

Honestly, after teaching young people for the better part of two years, I have to question this notion.

There's nothing wrong, of course, with attending to the spiritual needs of young people. Churches with enjoyable youth activities, accessible teaching for younger folk, and a commitment to integrating adults-in-training into the work of the church are certainly doing right by their kids. (The church in which I was raised deliberately made space for older teens and college kids on their various committees, and I briefly served on the worship committee there.)

But churches that wish to fill their pews with young folk because they believe a church full of young folk is necessarily and certainly a healthier congregation than one full of older folk are just plain wrong.

I have taught classes of between eight and twenty-five students, spoken at our college's chapel, and mentored both individual students and student groups.

And I should say, lest what follows be read as the uncharitable rantings of someone who hates working with undergrads, that I love my kids--from the grumpy, reading-averse footballers to the academic all-stars, from the kids for whom that C+ is a hard-won accomplishment to the ones that email me to ask for more reading, and even, especially, the plagiarizers, for whom I always hope good will come from the confrontation.

But their youth is not an asset in and of itself. It is, in fact, a challenge, even a need, that must be addressed.

They cannot be taught without being entertained.

Their fragile egos require exceptionally delicate handling.

Some of them--particularly the well-educated ones--are desperately ill-acquainted with work, especially physical labor.

Most importantly, they are thoroughly trapped by superficial expectations of worth--they will listen only to hip, attractive, controversial, or charismatic folk, and will utterly dismiss the wisdom of the frumpy, the awkward, the weak, and the weathered. They are not completely lacking in respect, but they have horrendously distorted notions of who is worthy of respect, whom they should trust, whose lives are worth imitating. Counter-intuitively, they are frightened by genuine novelty. If it doesn't come dressed in the costume they have been conditioned to prefer, it is not to be borne.

A church full of young people may look like a church teeming with life and vitality. But it is also a church teeming with neediness, immaturity, and folly. (Perhaps a daring folly and a receptive immaturity, but perhaps not.)

I just gave the homily for the mid-week Lenten service at our church. Our church membership is delightfully varied in many ways--a great range of ages, educational levels, maturity, and spiritual gifts. But this particular service (lunchtime, very liturgical, contemplative) seems to have connected with more older folk than younger folk. (Perhaps more teenagers would come, if it weren't during school hours, but perhaps not.)

As I was preaching, I felt keenly the difference between speaking to young folk and speaking to people with some years on them.

I spoke very simply, without being especially vivid or entertaining. And yet most of the faces I saw were attentive, open, engaged, thoughtful.

Every single person over the age of seventy had a kind word to say to me afterwords--not because I had done anything particularly well, but because they knew the importance of kind words.

And everyone over the age of forty that knew me already made sure to say hello to me--not because I was cool or famous or in any way wonderful, but because they respected our acquaintance and knew how to maintain it.

There were, of course, younger folk there, too, and their presence was a blessing. But their presence was a blessing quite apart from their youth--they happened to be particularly awesome young folk. Their youth added nothing to the worship service; it was, instead, their maturity in spite of their youth that made their presence a pleasure.

To put it bluntly, it's the little old ladies that keep the church standing--both literally and metaphorically.

Older members of the congregation know how to build community. They are not afraid of work, even if their bodies don't always cooperate. They take financial matters seriously. And they are more open to change than young folks. (No, I'm serious. Youth is attracted to frivolous novelty--change for change's sake. Considered, purposeful, thoughtful, and potentially permanent change is difficult for them. But you convince a seventy-year-old of the reasonableness and worth of a particular change? Watch out.)

If there are no gray heads in your congregation, you have a serious problem.

If you have a congregation full of gray heads, do not despise them. There is life and wisdom and growth there.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Biblical Preaching Can Get You Killed

Despite manifold witnesses to the contrary, just war theorists--that is, people who believe that war can be justifiable, whether by the classic Just War Theory criteria or otherwise--continually insist that pacifism--that is, the refusal to kill even in defense of justice--is an abdication from political responsibility.

Consider this excerpt from the penultimate sermon preached by Archbishop Oscar Romero:
Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says ‘Thou shalt not kill’. No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order. The church, the defender of the rights of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such an abomination. We want the government to face the fact that reforms are valueless if they are to be carried out at the cost of so much blood. In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.
Does his call to lay down arms sound like an abdication from politics to you?

No, it didn't sound like it to the ones who depended on those arms to perpetuate their political power, either.

That's why they killed him. The very next day.

Consider joining with the Salvadoran poor in commemorating the life of Oscar Romero.

And if you're a church in search of a pastor, consider exactly what you mean by "biblical preaching."

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Female = Feminist?

A friend of mine currently blogging over at Theology PhD Mom is in the midst of an interesting and helpful series of posts on the academic job market.

She raises a very interesting point in this post about the not-entirely-realistic expectation that female theologians are conversant with feminist theology.

I know the important names, the basic thrust of their work, and the kinds of concerns that may be common to those who label themselves feminists, but I have far less expertise in feminist theology than I do in, say, philosophical ethics, scripture, systematics, Thomism, or Wesleyan theology.

Of course, in some sense, I do feminist theology, whether or not I do it in concert with explicitly feminist theologians, simply by dint of being a woman. In a more significant sense, I do feminist theology because some of the issues, approaches, and convictions that tend to be of particular concern to women are part of my intellectual landscape. (That is, I am more likely than my male colleagues, on the whole, to notice, theorize, or write about some of the sorts topics that feminists tend to notice, theorize, and write about.)

But I have never identified myself as a feminist theologian.

Despite never having identified myself as a feminist, or even admitted to being conversant in feminist theology, I have been asked by colleagues to "present the feminist perspective," to give a lecture on feminist theology, or in other ways to speak for or about feminists in academic settings.

I have finally stopped graciously apologizing for my lack of knowledge and interest. The last time a (male) colleague asked me to give a presentation on feminism, I answered, "Hey, you know what would be awesome? Let's do something really wild. Why don't you present on feminism, and I'll present on masculinity."

He didn't take me up on it.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Sentences You Should Fear

I have become quite an expert at catching instances of academic dishonesty.

In fact, I've caught more plagiarists without the help of my school's detection program (SafeAssign, Turnitin, etc.) than with.

I say this not to brag, but to preface the following list: those sentences I'm mostly likely to say right before I catch you. I put this list in order of ascending frequency.

"Gee, that's not how the book put it."
When a student, even a good student, knows more about the topic than the author he's supposed to be summarizing, analyzing, or assessing, I tend to assume that student has done a little outside "research." So I start doing a little "research" of my own.

"Gosh, this would have been a great paper for the other class this student is taking/took last semester/would have taken as a freshman." I do know what classes are being offered elsewhere in the school, you know. And sometimes, your other professors and I chat about, like, what we're teaching. Recycling paper is good and will lead to a cleaner and better future for all; recycling papers can only lead to your downfall.

"That's . . . not . . . what I assigned."
Sometimes, an essay that doesn't address the assignment but is in other ways a sound effort is just a bad essay. Other times, it's a bad deal--that purchased essay didn't exactly do it's job. And the funny thing? About two sentences into our conversation about your paper (and we will have one), I can tell which of these it is.

"This is a rather astounding improvement over the last paper." This sentence almost never, in itself, provokes The Conversation. I've actually had students who work on their writing and improve it over the course of the semester. (No, really! Some people do that. Have you considered that as an alternative to . . . no? Well, it was worth a try.) But it almost always provokes a little one-on-one time with the search engine.

"Wow, this is a grammatically correct sentence." You know who you are and why this makes me start googling. This corollary to the previous (both falling under the "There's no way that student produced this paper" category heading) is distinguished primarily by the suspect sentence's isolation from its surroundings. That pearl of great price--grammar--shines all the brighter when it appears in the midst of the compost bin that is your usual writing. I always google the pearl. And I usually find that it has an original owner that is not you.

"Darn that thesaurus function on Word." This one is kind of fun, actually. When I reconstruct the sentence that would have existed before your thesaurus use rendered it nonsensical, I can figure out whether you're 1) a bad writer or 2) a bad writer and a plagiarist. If the probable ur-sentence of the tortured sentence is itself confused and mangled, that's a sure sign that it actually originated with you. (I never attempt to reconstruct the mental pattern that produced such a sentence. I prefer to live in a land of logic and reason.) If the reconstructed sentence is logical, grammatical, and germane to the essay, I go a-hunting.

And, the final and most frequent precursor to your visit with the academic dean:

"Oh, look! Wiki!" Nowadays, I read the relevant Wiki page(s) right before I start grading. It just makes the whole process faster.

Perhaps this list will make you reconsider your attempt to skirt the requirements of your course. Or perhaps it will simply make you a better plagiarizer. Either way, I will consider it a success. The former is better for your soul, which is, of course, more important than your intellect. But the latter is not lacking in a kind of scholarly merit--the skills of a successful (as opposed to lucky) plagiarist are genuinely intellectual skills that may serve you later in life.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Good Introduction

This entry is a review of Catholic and Christian: An Explanation of Commonly Misunderstood Catholic Beliefs, by Alan Schreck

Written with a frankly apologetic aim that is laudable for its consistency, honesty, and gentleness, this primer on Catholic belief and practice is readable, friendly, and well-organized. Schreck has an eye on Protestant critiques of Catholicism and answers those critiques in an ecumenical and conciliatory manner—sometimes correcting misapprehensions, sometimes explaining in language that might be appealing to Protestants, yet never apologizing for Catholic distinctives. He is careful, for example, to appeal to scripture to argue against sola scriptura and for the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in directing the Church.

At times, this ecumenical spirit (as well as, no doubt, his attention to accessibility) leads him to make claims that are less than intellectually satisfying. When he insists in the section on prayer to the saints, for example, that “All Christian prayer . . . is directed to the Father through Jesus Christ, who is the ‘one mediator between God and man’ (1 Tm 2:5)” (158-159), one desperately longs for the “ultimately” that one knows should be in there. It is patently true that prayers and petitions are addressed to the saints and to Mary, and to say that “all prayer” is “directed to the Father” cannot satisfy the Protestant who knows that he objects to the practice nor the Catholic who makes petitions to her beloved patron saint. Similarly, the affirmation that Mary was saved from sin through no merit of her own, just like all humans must be, with the only exceptional part being that her salvation was wrought before her birth, will not cause Protestants to recoil any less from the declaration that Jesus was not the only human to have lived a sinless life.

(The only time I was myself a bit . . . snarly . . . was when he denied the existence of Junia and trivialized "deaconesses" with the distance quotes.)

But Schreck’s project is not to bring all Protestants to full communion with the Catholic Church—it is but to explain Roman Catholic belief and practice accurately and appealingly, and this he does very well.

As an ethicist, I cannot fail to be disappointed in the absence of a chapter dealing with Catholic ethics. While the attentive reader can collect scattered references to the sources, aims, and logic of Catholic moral theology into a reasonable understanding of how it works, there are few references to specific teachings, principles, or emphases. It should not be difficult to construct such a chapter, and John Paul II’s ethical writings would be a crucial resource for this project, given his ability to balance authority and accessibility in his writing.

This was a required text for the class I am teaching this semester (that is, I was required to require it), but I am quite happy with it nonetheless. It is accessible and sound, and I would recommend it outside the classroom to anyone (Catholic or Protestant) who is not well-versed in the Catholic faith but wants to be.