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People With Blackness

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I've discovered the need to adopt a new way of speaking about people who are recently-descended from Africans. We've learned in the last couple decades that we ought to emphasize someone's personhood above any other characteristic, and thus it's thoroughly immoral to use any adjective in front of 'person'. We need to use predicate nouns instead. We no longer have sad people, for example. We simply have people with sadness. We no longer have short people. We have people with shortness. We don't want to define people with sadness as if their sadness is more important than their personhood, so we have a moral obligation to put the noun form after the word 'person'. Grammar does always indicate metaphysics, after all.

One sphere of language in which this lesson has never been properly applied is in the area of race. Why are we still talking about black people, for instance? Do we really want to define people solely in terms of their race? Do we really want to signal that their blackness is so central to who they are that we're going to pretend that people with blackness aren't people? If we call them black people, then we are treating their blackness as if it's a greater part of our conception of people with blackness than their personhood is. People with person-firstness have instructed us that we should never put disability-related adjectives in front of a noun or pronoun referring to a person, because we don't want them identified with that condition. But we've also learned from the same people that having a disability is not negative, which means this policy is not because disabilities are bad. Therefore, we ought to apply it to other cases when something is not bad but might wrongly be taken by someone to be bad, just as we would apply it to things that are genuinely bad. If race is not to be a negative, then I am not a white person. I'm a person with whiteness. It does make it a little awkward to speak of people with Asianness or people with Australian-first-people-ness (i.e. what used to be called aboriginalness). But it's worth the awkwardness of expression to avoid any chance of identifying them with the racial or ethnic group whose membership they possess.

Even worse, it's especially pernicious to say that someone is black (or African-American or whatever racial term we might choose). After all, using predicate adjectives amounts to making identity statements rather than merely ascribing a property to someone the way we would have thought that adjectives in English, even predicate adjectives, do. It's much more preferable to say that someone has blackness than to say that she is black. People aren't anything except persons. I'm not philosophical. I have philosophicalness. Glenn Beck is not unfair to his political adversaries. He has unfairness to the people who have political adversariness with him. President Obama is not bad at speaking without a teleprompter. He has badness at speaking without a teleprompter. I shouldn't say that I am Christian. I'm a person who has Christianity. I shouldn't be identified with my faith. I should claim, rather, to possess the entirety of Christianity, as if it belongs to me. We need to avoid identifying people with any property ascribed to them other than personhood. It's much better to say that they possess the entirety of the thing that formerly we would have used to describe them.

For more explanation, please see here (except you can ignore the sections explaining how people with blindness and people with deafness have offendedness at the obviously-correct way to refer to them, and you certainly shouldn't read person-with-autism Jim Sinclair's reasons for disliking person-first language).

John Stott died yesterday at age 90, after only four years of retirement. One of the most well-loved among influential evangelicals, Stott rarely drew much criticism from fellow evangelicals, even among those who considered his few controversial positions to be wrongheaded. Stott was the rare pastor-scholar. As a single, celibate minister, he had the time to devote a day each week, a week each month, and a month each year to engaging in scholarly study outside his normal preaching preparation. His popular-level expositional commentaries on books of scripture are among the best in that genre, and his commentary on John's epistles was perhaps the most useful commentary for the actual teaching of scripture for something like two decades after it was published. His popular-level presentations of what the gospel is all about have been among the most influential works in teaching those in a largely biblically-illiterate generation what the basics of Christianity really are. People in the media who are outsiders to evangelicalism tend to see leaders of political movements like the Christian Coalition as the influential leaders of evangelicalism, but nothing could be further from the truth. People like John Stott, John Piper, John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, Chuck Swindoll, and Rick Warren have far more influence among evangelicals as preachers, spiritual leaders than anyone seeking a purely or largely political agenda.

I can think of three areas of controversy that have led Stott to be criticized by fellow evangelicals. One is his annihilationism. He never denied the reality of hell, but he conceived of hell as the complete annihilation of the person. They simply no longer exist. It's one thing for theological liberals like Clark Pinnock to hold such a view, but Stott was the rare conservative annihilationist. The second is his moderating position on women's preaching. Complementarians typically hold that a congregation's elders should be men, and the primary teaching of scripture should be restricted to men. Stott agreed, except that he had women as elders, and they preached, provided that there was not a majority of women on the elder team, and as long as the person occupying the role of overseeing the elders was a man. More conservative complementarians thought he went too far, and egalitarians didn't think he went far enough. The third is his remaining in the Church of England when numerous Anglicans evangelicals have left over various issues in that denomination that conservatives have disagreed with. He sought to resist change from the conservative direction while remaining an Anglican, and he sided firmly with evangelicals against fundamentalism in not endorsing separatism over such issues.

It's interesting what NPR chooses to focus on in their headlines. I can't find anything on their site about him, but I heard them announce his death least night, and they repeated it this morning. Their emphasis was on his unusual combination of views (to their mind). They said that, despite his conservative views on homosexuality and abortion, he drew criticism from other evangelicals for pursuing social justice issues. Really? I can't think of any evangelical who might have criticized Stott on such concerns. That has played no role in the controversies over his life and ministry. His positions on social justice are recognized by most evangelicals as being perfectly biblical. There might be disagreements among evangelicals about the best methods of pursuing social justice, but evangelicals typically recognize the concern and would laud his efforts to pursue such goals. I realize that the NPR news staff have probably never met an evangelical and don't quite grasp what drives evangelicalism in any way, but it seems they've invented a controversy out of thin air to serve a political narrative about evangelicals when there are actual controversies they could have mentioned. Wikipedia captures at least two of them very well, and I couldn't imagine why they couldn't just use its presentation of the issues to guide their presentation of it if they can't figure out how to understand those issues coherently themselves.

Update 8:12am: There's a great writeup by Tim Stafford that not only gives a much fuller picture of Stott's life and influence but gets the social justice issue right. Also, Justin Taylor quotes Stott's conclusion of his last book (which he wrote two years ago, still by pen and paper):

As I lay down my pen for the last time (literally, since I confess I am not computerized) at the age of eighty-eight, I venture to send this valedictory message to my readers. I am grateful for your encouragement, for many of you have written to me. Looking ahead, none of us of course knows what the future of printing and publishing may be. But I myself am confident that the future of books is assured and that, though they will be complemented, they will never be altogether replaced. For there is something unique about books. Our favorite books become very precious to us and we even develop with them an almost living and affectionate relationship. Is it an altogether fanciful fact that we handle, stroke and even smell them as tokens of our esteem and affection? I am not referring only to an author's feeling for what he has written, but to all readers and their library. I have made it a rule not to quote from any book unless I have first handled it. So let me urge you to keep reading, and encourage your relatives and friends to do the same. For this is a much neglected means of grace. . . . Once again, farewell!

I'm not about to revert to writing books with pen and paper, but I have to agree about electronic books. It's nice to have ready access to stuff online, and I've benefited from not having to go to the library to find journal articles or to look briefly at online portions of books, but I can't read anything of any decent length online. It was torture going through my dissertation on the computer to edit it as a result of my desire not to print it out to save several hundred pages of paper. Thirty-page articles are hard enough for me to read through on PDF. There's something about holding it in your hands, being able to carry it around without having to lug around some proprietary electronic device whose manufacturer can revoke your ability to read it at any time, and being able to mark it up however you like, never mind being able to put it on a shelf near other works of a similar kind in an organized way (not that I've been able to do that part for years for anything but my commentaries).

Gene Fant discusses the tendency among some evangelical scholars to adopt views that are more socially acceptable in the academy at large, which sometimes involves abandoning evangelical convictions. I think that phenomenon is clearly present. There are evangelical scholars who engage with the academy and end up changing their minds on certain issues, because they are convinced by the arguments (or at least they feel convinced).

But Gene gives his take on what's going on in these cases. Such people are being intellectual golden retrievers, and he compares it to peer pressure among teenagers in Facebook. He says he's had personal conversations with a number of evangelical scholars who describe their situation as wishing they didn't have "to comport with these theological chains that prevent me from earning the approval of the larger academy".

But I couldn't imagine someone convinced by arguments against some conviction held among evangelicals seeing those evangelical convictions as chains. They would either think the Bible doesn't really require them to hold the more conservative view they've abandoned (in which case they wouldn't consider themselves chained while remaining evangelicals and adopting their more liberal view), or they would reject the evangelical convictions (and thus also not feel chained by them, since they don't care to remain evangelical). Such an intellectually honest person strikes me as unable to say the kind of statement that Gene attributes to all these people he's talked to.

So I'm trying to imagine who would. Is it someone who feels peer pressure among academics to give lip service to a view they know is false? Then why would they call it a chain, if they know it is true but feel embarrassed by it? They would call it right, and they might see the academically-respectable view as the chain, something they'd rather not have to say but feel instead as if they need to in order to be socially respected. It's hard for me to see such a person, as embarrassed as they are about their conviction that a socially-disrespected view is true, considering their commitment to the truth a chain. It's the social pressure that would be the chain.

I'm just trying to understand the psychology of someone who would say such a thing, and I'm drawing a blank. It's nearly impossible for me to imagine someone thinking such a thing. If they agree with the evangelical conviction, the social pressure would be the chain, and if they disagree with the conviction they'd see argue that they need not hold the conviction, not see it as something they have to comport with. So this kind of statement is a little baffling to me.

Secondary Moral Obligations

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There's a category of moral obligations that occur in funny circumstances. Given that you are doing a certain immoral thing, there are nevertheless obligations that you have. The pope has recently conceded (finally) that there are such obligations involving condom use. It's wrong to be a male prostitute, but it's "a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility" if the prostitute uses a condom. In other words, if you're going to be immoral, you do have the moral obligation of wearing a condom. You shouldn't be doing the initial immoral thing to begin with, but if you're going to do it you still have another obligation to be responsible and wear a condom, or else you fail at a further obligation.

The fullest quote I've seen is, "There may be justified individual cases, for example when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be ... a first bit of responsibility, to re-develop the understanding that not everything is permitted and that one may not do everything one wishes."

Perhaps we could call this sort of thing a secondary moral obligation, one you don't have unless you're doing something you have a moral obligation not to do.

Since some secondary moral obligations might be immoral themselves were it not for the primary moral obligation, there really is an interesting character to them. That's certainly how the pope's view in this case works. Condom use is normally immoral, according to his view. But given certain immoral actions, you then have a secondary moral obligation to perform that normally-immoral act of using a condom.

I want to say something about Andrew Sullivan's response, because I think Sullivan latches on to something important that most people haven't picked up, but he's also got it completely wrong in another respect. What Sullivan notices is that "Benedict has chosen a case where transmission of new life (barring a real miracle) is already impossible". It's not clear if he would say the same thing about a female prostitute, where conception might be possible. It's quite possible that this is why he chose this example. I'm not sure. Does the recognition of secondary moral obligations only occur when the stakes of the effects of risky sex are greater than the stakes of contraception, and the latter still appear in cases of heterosexual non-marital sex?

I suspect Sullivan is wrong about this, though, and the pope would still invoke what I'm calling a secondary moral obligation in cases where there's high risk of STDs with immoral sex of any sort, but Sullivan has given a possible distinction that might come into play. I credit him for spotting that possibility, but I'm wondering if he has any evidence other than the fact that he chose this example when he could have chosen another (which is no more than speculation, actually).

I have to criticize Sullivan's understanding of the larger issue. I don't think he gets the point being made. He describes this statement is taking one form of gay sex as being more moral than another. That strikes me as at least very misleading, if more moral means anything other than less immoral. When you say something is more moral, it sounds as if there's a continuum between things not moral and things most moral, and this is in between somewhere. That's not what Benedict said, though. What he said is that both are immoral, but one is moreso.

What he goes on to say next, however, does seem right to me. It does follow that moral considerations of this secondary sort would apply in gay sex. If gay sex is immoral, there are some instances that are less so than others. Anonymous gay sex is more immoral than gay sex in a committed partnership. Duh. But is such a position really anathema to the Roman Catholic Church? Is Benedict likely to say that there's no moral distinction between killing someone while robbing a bank in order to get away safely and taking sadistic delight in blowing up the entire bank with forty hostages as you go, even though none of their deaths were required for your escape?

I'd be pretty shocked if he thought such a thing. In fact, an alternate position by John Allen strikes me as more likely: "Pope Benedict XVI has signaled that in some limited cases, where the intent is to prevent the transmission of disease rather than to prevent pregnancy, the use of condoms might be morally justified." So the issue is intent, as is unsurprising. Pope Paul VI's statement on sexual morality allowed for some cases where an act that would normally be immoral might in certain contexts be justified given that the intent is not to prevent conception but to save a life. The case of a married couple with one spouse HIV-positive seems to be another, and I know of several instances of Catholic bishops and even a cardinal endorsing condom use in such a case (and the entire Phillipines conference of bishops even made a public statement to that effect).

So is Sullivan's conclusion that the pope is now opened up to a gray-scale of morality rather than black and white morality? Hardly. There's still a fact about what you ought to do and what you ought not to do. The gradations are not between right and wrong, where it's factually uncertain which things are which (or even worse that there are no facts about where the line lies). I've seen nothing to indicate anything other than a sharp line between right and wrong in Benedict's moral thinking. It's just that there are degrees in how wrong something can be. Out of the things that are simply wrong, some have a greater degree of wrongness to them than others. Using a condom to have gay sex in a committed same-sex legal marriage is, on the Catholic view, simply wrong, even if it's not as bad as having unprotected sex with a male prostitute in a one-time encounter.

Given what the pope's position is, it's interesting to see the headlines news outlets are giving to the pronouncement (and I'm just looking at what's on the top of the Google listings). Yahoo's is pretty good: Pope says some condom use 'first step' of morality. CBN seems to be using the same headline. ABC is also in this category, as is Catholic Herald.

Politics Daily, on the other hand, gets it entirely wrong: "Pope OKs Condoms in Some Cases, Such As Prostitutes Avoiding HIV". That doesn't get the point at all. It's not that he's OKing it for them. It's that he can see it as a movement from being thoroughly immoral to being a little less immoral, all the while insisting that they should be doing none of it to begin with. You have the same problem with the New York Times: Pope Says Condoms to Stop AIDS May Be Acceptable. NPR has the same problem with different language: Pope Says Condoms Can Be Used in Some Cases. Al Jazeera has an initial headline that's fine, but then they have a sub-headline that's as bad as any of these. First: Pope softens stand on condoms. Then the summary immediately below says he considers it acceptable in some cases. Others in this category include the New York Post, CNN, and the Huffington Post. The Daily Beast is perhaps the worst: Pope Partly Endorses Condoms.

FOX News is only a little better: Pope: Condom Use Can Be Justified in Some Cases. The reason I think that's a little better is because it's actually true, whereas the NYT and Politics Today headlines are simply false. The pope has not said that it's OK or acceptable to use condoms to stop AIDS, just that it's less immoral than engaging in such behavior without a condom. I think it's technically correct to say, however, that it can be justified in some cases, if the view is that you incur a moral obligation to use a condom in such circumstances by engaging in the immoral behavior. But it's pretty misleading. It suggests that this is all right, even if it doesn't go as far as the others in asserting that. MSNBC has a similar headline, with "OK" instead of "Justified". That strikes me as better than saying he OKs it or that it may be acceptable, but I think calling it justified is a little better.

[cross-posted at Evangel]

Update: The discussion at Evangel has brought up a couple things I wanted to mention here (but I recommend reading the comments there, which are much more full than anything I expect here).

1. Steve Hays provided a link to this story, which suggests both that this isn't really all that new in the thinking of the Catholic hierarchy but that it would be perceived as a change in policy by most in that hierarchy.

2. David Nickol quoted the section of Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae that I was remembering that allows for non-contraceptive intents behind actually-contraceptive measures, as long as there's no contraceptive intent. Here's what he quotes: "the Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from--provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever." That confirms my sense of things that lay behind my response to Sullivan.

Update 2: Well, here we go. He didn't mean to include just male-male acts.

Update 3: Steve Hays sent me a link to another article confirming the information in U1 of the first update.

Justin Taylor has reposted David Powlison's critique of Cognitive Behavior Therapy. Powlison is the author of the so-called Biblical Counseling chapter of the IVP Five Views book on psychology and Christianity.

I'm not going to worry about the issue, pointed out several times in the comments, that the Bob Newhart video has pretty much nothing to do with CBT. I have two main things to contribute to the discussion, (1) as a philosopher and (2) as a parent of a child who has taken part in cognitive behavioral methods.

Powlison bases a lot of his critique on the fact that CBT uses (sometimes consciously) methods that can rightly be described as Stoic in that they do have a strong enough similiarity to key ideas of the ancient Stoics that I don't think the comparison is inapt. Stoicism, at least on the issues relevant here, involves one key claim. The Stoics didn't think it's worth worrying about something outside your control. The reason is that your life is made worse off by your worrying, but you can do something about the worry. You can't do anything about the fact that George W. Bush won the presidential election in 2004 or Barack Obama won the presidential election in 2008. You can't change the fact that lots of people died recently in China from landslides. You can do something to help those who remain, and you can do something to change people's minds on policy issues and perhaps help elect a different sort of person next time, but there's no point in worrying about something you can't do anything about.

That element of Stoic philosophy seems entirely reasonable to me. The Stoics do go on to say that we should remove all emotions, but it's important to be clear on what they meant. They defined emotions more or less as bad reasoning. Things we call feelings that aren't bad reasoning and are compatible with good reasoning would not be emotions for the Stoic. So there's no reason to complain about that view on the ground that it's healthy to have emotions and inhuman not to. We should eschew the things they called emotions without actually eschewing emotions as we understand the term. They had a strange view about what we should call emotions, but the substance of their view is mostly right, as Augustine so deftly argued in his critique of the Stoics. Feelings of any sort should be submitted to reason, and those that are irrational are best removed. Augustine shows that the Stoic view, when reworked into ordinary language without their odd view of what counts as an emotion, is largely correct and fully compatible with Christian teaching.

Where the Stoic goes wrong, as far as Christianity is concerned, is in not submitting things to the lordship of Christ. I can't even say that they don't equate submission to reason with submission to God. They do. They just have a false view of what God is like. Does that affect the practical level? Not so much. Does it affect CBT? Not remotely. The reason is that CBT is really a method, a placeholder in which you insert the content you intend to replace the unhealthy and irrational beliefs. The Stoics insisted that irrationality comes from false thinking. They may have been wrong about that as a fully adequate explanation of all irrationality. But they were certainly right that a whole lot of irrationality comes from false beliefs. I know at least two cases of chronic depression that in large part involves flat-out false beliefs, even if there may also be neurological causes. In one case it's someone who consistently interprets any possible information that could be stretched to show that people don't like him or that he's a failure as if everyone doesn't like him and as if his abilities are the problem, when in many of these cases no one is even evaluating him negatively, and often enough their evaluations aren't seen that way by the people doing the evaluating. Such a person might benefit from neurochemical supplements, but CBT would encourage him to replace those false beliefs with a more hesitant approach to such negative interpretations, one much more like how most people would respond.

CBT is offered as a correction to the biggest problem Applied Behavior Analysis therapy. ABA insists on treating only behavior without dealing with anything internal, e.g. unhealthy beliefs. It stems from the behaviorist model of psychology, according to which we shouldn't postulate anything internal that can't be measured empirically, and thus any psychologist who talks about beliefs, desires, and so on is engaging in unscientific behavior (notice that even the way I've constructed that sentence admits only to the behavior of such a psychologist; a behaviorist shouldn't even say that such a psychologist has false beliefs about how psychology should be done, just that the speech and methods of such a psychologist are unscientific).

Behaviorism is crazy, and CBT is an improvement. It seeks causes in wrong thinking rather than trying to do psychology by ignoring its existence. Doing psychology by dealing only with behavior and ignoring the cognitive elements that lead to the behavior seems to me to be closer to the Bob Newhart video that Powlison holds up as an example of CBT, where the major therapy technique is to tell people to stop it. But CBT insists on changing false and harmful beliefs and replacing them with true and beneficial beliefs. It's a methodology, not a comprehensive theory of which beliefs are good and healthy. The trick is getting the beliefs right.

Not all CBT therapists will, but some will do much better than others, even if the ones who aren't believers won't be going fully deeply enough when the issues that come up are ones that Christians have deeper insight into (and not all issues are like that, e.g. dealing with my autistic son's attachment to his hat or his collection of pocket lint that he calls his fuzzy. It's hard for me to imagine a serious effort trying to make such issues out to be primarily about sin, and Powlison's critique of CBT as avoiding the sin issue in order to make people feel better misses the point. The point, at least sometimes, is simply to remove an irrational anxiety. CBT isn't comprehensive, because sometimes the problem is just a neurological malfunction that can be corrected with medication that doesn't have significant enough side-effects to be worth worrying about. In other cases, the problem is largely due to false and harmful beliefs that CBT can help someone to remove via unproblematic methods. The Christian should only worry about cases where actual sin is involved and the CBT therapist is pretending no one is doing anything wrong or elements Christians might disagree with the general populace would cause disagreement between a Christian receiving CBT and the therapist about those particular beliefs that the CBT therapist is encouraging to use as replacements for the unhealthy ones. But those are particular problems in how CBT might be practiced by an individual, not inherent difficulties with the model itself.

But what about cases where there really is a deeper issue that the CBT therapist is ignoring due to an attempt to be neutral on religion? Is it a band-aid if there's a deeper solution? As Powlison says near the end, it might be. But he also says it's better than nothing. I would say that it may be just what you need. If my autistic son is having fits over losing his hat, and he's not at a point where telling him to trust God will do a thing, then CBT may be the band-aid that helps him handle the symptoms and stop worrying about it. If that's the best that's neurologically possible at his developmental level, then I would argue that it's unbiblical to insist that counseling not use CBT methods, I would even say that such insistence would itself contradict more general biblical commands.

I would say, similarly, that ABA is wrong much of the time for ignoring the internal, but with a kid who is so impulsive and unable to communicate as my other autistic son it might actually be the only thing that will help him, because even CBT doesn't work if you can't talk about your thoughts, never mind the so-called biblical counseling that doesn't work when you've got someone with severe enough disabilities to prevent understanding of what sin even is. I sure hope no one tells me to tell my two-month old to stop crying because it's sinful not to appreciate his parents enough to wait patiently for that diaper change. It's not much different when you've got an eight-year-old with severe enough impulsivity issues that much of his behavior is more like what you would expect of a toddler, just with the physical capabilities of a much older child and thus a much greater level of danger.

Reductionist approaches don't capture the variety of causes of problems that people might want counseling or mental health professionals for. You could be reductionist about any of these methods. Many ABA practitioners won't consider other methods worthwhile. Many MDs won't consider non-pharmaceutical solutions. Sometimes medication helps a neurological deficiency enough to be worth it. With genuine cases of the overdiagnosed condition of ADHD, sometimes a stimulant is exactly what's needed, because the frontal cortex functions much more healthily when it can be stimulated, and you get much greater ability to attend to tasks. Sometimes that approach can be disastrous. Sometimes false beliefs are operative in such a way that some CBT can help someone remove them without necessarily inputting anything differently-harmful. Sometimes ABA is what's needed when physical impulsivity is the driving force, and physical changes are needed to habituate different responses to certain stimuli or to control for sensory integration problems or high sensory input needs. Sometimes someone just needs to repent of wrong behavior, but sometimes it's tied up with some of these other things, and it's worth considering different methods for dealing with these problems in different cases. It doesn't seem to me that Powlison recognizes this.

[cross-posted at Evangel]


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Joe Carter points to an interview with sociologist Rodney Stark (who is not a historian, despite often being called a historian of religion) that complains about the use of the word "mainline" in the expression "mainline Protestant denominations". This term usually refers to the more liberalizing denominations within each major Protestant grouping. So for Presbyterians, it means the PC-USA. For Methodists, it's the United Methodists. For Baptists, it's the American Baptists. For Lutherans, it's the similarly-ironically-named Evangelical Lutherans (who are much less evangelical than the Missouri Synod). Episcopals are usually seen as part of this group, and the United Church of Christ is also commonly included.

Stark's point, which Joe agrees with, is that these groups aren't really mainstream anymore. They're dying off. As they shed central and historic beliefs of Christianity, they become less mainstream within Christianity. I fully agree with that observation, but I think it's a mistake to complain about the use of the term "mainline".

What's going on here, as I see it, is that the term "mainline denominations" no longer functions as a description. It functions as a name. So in terms of the semantics of the expression, it doesn't really matter that it's ceased to be informative. It's like complaining that you park in driveways and drive on parkways. It's an interesting irony in the etymology of such terms, but it's not a problem with the language. Names often originate in circumstances that make their etymology seem ironically opposite to their current reference. The problem is not that anyone uses the term to refer to the groups it refers to. The problem is if they, in so doing, think they're using the name as a description rather than as a name.

It's wrong to think the mainline denominations are all that mainstream. I suppose it's true that they're closer in their ethical and theological outlook to secular America than the more evangelical congregations and denominations are, but there's enough counter-cultural Christianity present that large swathes of them are not mainstream in that sense. But they're not as mainstream Christianity as the more evangelical congregations and denominations are (and when I say "more evangelical" I mean it; it comes in degrees). Stark is right about that. But that doesn't make it illegitimate to continue to use the name for the group it's come to refer to any more than it's wrong to continue to use the name "Rhode Island" to refer to the entire state, even though it originally was only ever meant to refer to the island that constitutes Newport, Portsmouth, and Middletown. The name has come to refer to the entire state, and its inaccuracy as a description doesn't change the fact that it does refer to the whole state.

Someone sent me a link to the 7 Craziest Westboro Baptist Church Protests Ever. I knew these people were far gone, but I didn't realize just how far until I saw some of these. I knew of a few of these, but some are crazier than I'd imagined. It's almost a parody of some of the worst excesses of the most extreme fundamentalism.

I've long argued that Christians who think there's something wrong with homosexuality, who see it as a perversion and see engaging in an actively-gay lifestyle as morally wrong will too often prioritize that one issue (or that one among a few they prioritize) over issues that are given as much or more serious attention in the Bible that they have little to say about. This isn't true of all who try to speak to their culture about homosexuality in this way, but it's true of too many, in my opinion. One reason I think this happens is that it's a minority opinion, and hardly anyone is expressing opposition to the claim that child sexual abuse is wrong. So the fact that child sexual abuse is far worse than homosexuality on virtually any account doesn't seem to matter to those who want to be culture warriors, because they don't see that as a battle to be fought, ignoring entirely that the only battle the New Testament sanctions with our culture is the battle for people's souls, which requires pointing out which things are genuinely sin but doesn't justify a disproportional response to your favorite sins that you don't commit over the others that appear in the same sin/vice lists in the New Testament, such as disobedience to parents, envy, spite, complaining, divorce, heterosexual lust for another person's spouse, not giving people your coat when they ask for your shirt, and so on.

It goes one step beyond that to find things that have no or virtually no connection to homosexuality to protest, as happened when Jerry Falwell infamously picked on the Teletubbies, because one of them carried a purse (as if carrying a purse has something to do with same-sex sexual relations; my wife carries a purse, and I carry her purse for her, and neither of us is gay). Westboro Baptist Church [sic] takes Falwell's folly to a new level. They protest the Kansas City Chiefs games, claiming that they're a haven for homosexual activity. They protest stores that sell vacuum cleaners made in Sweden, because Sweden legalized same-sex sexual acts in 1944. They protest funerals and large-scale memorials because, you know, it's immoral to mourn gay people and large-scale deaths must be God's judgment and must be for that particular sin rather than the ones they commit. They even held up a sign contradicting John 3:16 ("God hates the world") at Michael Jackson's funeral. I won't link it from my blog (it's one thing to link from Facebook; my blog is too highly Google-rated), but the Arkansas Ku Klux Klan has a disclaimer on the front page of their website denouncing and repudiating the Westboro Baptist Church [sic]. I truly says something that even the KKK doesn't want to go near them because of their extreme views and tactics. (To be fair, the Westboro website has a statement from Phelps distancing himself from the KKK. But it's not this prominent disclaimer on the main page of the website, and the Arkansas KKK has also distanced themselves from current and past chapters of the KKK for similar tactics as what Westboro engages in.)

Even so, I'm a little hesitant about a couple things I see in this list. They protested Lady Gaga. What they said about her was way over the top, but isn't there something to their claim that what she stands for amounts to rebellion against God as revealed in the Bible? It's true that Westboro is hateful and divisive, but I won't let me disgust for their words and tactics prevent me from rejecting the materialistic, self-absorbed, sexuality-obsessed pop culture that Lady Gaga stands for that hordes of teenagers are being sucked into in ways that cause much psychological damage and train them for dysfunctional relationships.

Similarly, Comic-Con isn't exactly the first place I'd think of when trying to find the most idolatrous events in American culture, but it's also not exactly free from sin as defined by the Bible. There's much in the way of elevating things to higher priority levels than they ought to be. There's plenty of idolization that does go on, especially of celebrities (but not so much of superheroes as much, as Westboro seemed to be claiming). Any reordering of priorities that has them not match up to actual intrinsic worth is a form of idolatry, biblically speaking. But the same can be said of flea markets, sports events, state fairs, shopping malls, internet sites that catch too much of someone's attention, and so on. Singling out Comic-Con and making some of the particular claims they made is just plain dumb, but a biblical critique of American culture as a whole would include some criticism of it, and I have to distance myself from the author of this list on that point.

I can't end this post without mentioning one thing. Twice in the last week I've seen people claiming that Westboro Baptist holds to Reformed theology. That is incorrect. They're quite clearly hyper-Calvinists, and the label "Reformed" is reserved for those actually in the Reformation tradition, which has never included the hyper-Calvinists, who were dismissed as heretical as soon as they appeared. Westboro teaches that God doesn't love those who won't be saved. They teach that they shouldn't pray for the salvation of unsaved people. They call non-believers the enemy when scripture is quite clear that no flesh and blood is the enemy of the followers of Christ. They think that God's desire that none perish only applies to the elect (which, taken alone, is less hyper-Calvinist in my view than their entire view, but it's clear that in their entire theological system they see this as part an parcel of their rejection of God's love for the unsaved and their view of unbelievers as enemies rather than lost sheep despite recognizing that they have no clue who is elect).

Update (24 July): Apparently they even protested Jerry Falwell's funeral. And this is how not to respond.

It occurred to me while teaching Nietzsche yesterday that the use of Nietzsche to motivate antisemitism by the Nazi regime is pretty much the opposite of contemporary antisemitism, at least in one key respect. Hitler's use of Nietzsche capitalized on the idea of Jewish inferiority. If it's perfectly fine for the strong to trample the weak, then all it takes is finding a group that can be taken to be weak, and then you can trample away.

The problem Nietzsche would have is that you can't really demonstrate that Jews are the weak. In fact, the history of Jews in the United States seems to demonstrate otherwise. Before Hitler's time, Jews in the United States tended to do worse on IQ tests than the majority population. After WWII, they tended to do noticeably higher than average. The best explanation for that seems to be that Jews were sidelined more often and had become mainstreamed in a way that allowed them to develop the cognitive skills that they already had potential for but hadn't been developing as strongly. Even with the problems in using IQ tests to identify intelligence plain-and-simple, it's certainly true that there are skills that IQ tests measure, and the Nazis would have been happy to accept IQ scores anyway. So it seems as if the facts are just against their claim.

Contemporary antisemitism has to take a different stance. Not only is it ludicrous to take Jews to be inferior in terms of any important skill set for success in life, but Jews have in fact been much more successful in most of the ways people who make such judgments would actually care about than the average for the non-Jewish population. So the narrative is no longer that Jews are inferior and thus need to be trampled because of some Nietzschean mission to lift oneself up by taking advantage of the weak. Now it's almost a reversal. Jews have assumed control of society in some massive conspiracy, and the rest of us are the victims who need to resist the collective strength of the Jewish conspiracy.

Now I guess the two views are compatible. Someone could think that Jewish success is merely due to conspiratorial measures implemented by idiots who succeed only because a few of the relatively smart ones have gotten enough Jews into influential positions to prevent anyone from overcoming their collective strength. But I don't think the idea of Jewish inferiority among such conspiracy theorists is really about intellectual inferiority anymore. It's not clear to me exactly what kind of inferiority it's supposed to be, though. It clearly has some normative element, but I'm not sure it's even thought-out enough for there to be a real answer to that question.

As I was responding to this comment from Neil, I realized that I was getting into a bunch of issues that I don't think I've ever discussed comprehensively on this blog before, and I thought it might as well be its own post. Neil raises some questions about Christians reading (and presumably watching) science fiction and fantasy, questions that are more general (and more legitimate) than the common complaint about magic in fantasy. He wonders whether certain writers or stories (he has in mind a series by Stephen Donaldson that I'm not familiar with) can be dangerous in leaving behind what he calls an amoral residue. There's also the worry that spending time in fictional worlds is escaping from reality and might even be an addiction. It also might be a waste of time when there are more important things to do. He suggests that God might speak through such literature, but hasn't God spoken much more clearly in other ways already, so why should we need this kind of thing?

I think there can be a number of different healthy motivations for a Christian to read or watch science fiction or fantasy, many of them no different from the motivations for any other kind of fiction. One is simply entertainment. The idea that entertainment is just escape from reality seems wrong to me. I know people who think of it that way, but I don't think that's what they're actually doing when they see themselves as escaping. They might be distracting themselves from things they don't want to think about, but the things they're thinking about, while fictional, are based on reality in some way, or they couldn't think about them. It's just a rearrangement of real things, and those are good things that God created. It's also an engagement with the process of creation, an ability that I think God has given to us as part of being made in his image. The use of the imagination develops abilities God wants us to develop. Thinking about fictional worlds is one way to develop intellectual virtue. It's also simply good to enjoy good storytelling and to appreciate people using their God-given abilities to produce something enjoyable.

There are also moral themes in literature, and fiction of any kind helps us evaluate our lives in many ways. If the story in question only motivates moral evaluation of fictional cases, and those cases could never come up in real life, then at least it allows us to practice our ethical thinking in hard and strange cases, which is still a good skill to develop, because we will confront new situations that require such skills, especially as technology develops and social relations become further changed from what we see as the norm. But many ethical issues in fiction, even in fantasy and science fiction, are also going to come up in real life. Sometimes the author wants to make certain moral points, and sometimes we need to develop the ability to think for ourselves about those questions and not just accept what the author wants us to take away from it. But that's not a reason not to read or watch it except in cases where someone has a problem doing that. Maybe in Neil's case the Donaldson series was like that, and for all I know it might have that effect on me too (I know little about the series in question, so I have no idea). It's certainly worth being vigilant about how things affect you, but that's true of any fiction, and it's true of a lot of things besides fiction. It's true of observing how your friends live, and Paul tells us not to isolate ourselves from those who aren't Christians, even if he also says that Christians ought to live differently from the world.

I like fantasy and science fiction in particular because they help illustrate philosophical questions in ways that real life sometimes can't. One way to show that a sophisticated hedonism is wrong is to point out that with Harry Potter's invisibility cloak or Sauron's ring you could get away with almost anything you want, and it would still be wrong to do so. A sophisticated hedonism says it's only wrong to do certain things because it's against your self-interest (given that people will be mad at you for doing it and want to stop you and punish you). But these cases show that the real reason it's wrong isn't because it's against your self-interest, because you can achieve the self-interested goal in such cases, and it's still wrong. Scenarios like the Matrix or science fiction or fantasy worlds with very different social relations raise interesting questions about the moral principles that we assume as fundamental, because they lead us to wonder if they would apply in a very different situation. If I spent ten minutes coming up with a list, I could probably name off at least a dozen examples from science fiction and fantasy that I use regularly in my philosophy classes to illustrate points that are a lot harder to make clear or vivid without the aid of such examples.

So you don't need to think of fiction as revelation in any important sense to think that it provides an occasion for something that can be productive. It's bad if it distracts from more important things, as is true of any kind of enjoyable activity. At the same time, a little rest and relaxation, especially if it engages aspects of our thinking that we don't otherwise use, is part of being productive in the long run. So there has to be a balance, but I think this kind of imaginative fiction can contribute a lot of good toward our moral development and to our lives as well-rounded human beings, even if there are also risks and dangers, as there are with most pursuits in life.

Peter Kirk takes Obama's conversion experience as evangelical (but see his comment below resisting the seemingly-uncontroversial inference from having an evangelical conversion experience to being an evangelical). The interview Peter links to in support actually leads me to conclude that he's definitely not an evangelical, and a case can even be made that there's nothing distinctively Christian in his personal faith. Let me first outline what I think the boundaries of evangelicalism can include, and then I'll look at some of the things Obama says that make me think he's outside the realm of evangelicalism and perhaps even not very specifically Christian. Much of the content here is adapted from comments in my conversation with Peter in the comments.

Theologically liberal views (at least compared to the status quo in evangelicalism) would include people who reject the substitutionary element of the atonement but retain a penal element (e.g. my co-blogger Wink), who support open theism but insist that God has a plan and will win in the end (e.g. philosophers Dean Zimmerman and Dale Tuggy), who are universalists of the sort that they're convinced everyone who goes to hell will eventually repent and follow Christ once they see the consequences of not doing so, and thus evangelism is still urgent, and hell is still real but just not eternally populated (e.g. Keith DeRose), who are inclusivists of the sort where Christ's sacrifice in fact atones for some in other religions because general revelation teaches them that God must provide a solution to the sin problem and trust him to do so (e.g. the C.S. Lewis view), that a homosexual lifestyle is morally ok but who feel the need to reinterpret scripture to defend such a view (e.g. I have a friend who holds such a view and is clearly an evangelical) rather than saying the Bible includes an immoral prohibition.

There are some who deny inerrancy (but really affirm it and just deny a straw man that they think inerrancy is), but I think actual denial of inerrancy is harder to maintain while being an evangelical. The Fuller Theological Seminary model makes an effort by still insisting that scripture is infallible on any moral teaching or theology within its pages. (Some at Fuller don't actually follow this. I know of one who thinks Paul was a complementarian but insists that we shouldn't be, and I think that moves out of the range of evangelicalism.) But I think you can say that there are errors in dates and place names in the Bible and still count as being within evangelicalism, just on the fringes. Once you start explicitly questioning the plain moral and theological teaching of scripture without trying to reinterpret it so that you at least believe scripture teaches your view, it's hard for me to see that as even on the fringes of evangelicalism. That's just theological liberalism in its most plain form.

So I'm certainly open to finding liberalizing tendencies within evangelicalism, even if one is on the fringes for holding certain views. Some of these are closer to the fringes than others (e.g. Wink's view of the atonement doesn't seem very extreme to me, just extreme-sounding to those unwilling to think very hard about what they've been taught). Those who combine several of these are more on the fringes than others. But one can be an evangelical and hold such views. It's a separate matter whether someone is a Christian but not an evangelical. I'm not saying here that one must be an evangelical to be a Christian. I know plenty of people whom I would not consider evangelicals but who do lay claim to being more broadly Christian. Very few Catholics are evangelicals, in my view, although I personally know a handful who I think are evangelical Catholics. I do think pious Catholics are Christian in a perfectly normal English usage of that term. I know a number of people who I think are Christians in mainline denominations who aren't evangelicals by the criteria I've outlined above. Some evangelicals want to restrict the term 'Christian' so that it only applies to evangelicals, but it's linguistically inappropriate to do that given what the term has come to mean.

But suppose someone denies the reality of hell and then expresses skepticism even about the existence of an afterlife in heaven. What if you say you pray, but then when you go on to explain what you do when praying it becomes clear that you're just maintaining an internal dialogue evaluating your life? What if you talk about a power that goes out of you when you speak the truth (rather than inflating your ego or playing rhetorical games), and then when your interviewer asks you if that's the Holy Spirit, you prefer to speak instead of just seeing a common recognition of truth outside of you? What if you're willing to talk of Jesus as your personal means of bridging the human-God gap but think of that in terms of reaching something higher rather than as the solution to a problem of sin? Speaking of sin, what if you admit to believing that there is such a thing but then define it entirely in terms of going against your own convictions, as if hypocrisy is the only sin? In the above-linked interview, Barack Obama did all these things.

Call a Spade a Niggard?

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There are some interesting moral issues related to the use of expressions that are perfectly ordinary and inoffensive in most situations but are used offensively within a small subset of the population, particularly when there are some among those on the receiving end of such expressions who don't know of the ordinary, inoffensive use of the term in question. It's usually good to show moral deference to the ignorant, if we haven't been in their position of ignorance, giving them the benefit of the doubt. But the ignorant in these cases include both (a) those who use the expression without knowing or the offensive connotation that it has in certain contexts and (b) those offended but its ordinary usage because they don't know about anything other than its offensive use. At the same time, there's always the questions of (c) whether those in (a) ought to have been more aware of what offends people and (d) whether those in (b) ought to have be willing to throw out such serious moral charges based on an ignorance that many might not easily excuse.

I've defended the use of such expressions in many contexts, emphasizing (a) and (d) above while perhaps too easily dismissing (b) and (c), or at least not explicitly laying out the reasoning for why I tend to favor (a) and (d) as more decisive in these kinds of cases. One example that came up in my post was the old expression "call a spade a spade". This one actually goes back to Plutarch in the second century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, although he used a different metaphor that was later mistranslated by Erasmus in 1542. (It's not generally accessible online except with a password to get through a university firewall, or I'd link to it.)

When I was talking about these cases with my friend and colleague Chuck, who occasionally comments here, he decided to go check the OED to get the history of the expression. He noticed a particularly funny quote that the OED used to exemplify "call a spade a spade".

1647 TRAPP Marrow Gd. Authors in Comm. Ep. 641 Gods people shall not spare to call a spade a spade, a niggard a niggard.

Those who have followed the recent history of offense over normally-inoffensive terms will remember that the black mayor of the District of Columbia fired one of his white aides for using the term 'niggardly', a word that only sounds like a racial epithet if you aren't listening very carefully. Even the NAACP chair, Julian Bond, thought it was crazy to criticize someone for using that word. But I suppose we've now got solid proof that 'niggard' does refer to black people, since Trapp in 1647 used it in parallel with "call a spade a spade". Or does this show that "call a spade a spade" is tied to offensive language because its connection with niggards goes back at least to 1647?

This is the second post in my Right Reason guest series from last year at the now-defunct Right Reason blog.

I want to begin this series looking at Augustine's views on the topic I'll be discussing, but before I get into his views on the direct issue I'd like to present a few of his background views that will be relevant to the more direct discussion of religious motivations in public life and civil government.

Augustine doesn't ever (to my knowledge) discuss the best form of government. He's not really interested in political questions for their own sake. He is interested in God's role in history, in individuals and among nations and rulers, including both good and bad rulers. He does think there are ethical questions about how to govern, and he's interested in how Christians as part of a political entity should live and participate, but his ultimate concern is the relation between what he calls the City of God and what he calls the early city. This does include those in government, and thus he does have some things to say that affect political matters.

The City of God is an important enough concept that he named what's considered by many to be his most important work after it. The City of God is not actually a city or political entity but rather a spiritual reality, manifested by people who follow Jesus Christ. Christians compose the City of God, and their primary identity is in that relationship, not in any political, cultural, social, ethnic, or whatever other identity-forming relations they may have. The stark contrast between the City of God and the earthly city is crucial for understanding Augustine's views on Christians and civil government.

Each group has its own mindset and what we would now call its own value system or worldview. Augustine sees the City of God as valuing what God would value (or at least valuing to move toward valuing those things more). The earthly city, on the other hand, is largely self-interested. It's not that all ethical theories developed by those in the earthly city are hedonistic. Augustine is well aware that that's not the case. He discusses Plato and the Stoics at great length in City of God, and he acknowledges the difference between their views and those of the Epicureans, who were genuinely hedonistic in their explicit normative theory.

But even the views of Plato and the Stoics are self-interested, even if they aren't selfish. All the ancient philosophers were concerned with the good life, i.e. a life of flourishing, a life of well-being. But this mindset takes the good life to be merely what's a good life for me to have. For Plato and the Stoics, the good life is an internal matter. It's what sort of inner state is good for me to have. For Epicurus, it's also internal to me. It's about avoiding pain. The ancient skeptics sought to avoid having beliefs. Even Aristotle, who recognized external goods, was primarily concerned with how such goods help the individual to flourish, to lead a fulfilling life.

In contrast, Christianity places primary value outside oneself, in God, and in the concerns of a God who is directed by the concerns of his creation. He does say that such a life is the most fulfilling, the life with the most value for me. But what gives it that value is not merely that it's the best life for me to have. This is why he thinks those outside the City of God are in a sense merely self-directed. Without a divine purpose, he sees nothing but what kind of life you want for yourself, even if the life you want for yourself involves doing altruistic deeds.

It's also worth being aware of Augustine's views on human motivation. He sees all human beings since the fall as having disordered desires. We don't want what's best, at least not in a way that reflects how good different things are. We want things that are less good more than we want things that are more good. He sees virtue or excellence as having rightly-ordered desires, having your desires organized in a way that your highest priorities are the things most worth desiring, with other things occupying a lower priority level. Disordered desire is a consequence of the fall, and only those whose priorities are reordered by God in conversion to following Christ can begin the process of moving in a direction of excellence. This is ultimately his explanation of why the earthly city doesn't have the most important good (i.e. God) as its highest-motivating factor, and the City of God does (at least when its members are not sinning). That allows him to form such a stark contrast between these two mindsets. There's a metaphysical difference between the two groups.

Posted by Jeremy Pierce on July 14, 2007 8:48 AM

I wrote before that my proposal for a chapter on mutants and the nature of race was accepted to The X-Men and Philosophy volume and that I'd submitted three other proposals for two other volumes. I haven't heard anything one way or the other about my submission about The Hobbit, but I found out today that one of the two proposals I wrote for Harry Potter and Philosophy was accepted. They liked what I submitted about the limits of authorial intent, but they had a number of good submissions on that topic, and they decided they'd rather go with my proposal on destiny in Rowling's series, so they accepted that one. You can see the blog version of my initial thoughts on the matter here.

Before I even started graduate school, I hoped to be able to write popular-level philosophical discussions about questions that I thought needed serious philosophical reflection that science fiction and fantasy often raise, and I guess now I get to write about two topics I care a lot about in two fictional worlds that I've spent a lot of time in. These will be my first publications besides a book review (although it was a book review that made several substantive points, some of which I thought were genuine contributions to how to think about the issues). That means I need to work hard to submit some parts of my dissertation to journals pretty quickly to avoid giving the impression that I'm a lightweight when it comes to publication. Still, I'm glad to have the chance to contribute to these volumes.

One of the most irksome things about the fascination in cable news with certain missing persons cases is that virtually all of the cases they pay any attention to are of blond, white girls or young women, and they pay absolutely no attention to the vast majority of missing persons cases, and yet the few they can find with an attractive blond girl will get hours a day for months. It's such a clear example of a kind of white racism that isn't what most white people think of when they hear the word 'racism'. White people think of negative, overt, conscious attitudes against non-whites when they hear that word. This is clearly not that, and yet there's no way it's not a kind of racism.

In light of that, see this interesting poster campaign. [hat tip: Racialicious]

A janitor at the University of Indiana at Purdue is in their continuing education program, trying to improve his lot in life on the side. He reads during his break time. One book he reads is called Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan. It's not exactly favorable to the KKK, but it does include their name in the title.

Somehow the university thought it was ok to ban him from reading this book during his breaks [hat tip: David Bernstein], because there were black people around him, and they were offended that the book mentions the KKK. Here is the statement from the affirmative action office on why this counts as racial harassment:

"You demonstrated disdain and insensitivity to your coworkers who repeatedly requested that you refrain from reading the book which has such an inflammatory and offensive topic in their used extremely poor judgment by insisting on openly reading the book related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject in the presence of your Black coworkers."

First of all, how could someone possibly think that it's immoral to read a book that's highly critical of the KKK while in the presence of a black person? Second, it's not as if he was reading it aloud. All they had any access to was the fact that he was reading it. Third, even if it's immoral to read something in the presence of someone else, how does that give the university a good reason to ban it. It's not as if he was waving the book around and saying anything to anyone else about it. He merely had the book and was reading it. Fourth, why would they want to give the appearance that they're hindering a janitor, who does some of the dirtiest jobs at the university, from getting his education? It doesn't reflect all that well on them. Fifth, they accuse him of being insensitive and expressing disdain for his co-workers, when he's the one who tried to explain the book's content to several people who refused to listen to him and insisted that anything even remotely discussing the KKK is offensive. How backwards is that?

Well, they recanted while pretending to clarify their position. Some higher-up must have realized how silly the whole thing was.

I don't spend a lot of time harping on this point, but this is a pretty good instance of something I've tried to motivate a few times before. There is certainly plenty of room for improvement in how sensitive white people are to black people's experiences, and a lot of offense can occur that isn't intended. Nevertheless, it only hurts that cause to insist on offense over stupid things like this. The guy was reading a book whose very title shows that it's not in support of the KKK. It's not a good idea to try to get your employer to ban someone from becoming educated about the realities of race relations, something white people certainly need more of.

John McWhorter's stuff on victimology is often dismissed among those on the left who recognize real racial problems (not that McWhorter ever denies those, of course). But he's surely right that there's a culture of complaint about relatively trivial offenses and in many cases immoral complaints about non-offenses like this one. This kind of reaction only fosters the attitude among many on the right that racial problems are caused by black (or in general non-white) people who won't learn to get over it, because it confirms that at least in some cases there's some truth to that.

24 in 1994

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What if the show 24 had been made seven years earlier with the technology of that time?

It's pretty funny and brings back a lot of memories of what things were like. I just realized that my students in 1994 were the ages my kids are now and would therefore have almost no memories of the technology of that time.

It's election day, and since it's just local elections the turnout is really poor. I was just voter #74 in my district, and the election workers are (I believe?) joking about knocking on people's doors to remind them that there's an election on.

It's strange that we never care as much about local elections, even though they impact us far more directly than national ones. How can people with kids not care about who is running their schools. How can someone be motivated to vote for a presidential candidate who has little chance of winning their state because of party dominance and yet not be able to get over to vote on the people who will determine which construction projects happen in their neighborhood? There are plenty of irrational elements of voting behavior, but this one has to be up near those who voted for John Kerry because they thought he was pro-life or George Bush because they thought he was pro-choice.

Is this just an artifact of the nationalized media? Is it because no one pays attention to local media? I doubt it, because I'm pretty sure this pattern is older than nationalized media's dominance. Is it that the issues in national elections seem more important because they have more effect? This might explain why we get more worked up about national issues than we do about anything at the local level. The local authorities can't do as much about those concerns. What's ironic, if that's the case, is that we have far smaller influence over such issues, and so we're getting more worked up about things we have much less ability to affect.

It's especially odd that this apathy about local elections is present among libertarians, federalists, and small-government conservatives, who constantly go on about how certain issues ought to be left to the local level. Do such people regularly vote on the local level about those issues? Some of them surely do, but I would guess that the percentage of people voting in local elections is similar across parties.


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I don't normally like to link to things if I have nothing to add or critique, but Joe Carter's post on Generation X conservatives and how they differ from conservatives of the previous generation has a lot of interesting analysis on an issue I've never seen anyone write much about before.

I've never been much of a fan of Ayn Rand. Her egoism gets the motivations for moral living completely wrong. I'm not much sympathetic to her atheism. Her libertarianism on free will is contrary to my own compatibilism. Her political libertarianism is motivated in her egoism and ends up with results that I think are contrary to my own political conservatism, even on the economic and structural matters where conservatives and libertarians often agree. But it's nice to find one redeeming quality in her work. David Bernstein at the Volokh Conspiracy notes one way she influenced him that I can't help but agree with.

First, she indirectly persuaded me that caring about the success of strangers on sports teams that happen to carry the name of my city or school is a waste of time. This freed up thousands of hours for other endeavors more directly related to my own life.

I never needed convincing on this, but it's nice to see that Ayn Rand at least got one thing right. There are so many conceptual confusions, misrepresentations of views she's arguing against, and just complete howlers of arguments in what I've read of her writing, and I'm sure I'd disagree with her reasoning even on this one point. (I'm actually not sure how she can consistently argue against people choosing to do this out of enjoyment.) But until now about the only thing I've been able to credit her with is sheer force of will in maintaining her commitment to a ridiculous thesis (that morality consists only and completely in being selfish). Now I can at least acknowledge her recognition of one of the biggest wastes of time in American culture for what it is.

(Note: I'm not saying that it's not an enjoyable waste of time for those who enjoy it. That would be obviously false. I just can't see how that particular enjoyable activity should be better than other ones that are much more productive, self-improving, other-improving, and so on, and I can't see how it can be worth all the money that gets thrown into it, the permanent injuries that arise among those involved with certain sports, or the level of importance given to watching it that trumps all other endeavors. I certainly have my own obsessions, but I think mine all have at least some deeper importance, even if I might take them too far.)

Respect for Parents

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I've often begun ethics classes by having my students write about something that they've done that they believe to have been wrong, explaining why they think it was wrong. It gets them into the mode of having to give reasons for their moral views. This semester I decided to supplement that assignment by having them write a week later about someone they admire and respect or some action they respect, explaining why they find that person, trait, or action admirable. It captures a kind of ethical thinking that I think a lot of ethics classes will downplay because of their focus on what factors make an action wrong. There isn't as much emphasis on good-making features of actions, character traits, and so on in contemporary ethical theorizing.

I was very surprised by the results, and I'd be interested to see if this happens with a different kind of group. I'm teaching a junior-level class, and all these students have had at least two philosophy classes that are supposed to be heavy on the history of philosophy. I wonder if newly-arrived freshmen would answer the same way. Still, it was a little unexpected to find that 19 out of 43 students who did the assignment had chosen a parent (or both parents in one case). These were about evenly split between mothers and fathers. Another 10 were other family members (a sister, two brothers, a grandmother, three grandfathers, an uncle, and a cousin). Five chose friends and one an unrelated, older role model. Two were about complete strangers they'd interacted with or observed. One was amorphous, just listing character traits. Five were famous people (Max Roach, Oprah Winfrey, Jessica Lynch, Abraham Lincoln, and professional baseball players as a whole).

For some reason it didn't surprise me that a lot had chosen family members, but this was overwhelmingly family-heavy, and the bulk of the family members chosen were parents or grandparents, with parents occupying the most (almost half of the responses). I expected a lot more than three contemporary celebrities, but I guess it's not so surprising that most people don't see celebrities as heroes to respect or admire. Most celebrities aren't all that worthy of respect and admiration.

But my question is this. Is this a reflection of a cultural change? Are college students now all of a sudden more respectful of parents than we've been led to believe? Common wisdom among those I spend a lot of time with think there's very little respect for parents among young people. Or is it something that wasn't ever really true to begin with? Or is this something due to a change as students move out from their families and live on their own, now seeing their parents in a more accurate way? Or is it something particular about this group of students because they're at a Jesuit institute of higher learning?

The Christianity of War?

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When I first saw this video, I was wondering what Andrew Sullivan was getting at by calling it The Christianity of War. He obviously finds it problematic but says nothing about what is so problematic. But then I followed the link to the original location and read some of the comments, and I think I know what's wrong with it. The problem is that the makers of the video produced something for the evangelical community that anyone remotely biblically literate would understand as a call to spiritual action, cognizant of the reality of Satan and the necessity of bearing up the weapons of Christian warfare as listed in Ephesians 6:10-20 and referred to in II Corinthians 6:7; 10:4; Hebrews 4:12 (among other places). These weapons are things like faith, righteousness, the good news message about Jesus Christ, the word of God in general, and salvation. Most of them are defenses against spiritual attacks from Satan and his minions.

But it seems to me that in a biblically-illiterate culture, it's setting yourself up for misunderstanding to post something on the internet if many will not understand the biblical context of the metaphor you're using. This is especially true given those vocal anti-evangelicals who adamantly misinterpret everything evangelicals do in order to further the completely ridiculous thesis that evangelicals are all about political agendas and that evangelical missions groups have nothing to do with spreading the gospel but seek to fight human enemies (not the spiritual enemies discussed in the verses I just referred to that the video was actually about) with human weapons (not the spiritual enemies in the verses I just referred to that the video was actually about).

I am not going to absolve the pretty ridiculous commenters on the video from doing their homework. Anyone who thinks that video was about political fighting against the political opponents of the religious right is morally at fault. There's plenty of publicly-available information that should easily make it plain that that's not the case, and it is indeed immoral to make base charges, that are so obviously false, against such a large movement when it's so utterly obvious that you know so little about that movement.

But I think evangelicals have a calling to make the message of the good news plain and clear in a way that videos like this are not going to get in the way of that. This was obviously not intended to do anything but motivate Christians to pray, study the Bible, hold each other up in times of spiritual trial, and seek to live a godly life. Its creators therefore didn't expect this to be viewed by those who know very little about evangelicals besides the popular misconception based on how evangelicals are treated in the media. But they put it on the internet, and they failed to take into account the small but vocal miscreants who find anything they can about evangelicals in order to take it out of context and put evangelicals in as bad a political light as possible, and that's what's happened here. Those who would produce such videos ought to take that into account and not just leave metaphors like this hanging unexplained to be taken to be about whatever the viewer happens to want it to be about.

Update: I write this post, and then I check up on what's been going on at the Volokh Conspiracy in the last couple days while I haven't had the chance to check in there, and I find this post, which has statistics showing that the demographic group that is most disproportionately Christian fundamentalist in the U.S. is African-American women, and more fundamentalists are Democrats than Republicans. Neither of these is all that surprising to me once I think about it a bit, but it certainly goes against the sort of thing I was trying to confront in this post.

What an interesting argument! Laurence Thomas argues that there is a black American imperialism. [Note: Laurence's site doesn't like the server this blog resides on. You usually have to click on the link, wait until you get a rejection message, click in the URL box, and hit enter. I've never seen it fail to work that way.]

Blacks in the U.S. tend to see blackness as something they have a monopoly on, such that Barack Obama isn't really black due to his father being from Africa and his mother being white. You might hear things like, "Immigrant blacks don't have our heritage, so they must not really be black." At the same time, hip-hop is one of the biggest cultural exports from the U.S., and blacks in the U.S. are having a huge impact on blacks elsewhere, while ignoring that Africa is a continent and not a country, smoothing over the huge differences throughout Africa to act as if all blacks are just from Africa (appropriating half-customs with no meaning in the process). A number of elements in this process resemble the cultural imperialism that larger American culture regularly engages in, so it's interesting to see him identifying some ways that the black subculture in the U.S. does similar things.

Mark Goodacre points to the attention Deirdre Good's new book Jesus' Family Values is getting. Her argument is basically that Jesus had no family values, on the following ground:

1. Jesus challenged some of the societal expectations people in his cultural context had about families.
2. Jesus doesn't spend a lot of time on some of the moral perspectives assumed by all first-century Jews because of the background of the Hebrew scriptures, i.e. he focuses on where the people of his time were misinterpreting or violating the spirit of the Hebrew scriptures.
3. Jesus predicts that families will divide over him, without ever saying that those who reject his followers in this way and put them to death are right to cause such division.
4. We see no sign of Jesus calling his foster father Joseph by the name he reserved for his heavenly Father.

She also says (falsely) that the word 'family' never appears in the New Testament. Now the English word never appears in the Greek, but a simple online search would have shown her that many English translations use the word regularly (see the ESV, NIV, HCSB, TNIV, NLT). Maybe she got some not quite true information about the KJV not having the word in the NT (it does have it once), but that has nothing to do with the content of the Greek NT itself but more to do with the English language at the time the KJV was translated (or rather the English language of a couple centuries earlier, which is what the KJV translators were translating the Bible into). [Update: see the comments for a more careful presentation of her view, why it's a little better than this, and why I still disagree with it.]

Now maybe the bulk of her argumentation is good, and maybe her conclusions aren't as radical as this presentation makes it look, but the impression of what I'm getting is that she's trying to send a message that pretty much everything those who speak of "family values" consider to fall under that would have been foreign to Jesus, and he'd in fact take the opposite views on many of those issues. The implicature is that those who say they derive their moral and political views from the Bible on these issues are in fact making them up whole cloth.

As I said in the comments on Mark's post, this is a very strange argument. For one thing, Jesus did speak about family values. He lambasted the Pharisees for taking the money they should have been using to care for their parents and dedicating it to God with a vow so they could use it now and not have to support their parents. He gives his mother to John to take care of her. He treats the love of the father for the prodigal son as an image of perfect, divine love, which affirms such love for wayward children.

It's sometimes said that the word 'jihad' in Arabic derives from a word for striving and thus doesn't mean war or holy war. Mark Liberman points out that the English word 'war' is also derived from a root that has nothing to do with war, although in this case it is confusion rather than striving. It's easy to see how either might eventually end up meaning war. (It's a little more difficult to see how the etymological root of 'war' eventually became the German word for sausage.) But both words do actually mean war.

Now, as Mark acknowledges, this doesn't stop people from using either word metaphorically to refer to something else. Muslims do use the word 'jihad' to refer to an inner, spiritual quest that involves struggling to be a good Muslim, but in fact the English word 'war' can also be used in such a metaphorical way, as can several other words that literally mean violent conflict. Some words have even more commonly come to mean nonviolent moral missions (e.g. 'crusade') and hardly ever mean war.

I have no problem if a Muslim wants to use the word 'jihad' in this way. I'd be much happier if all Muslims did no more than go through inner struggles in their personal jihad. I do have a problem if someone wants to pretend that the word never means "holy war" or especially the historically revisionist line that Muslims never meant it as war. I do have a problem if someone tries to act as if this nonviolent use of the word is standard in a way that nonviolent uses of the word 'war' are not. But even aside from the parallels between the two words, I think it's worth resisting the etymological fallacy that takes a word to mean something simply because it was derived from an archaic root that means that. The classic counterexample of 'butterfly' in English comes to mind. It doesn't have much to do with butter or flies.

Abortion Doctors

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I've read a number of criticisms of Justice Kennedy's decision in Carhart v. Stenberg, which upheld the federal partial-birth abortion ban. One theme I've seen several times is the claim that Kennedy's use of the term 'abortion doctors' is somehow pejorative and inappropriate. In fact, this meme seems to have initiated with Justice Ginsburg's dissent. See here for Justice Ginsburg's words in making this criticism.

When I first read about this, it seemed an unfair and illegitimate complaint, but I didn't really spend much time thinking about it or looking at the use of the term 'abortion doctor'. I decided to look around a little when I saw this post by Stuart Buck, which points out that one person now making this complaint had only two years earlier used the same expression in an entirely positive context. I did a Google search for "abortion doctor" OR "abortion doctors". Here are some of the results.

1. a directory of abortion providers
2. someone's explanation "Why I Am An Abortion Doctor"
3. a 1998 CNN news story about the murder of an abortion doctor
4. a 2003 AP news story about the execution of someone who killed an abortion doctor
5. the entry for the book associated with #2
6. a 1997 pro-choice website seeking to organize the pro-choice movement against a murder charge an abortion doctor was facing
7. a 2003 Fox News story about the same events of #4 above
8. a 2007 Los Angeles Times piece on an aspiring abortion doctor still in medical school, which I have to note is (a) very positive about her and (b) significantly after the Kennedy opinion
9. another article about the 2003 case, this time hosted at a site about dangeous cults that places this killer in a larger category of anti-abortion extremists
10. an abortion provider directory at, which as far as I can tell has removed whatever reference it had that placed it in the listings for this Google search

What would you describe as the typical Disney family model? Jae Ran Kim points out how frequently the main character of Disney movies has either an absent or dead parent (or two absent or dead parents), among other unusual anomalies that should be surprising for a line of children's entertainment. I think the only one in her pretty long list to have both parents raise her ends up a cross-dresser.

This isn't necessarily a criticism. This particular story device often simply makes for a good story. But doesn't it seem excessive for Disney to be so overwhelmingly like this? Or is this more common in children's stories in general than we notice? Since we generally don't notice it with Disney, maybe that's so. But why don't we notice it, if we don't?

Ilya Somin at The Volokh Conspiracy has some interesting observations about interracial dating. It turns out that there's more resistance to interracial dating even when it comes to online dating, which means it doesn't just have to do with who you associate with in daily life within your local community (although that's got to be a factor, because groups who tend to live in areas where they are the majority are less likely to take part in interracial dating than groups that typically find themselves in the majority wherever they live).

One factor that he includes that I hadn't connected with this is that people with higher or more specific standards in non-racial ways might be more open to interracial dating simply because their pool is already much smaller than other people's. He includes religious standards such as refusal to date someone of another religion. This may well be one explanation why, in my own observation, evangelical Christians (at least in the circles I run in) are far more open to interracial dating than most any other group I can think of. It may well be partly because evangelicals have a smaller pool to pick from because many evangelicals will date only other evangelicals, and being open to interracial dating helps widen the pool from what it would be if they looked only at people within their own racial group.

Nonetheless, I don't think such an explanation undermines what I've long thought to be the explanation for evangelicals' greater openness to interracial dating. I've generally taken it to be because evangelicals have a heightened sense of the oneness of all genuine followers of Jesus, who evangelicals typically see as including mainly those who have put their allegiance to Christ above all other allegiances. Identity in Christ is primary, and other sources of identity are at best secondary. Thus when I think about who I'm most closely aligned with, I'm going to think of black evangelicals as much closer to the heart of my identity than I will white non-believers.

This isn't just not in conflict with Somin's point, as if they are two compatible explanations. It's actually the same fact under two different descriptions. On the one hand, evangelicals who have this restriction do indeed have a smaller pool to pick from, and they are thus more likely to be willing to include others in the pool than just those of their own race. But the philosophical justification for restricting the pool to like-minded believers is the same justification for expanding it to include like-minded believers regardless of race. After all, it's the sense of closer identity with fellow believers that leads both to the restriction to only believers and to openness to believers of other races.

One more voice enters the fray to support the minority report that Don Imus' primary offense is against women, with his offense against blacks only secondary. Roland Martin (who it is worth recognizing is black) argues that, while the nappy-haired qualifier restricted Imus' comment to black women, it's very clear that calling them hos made it an attack on women.

I wouldn't say some of what he says, and I'd word some more of it very differently than he does. I think you could be critical of Hillary Clinton as an opportunist without basing it on her violation of gender stereotypes that we'd prefer her to conform to. But I do think enough of the criticism she receives comes from what he's getting at. The same is true of Condi Rice. People can criticize her views or even slander her character without necessarily being sexist. After all, they do the same to other members of the Bush Administration, most of whom are not women. But sometimes it takes on a particular flavor with her in ways that you couldn't see if the attack were against a man. The same is true of Janet Reno. Just consider the SNL parodies of all three of these women, especially Will Ferrell's Reno.

Compare someone who refers to some black people (sex unspecified) as nappy-headed and someone who refers to some women (race unspecified) as hos. The former makes fun of someone's physical characteristics, deriding a distinctive characteristic of the appearance of black people. The latter invokes a double standard (men who are promiscuous have no similar negative term) and usually involves a moral judgment about sexual behavior based on evidence that often isn't closely (or isn't at all) tied to sexual behavior. It is a particular insult against women to take part in that game, regardless of whether the insult in a particular case is restricted to a particular sub-group of women, even if the context also insults that sub-group.

Both are immoral, but the second seems much worse to me. So when both are done together, why is it that people focus just on the former? Is it that we're just incapable of seeing an insult against black women as being an insult against women? Or is it that we've got a heightened sensibility toward seeing slights against black people that we don't have toward seeing slights against women? Or is it some combination of the two?

Don Imus' recent racist and misgynist comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team have gotten him suspended from his MSNBC morning show and the CBS radio network for two weeks. Two weeks? Forget the nappy-haired bit. How many people do you think could call some college students hos on a major cable news network and not be fired permanently on the spot? Not very many. All Imus gets is two weeks of presumably unpaid vacation. ABC and CBS are basically collaborating to let him get away with this with minimal impact on his career.

Isn't it interesting that the people who have been bearing the burden of responding to this are black people who have been offended by the racist connotations of his "nappy-haired hos" comment (and the more explicit epithet of his conversation partner)? Why aren't we hearing as much of a response from feminists about the misogyny of calling college women hos, even aside from the race issue? I wonder if it's got something to do with the fact that most feminist don't consider themselves-as-women insulted when it's only black women who have been spoken of this way. The lack of feminist response itself is an interesting example of hidden racism.

A friend of mine overheard some university students yesterday morning talking about this in Starbucks. They were actually defending Imus on the grounds that the people he was talking about really do have nappy hair. Even aside from the racial issues some might raise about such a statement (which I'm guessing people will disagree about), isn't it kind of silly to defend someone who called some people "nappy-haired hos" by saying they do have nappy hair? It's kind of like defending someone calling a Jewish person a "Jew-nosed liar" by saying that since the person really is Jewish then it sort of follows that they have a Jewish nose and then not even mentioning that they accused the person of lying too.

Update: I didn't hear about this today, but some are comparing this incident with a similar one in 2003 when Michael Savage called someone a Sodomite and wished he'd get AIDS and die. MSNBC fired him on the spot. Now wishing someone's death on the air is much worse than what Imus said, but does one justify immediate firing and the other just a two-week vacation'? I have no idea if this piece is trustworthy, but it suggests that Imus is just too connected to influential people for this to affect him long-term.

Update 2: Apparently MSNBC has fired him now. See the comments. I'm curious how they're going to spin their change of mind. They very clearly had not wanted to do that and were hoping a slap on the wrist would pacify any outrage.

Scot McKnight presents some survey results from a new book about conservative Christians. Since most people have an extremely fuzzy sense of what it might mean to be a conservative Christian (even leaving aside the politically conservative issue, which isn't what this is about), I was curious what it meant to be a conservative Christian according to this book. Here is the definition:

[Conservative Christianity] is a biblical religion in the tradition of the Reformation not only at the leadership level but also within the ranks of the faithful.
That's a pretty broad category. I would say it's much broader than evangelicalism. The biggest problem is that "in the tradition of" is extremely vague, in more ways than one. But I didn't have to read much further to know that I shouldn't bother to pay any further attention to anything this book might have to say. Consider the following completely absurd caveat (the introductory words are McKnight's:
But, and this needs to be observed: "only a minority of CCs embrace all of Cons Christianity’s essential elements"
I was sure I must be misreading something. Since I don't have the book, I can't check to see if he's misreporting things. But this just seems completely ridiculous. If someone doesn't meet essential characteristics for being in some category, then they simply aren't in the category. There's no borderline or fringe character to it. It's easy to find lots of categories with unclear boundaries, and it might be unclear whether certain potential members belong in those categories. But that's only true when it comes to non-essential or possibly non-essential characteristics. If we're talking essential characteristics, then not having it means you're not in the category. It's like throwing some triangles in the mix to see if all squares have four sides.

If they're doing this kind of thing, why should they think their results are useful for anything? What's worse is that it isn't just accepting some people to count as Conservative Christians who most definitely are not Conservative Christians. They've stated that a full majority of the people they're counting as Conservative Christians aren't Conservative Christians according to their own definition of Conservative Christians. It's really like taking triangles as most of your samples that you're calling squares and then doing a survey that leads to the conclusion that most squares only have three sides.

I've been reading Tommie Shelby's We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity. After an excellent Ralph Ellison quote about how much mainstream American culture is influenced and produced by black people, Shelby raises an interesting question about a common enough attitude among many black Americans. Enough people think that anyone who is black, merely from being black, has a positive duty to embrace black culture as one's own culture. Part of Shelby's critique lies in questioning whether someone, by being black, automatically ought to embrace black culture. But along the way, in the context of Ellison's point, he raises a difficulty about what even counts as black culture:

Moreover, there are aspects of black culture that whites have played a constructive role in maintaining and developing -- such as musical forms and literary traditions. Do their efforts make the culture any less black? Or are we operating, absurdly, with a reverse "one-drop rule" of culture -- with a criterion that holds that a cultural trait is black if and only if blacks alone had a hand in its creation?

This point is very close some of what John McWhorter simply calls separatism, although Shelby probably disagrees with McWhorter on some of that larger phenomenon. But Shelby and McWhorter are coming from very different places politically. McWhorter, while no Republican (he donated $3000 to John Kerry's campaign for the presidency), tends to have more conservative views on race than most blacks in the public light (although I myself consider him fairly moderate compared to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas or libertarian economist Thomas Sowell). Shelby, on the other hand, is a Marxist, and his views on political policies that will help black people are very left-wing in the American political scene. His aim in this book is to appeal more to a much broader political base, so it's unsurprising to find some arguments that moderates and even some conservatives might go for, but this isn't some pragmatic argument on the basis of premises he doesn't accept. He thinks the position he's critiquing is truly absurd, and his reasons aren't that far from McWhorter's.

What struck me most about his statement, however, was not its appeal to more moderate and conservative views but its rhetorical move comparing this tendency among some blacks to the racist one-drop rule that classifies people as black merely for having one black ancestor several generations back. Blackness is like an infection of impurity, according to the one-drop rule, and it can't be removed no matter how you dilute it. According to the reverse one-drop rule for culture, it's (cultural) whiteness that's an impurity infecting black culture. Even aside from the issues of mainstream culture vs. black culture (see my separatism post linked to above), there's something disturbing about seeing white cultural elements as impurities, even if whiteness as a concept stems from evil ideology. That doesn't mean cultural traits white people happen to have should always be bad and can never be adopted by black people willingly and as good things.

Muggle Quidditch

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People (almost certainly college students with too much time on their hands) have come up with a version of Quidditch that you can play without magic, with some pretty creative ways to try to capture some things in the original that require magic to do. They've got leagues and everything.

I just found this old Freakonomics post, but it raises an interesting enough question that I thought it worth posting. It used to be that blacks and whites had very different TV viewing habits. According to recent data, these different viewing habits have begun to converge. I can't think of any good reasons why that might be. Any thoughts? Is it because the particular shows that are on now have something that appeals to both audiences when nothing before did? If so, what would that be? Or is it because something has changed in one or the other audience? If so, what would that be? The explanations offered in the comments don't seem very convincing to me.

Jews Making Oaths to Christ

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One way to be inconsistent is to hold two views that are inconsistent with each other. Another is to do something that, whether you realize it or not, is inconsistent with your official view. I'm regularly complaining that people confuse these two things. Only the latter can ever accurately be called hypocrisy, and only then if it's done regularly with the full knowledge of the person doing it. A slip here or there is not hypocrisy. It's just humanity.

But pragmatic inconsistencies are still worth pointing out, because people who engage in them ought to change their view or seek to change their behavior. Arnold Zwicky at Language Log has an example that seems to me to be exactly the kind of inadvertent pragmatic inconsistency that I wouldn't call hypocrisy but do think ought to lead to some revision of belief or practice. Jennifer Gilmore reports on the behavior of her Jewish parents:

My father, who is 100 percent Jewish, has always been obsessed with Christmas. He grew up in Minneapolis, in an unobservant household, and he considers it part of his childhood. "I remember the lights, the trees," he used to say to my little sister and me. "It was magical." He decorates the mantel with Christmas cards and tapes mistletoe to the doorways, and one year he even tried to get my mother, also Jewish, with a much more observant upbringing, to allow an evergreen wreath on our front door. ''I can't live with that,'' she said. "I just can't. Nothing on the outside of this house. We're Jews, for Christ's sake."

Now there's a separate issue of the inconsistency of allowing it on the inside but not the outside. That seems to me to be a deliberate allowance of the behavior in private but not in public, which is outright hypocrisy of a very crude sort. It's ok for us to do this, as long as no one knows about it. If it's ok for you to do, then you should be able to do it without embarrassment, and if it's not then you shouldn't be doing it anywhere.

But even aside from that, I think there's a much more interesting kind of inconsistency going on here. There seems to be a tremendous resistance to being seen as doing anything related to Christmas. The reason is because they're Jewish. This is a line that I've heard often enough from Jewish friends, despite the fact that Christmas trees are a non-religious symbol of a secularized holiday. Some Christians might choose to endow Christmas trees with some religious meaning, but as most Americans practice Christmas there is no symbol to the tree that has anything particular to do with Christianity.

Phil Vischer, creator of Veggie Tales, gives an account of why he thinks The Nativity Story bombed. Key quote:

No intrigue about the artistic vision, combined with no intrigue about the subject matter, leaves a movie with very little to stand on except, "Hey Christians! Please come see our movie about your savior! We made it just for you!" And that pitch, as Hollywood is about to learn, will only get you so far.

In some ways, this is another example of what we regularly see in politics. The leadership of the GOP is much better at coming up with policy proposals that evangelicals will accept. There's also such a clear sense of a lack of genuineness coming from many on the left who try to come off as religiously sensitive but just end up appearing religiously ignorant. Howard Dean and John Kerry don't come across as a genuine Christian to most evangelicals, but neither should Newt Gingrich or Rudy Giuliani. Most importantly, there's always the worry that evangelicals' concerns aren't at the heart of any candidate's views, and attempts to satisfy evangelicals will then just amount to vote-grabbing with no real concern for those issues.

The Unsuggestor

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Brian Weatherson links to the Unsuggestor, which uses Amazon personal profiles to match up books people have with books they're not likely to have. It's sort of the inverse of Amazon's engine for recommending books based on what other people who bought what you bought have bought. I tried a few books I've got, and I discovered some disturbing things. Consider the following sets of unrecommendations:

They have the second Harry Potter book opposed to The Gospel According to John, by Leon Morris, a fairly respected evangelical commentary on the fourth gospel. I have both books and like them both very much. Most of the Harry Potter books have several John Piper books turning up in the top five, mostly some of his newer books (which I don't have), but his earlier Desiring God turned up with some of novels by Terry Brooks, one of my favorite fantasy authors. This would again be a case of two books I pretty much like (even if I criticize Piper on a few issues here and there). Some books in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series are put up against John Piper, Josh Harris, Wayne Grudem, A.W. Tozer, J.I. Packer, and other books by evangelicals, including several books I've got or have at least spent time looking through. Pratchett's Reaper Man isn't my favorite of the Discworld series, but a lot of it is funny. Its opposite is Doug Stuart and Gordon Fee's How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, one of the best popular introductions to biblical interpretation ever written. Pratchett's much better Lords and Ladies is opposed to Knowing God by J.I. Packer, one of the most important popular introductions to theology in print. While I don't think Grudem's Systematic Theology is well-argued on the level of detailed exegesis (as in the classic tradition of Reformed systematic theologies like Hodge's), it's an excellent reference work, and I think his positions are largely correct on most issues. It's opposed to Pratchett's Pyramids, a Discworld book I very much loved. D.A. Carson's guide to New Testament commentaries, something I use all the time, lists Harry Potter book 6 as its opposite, a book that is next on my list to read. Carson's How Long, O Lord?, the best book I've seen on the problem of evil, also lists Potter book 6 as its first unsuggestion.

Theocracy Paranoia

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Ross Douthat has an excellent essay on the theocracy paranoia that's becoming fairly common in certain segments of the left. [Hat tip: Blogwatch] I've always thought any such claims were so far out of touch with political realities and cultural dynamics within evangelicalism and Christianity in the U.S. in general as to be not worth much time, but the frequency and urgency of these claims continues to increase as the plausibility of them continues to decrease. I'm glad someone is bothering to tackle this nonsense, because I don't have the kind of patience with this particular conspiracy theory to put together as comprehensive a treatment. See also the much shorter Rich Lowry piece on the same phenomenon, which contains a couple of the best points from the Douthat article.


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