February 29, 2004

Movie Reviews

I saw The Passion of the Christ last week, on Ash Wednesday. I held off on blogging because of my Lent commitment, but here are my thoughts finally.

The movie was very moving, driving it home to me the seriousness and gravity of what Jesus did for me. I agree with Joshus Claybourn's review which emphasizes Jesus' isolation from His father, which I believe was the ultimate, and invisible to us, punishment. There was a point during the first trial scene where I thought that the Jewish leaders were made to look pretty mean and vengeful, but just a little later the Romans were made to look even worse. The opening scene where Satan is tempting Jesus, telling Him He can't take on the sins of mankind, drive the point home that Jesus is no mere martyr, that it is God's will that He do this - provide His life as a sacrifice for the world, including me, and you the reader.

During the time when He was being nailed to the cross, the thought came through my head "they're treating Him just like an animal", and it hit me - that's what He is - the Lamb of God. We all like to think of lambs being cute, cuddly animals (following Mary to school as bedtime stories say), but at Passover, that lamb (which lived in the house for a while - imagine the reaction of the children!) was killed and eaten. Just as the blood of the lamb provided for the Jews to escape from Egypt, Jesus' blood provides for our escape from sin and its accompanying judgment.

Now, there is another movie out there which has received very little attention, and it deserves it. The Gospel of John. This movie is a word-for-word (based on the Contemporary English Version) rendition of the gospel of John, with Christopher Plummer as narrator, and Henry Ian Cusick as Jesus.

While both movies are excellent productions in their own right, I actually enjoyed The Gospel of John more as it covered the entire gospel. It was very moving to see Jesus' signs portrayed on film: turning the water to wine, healing the nobleman's son, the man at the pool of Bethesda, feeding the five thousand, walking on water, healing the man born blind (my favorite chapter of John), the raising of Lazarus, and of course the Resurrection and all of Jesus' appearances to His disciples after He had risen from the dead. Chapters 13-17 of the book, as portrayed in the movie are very moving as Jesus teaches His disciples in the Upper Room, then on the rooftop under the stars, then walking through a vineyard (chapter 15), and finally in the Garden of Gethsamane where Judas betrays Him.

My major complaint about the movie is the version of the Bible they chose to use. While I am not a KJV-only advocate, I also think that a more literal version could have served the message of the gospel better. In my opinion, the CEV, being a less-literal dynamic-rendering, uses 'softer' words than a more literal rendering, such as what the New King James or the New American Standard would provide. Regardless, seeing the words of the gospel acted out in such a way that the viewer could imagine seeing the original event was very meaningful. Andrew running to tell Peter "We have found the Messiah!", the Samaritan woman's excitement at Jesus' telling her "all things she ever did", the nobleman's love for his son, the relief of the man afflicted for thirty-eight years, the stress and thankfulness of the woman caught in adultery followed by Jesus' words "go, and do not sin again", and a very moving chapter 10, where Jesus tells how He is the good shepherd, right in front of a actual sheepfold where the sheep are actually led out and we see how dedicated sheep really are to their shepherd. Children are prominent within His audience.

Some minor complaints: I thought the treatment of Jesus' trial and crucifixion were treated a bit more gently than what really happened (a lot less violent than Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ). One scene I did not like was when Mary Magdalene first saw Jesus after His resurrection. In order to emphasis that she thought she was the gardener, Jesus was shown stooping down, as though He were planting a bush or a tree, almost as if He were deliberately hiding His face from her. That was not at all the way I picture the scene when visualizing the text. All in all though, a very good, uplifting, and educational movie.

Posted by joelfuhrmann at 08:49 PM | Comments (0)

First Steps

Congratulations to our daughter Rebecca, who took her first steps today!

Did we have a camera? No, she did it at church, right in front of our Sunday School class! If June hadn't said "Look!" I would have missed it. Later today, we got our camera ready. Would Rebecca repeat the event? Yes, she did, but never in a spot where Amy could get a picture (Rebecca seems to like to walk right up into Amy's face as she's trying to get the picture off, so all we would get is a picture of Rebecca's chest or stomach). arggh. Well, we know it happened today, and we'll get a picture soon.

Posted by joelfuhrmann at 07:00 PM | Comments (0)

February 24, 2004

Why did Jesus die?

Since I am going to see The Passion of the Christ tomorrow, my next Sunday entry will be a review of that movie.

In the meantime, here's a few thoughts I have before going to see the movie.

Why did Jesus die?

The church I grew up in taught me that Jesus' death was because of my sins, that He provided what John calls propitiation. Liberal Christians deny this doctrine, but it's in the Bible. Those who say they interpret the Bible differently are doing so by disregarding what it says clearly and simply. In the Unitarian tradition, into which I strayed for a while, William Ellery Channing delivered a sermon, Unitarian Christianity, where he claims that the doctrine of Atonement must be false because it is based on a hateful, violent God, and besides, it just isn't mentioned that much in the New Testament.

To respond to the first point: Is God hateful and violent? Well, yes and no. We know from the Torah that He is very adamant that we have no other gods before Him. Those who worshipped other Gods were commanded to be killed. Those who worshipped God without respect for the holiness of His tabernacle and its accoutrements were killed. Then why is Jesus so different than the God of Exodus and Leviticus? I don't know a definitive answer, but I think it may have to do with what it says in John 3:17, that Jesus came to save the world, not condemn it. Since He revealed God's grace and truth, it was no longer appropriate for God's Law to be the way to approach Him, it was now through God's grace - not that anyone in Old Testament times could keep the whole Law either, however. I think it was based on attitude - love the Lord your God with all your heart. God's grace would be revealed to anyone who did so, whether or not they knew all the details of Jesus' Atonement. Just my thoughts. Am I right? Probably not, at least in all the details. I don't know all the details of the workings of God's grace.

Now addressing the second point: Is the Atonement talked about a lot in the New Testament, or is it just a secondary topic which has been taken out of context?

Let's search: Looking for the word "ransom" we find Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45, and 1 Timothy 2:6

We also have references from the other Gospels and Acts:Luke 24:46, John 3:14-17, Acts 8:26-38

And from the other epistles of the New Testament (ok - enough linking - get out your Bible and follow along)
Romans 5:10, 1 Corinthians 2:2, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Galatians 2:20, Ephesians 1:7, Philippians 2:8, Colossians 1:14, 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10, Hebrews 9:28, 1 Peter 1:18-19, 1 John 2:2, Revelation 5:9-10.

I've listed references from every book of the New Testament except 2 Thessalonians, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude. These are shorter books dealing mainly with other issues such as pastoral concerns or apostasy. So there are references to the Atonement in 18 of 27 books, and I've only listed one from each of those books. Some books, such as Romans, 1 John, and the Gospel of John have many more references to this event and doctrine. For Channing to say that the Atonement is just a peripheral issue in the New Testament makes me think that he never read the New Testament (or read it once and promptly forgot what it said), was a sloppy scholar, or was just plain lying, possibly unconsciously by stretching the truth, to promote his own bias.

I read a commentator recently, talking about The Passion, that the Atonement is just one possible interpration of the New Testament. If words mean what authors write them to mean, then that opinion is just outright wrong. When Paul, John, and Peter all say that Christ died for us, I cannot think of any interpretation of that which says Christ did not die for us.

Posted by joelfuhrmann at 10:14 PM | Comments (1)

Lent discipline

I'm going to take a break from the blog (will anyone notice?) during Lent. Since Sundays are not fast days, I will post then in order to keep the page alive. New family duties have taken more time, and I haven't been posting as often. I hope people have enjoyed the writing of my new blog partner, my brother-in-law Rick Penner. I do have some questions to ask those who regularly read this blog however.

Is it distracting to read posts by two or more authors on what used to be a single-author blog?

Which do you prefer: longer posts consisting of original thoughts posted less frequently, or shorter posts consisting of links to news items or other bloggers posted more frequently?

Please feel free to reply in the comments. I am considering changing my blogging style; I'd like my writing to be more focused. During Lent, I'm likely going to write ideas down on paper during the week, then post them to the blog on Sundays.

Posted by joelfuhrmann at 09:00 PM | Comments (1)

February 23, 2004

A Few Wisdom Books

I'm a neo-conservative and don't always agree with the "traditional conservative" intellectuals -- holding that social change involving individual behavior is not always a threat to the order -- but still, I often I find myself intrigued by the wisdom and deeper philosophical vision in the writings of the Protestant and Catholic conservative thinkers.

The traditionalists point out certain inescapable truths: freedom and individuality are essential American values, yet despite the fact that leftist progressive or right-wing libertarian movements in the twentieth century have led to brave new thinking; the new secular plans of greater liberty: don't work. We still have a breakdown of morality, a conspicuous shattering of social bonds and family structures, and continue to experience shrinking codes of common decency and interpersonal mores. This happens even when the Right comes to political power. Why?

Here are a few deep books that deal with these subjects from a traditional perspective:

*** First, a book recommended to me by my cousin-in-law Mark Franz of Shafter, California; his son David has studied with the author: The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil by James Davison Hunter (Basic Books, 2000). According to the back cover, the book: "traces the death of character to the disintegration of the moral and social conditions that make character possible in the first place." The author focuses on the problem of the education of character -- and how America hopelessly yearns to encourage character, but without realizing it is only the requisite limits and obligations on individuals which would make it work. Yet this seems impossible to realize since it contradicts American individualism.

Then, Eric Miller's article "Alone in the Academy" in the February 2004 issue of First Things provides three other books:

*** Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in American Social Thought, from Veblen to Mills by Christopher Shannon (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). Shannon was one of Christopher Lasch's students at the University of Rochester. (Lasch wrote the 1979 best-seller The Culture of Narcissim: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations.)

*** Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (University of Notre Dame Press, 1980; 2nd edition 1997). Miller says MacIntyre is "perhaps the dominant moral philosopher of the last third of the twentieth century," and that MacIntyre "had moved from Marxism to Thomism" by the publication of this book.

*** George Packer's Blood of the Liberals (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2001) is not written by a Christian, but of which Miller writes: "George Packer’s beautifully crafted memoir...provides a poignant personal rendering of [these] development[s]. The grandson of a self-proclaimed Jeffersonian Congressman from Alabama and the son of a self-consciously liberal law professor (and a Stanford University provost during the late 1960s), Packer tells, with disarming frankness, a three-generational story about what has happened to a country that seems unable to bind itself together in ways that honor its venerable, organizing ideals of citizenship."

There you have it. A few more notes about each book, along with quotes, follows....

******* Concerning James Davison Hunter's The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil, here are a few quotes from the opening section of the book -- called "Postmortem":

"Character is dead. Attempts to revive it will yield little. Its time has passed.

"The irony is sharp. The death of character comes at a time when the call to 'renew values' and to 'restore character' is especially loud, persistent, universal -- not to mention urgent....

"Even so, a restoration of character as a common feature within American society and a common trait of its people will not likely occur any time soon. The social and cultural conditions that make character possible are no longer present and no amount of political rhetoric, legal maneuvering, educational policy making, or money can change that reality. Its time has passed.

"Character is formed in relation to convictions and is manifested in the capacity to abide by those convictions even in, especially in, the face of temptation. This being so, the demise of character begins with the destruction of creeds, the convictions, and the 'god-terms' that made those creeds sacred to us and inviolable within us.

"This destruction occurs simultaneously with the rise of 'values.' Values are truths that have been deprived of their commanding character....The very word 'value' signifies the reduction of truth into utility, taboo, to fashion, conviction to mere preference; all provisional, all exchangeable. Both values and 'lifestyle' -- a way of living that reflects the accumulation of one's values -- bespeak a world in which nothing is sacred....

"We say we want a renewal of character in our day but we don't really know what we ask for. To have a renewal of character is to have a renewal of a creedal order that constrains, limits, binds, obligates, and compels. This price to too high for us to pay."

******* Concerning Christopher Shannon's Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in American Social Thought, from Veblen to Mills, Eric Miller's article says Shannon is even more pessimistic than Lasch:

"The Culture of Narcissm...summed up and deepened a conviction shared by many that Americans were changing, becoming less able and willing to practice citizenship, exchanging the common life for, as he put it, 'purely personal preoccupations.' Lasch tied this historical shift in character to the ongoing advance of liberal capitalism, with its ever-colonizing market and ever-expanding state. 'The atrophy of older traditions of self-help has eroded everyday competence, in one area after another, and has made the individual dependent on the state, the corporation, and other bureaucracies,' he said. 'Narcissism represents the psychological dimension of this dependence.'

"It was a powerful argument. It was also precisely the type of argument -- a jeremiad -- that Shannon, two decades later, called at once understandable, monotonous, and futile. For Shannon, the ending of the American story was already scripted, and even a collective turning away from corporate capitalism wouldn't remove the fact that America's deepest (and sole) point of unity was the individual, and the individual alone -- a laughably weak foundation upon which to construct anything like a 'commonwealth,' 'republic,' or even a 'community.'"

Miller notes that:

"It was Shannon’s position as a Christian writing within the academy that helped to account for my own grateful and enthusiastic reception of his arguments. I suspected, as I made my way through his book, that Shannon felt as uncomfortable in the modern American university as I did, and his book seemed at least in part an effort to probe the roots of his unease and to explain his findings to his (uncomprehending) peers and colleagues. What provoked Shannon (and me) wasn’t simply a wrongheaded 'worldview,' or some other species of philosophical abstraction in the university. Rather, it was a way of life -- the actual living out by real people of this 'rational alternative to tradition.' By the century’s end this way of life was standard within the American university, where both Shannon and I, as fledgling Christian scholars, found ourselves uneasily living and moving and having our being.

"One obvious feature of this university-sanctioned-and-sustained way of life is its depleted understanding of marriage and sexuality, and its accompanying commitment to oppose any who would speak against this understanding. Although this received wisdom is conveyed in the language of liberation, I discovered that it provided cover for lives that were often full of hopelessness. One of my classmates was about to be married, and I remember hearing another student wisecrack to him about the divorce that was sure to follow -- a barren, ugly cynicism, rooted, sadly, in an all-too-intimate knowledge of the empirical evidence."

******* Concerning Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Miller says:

"On MacIntyre’s view, having gradually abandoned the long-dominant Aristotelian tradition of virtue ethics, modern moral thinking had devolved into emotivism, which assumes as a matter of course that 'all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character' 'We live in a specifically emotivist culture,' contended MacIntyre, a culture that locates moral order not in a benevolent, overarching telos but solely within the individual self.

"Like Lasch, MacIntyre looked at the twentieth century and saw chaos; the old moral consensus of Europe and North America had dissolved. 'Each moral agent now spoke unconstrained by the externalities of divine law, natural teleology, or hierarchical authority; but why should anyone else now listen to him?'"

******* Concerning George Packer's Blood of the Liberals, Miller writes:

"Repelled by the tendency of twentieth-century liberals like his father to cut themselves off from their own 'blood' to serve the mind (he notes, for instance that his father gave the university 'all his energy, much more than he gave his family, because he believed in the high importance of the life of the mind'), Packer narrates his own journey through his family’s past, subtly intertwining his personal narrative with a broader argument about the direction of American history itself. His conclusion? 'The main problem of our time is a loss of belief in collective self-betterment.' The revolts of the sixties, he contends, may have changed a lot of lives but they 'didn’t leave behind a viable worldview,' making what he calls the post-sixties 'ruins of liberalism' at once understandable and pathetic. 'This was the face of American prosperity at the end of the twentieth century,' he writes, 'racially tolerant, environmentally conscious, and determined to wall itself off from the low-paid countrymen who cut its grass and wait on its tables and look after its children.'

"Packer is a leftist longing for a community that he can’t find. In his mid-thirties he goes so far as to investigate his aunt’s evangelical world, and even travels from his home in Boston to Washington D.C. to attend the massive 1997 Promise Keepers rally, in search of one single experience of social, interracial solidarity. Understanding 'religion' to be a 'challenge' to his 'liberalism,' he nonetheless senses that evangelicals have what he has been unable to locate on the left, 'something that can’t be summoned on demand: vitality.' At the end of his evangelical explorations, he sadly concludes that 'all the years of rational training at home had killed the nerves that might have been receptive to religious stimuli.'

"Packer was looking in the right direction -- cultus -- even if his own search ended in disappointment. The communities that will be forged in our midst will surely be religious in a self-conscious way, for actual religions -- our collective responses to the mystery that lies beyond and within our seeing and touching -- are what have historically made possible the sorts of communities that we in our time so struggle to achieve. Communities need God as children need parents: apart from the ordering presence of a religion, we fly apart and die alone."

Posted by Rick Penner at 12:45 AM | Comments (0)

February 20, 2004

An Opera of the Heart

From our seats in the fourth row from the stage -- my Mom and I Wednesday night saw the Los Angeles Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly by Puccini. We were ecstatic.

Of all the concerts I’ve witnessed in my life -- popular or classical -- this was the most moving.

(My wife, Wanda, and I bought a pair of mini-series tickets to this year’s season. Wanda and Mom already saw Nicholas and Alexandra starring Placido Domingo in September.)

Here are a few notes….

First, on a philosophical theme -- the story of Madama Butterfly is sad and tragic in a searing kind of way. (If you're unaware of the story, you can find a synopsis here.) Why does it fascinate? Because it doesn’t flinch.

Every one of us has a history of secrets no one knows. We’ve had desperate dreams, hopeless loves, gnawing yearnings -- all strangled. We intuit that our deepest suspicion is probably true. Our hidden craving -- our soul’s strongest desire -- has almost been murdered. Time has passed. We’ve eaten bitter earth. I can trust you when I say you’ll never speak of this. Good music arouses memories of all that. THAT’S where great art gets its power.

The opera starred the soprano Veronica Villarroel as Butterfly and tenor John Matz as the male lead, Pinkerton. In charge of this opera’s production was the theatre director, designer, and lighting designer -- Robert Wilson. The conductor and music director was Kent Nagano. (Placido Domingo is the permanent Artistic Director of the LA Opera.)

Robert Wilson’s production was hyper-modern, stylized, and almost bizarrely spare. Though visually abstract and mannered -- this did not detract. If anything, the effect on the music was to render it intensified.

Instead of using “realistic” lavish costumes and sets, the stage was nearly bare. Behind -- the entire back wall comprised a giant screen, displaying changing hues resembling the sky (without actual clouds or recognizable features).

The costumes were one-color gowns or coats; all dropping in straight featureless lines towards the ground so feet were surrounded in “tents” that reached maximum diameter at the ground. Feet were not visible. People moved without signs of taking steps -- so the effect was as if the singers were floating. Each figure loomed up out of a groundless space.

The audience gazed towards an outdoors eternal dream-horizon in the background. The drama could have taken place anywhere. Obviously, the director meant it to be within our minds.

(To see some LA Opera photos of the set, go here.)

The “love scene” at the end of Act 1 had the lead singers facing the audience with Pinkerton behind Butterfly (with her back to her lover); they both stood in set positions like statues -- glowing white in the spotlight, boiling with passionate song. Amazingly, the more control and detachment the artists portrayed, the hotter the effect. The audience was transfixed.

The music director avoided pauses between songs so that a “wall of sound” created a cinematic effect; like an old movie with the constant hissing/rushing of the sound track and the slightly vibrating frame -- contrasting with the exotic glow of the image.

The director ended the opera the exact moment Butterfly died; Pinkerton turns sharply at front-stage-left to stare beyond the audience with a quick gasp -- the spotlight flashing on him one second blindingly -- and the lights go out.

Domingo has played this part many times (in other productions), and has said that he imagines the character living and suffering the rest of his life with this moment burned in his mind. When we see it, the bright image of the shocked face stays in our brain long after the auditorium turns black.

Often when I attend live concerts or plays (of any kind of music or theater) I’m aware that I'm in an audience watching a performance; and usually I become impressed with the technical ability and talent of the artist and “take in” the public event as a spectacle.

My mind then wanders over the subject of “excellence”: how I’m looking at and listening to a real live genius, here; and wonder how some people reach this level -- and how most of the rest of us don’t. I question whether this is a result of fate or of our own inability or unwillingness to achieve. Even though I enjoy the show, I become cowed. I leave the place chastised. I shudder, muddle on home, and forget myself in sleep. (Does anyone else ever do this?)

But at this opera -- I was not focused on the brilliance of the singing. Instead, I was taken away with the music itself, with Puccini’s composition. Much of the time I forgot where I was.

(How often I find popular music to be engaged in a BATTLE with myself to see who will win: will my irritation with the demands of its noise and sentimentality and cheap lyrics beat me to the ground so I finally concede defeat? -- say “Yes, I admit it: you’re catchy, you’re unforgettable ((for an hour, for a minute)); you’re clever!”)

Two more notes:

I was made aware of how Puccini reminds me of Mahler: the flowing and surging, like a natural force. It’s partly romantic, but on the cusp of the modern. This opera was only first performed a hundred years ago (1904). The modern staging of this production seems to fit. Despite its extreme emotions, Butterfly is too bracing to be just another love story.

Finally, most people find opera to be made of uncontrollable “shrieking” and “wailing.” On most household sound-systems, with the low dynamic range they usually have, that’s what you get. But live, in a large concert hall, the operatic voice -- without amplification -- fills the space; if anything, it’s not loud enough! The music would have us desire even more.

It becomes obvious that opera singers are filled with the physicality of the music. The difference between the popular voice and the operatic one -- is the difference between walking around the room and climbing a mountain.

Opera singers are ENGORGED with the vitality of the music. The music is moving through them. They can barely contain it.

My Mom once observed the inordinate passion emoted from a few successful opera singers -- comparing this outpouring to the many affairs, riches, travels, and achievements they’ve actually had in their real lives. They've had it all -- and yet they still sing as if first love really matters, as if a dream of even greater accomplishment was possible, as if a new shining day of youth were inspiring them. Ridiculous! What are they really singing for?

They don’t know. It just comes out of them. The music drives from their center…wherein is the real hunger.

Listen for a while to some good opera. Now, turn to popular musical voices, any, even the best ---

With the popular songs, you notice that the notions, the images, the concepts -- are cheap. The fantasies are…self-conscious. The believability is…nil. After hearing opera, the amplified popular voice appears affected, remote, trite…


Posted by Rick Penner at 01:36 AM | Comments (1)

February 17, 2004

Judicial confirmation battle

From National Review Online today, as reported by Quin Hillyer, a lot of conservatives are upset with Republican Senators who have caved in to Democrats demanding the head of staffers associated with the memo "scandal" - (Memogate?)

Matt Bivens, in The Nation, argues that Republicans are at fault, saying that in effect, the action was equivalent of taking something off someone's desktop computer.

Matt Bivens is wrong. The files were on a network server, in a shared folder. Miranda, the staffer who resigned over this kerfuffle, claims to have notified Democrats of the permission situation, and only disclosed the memos when it was apparent that they were going to do nothing about it.

I work with computer networks and security. There is absolutely no legal basis for prosecuting Republican staffers for seeing these files. Once they were put on a server which belonged to the Senate and shared on a network folder, there is no basis for considering them privileged.

It's the Democrats who should be losing jobs here, not Republicans.

Posted by joelfuhrmann at 08:32 PM | Comments (0)

February 16, 2004

The Sin of the Average American

The web site Tech Central Station has an interesting two-part article by Edward Feser concerning American universities; entitled “Why Are Universities Dominated by the Left?” and “The Opium of the Professors.”

Feser’s article leads up to this rather startling denouement:

“The ‘medicine’ prescribed in the university curriculum reflects this: ‘critical thinking’ is always and exclusively criticism of traditional Western notions in religion, culture, politics, and morality; ‘open-mindedness’ is always and exclusively open-mindedness toward ideas hostile to these same traditional Western notions; and so forth.

"’But does this thesis not have one glaring defect,’ one might ask, ‘in that the common man, too, often considers traditional Judeo-Christian morality burdensome, yet nevertheless does not endorse the Leftist vision of the intellectuals?’ But in fact the common man now does largely share this vision, at least in spirit, and that is one reason it continues to dominate the universities despite decades of conservative protest. This is true even though he maintains also, and inconsistently, a sentimental attachment to the older traditions of the West.

“As the intelligentsia has gotten progressively more 'progressive,' so too under its influence -- via the universities, media, mainline churches, etc. -- has the average non-intellectual, just not as thoroughly or ideologically....The call to self-reliance and self-restraint, to family and faith, still has for him its charms; yet the prospects of ever-expanding government handouts at others' expense, and of endless sensual indulgence without consequences (except to one's children, ex-spouses, the unborn, and future generations, but never mind them) -- such prospects exert a pull too powerful for the average citizen of the modern West to resist, flabby and desiccated as he is already from half a century or so of welfarism and sexual ‘liberation.’”

Is there any basis for this statement? Is the conservative trust in the common-sense of the average American misplaced? Is the American character this vulnerable?

Posted by Rick Penner at 10:17 PM | Comments (0)

February 14, 2004

It's a Conspiracy!


Who's issued warnings against “the Straussians’ commitment to transform the United States from a democratic republic into a tyranny, using the events of Sept. 11, 2001 as their 'Reichstag fire'”?

Was it Ted Kennedy? Howard Dean? John Kerry? Wesley Clark? Some other Democratic Party politician?


It was Lyndon LaRouche.

You can be forgiven for making this mistake. As James Bowman says in his article “Beast-man Politics” in the February 2004 issue of The New Criterion:

“Conspiracy mania, though usually kept just off-stage, has long been a temptation for parties out of power in America, and it all tends to sound pretty much the same. But conspiracy mania is flourishing today as it has seldom done before in America, and not just at the fringes where the mainstream press would once have disdained to venture, because the standards of discourse have been cut free from their moorings in a common culture. As a result, anyone can say anything.”

One could say that LaRouche has not so much moved towards the mainstream, as the mainstream has moved towards him.

Bowman says LaRouche “is precisely the visionary he imagines himself to be, for it is obvious that, although he himself may never be elected to anything, his day has come in American politics.”

What’s going on in the Great American Conversation?

You may remember Howard Dean’s comment that it was an “interesting theory” that President Bush knew about 9/11 beforehand. This kind of talk is common parlance now.

Prominent politicians during the last few months -- not just extremist figures -- have repeatedly claimed the Administration lied and deliberately mislead the public about MWDs because Bush wanted to keep the American people in a state of terror for political purposes.

Among America’s intellectual and celebrity pop leadership today, the perceived conspiracies are even more lurid. Bowman mentions that:

“[T]he voices belonging to such ornaments of our national intellectual life as the novelist and belle-lettrist Gore Vidal, the linguist-philosopher Noam Chomsky, the film maker and best-selling author Michael Moore, the comedian and best-selling author Al Franken, the actress Janeane Garofalo, and the spy novelist John LeCarré are scarcely to be distinguished from LaRouche’s—in substance if not in style. Mr. Vidal and Mr. Chomsky suggest that the Bush administration is itself implicated in the terror-attacks of September 11, while Mr. Moore believes that it knows where Osama bin Laden is hiding but chooses not to capture him in order to stoke war-fever.”

Conservative commentators have suggested these conspiracy-ideas are signs that the Left is desperate because of the decline of liberalism.

Liberal commentators on the other hand claim these signs as indications that the progressive portion of the country is gaining energy and righteous anger; it's getting its voice back after all these years.

Yet others point to the influence of the Internet: how it fragments and Balkanizes the culture into sections that don’t speak to each other; thus, the mainstream has lost its common arena for a group conversation.

I think it’s none of these.

Rather, despite its vast size and diversity, America can endure national emergency (war, depression, attack) because the culture pulls together during troubling times when people share common needs. But during peace-time and enormous prosperity, people have a proclivity to focus on personal fulfillment and the pursuit of individual “quality” experiences; they begin to live more narcissistically, "in their heads", so to speak.

Two features follow from this:

First, people's dreams diverge widely when their understandings of reality are not guided by common experiences. The freedom of our culture, in fact, encourages experimentation in thought and action. Since the Vietnam War and the troubling 1960s (until 9/11), the country has not felt particularly threatened.

Second, conspiracy theories rest on a foundation of fear. Beneath the accusations of hidden strategies and nefarious secret deals -- is the frightened awareness that something deeply dreaded is reappearing in our midst that was thought to have been banished long ago. In the case of LaRouche and many popular figures of our day, this fear is caused by the surprising emergence of ancient human primal forces: the 9/11 attack itself, and then the response of war -- not police-action -- against a mortal foe.

Many people believe that Western culture has progressed to the point where the "savage" aspects of historical reality no longer hold sway. These threats of mass violence: shouldn't be here.

And yet, here they come: neo-fascist barbarians collapsing tall buildings; and -- surprise! -- millions of "ordinary" Americans suddenly wanting American warriors to go out riding against the hordes. It's shockingly pagan!

Human nature has reasserted itself.

Some people are horrified; none of this is "real." Normal human nature is not like that!

It must be a conspiracy!

Posted by Rick Penner at 07:10 PM | Comments (0)

February 13, 2004

Mennonite Reaction to Gay Marriage

The editorial written by Robert Rhodes and Paul Schrag for the December 8th issue of the Mennonite Weekly Review -- an inter-Mennonite newspaper -- is entitled “Church should stand firm on marriage.” (The article is not yet archived.) This provides an interesting note on the conflict now raging in American culture.

This message of opposition to gay marriage is not addressed to the wider society, but only to the church: “Though much sound and fury will be expended, we must remember that the courts can define marriage only in a secular sense. They cannot change how churches define it. And though many Christians disagree with the Massachusetts ruling, we would do well simply to stand on our own teaching instead of asserting that the law must conform to our beliefs.”

How distinctly and uniquely Mennonite!

As one who grew up in a rural Mennonite congregation and community -- though I’m now a member of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood -- I can tell you that though many Mennonites around the country are quite conservative in their personal cultural and religious views: the editorials in the Review have for some time now been quite leftist in their politics -- sometimes even to the extreme. The views have been so radical in recent years that they cannot be considered representative of normal Mennonite practice. But apparently many Mennonite individuals and congregations today -- especially those in the Baby-Boom generation and those within the intellectual leadership of Mennonite publications -- are moving in the direction of the liberalism of the “mainstream” Protestant churches.

But it’s interesting to see that on this issue of gay marriage -- Mennonite thought is still traditional.

Here’s some more from this uncommonly perceptive editorial:

“Despite the churches’ witness, it seems likely that people of the same gender eventually will gain the legal right to enter a covenant that mirrors the bond of traditional marriage. If for no other reason, this will happen because the American public simply will have grown tolerant of such unions and tired of denying them to the very vocal groups who espouse them. In essence, the matter will be reduced to granting a civil privilege, without approving of a lifestyle or sexual practice.

“Loud and vigorous disputes will arise, partly because the issue doubles as a handy political grenade, one often wielded by those who purport to speak for conservative Christianity. Yet Christians who hold a conservative theology of marriage need not join the chorus heralding civilization’s downfall. No court ruling or legislative action can ‘undermine traditional marriage.’ Traditional marriage, defined by Scripture and the church, will continue to be as strong, or as weak, as traditional married couples make it.”

Without, myself, taking a stand, here -- on the issue of gay marriage for American society as a whole -- I would say this editorial makes some unusually wise and nuanced observations.

Posted by Rick Penner at 01:27 AM | Comments (0)

February 12, 2004

Evangelical Christian Mysticism

Something I've wondered about....

I'm an evangelical Christian with an interest in mysticism.

Google cast:

"Christian-mysticism" -- 20,400 replies.
"evangelical-Christianity" -- 21,800 replies.
"evangelical-Christian mysticism" -- 0 replies.
"evangelical-mystical-Christianity" -- 0 replies.
"Christian-evangelical-mysticism" -- 0 replies.
"Christian-mystical-evangelicalism" -- 0 replies.
"mystical-Christian-evangelicalism" -- 0 replies.
"mystical-evangelical-Christianity" -- 0 replies.

Trying to square the circle...?

Posted by Rick Penner at 09:31 PM | Comments (1)

February 11, 2004

Miranda speaks out

Late blogging this, it appeared two days ago: Manuel Miranda defends his actions regarding the judiciary memos, on National Review Online.

It completely amazes me that Republicans are letting Democrats walk over them on this issue, especially given that some Democrat Senators involved in this mess have had staff involved in similar disclosures and they refuse to divulge their staffers' names.

Posted by joelfuhrmann at 08:30 PM | Comments (0)

Radio Back Talk

Fox News -- chaired by former Republican strategist Roger Ailes -- averages 1.7 million viewers a night compared to 30 million who watch the three network newscasts.

Yet Jason Zengerle’s cover article in the 2/16/04 issue of The New Republic -- “Talking Back: The Coming Rise of Liberal Talk Radio” -- claims that Fox’s “meteoric rise…and pugnaciously conservative slant…casts a disproportionately large shadow on the media landscape…. [causing] competing media outlets, perhaps unwittingly, to tilt to the right -- particularly in their coverage of Bush and the war in Iraq.”

Wait a minute….!

“More and more progressives and liberals are feeling as though the Roger Ailes school of news is the only one that's out there,” notes Marty Kaplan, an associate dean at the USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, according to Zengerle.

The ONLY one out there…!?

“This growing liberal anger at and alienation from mainstream media is just one reason why the latest liberal talk radio efforts are far more likely to succeed than past ones,” Zengerle notes.


A perfect syllogism:

A: The Fox News audience is small compared to the whole market.
B: Fox News is conservative.
C: Therefore: Fox News dominates -- even alienates!

(Well, this is The New Republic for you.)

More likely, of course, Fox News is providing balance for the national news mix -- wouldn’t you say? But let me add: the article is good because it nails the head on exactly WHY talk radio has been overtly conservative for so long.

Listen to this….

“Talk radio is not inherently conservative. But it is inherently anti-establishment.”

Zengerle continues: “‘Anything that flies in the face of the establishment works on talk radio,’ says Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of the industry trade magazine Talkers. ‘That's true for talk radio about business and talk radio about medicine. It's even true for talk radio about gardening. [You hear things like], “People say you're supposed to water the lawn in the spring, but that's bullshit!”'”

Zengerle understands that talk radio is an alternative to the rest of the mainstream media. It’s impossible to imagine alone. The larger context is the perception by the audience that the mainstream TV and print world is -- biased.

People turn to radio for relief.

“After all, when [Rush] Limbaugh started his show in Sacramento in 1984 and then took it national in 1988, Ronald Reagan was president….But it was nonetheless conservatives, not liberals, who felt more angry and marginalized. And their greatest grievance was against the media, which they perceived as overtly hostile to their views….Limbaugh happily reinforced that perception, telling his listeners that the mainstream media constituted ‘a daily assault on what you and I believe’ and that ‘the dominant media culture’ was complicit in an effort ‘to impugn ... the things that most people in this country hold dear.’ While liberals trusted the newspapers and Brokaw, Jennings, and Rather to give them the news, conservatives, by and large, did not.”

Zengerle points out that non-conservative audiences have also used radio for this purpose: for example, black urban talk radio in places like New York and Washington, DC.

More importantly, Zengerle claims that today many liberals are becoming alienated from the media because they find themselves to the left of the media. As hard as this is to believe, just remember the phenomena of the Howard Dean Presidential campaign: and then -- the screams of Dean enjoined with the recent anti-establishment ranting of Al Gore.

There is a passionate leftist radicalism arising -- loopy and full of conspiratorial fantasies -- but affecting many of the more radical liberals. This explains why the Democratic Party is leaning leftward these days. There's an out-of-control quality about it.

If this is correct -- liberal talk radio will have a future. It may be smaller than conservative talk radio -- for the simple reason that there are fewer people who think the mainstream media is too conservative as opposed to the people who think the mainstream media is too liberal.

But this new talk radio will happen. I predict it will have two effects:

1)) It will draw conservative talk radio hosts into arguing against it on the air -- bringing even more attention to liberal talk radio. And it will further radicalize many “normal” liberals over time into true leftists.

2)) But it will also horrify moderates in the mainstream audience; that is, many for the first time will be confronted with the intensity and extremism that exists on the left.

In summary: more polarization is in the works.

Posted by Rick Penner at 01:28 AM | Comments (0)

February 10, 2004

Abortion NGOs rebutted

Recently, Joseph Bottum, writing in the Weekly Standard, disclosed how NGOs such as the Center for Reproductive Rights are promoting abortion worldwide to the extent that organizations, such as UNICEF, which formerly used to feed hungry children and provide medical care, are now mainly pawns in the movement to promote abortion in the name of "family planning" and "reproductive rights". (I meant to blog this when his original column originally appeared, and now I've lost the link)

On the web today, he responds to representatives of the Center for Reproductive Rights, UNICEF, UNFPA, , and UNESCO, who claim that his claims are incorrect.

Page 1 contains a response from Nancy Northrup, President of the Center for Reproductive Rights, and part of another from Carol Bellamy, Executive Director UNICEF.
Page 2 contains the balance of Carol Bellamy's response, and responses from Richard Snyder from UNFPA, and Suzanne Bilello from UNESCO, and Joseph Bottum's reply to their claims.

My experience with talk like this, being a former Unitarian Universalist, which is heavily involved in promoting family planning and abortion, is that the NGO claims are groundless. There are many code-words and disingenuous arguments coming from the abortion lobby. It is indeed true that "reproductive rights" are meant to include abortion as Bottum claims. If the first right is life, it is not possible to consider abortion as a human right.

On Superbowl Sunday, entertaining some old UU-friends, I got into an argument, spawned by the adoption of our daughter, about China's one-child-per-family policy. He claimed that since daughters were typically killed by being thrown in a river before the current policy, that the current Chinese policy is not responsible for the abandonment or abortion of infant or unborn daughters. I begged to differ. It may not be the original reason for treating daughters as pariahs, but it is certainly not doing anything to change their culture in a way that respects the worth and dignity of human life. As far as our government's policy goes, I am glad that we do not support UNFPA, as money sent to China to pay for family planning programs is most certainly used to finance abortions, even if the checks are not directly made out to abortion providers. President Bush is right to stop funding family planning programs that consider abortion to be a legitimate practice for family planning.

Posted by joelfuhrmann at 07:40 PM | Comments (0)

February 08, 2004

Crystalline Truth Rises from a Clear Flame

The following exchange -- between President Bush and Tim Russert on NBC’s “Meet the Press” of February 8th -- summarizes in a nutshell the essence of the current argument now taking place over the Iraq War:

Russert: But can you launch a preemptive war without iron clad, absolute intelligence that he had weapons of mass destruction?

President Bush: Let me take a step back for a second and -- there is no such thing necessarily in a dictatorial regime of iron clad absolutely solid evidence. The evidence I had was the best possible evidence that he had a weapon.

Russert: But it may have been wrong.

President Bush: Well, but what wasn't wrong was the fact that he had the ability to make a weapon. That wasn't right.”

Nub of the argument:

Democratic (anti-war): preemptive war against a threatening rogue-nation dictator who may possess WMDs is NOT justified without “iron clad, absolute intelligence.”

Republican (pro-war): preemptive war against a threatening rogue-nation dictator who may possess WMDs IS justified with the best evidence we have.

Just off the top of my head:

The anti-war (Democratic) argument is purer, cleaner, more recognizably “principled."

The pro-war (Republican) argument is messy, complex, more reliant on judgment and experience.

My view is that the Democratic argument fits Adam Garfinkle’s description -- in his article “Foreign Policy Immaculately
(in the August/September 2003 issue of Policy Review) -- of an “amazing thing” happening:

“All of a sudden, crystalline truth rises from the clear flame of an obvious logic that, for some unexplained reason, all of the experts and practitioners thinking and working on the problem for years never saw. This is the immaculate conception theory…at work.”

That is, the liberal argument assumes the President should have made the decision (to go to war) only if the condition of certainty existed -- something possible only in a utopia.

In contrast, Bush’s main feature as President has been his pragmatic sense of perception (that the terrorist threat is serious) and his ability to decide.

The coming election will test the American public on this question….

Posted by Rick Penner at 04:29 PM | Comments (0)

February 05, 2004

The Optimistic Conservative Future

George F. Will’s column in the Washington Post of February 1st -- entitled “Freedom vs. Equality” -- is unusually insightful. He responds to the carping conservatives these days who are criticizing President Bush for “big-government” spending.

He points out that some conservatives believe “government strength” is “inimical to conservative aspirations.” But this wrongly assumes that government is “merely coercive.” Instead, government can act “strongly” to make itself “less controlling and intrusive” by “enacting laws that offer opportunities and incentives for individuals to become more self-sufficient.”

Liberals favor expanded government controls to promote equality -- through the encouragement of “equal dependence” on government provisions. DEPENDENCY is the key idea.

Bush Republicans, however, favor a “strong-government conservatism [that] contracts the dependency culture and expands the sphere of choices, thereby enhancing the individual's competence and responsibility. This…serves the right's traditional preference for freedom over legislated equality.” The GOP can carry this out by reforming education, health care, and pensions -- and this will “drive Democrats into reactionary liberalism: defense of the dependency culture and its increasing constriction of individuals' choices.”

This reminds me of a prophetic book that came out just before the 2000 election entitled The Fourth Great Awakening & the Future of Egalitarianism by Robert William Fogel.

The following will interest and surprise you depressed conservatives….

Fogel is an economist and a moderate liberal (who won the 1993 Nobel Prize in economics). He said that there have been four “Great Awakenings” in American history -- spiritual/political eras of reform -- than defined American history.

The first Great Awakening of 1730 founded the ideology for the American Revolution; the second started in 1800 and helped introduce reforms such as the abolition of slavery; the third from 1890 to 1930 attacked social injustice and created the welfare state. The fourth is occurring now: it began in the late 1950’s and will continue for a few more decades.

Fogel believes egalitarianism is the defining philosophy of all these Awakenings (he is, after all, a liberal). But he sees the last Awakening as a shift from the push for egalitarianism of material needs during the 3rd Awakening to a yearning for egalitarianism of spiritual needs (also called “immaterial” needs or “knowledge capital”).

He says that the new equity issues of the 4th Awakening -- unlike the 3rd Awakening -- “do not arise from the shock of rapid urbanization, the destruction of small businesses by competition from industrial giants, the massive destitution created by the prolonged unemployment of up to one-quarter of prime-age workers, the disappearance of the frontier as a safety valve for urban unemployment and poverty.”

Rather, people now want to “have an understanding of life’s opportunities, a sense of which opportunities are most attractive to him or her at each stage of life, and the requisite educational, material, and spiritual resources to pursue these opportunities.”

Here’s what Fogel means by “spiritual” needs:

“Spiritual resources are not limited to those found in the sacred realm but include the whole range of immaterial commodities that are needed to cope with emotional trauma and that, more often than not, are transferred between individuals privately, rather than through the market. Such resources include a sense of purpose, a sense of opportunity, a sense of community, a strong family ethic, a strong work ethic, and high self-esteem.” [Emphasis added]

Surprisingly: “Like it or not, the reform agenda spelled out by the religious Right, with its focus on the restoration of the traditional family and its emphasis on equality of opportunity, more fully addresses the new issues of egalitarianism than does the agenda of the Third Great Awakening.”

Fogel goes on to say that Republicans and conservatives will probably benefit the most from this 4th Awakening -- such that Republicans will predominate over the next decade or two.

This means that Janet Jackson’s stunts and John Kerry's tiredness -- the whole panoply of anti-authoritarian purposeless rebellions that promote sloppiness, shallowness, and cynicism in daily life; and the Democratic harping on class warfare, racial division, and the need for the encouragement of dependency needs -- are going against the grain of the new Awakening.

People really WANT purposeful and self-reliant lives. It’s a winning platform!

Something for conservatives to feel hopeful about.

Posted by Rick Penner at 11:40 PM | Comments (0)

This is Good!

Got this in email from my cousin Ann, who has given me permission to reprint it:

The story is told of a king in Africa who had a close friend with whom
he grew up. The friend had a habit of looking at every situation that
ever occurred in his life (positive or negative) and remarking, "This is

One day the king and his friend were out on a hunting expedition. The
friend would load and prepare the guns for the king. The friend had
apparently done something wrong in preparing one of the guns, for after
taking the gun from his friend, the king fired it and his thumb was
blown off.

Examining the situation the friend remarked as usual, "This is good!"

To which the king replied, "No, this is NOT good!" and proceeded to send his friend to jail.

About a year later, the king was hunting in an area that he should have
known to stay clear of. Cannibals captured him and took them to their
village. They tied his hands, stacked some wood, set up a stake and
bound him to the stake. As they came near to set fire to the wood, they
noticed that the king was missing a thumb. Being superstitious, they
never ate anyone that was less than whole. So untying the king, they
sent him on his way.

As he returned home, he was reminded of the event that had taken his
thumb and felt remorse for his treatment of his friend. He went
immediately to the jail to speak with his friend. "You were right," he
said, "it was good that my thumb was blown off. And he proceeded to tell the friend all that had just happened. "And so I am very sorry for
sending you to jail for so long. It was bad of me to do this."

"No" his friend replied, "This is good!"

"What do you mean, "This is good?" How could it be good that I sent my friend to jail for a year?"

"If I had NOT been in jail, I would have been with you when you were

Situations may not always seem pleasant while we are in them, but the
promise of God is clear. If we love Him and live our lives according to
His precepts, even that which seems to be bleak and hopeless will be
turned by God for His glory and our benefit.

-- Author Unknown

Posted by joelfuhrmann at 08:58 PM | Comments (0)

February 04, 2004

Reflections from a new dad

I've always believed in God's love for me, but I never imagined what it looked like until Rebecca came home to live with us. Seeing her sleeping in the next room, she seems so small and helpless, yet I'm here if she wakes up and cries, wanting anything.

I love seeing her smile when I get home from work in the evening, it's just like saying "Daddy, I love you - play with me, NOW!" God must love it when we smile at Him too, via our joy and praise.

Sometimes I have to do things she doesn't like, such as wiping her nose. My love for her has to ignore her protests. Of course, wisdom dictates that I don't wipe her nose when doing more important things like feeding her, or enjoying a game of "up!" when she's giggling silly. Don't interrupt those fun moments.

Prayers are a lot simpler and child-like now, quick ones: "God, I love you / thank You for loving me / thank you for mommy and daddy, grandma and grandpa / be with me as I sleep tonight / thank You for all the wonderful things You did for me today."

I'm glad I dedicated time in the last two years to memorizing entire Psalms - they are a large part of my Bible "reading" now.

Posted by joelfuhrmann at 08:56 PM | Comments (0)

William F. Buckley's comments on John Kerry

In today's National Review Online, a 1971 speech delivered by William F. Bucklye to the graduating class of West Point is reprinted. He talks about John Kerry's words and activities in the organization Vietnam Veterans Against the War.


So during those moments when doubt will assail you, moments that will come as surely as the temptations of the flesh, I hope you will pause. I know, I know, at the most hectic moments of one's life it isn't easy — indeed, the argument can be made that neither is it seemly — to withdraw from the front line in order to consider the general situation philosophically. But what I hope you will consider, during these moments of doubt, is the essential professional point: Without organized force, and the threat of the use of it under certain circumstances, there is no freedom, anywhere. Without freedom, there is no true humanity. If America is the monster of John Kerry, burn your commissions tomorrow morning and take others, which will not bind you in the depraved conspiracy you have heard described. If it is otherwise, remember: the freedom John Kerry enjoys, and the freedom I enjoy, are, quite simply, the result of your dedication. Do you wonder that I accepted the opportunity to salute you?


Posted by joelfuhrmann at 08:45 PM | Comments (0)

More on same-sex marriage

Up to now, pundits have been skeptical about the possibility of a constitutional amendment protecting marriage. I think that may have just changed today. When people realize that this means same-sex couples will be visiting their churches demanding equal treatment as heterosexual couples, and same-sex couples attending their office "holiday" parties, and seeing same-sex couples in the mall, all flaunting their sexuality in front of their children, anyone who thinks this is not a good thing is going to think that it is time to stop it via action that tells the judges where they can put their activism. Let's face it - we're not Scandinavia, and people who know Scandinavia know that same-sex marriage is not marriage, and will indeed destroy the institution, which is another thing that would probably make the Unitarian Universalists happy, a religious institution which seems to be unable to admit that adultery and promiscuity are bad things.

Posted by joelfuhrmann at 08:38 PM | Comments (0)

UUA position on same-sex marriage

The president of the Unitarian Universalist Association thinks that the Massachusetts Supreme Court's ruling forcing same-sex marriage on the public is a good thing.

Of course, this is from religious liberals, so there's no bigotry, or pushing values down other peoples' throats.

Posted by joelfuhrmann at 08:17 PM | Comments (0)

February 03, 2004

Epic of Choice

Lord of the Rings fans have a lot of reading to do. Another of the many books coming out these days about Tolkien is reviewed on the Books & Culture website; the review entitled “The Doom of Choice: Fate, free will, and moral responsibility in Tolkien” by David O’Hara.

It’s a review of the book Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in The Lord of the Rings by Matthew Dickerson.

(I’m partly mentioning this to draw attention to the incredible Books & Culture: A Christian Review -- one of the best intellectual “book review” publications around, and worth subscribing to. I spend hours with each issue.)

What stuck me most about the film trilogy Lord of the Rings was the emphasis on the relation between the difficulty of responsibility and the freedom of choice.

O’Hara’s review takes this subject on: “Following Gandalf is a timely and relevant exploration of how military conflict illustrates the profound inner conflict of moral responsibility. Its basic argument is that Tolkien's restraint in describing battles exalts heroism, not violence; and that heroism is an image of the universal human need to strive for moral victory, which is made possible by real freedom.”

Posted by Rick Penner at 10:55 PM | Comments (0)

Late Super Bowl comments

I missed the halftime show (just joined the game in time for the third quarter due to meeting a group of old friends who don't care about football, committed leftists they are), so I didn't see it, but based on what I've read since, I wouldn't be surprised if Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake had it all planned out in advance - it seems as if she were prepared for the display - I mean, who wears nipple ornaments as underwear?

What about Howard Dean's comments that it's no big deal? I think he's right that it's kindof silly to get the government involved. We don't need to waste money investigating this. Just sit the FCC commissioner down with a videotape of the show, and slap an indecency fine on CBS if it's appropriate. I disagree with Dean when he justifies it by comparing it with other stuff on cable TV - that stuff is understood to be adult content, or should be. The SuperBowl is something I'd like to be able to watch with the family.

What to do about it? I think it would be grand if people who care wrote letters and signed petitions and gave all the advertisers a good piece of their mind. I've been boycotting CBS ever since they ran that notorious "Snipers Wanted" thing on some late-night show, only watching it for sports events. Given that I'm a Cowboys fan (covered by FOX), and just can't work myself up to be a Jets (covered by CBS) fan, even though I now live in NJ, I might just not turn the dial to CBS ever again. As far as MTV goes, I considered them to be poo even before I recommitted to my Christian belief. I don't like it, I think it should be available only as a cable premium channel, like Playboy, and don't let them responsible for a prime-time broadcast like that ever again.

Posted by joelfuhrmann at 08:29 PM | Comments (1)

Should Christians try to influence abortion policy?

Another thing that is mentioned in that Reason article linked from the previous post:

"In a Pew Research Center poll released this month, nearly six out of 10 Americans said that religion seldom or never influences their voting decisions. In a Gallup poll last year, 60 percent of Americans said that religious leaders should not try to influence public policy on abortion."

Why shouldn't religious leaders try to influence public policy on abortion? Were we wrong when we spoke out against Amercan slavery before our Civil War? Are we wrong to speak out against slavery today? Are we wrong when we speak out against human sex trafficking? These are fundamental human rights we're talking about! We try to influence public policy on abortion because we believe the unborn are humans too, who have unalienable rights to life and liberty, just as those of us lucky enough to be born have.

My opposition to abortion is not based on making life difficult for those who wish to use abortion as a means of birth control, even if that is a side effect of my belief. My opposition to abortion is based on my belief that it is wrong to use force against others (a fundamental libertarian belief by the way - which is why I say that libertarians should be pro-life), especially against those who are too weak to speak out in their own defense.

Posted by joelfuhrmann at 08:05 PM | Comments (1)

That Religious Test issue again

Over at blogs4God, Gary Petersen mentions a petition submitted to the UN by practicers of a philosophy called Formulism.

I got to looking at that, but unable to reach the Formulism site (unavailable) I poked around the net looking for groups I consider hostile to Christianity to see if I could see any other references. I looked at the American Humanist Association website (nothing), Unitarian Universalist Association (nothing), and then Reason magazine (nothing), so no comments on the Formulism.

I did find something else over at Reason, similar to the recent discussion on "Brights". Cathy Young has written a column on religious discrimination in politics, and she specifically talks about how Howard Dean has been maligned for making silly statements about religion (I'll talk about his MTV spiel later).

Ms. Young states,

"The real issue, though, is why this question even came up in a political magazine. Do we now have a religious test for public office—something that was explicitly rejected by the Founders of the United States of America?"

My response to that is that her opinion is a crock of soup. The prohibition of a religious test is a limitation on government, not on its citizens. I am no more violating the Constitution by voting according to my religious values than I am practicing censorship by refusing to see an upcoming play at Princeton's McCarter theater that glamorizes adultery. It's my private choice done according to my personal values.

I remember also that Brian Doherty wrote an opinion piece way back when which savagely attacked Attorney General John Ashcroft for his religious values. I'd think that saying he shouldn't be AG because of his religion is applying a religious test, however Doherty is free to make such a statement, just as I am free to write this opinion which disagrees with him. Of course, there were violations of the religious test prohibition committed - by every Senator who voted against Ashcroft based on comments from the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association that claimed he was unsuitable for the position due to his religious beliefs.

Posted by joelfuhrmann at 07:50 PM | Comments (1)

February 02, 2004

The Coming Debate

Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction do not exist. Now -- a great debate opens on the main stage.

None will be able to miss it.

Liberals are going to claim that the President “exaggerated” or “lied.” Conservatives will claim the President did the right thing in destroying Saddam Hussein. Both will direct our attention to “the facts.” But it's not a factual matter….

This will be a political debate; that is, it will be an argument over trust and the meaning of good judgment in public affairs. It will go to the heart of the question: what are our values?

I’ll show you why….

The New York Times editorial of 2/1/04 -- “Intelligence on the Eve of War” -- provides a good summation of the coming liberal argument to be aired during the presidential campaign.

Allowing that the CIA performed miserably and provided flawed intelligence information -- and further, admitting that the former weapons inspector David Kay said he had “seen no evidence that administration officials put pressure on analysts to come up with preconceived results” -- the Times emphasized that some other analysts believe the Bush Administration exaggerated the CIA information, hand-picked portions that would suit its needs, and pressured the CIA to come up with views the Administration wanted.


The Times turns to two sources: the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Kenneth M. Pollack -- a Clinton administration national security official who wrote the book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq (New York: Random House, 2002).

The Carnegie is a think-tank with a reputation for being leftist. But Pollack is more serious, a moderate realist. I read his book before the war, and it convinced me to support the invasion.

According to the Times: “Mr. Pollack says, he received numerous complaints from friends in the intelligence community that administration officials showed aggressive, negative reactions when presented with information that contradicted what they believed about Iraq. They allegedly subjected the analysts to barrages of questions, requests for more information and fights over the credibility of sources that passed beyond responsible oversight to become a form of pressure.”

This comes from an article Pollack wrote in the January/February 2004 issue of The Atlantic entitled “Spies, Lies, and Weapons: What Went Wrong.” You can also get an abbreviated version of Pollack’s views by reading the interview with him that appeared on The Atlantic Online called “Weapons of Misperception.”

Pollack gives credence to the idea that the Bush Administration exaggerated the intelligence information in some fashion, but the question is -- how much? For after all…one still has to grapple with Pollack’s insistence (in the article) that:

“Because of the consensus among American and foreign intelligence agencies, outside experts, and former UN weapons inspectors, I had been convinced [before the war] that Iraq was only years away from having a nuclear weapon -- probably only four or five years, as Robert Einhorn had testified. That estimate was clearly off, possibly by quite a bit.”

So, Pollack based his (pre-war) opinion in favor of war -- directly on information from intelligence experts and agencies. He DID NOT claim that he relied on the public pronouncements of Bush Administration officials in the months preceding the war.

THAT raises the logical point: if Pollack came to his conclusion to support an invasion -- without relying on Administration “spin” -- THEN HOW IS IT THAT THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION'S EXAGGERATIONS CAN BE BLAMED NOW?

(Am I missing something?)

In other words: the Bush Administration may have “shaped” the information for the public, but that exaggeration is moot -- as far as Pollack’s own opinion on the threat from Iraq goes.

Perhaps Pollack himself -- a former Democrat administration official -- is having a “political moment,” as we say.

To be fair -- Pollack needs to be read carefully and seriously. But he makes a big POLITICAL mistake. To explain why, let me set this up….

Pollack says (in the interview) that:

“I made it very clear that while I did have one belief in common with Bush Administration, which was that it would eventually be necessary to go to war to prevent Saddam Hussein from acquiring nuclear weapons, I had very different ideas about why the war was necessary, how it should be fought, and what the United States needed to do to deal with all the unintended consequences that might result. For example, I never believed that it was necessary for the United States to go to war as early as 2003.”

In his interview, he says:

“[Pollack:] I think the Administration was only telling part of the truth to the American people because it was trying to justify a war in 2003….The Administration could have said, ‘Look, the intelligence community thinks it may be five to seven years away, but they do think it's also possible that they could get it in one to two years. After 9/11, we shouldn't take even that kind of a risk.’ I think that would have been a much more honest way of presenting it to the American people.

”[Interviewer:] But it might not have resulted in going to war.

”[Pollack:] That is my sense. My sense is that the Administration recognized that that kind of argument would not generate the same enthusiasm for a war in 2003 as the argument the way they cast it did. As far as I'm concerned, these are not political arguments. This is an argument about U.S. national security and about going to war. That's supposed to transcend politics.”

SO -- despite the importance I think Pollack’s opinions have -- Pollack made a crucial error, here. That is: he claimed that the Administration’s arguments for war “are not political arguments.”


The decision of whether to go to war is the MOST POLITICAL issue one can raise in a democratic nation. It has to do with the very essence of politics -- the art and science of power. After all: it is not the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or the CIA, that makes the decision of whether to go to war or not. Rather, it is the chief political officers -- the President and the Congress. We have civilian control over the military, here. Perhaps Pollack, being a technical expert in intelligence issues, can be forgiven for missing this. But we citizens in the public sphere cannot.

While Pollack only considered the question of whether the country should go to war or not -- the political leaders have to consider the larger question of HOW this policy is going to be carried out.

The President of the country (with the Congress) has to consider: how to rally the nation to go to war; how to finance the war and impel congressional support; how to organize and compel the military and its far-flung organization to ready itself for war; how to deal with the domestic political opposition to war; how to consider the short-term and long-term ramifications of international relations before and after the war; how to compel the support of key allies and others who will support us; how to handle the possibly disastrous consequences of going to war too soon -- or of waiting too long -- or of not going to war at all.

The President may have realized that we could afford technically to wait some years before dealing with Iraq. But if war is necessary at some near future date -- would we politically be ready when the President is in a second term (if there is a second term)? Given the nature of the uncertain intelligence information -- would it be better to act now rather that to take the chance that Iraq may have advanced weapons in the near future? Then there’s the question: would passivity and the tendency to put off difficult decisions dither away our time as terrorists advance towards their goal of acquiring the ability to commit mass murder?

Could our waiting -- result in another 9/11?

The President has to ask: HAS THE POLITICAL OPORTUNE MOMENT ARRIVED? After all -- the other definition of “politics” (other than “the art and science of power”) is: politics is the art of the possible. The President’s main problem is to see that policy goals are carried out.

This means: the President may have felt that he had to exaggerate publicly-available intelligence information in order to force the issue IF he was convinced that the security of the nation rested on his ability to disarm Hussein as quickly as possible. (What? You’d rather be politically correct but dead? Ask FDR!)

So the REAL DEBATE during this next year is going to revolve around the intangible question: will Americans trust the President’s decision to go to war against a gathering possible nuclear threat from a rogue nation -- or will the public think the President should have WAITED for a more secure time when we could be SURE that we wouldn’t have made a mistake?

So it is, after all, a values-question.

What kind of decision do you intuitively respect?

Wherein is wisdom?

Posted by Rick Penner at 10:45 PM | Comments (1)

February 01, 2004

A New Bible

A new translation of the Bible may be a gem; so claims Alan Jacobs in his article “A Bible for Everyone” in the December 2003 issue of First Things.

The King James Version (KJV) -- a hauntingly beautiful work of Shakespearian dimension -- was THE favorite for years. But in recent decades many new ones have appeared. The New International Version (NIV) has become the most popular version BY FAR across the country in evangelistic churches.

Scholars say the NIV is the MOST ACCURATE version. But I can’t keep it a secret any longer: I HAVE to say this: there’s something terribly wrong with the NIV! How can I put this?


No, wait a minute….How's this:

If you want one-dimensional style, flat expression, and stale word usage -- the NIV’s for you!


The NIV reads like an OFFICE MEMO!



(OK, you get the point.)

WHY does the NIV take the word “garments” (in King James) -- referring to the clothing of the wealthy -- and render it “clothes”? CLUNK! The dry, ordinary word CLOGS the throat. THE RICH DON’T WEAR CLOTHES -- THEY WEAR GARMENTS, YOU (BLANK)...!


(Alright, I’ll calm down. I’ve complained about this for years and I just get STEAMED when this comes up.)

The new translation sets out to change this. It’s called the ENGLISH STANDARD VERSION (ESV) and it's an attempt to merge excellent modern scholarship with beautiful prose.

Jacobs says: “It is the ESV’s balance of thorough, up-to-date scholarship and deference to the elders’ wisdom that makes it the best available English Bible. What this means, further, is that the ESV is the best candidate yet for the long-hoped-for ‘replacement’ of the KJV, the translation that bridges denominational gaps and strikes the right balance among the virtues of clarity, correctness, and grace.”

Jacobs explains why so many of the new translations are so boring: “When King James commissioned his Companies of Translators, the people most thoroughly educated in the various humanistic disciplines were also those most learned in the biblical tongues. The celebrated ‘poetic’ or ‘literary’ qualities of the KJV are a function of this long-lost union. But in the last two centuries the training of biblical scholars in what has come to be called the ‘grammatical-historical’ method has assumed a character alien to the literary and rhetorical education rooted in the schools of the Roman Empire. A model of Christian learning shared -- not altogether but to some degree -- by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin had virtually disappeared by the end of the eighteenth century….Thus C. S. Lewis’ complaint that a scholar whose ‘literary experiences of [the biblical] texts lack any standard of comparison such as can only grow from a wide and deep and genial experience of literature in general’ is not wholly reliable as a guide. ‘If he tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance, I want to know how many legends and romances he has read, how well his palate is trained in detecting them by the flavor.’”

Jacobs ends his article this way: “Everyone who grew up with the KJV feels the loss of a shared language, of particular words and phrases that resonated in the common ear -- words and phrases whose meanings could be tested, considered, deployed and redeployed in an infinitely varied set of contexts. I think now of all those generations of the English-speaking peoples separating the wheat from the chaff, lying down in green pastures, sometimes being weighed in the balance and found wanting but at other times fighting the good fight -- the whole vast array of discourse (much of it richly metaphorical) tells us that it is very difficult to share thoughts when we do not share language. And since Christians are counseled to be of one mind, they should be more attentive to the particular words that shape and form our minds. To have once again a widely shared English Bible -- ‘one principal good one’ -- would be a significant step towards that one mind in Christ.”

I use the georgeous New King James Version, or the succinct and bracing American Standard Version. The NIV gives me the willies!

I tried finding the new ESV at some Bible book stores recently in Southern California but they were sold out.

Check it out.

Posted by Rick Penner at 12:20 AM | Comments (5)