Friday, March 23, 2007

Yoga Stalking

Clever piece in Slate by Ron Rosenbaum, on the "hostile New Age takeover of yoga." The highlight is Rosenbaum's common-sense recital of a yoga-magazine story about a woman stalking her ex-flame, and learning to "forgive" when he tells her to get a life.

Confession: While no real yogi, Father A. has done his share of Downward-Facing Dogs over the years. And he works mighty hard to screen out the blathering yogaspeak that some instructors use. ("I'm sorry," said a very fine teacher one time. "That was a such a goober-yoga-teacher thing to say.") The truth is that after years of trying, I still can't follow the direction to 'breathe into your hamstring" for the very simple reason that my hamstring has no lungs.

But far more to the point is this: Father A. spent some time studying in India, and even wrote a master's thesis on representations of the goddess Kali in art and literature. At one time in his life, he could fairly easily describe the differences between the Devi-Mahatmya and the Devi-Bhagavata. And nothing that I ever came across, either on the street in India or in the dusty Asian Religion stacks of university libraries, sounds much like the "philosophy" of the standard yoga class.

(There are exceptions, and I will even name one: a teacher named Tony Luttenberger, up in the Berkshires. He's got an old-hippie vibe, and sometimes seems half-cracked. But the man knows his ancient texts.)

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Republican Family Values

Newt Gingrich was having an extramarital affair even as he led the charge against Bill Clinton over Monicagate. That is to say (for those of you who are keeping count) that he was cheating on his second wife with the woman who would eventually become his third.

Newt and Rudi are both serial adulterers. So, it certainly seems, is Bill; but at least he's managed to keep his marriage going, even if he has had trouble with the vows. McCain's first wife raised their kids while he was a POW; this did not keep him from cheating on her and divorcing her (for a drug addict beer heiress who later stole meds from a charity she worked for).

I've got a sense that the GOP isn't trying anymore. They figure that, if the public puts up with a recovering alcoholic who talks to God and hears that torture is okay, nobody much cares about traditional values anymore. And by gum, they may be right.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Heather Has Three Mommies

Nice Boston Globe opinion pice by Alex Beam, assessing Mitt Romney's chance of becoming president. Musing upon a PBS documentary, Beam considers the matters of polygamy, racism, homophobia and -- far more important -- the overall strangeness of Mormonism. Then he writes:

"By now, almost every newspaper in America has published an analysis of Mitt Romney's presidential aspirations titled "Can a Mormon Be Elected President?" The stories follow a preordained path to arrive at the politically and socially desirable answer: Yes.

"These set pieces serve mainly to make the not particularly religion-savvy political commentariat feel good about themselves. The writer appears unbiased, and the article inevitably validates the cherished American myth about our tolerance for diversity.

"Can a Mormon be elected president in 2008? No."

I guess we'll find out.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Inter-Atheist Kerfluffle

Atheism is on the rise!

Not that people are leaving Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism in droves -- quite the contrary, in fact. But over the past couple of years, the smallish number of people who believe there is no God have started talking, and writing, about their convictions with particular fervor. The much larger number of people who kinda-sorta don't believe, but aren't sure why, have been given considerable comfort by the recent writings of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, et alii. Call it the New Atheism.

First off, let's be honest: Given the faith-based horror of the last few years, both in the Middle East and in America, it is hard to blame these guys. Neither Pat Robertson nor Moktada al-Sadr makes the notion of a transcendent being sound very appealing.

That doesn't mean that Dawkins and Harris are right as to the matter in dispute, God's existence. Naturally, the Egg joins with the vast majority of human beings, both now and through history, in affirming that God exists. But more important is this: the fact that one can appreciate the motivation of the the New Atheists does not mean that their actual arguments are any good. They aren't.

And proof of this is a series of rather savage reviews, written not by apologists for theism but rather by the Old Atheists -- scientific and literary types who have long disbelieved in God, without attempting to make a career of it. They are unsettled first by the efforts of the young Turks to assault religious faith without any particular knowledge of its content. Literary theorist Terry Eagleton begins: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”

No less seriously, they point out that the New Atheists seem intent on blaming religion and its adherents for all the world's problems, in a manner that is surprisingly irrational and, well, bigoted. the old Atheists, even if they do not believe in God, can see the good that believers have done through the ages, and continue to do. (Don't believe me? Come visit my parish men's shelter.)

And the Old Atheists have been aropund long enough to recognize that there are plenty of problems caused not by religion but by its absence. H. Allen Orr writes, of his fellow biologist, “Dawkins has a difficult time facing up to the dual fact that (1) the 20th century was an experiment in secularism; and (2) the result was secular evil, an evil that, if anything, was more spectacularly virulent than that which came before.”

As we have said before, friends, the problem isn't God. The problem is human nature. And taking God out of the picture won't improve human nature. So even those who do not believe might find, upon sober reflection, that their own best interests are served not by railing against religion in the abstract, but rather by encouraging the world's religions to live up to their own high standards.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

One More Thing ....

... about that letter from James Dobson and other Christianist leaders, calling for the removal of Richard Cizik from leadership in the National Association of Evangelicals.

The signers aren't members of the NAE.

This means they have as much authority to boot Cizik as I do to change the Pope. Or the Pope does to change the Archbishop of Canterbury. Or a US president does to change the leaders of other foreign nations. (Ooops. Bad analogy.)

Dobson Jumps on the Dust-Heap of History

In the last year or so, the National Association of Evangelicals (yes, Ted Haggard's group) has begun to use its considerable political clout in support of environmental issues, especially global warming. This is just a matter of common sense and good theology, and if the NAE is late to the game -- mainline churches got there decades ago -- it is still a welcome player.

Except to James Dobson and his ilk -- the "Christianist Right," as my man Sullivan calls them. A group of influential political figures with church connections (Dobson, Gary Bauer, Paul Weyrich) sent a letter to the NAE's leadership calling for the ouster of the Rev. Richard Cizik, the association’s vice president for government affairs. They accuse him of using global warming to " divert the evangelical movement from what they deem more important issues, like abortion and homosexuality."

Hmm. Fate of the earth on one hand, buggery on the other. Which one is more important? Really?

Of course, the signers argue that global warming isn't really a problem, human beings can't affect it anyway, and so forth. How very 1999 of them. At this point, nobody -- not even President Bush -- believes their line of data-denying dithering anymore. Evanglicals are no more stupid than any other people, and realize that global warming is a grave and immediate danger which requires prompt political action. That's why the NAE will keep Cizik on, and probably give him a raise. He's leading them in the direction than most Americans, including American evangelicals, know we need to go.

So whence the letter? Simple. Dobson and Company have made their bones (as the mobsters say) on abortion and homosexuality. They have become famous, powerful, and wealthy by flogging those two ponies. And they don't know what else to ride. So they'll keep doing what they know how to do, even as the world changes around them, and wind up pathetic old remnants of an ugly period in American social history.

I can't wait.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Conservapedia bills itself as (and we'll bet you had already guessed this) the conservative answer to Wikipedia. It looks very, very, similar. Similar enough that a semiliterate term-paper writer at a B-list school could mistake one for the other when trolling for stuff to plagiarize. Worse yet, the said young author might deliberately choose Conservapedia, as a salubrious antidote for Wikipedia's notorious liberal bias.

First off: we never thought that Wikipedia -- a colossal, user-edited online encyclopedia -- had any particular bias. How could it, we reasoned in our naivete, with so many contributors from all over the world? Fortunately, the Conservapedia editors set us straight. Their homepage features a clear analysis of Wikipedia's bias, including what they consider the obvious smoking gun: many articles feature English spelling. (You know: tyre, saviour, judgement).

Never mind that England, under Labour no less, has been Bush's closest, and indeed only, ally in Iraq. Never mind Edmund Burke and George Orwell and Maggie Thatcher. English spellings are a sign of liberal bias because, well, they aren't American.

And "conservative," in the mind of the Conservapedia editorial staff, seems to equal two things: American and Christian. In fact, virtually nothing else seems to matter to them. We at the Egg know this, because we checked. We searched for a few of our favourite -- omg! favorite -- things, and here's what we found.

Thomas Jefferson: The first two sentences describe his life and work. The rest of ther article, which is not long but still fourteen or so sentences -- is devoted to Jefferson's religious convictions, and especially to the thesis that although TJ is often called a Deist, he described himself on at least one occasion as a Christian. Whether this is true or false, we at the Egg are willing to gamble our immortal souls that Jefferson considered his role in founding the United States, doubling its geographic size, and exploring the continent more important than his religious convictions. Heck, he probably considered gardening, wine and Sally Hemmings more important too, and none of them gets a shout-out.

Benjamin Franklin: Flew a kite, invented a stove. And in the second sentence, we learn that he, too, is called a Deist but wasn't really. The rest of the article is devoted to his religious convictions, and the strong, but astonishingly ill-argued, assertion that they were not Deist.

George Washington: ran a country, won a war. From the second sentence, the article is devoted to proving that he was a Christian.

Do you see the pattern? (There are rather bad articles on Luther and Aquinas, but at least the editors didn't feel any need to prove that those two were Christians.)

As for the figures you might expect in something called Conservapedia: there is no article on Barry Goldwater. Or Patrick Buchanan. Or anybody named Buckley.

But all this would be okay if the articles were thoughtful, well-written and well-sourced meditations on the spiritual lives of great Americans. In fact, we would welcome such a wiki. But so far, this ain't it. Despite constant urging to cite sources, the articles are full of opinions, often ill-informed ones. And the prose rises, at its very best, to the level of a middle school expository essay. Consider this beautiful and apt instance, from the rousing conclusion of the entry on a well-known medieval poet: "The account of Hell is known as 'Dante's Inferno,' and it is frightful."

Frightful indeed.

Screwed Again

Oh, my. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Board of pensions is planning to switch members' health insurance from an Aetna PPO to Blue Cross/Blue Shield HMO coverage. That's bad enough; what really offends the Egg, however, is the grotesque flummery of the press release (q.v. with a click).

Others may complain, but Father A. has been quite pleased with his Aetna coverage over the years, and so have his physicians -- many of whom will need to be replaced when he can't afford to pay them out of pocket and they don't take Blue Cross. On the other hand, every ELCA pastor (or at least every one of us who serves a small church) knows that health-care costs are crippling our congregations. If this is what it takes, then so be it.

(On the third hand, one of the reasons that these costs have grown especially fast in metropolitan regions, where the churches are generally smallest and poorest, is that Board of Pensions' decision, some years ago, to stop equalizing costs without regard to geography. It was a bad, short-sighted decision, and many of us protested it at the time.)

Anyhoo, that's all background to the aforementioned flummery.

The press release describes this decision not as a cost-cutting move, but as the exciting! new! adoption of a "wellness plan." This means that if you exercise and eat right, they will give you some credit --up to $300 per annum. Fine idea, especially for those of us who do exercise and eat right. The problem is that the deductibles are going to escalate from $350 to $600. So there goes your wellness rebate.

And then there's this: "As a self-employed individual without these benefits, I am almost envious of the opportunity that this plan offers," T. Van Matthews, Simpsonville, S.C., told the trustees' products and services committee, which he chairs. "In my world, there seems to be only one incentive that the insurer considers and that is to simply raise rates," he said.

Wow. So a guy who doesn't participate in the plan, but wants us to, is recommending it. In fact, he's "almost" envious.
And he's so glad that our new coprporate overlords ... care about us. It's touching.

Honestly, the BOP health plan covers 50,000 pastors and lay staff at 11,000 congregations. That's a big plan -- you'd think Aetna would have negotiated down to something we could all live with. But what does the Egg know?