Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Newt Swims Tiber

Erstwhile Speaker and perennial nuisance Newt Gingrich has converted to Roman Catholicism.

We are amused that he has recently complained of President Obama's "anti-Catholic values," since Gingrich has himself been married three times.  We do not know whether he will be allowed to receive the Eucharist in his new church, or whether he cares.  It has always been very difficult for us to figure out what Gingrich cares about, apart from the sound of his own voice.

But please note:  Were Newt a Lutheran, our friends at ALPB would be loudly bemoaning the way "all the best and brightest Lutherans are leaving for Rome," oh-woe-is-us.  We at the Egg have called bullshit on this myth repeatedly over the years -- the various emigres have been overwhelmingly from the AELC, which was born in schism, and their profiles have been high principally among themselves.  (Pelikan is the notable exception).

What both amuses and irritates us about the woe-is-us crowd is their vocal enthusiasm for Lutheranism as they wish it were, and their highly cultivated disdain for Lutheranism as it actually exists.  This is amusing when it is quixotic and irritating when it turns fratricidal.

Gingrich is now a former Baptist.  Those people are no strangers to internal disagreement, or even to near-fratricide.  But they are not, so far as we can tell, afflicted by this particular strain of self-doubt.  Do you really imagine that any Baptist publication will note Newt's defection, and pose an hyperbolic challenge to the effect of "Will the last Baptist turn off the lights on his way out?"

Of course not.  They'll do the reasonable thing:  shrug their shoulders, say "Huh," and go on being who they are.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

More Hard Times

The ELCA's Milwaukee Synod just cut one of its two campus pastors. That's bad, but what's worse, we expect, is what comes next: the blame and recrimination.

The chaplain who lost her job is black and female, and served the U. of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; the other is white, male, and serves Marquette, a private Jesuit university. And so there are howls of outrage, and suggestions of racial bias in the decision.  

The decision was made by a board which oversees both ministries, and from which several members have resigned in protest. The synod claims that the decision was made based on the work of a commissioned task force, and for purely financial reasons. Critics respond that 

.... the less-than-transparent process and its outcome - UWM's urban ministry is shuttered midsemester and its African-American female pastor out of work, while its more-affluent counterpart remains open with a white male pastor - raise troubling questions.

The synod insists that the decision was purely a financial one, but also says that "anti-racism team members" would be consulted about replacement appointments to the board. All of which makes it sound like this is a story about race, and about a bunch of Nordic giants with blue eyes and blonde hair who just aren't sensitive to the needs of their less-Nordic neighbors.

There are going to be meetings and consultations and hurt feelings, and several pastors are happy to be quoted darkly hinting that an injustice has been done, without offering any specifics.

Now, here's the thing, people. Racism is a powerful force in American life, which can be both subtle and insidious in its effects. Likewise sexism.  We certainly can't swear that neither was a factor here, because we don't know enough about the circumstances. But we do know something about the ELCA, which is that its leaders -- and particularly those engaged in campus ministry -- tend to fall well to the left of the general population. That doesn't mean they aren't affected by racism and sexism, but it does mean that they tend to be plagued by liberal guilt, and therefore to delay, quibble and second-guess any decision in which race and (to a smaller degree) sex seem to be a factor.  So we are suspicious of the suggestion that the UW-M chaplain was targeted, consciously or not, because of her race or her sex.

According to the article linked above, Marquette is "more affluent" than the state school, which is no surprise. Whether that affluence makes it easier to raise funds for campus ministry, we don't know.  It serves about 150 kids at a time, according to the chaplain, which is a pretty fair number.  But the UW-M ministry is said to have "waned in recent years as it struggled with staff turnover and the demands of an aging building." 

And, according to the only figures we could find, marquette's student body is about 85.5% white, and UW-M's is a practically blanched 92.7% white. The article calls UW-M one of the synod's "urban" ministries, but so is Marquette; they are both a short drive from downtown Milwaukee.

So, wait a second.  There is another narrative here:   The larger and more successful ministry stays open, the smaller and struggling one (with the decrepit building) closes.  Viewed this way, it's common sense.  More so in tough economic times.  To the extent that racism and sexism are apparent here, they rest in a system that makes it hard for black female pastors to find calls in prosperous ministries, and forces them into those which are least likely to survive.  With absolutely no reflection upon chaplain's skills intended, we think the board may have shown sexism less in firing her than in hiring her.

But the principal question facing the campus ministry board seems to have been a simple one:  Do we starve both ministries, or support the one that has a chance?

The fact that this isn't more readily apparent concerns us, because it is symptomatic of the way Lutherans (and many others, we imagine) have been conditioned to think about the decline of our institutions, and preeminently of our parishes.  All ministries are considered to have a right not only to exist, but to be supported by "the synod," conceived vaguely as a sort of all-powerful and munificent entity prepared to jump in with cash when private donations are no longer forthcoming.  Indeed, a special mystique attaches to the weakest and most vulnerable -- that is, to those most likely to fail, or which have already failed.

This is all very noble, and if money were no object, we would be all for pouring it down the noblest drains we can find.  But money is an object.  It is required for our ministries to continue.  Funding bodies often need to make tough decisions.  In emergency medicine, it's called triage -- choosing those patients likeliest to survive given the resources at hand over those likely to eat up the resources and die anyway.  Nobody likes making these decisions.

Our concern, then, based upon the article (and so many other experiences) is that we have created a corporate culture so resistant to triage that it will prevent tough decisions from being made, and turn upon those who make them.  Worse yet, if the synod's "anti-racism team" truly is nothing more than a response to liberal guilt, we have a situation in which even those who manage to make the tough decisions cannot live with themselves afterward.  

All this is a recipe for disaster, especially as the economic situation worsens, and funding for ministry goes the way of all other funding which depends upon donations. If we have lost the flexibility required to contract thoughtfully, we risk all-out collapse.  Hard times will be made much harder if we cling to our unrealistic expectations.  

Friday, March 27, 2009

Annals of Humanity

Two related tidbits about America's obsession with "toughness."

First, the Rockefeller drug laws will apparently be changed soon.  Passed in 1973, these New York State laws -- in essence, mandatory sentencing guidelines -- have since become symbolic of everything misguided about the US justice system.  They have put first-time, non-violent offenders into prison, often for the possession of comparatively small amounts.  By doing so, they have helped to sextuple the prison population.  Keeping all these people in prison has a social cost, as well as the obvious personal costs.  It also has a financial cost:

Since 1989 the yearly budget for the State University of New York (SUNY) has dropped from a little more than $1.3 billion to around $800 million. In the same period, annual spending on prisons in New York has increased from a little less than $1 billion to $1.7 billion.

The mandatory sentences tie judges hands so severely that murder, in its various forms, is sometimes punished less harshly than the possession of drugs.  This is one of the reasons that conservatives, including William F. Buckley, have criticized the laws.  It is also argued that the enforcement of these laws has been racially discriminatory, which has helped spur criticism from the left, and especially from civil-rights groups.

At last, state leaders seem ready to redirect treatment and rehabilitation over simply throwing people in jail.  A deal is said to be near.  But it will not be done without a fight.  Consider, for example, State Sen. Dale Volker, R-Depew, in Erie County, who is quoted by Gannett calling the reported agreement is "a 'get out of jail free card'" as well as "shortsighted and a dangerous precedent that will destroy communities, harm families and lead to the decriminalization of illegal narcotics."  Apparently, Volker likes spending money on prisons and taking it away from colleges, especially if it means keeping black people off the street.

And second, the "Supermax" system.  In the New Yorker, Atul Gawande has a fascinating piece of the surge in solitary confinement.  You probably know the starter facts already:  the US "has five per cent of the world’s population, [and] twenty-five per cent of its prisoners...." But you may not know the kicker: "... and probably the vast majority of prisoners who are in long-term solitary confinement."

Solitary is serious business. People who have been held captive and abused ruthlessly -- Terry Anderson in Lebanon, John McCain in Vietnam -- routinely agree that isolation from other human beings is more devastating than even the worst beatings. There is a significant body of research to back this up. Prisoners held in solitary are, often, damaged psychologically in ways from which they may never recover. Solitary confinement is torture, and arguably the worst sort.

This agrees with Christian theology. As it happens, Father Anonymous preached twice last week on the same text from Genesis -- "it is not good for the man to be alone."  As he said, this is far more than the rationale for marriage to which it is routinely reduced these days by theologians in search of a prooftext.  It is the rationale for all human society.  The whole creation is declared "good," except for loneliness -- which is "not good" in God's eyes.  In the Old Testament, the remedies are family, tribe and covenant -- those things which bind people together with each other and with God.  In the New Testament, the remedy is clearly meant to be the the the Church, the Bride of Christ, the Body of Christ -- the community beside which, as Jesus repeatedly says, other claims, and especially those of kinship, pale. 

Well, that's theology.  You don't have to agree with those ideas to accept the discovery that human beings are neurologically adapted to require companionship, and that without it we are at terrible risk.

But here's the scary part:

In the past thirty years, the United States has quadrupled its incarceration rate but not its prison space. Work and education programs have been cancelled, out of a belief that the pursuit of rehabilitation is pointless. The result has been unprecedented overcrowding, along with unprecedented idleness—a nice formula for violence.

So how do you cut down prison violence?  Segregate the worst offenders.  Put them in a box where they can't hamr anybody else.  And, in practice, a warden may find it convenient to put other people in boxes, too:  not just the violent, but the escape-prone, or those who routinely break the rules.

There has always been a little of this -- remember "the Cooler" in Hogan's Heroes?  And it has always been considered stern to the point of inhumanity; Gawande cites legal arguments from 1890 to that effect.  What we were shocked to know is that in the past twenyy years alone, the use of solitary confinement has

... risen to extraordinary levels. America now holds at least twenty-five thousand inmates in isolation in supermax prisons. An additional fifty to eighty thousand are kept in restrictive segregation units, many of them in isolation, too, although the government does not release these figures. By 1999, the practice had grown to the point that Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Nebraska, Nevada, Rhode Island, and Virginia kept between five and eight per cent of their prison population in isolation, and, by 2003, New York had joined them as well. Mississippi alone held eighteen hundred prisoners in supermax—twelve per cent of its prisoners over all.

Tens of thousands of American citizens are being tortured, in other words.  It is a legally-sanctioned form of torture, and it will harm some of them more than others (especially those with cognitive deficits like ADD).  But it is torture -- a violation of God's law, if not yet of human law.

Hard Times

What's the best way to lose weight?  Cut off your head.  Or remove some organ whose immediate function may not be readily apparent -- "Hey, what's a spleen for, anyway?"

That's basically what the ELCA did yesterday, when it terminated its archivist, Elisabeth Wittman.  The archives are an essential tool for any researchers into American Lutheranism, and Wittman has supervised them skillfully for years.  She has also organized gatherings of the regional and synodical archivists, helping to coordinate the collective memory of  the church.

Those of us who don't work at Higgins Road have long since made a parlor game of trying to decide which functionaries are least functional.  Or which functions are the poorest use of our stewardship funds (episcopal junkets to Gaza, anybody?).  And sure, an archivist may look like a luxury -- "All she does is pitter around with those dusty old hymnals, right?"  But that's wrong.  Archivists and historians are like your church treasurer, except that the treasures they deal with are more important than money.  Without them, we will not know where we have been, or how we got to where we are.  And without that knowledge -- including far more detail than most people can imagine -- it will be hard for us to make realistic plans for the future.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Wild Things UPDATE

It seems that the trailer we worried about yesterday is actually the tamed-down version.  A 2008 screening left kids in tears, begging their parents to take them home.

On the other hand, we found a great cartoon version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar on YouTube last night.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Wild Things Don't Make Our Heart Sing

Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are is a marvel.  In the simplest story possible, it opens up to very young readers some of the timeless truths about childhood:  rebellion against your parents, the desire to escape into a land without rules, and the ultimate hollowness of such a land, when compared to the comfort of home and hearth.

It is, by the way, a scary book.  The "wild things" are about as frightening to look at as any young person should be asked to handle, and of course the prospect of your child's self-differentiation (much less disappearance) can be disturbing to parents.  But all of that is part of the book's rare combination of power and restraint, handled as well as the very best folktales.

But now Hollywood has it.  From the look of this trailer, they have made it a story for much older people.  Max is way too big for his wolf jammies; he goes to school; his parents carnal preoccupations are just embarrassing.  And the Wild Thing carrying him through the woods is a lot scarier than a Wild Thing dancing on the printed page.

We'll probably check it out, eventually.  But Little Baby Anonymous may not see it for a long time to come.

Mars Needs Women!

And men.  And jet-packs, ray-guns, John Carter, Dejah Thoris, Uncle Martin, Arnold Schwarzenegger's eyes bulging out of their sockets, Marvin, the Ray Bradbury stuff, flying saucers, and a hate-on for Santa Claus.  Mars needs lots of things, if it will ever be the Red Planet of our dreams and fantasies.

But you know what it has?  Water.  Maybe even underground lakes -- okay, "briny pools."  But still, that's water, baby. Liquid, life-hosting water.

Why, oh why, aren't we there already?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Christian Book Show Kinda Bombs

What if they had a media circus and nobody came?  Apparently, the organizers of the first -- and quite possibly last -- Christian Book Expo, in Dallas, have an answer.  They anticipated a crowd of 10-20,000.  They got 1,500.

Don't get us wrong, here.  We like Christian books.  We like them a lot.  Old missals give us a great deal of joy, as do old breviaries.   We prefer our Bibles new and sturdy, ideally with strong leather bindings and none of those irritating "self-pronouncing" features.  We are in the market for a hardbound scholarly edition of Donne's Devotions, with apparatus.  And we treasure our battered copies of Susan Howatch's Starbridge novels.

That said, let's be honest.  This Expo was probably not aimed at the likes of us.  It was for devotees of The Prayer of Jabez and The Shack.  And, one assumes, the Left Behind extravaganzas.  When better books were offered -- and surely they were -- the plan was for them to piggyback on the tiresome and theologically dubious slop.  It's similar to the business plan at a record shop that sells a million Britney Spears albums, in order to provide shelf space for a dozen or so Rounder or Rhino releases.

But have you noticed there are no record stores anymore?

Per the Christian Post article linked above, the Expo seems to have been undone less by the literary quality of its books than by the fact they they were books, and not electronic publications.  The old media are dying off, beginning with the most vulnerable:  newspapers first, now niche-marketed books.  

Whatever schadenfreude we may be feeling right now (and it is not inconsiderable) is overshadowed by our fear of losing all the niches that we ourselves love.  We have been waiting years for the one good translation of Kabir to come back into print; it never will.  That footnoted Devotions?  Fat chance.  

No, the failure of the Christian Book Expo is more than another chance to lie in our hammock and mutter "Stupid Flanders."  The fact that nobody went is, curiously, a small tragedy even for many of the people who would never have gone.

GOP to Cheney: We Miss the Secrecy and Undisclosed Location!

The former Veep has crawled out from under his rock to lie about his own record fighting terrorism and make unverifiable claims about the policies of the new administration.  

Cheney needs to be told that there are a of of people in this country who wish he would just shut his prevaricating piehole and disappear.  They're called Republicans.

As the Bush Administration ran its disastrous course, Cheney's approval ratings (so we are told) were lower than those of either the President or the Congress.  And no wonder.  At a policy level, Cheney was most associated with corporate welfare for the energy companies and the torture of captives -- two ideas that repel any decent American.  Beyond that, his style -- the lies, the secrets, the constant sneer, cursing out Pat Leahy on the Senate floor, the treasonous betrayal of a CIA officer, the perverse claim to be part of no constitutional branch of government -- make him emblematic of everything Americans are trying to forget about the last disastrous decade.

And the Republicans -- those actually in government, and especially those hoping to get in -- are trying harder than anybody else.  They want to move on, and fast.  They clearly hope to ride the AIG bonus wave as long as they can.  After an eight year spree of financial mismanagement so vast it boggles the mind, they are trying (again) to reposition themselves as the party of fiscal restraint.  Never mind that their display of probity seems always to involve dwelling upon microscopically small numbers, without ever addressing the scary big ones. 

Cheney, in both his policies and his person, drove the Republicans into the wilderness.  And now, of all times, he comes roaring out of his cave.  So it is not surprising to hear his own party, quoted in The Hill, saying things like "Tending a legacy is best done in a memoir .... I would just encourage everybody who has left office to follow the tradition of the Founding Fathers — to write your memoirs, but to refrain from [criticizing].”  Between the lines, that means:  For the love of the Satan you worship, Dick, please shut up.

Here at the Egg, we find ourselves torn.  Listening to Cheney appalls us, to be sure.  But we are comforted by the thought that every word out of his mouth further damages the already wretched public reputation of the Administration he claimed to serve.  Every time he pisses on Obama for believing in the Constitution, or even on Bush for refusing to pardon Libby, he diminishes the likelihood of a revisionist reassessment, somewhere down the line, and claims that the Bush years somehow weren't that bad.  It almost happened with Nixon, there at the end.  Some people can actually get wistful for LBJ.  And we can't let that happen with Bush.

So, although we say it regretfully, we have to say:  Come on, Dick.  Do another interview.  Do it for the kids.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Women in the Military

Readers with long memories may recall Father Ron, who back in 2002 or thereabouts told us with great confidence that (a) the war in Afghanistan was winding down, and (b) that the members of his little parish "were already forgetting" about the World Trade Center. 

(Apparently, the good folks at St. Oblivius' parish didn't get their quota of "Never Forget" t-shirts, or make the ghoulish "pilgrimage" to the WTC site that seems to be de rigeur for overweight tourists from small towns.)

A year or so later, over what might otherwise have been a perfectly pleasant breakfast of retreat-center waffles, we exploded at this imbecile, when he offered another unqualified opinion on military matters.  In the latter case, it was that women were intrinsically unfit for combat duty.

Whatever.  The Israelis don't think so, and they have a pretty good army.  And -- no doubt to help us forget about their recent combat operations in Gaza and Lebanon -- they are also reminding us that their army includes women.  In this case, 2009's Miss Israel, navy Corporal Avi Rodnitzki.

So what's this post actually about? The cynical exploitation of pretty women.  The IDF is using Corp. Rodnitzki to make you forget about Gaza, and we are using her to help you remember that Fr. Ron is the sort of twerp who, when out of uniform, probably wears a bow-tie.


As we approach our annual synod assembly, the crazy aunties are coming down out of the attic.  They always do, this time of year.  The craziest of the aunties, at the moment, is a brother priest whom the Egg will call "Father Haddock."  'Cuz we love those Belgian pancakes.

In a series of increasingly vitriolic essays floating around these internets, Fr. H. has been arguing that the ELCA is captive to a variety of bad ideologies.  Most recently, these have included feminism, Marxism, deconstruction, antinomianism, environmentalism and community organizing.

Apparently, he hasn't yet heard about the ELCA's Cylon-human hybridization program, child sacrifice workshops, or Hug-a-Satanist Day.  We'll send him the e-letter.

Now, honestly, a case can be made that each of these things does exist, within the ELCA as within any other Christian community, and even that they do at times, on an individual basis, risk distorting the Christian message.  (We were, confidentially, relieved to get wind recently that one of our colleagues has resigned his post; he is a nice enough fellow, but his parish never recovered from the time he stood in the pulpit and denied the physical Resurrection of Jesus.  On Easter Sunday.)  

It is much more difficult to make the case that these things exist systematically, or that they in any way dominate the church or distort the church's corporate teaching.  That's because they don't.  There, we said it.  Unlike, ahem, certain church bodies we could name, the doctrinal basis of the ELCA is spelled out, in good Lutheran fashion, by its constitution:  the Trinity, the Scriptures,  Augustana and the rest of the Book of Concord.  Deviations from that standard, if they can be proven, are the basis for stern discipline of the ordained.

"If they can be proven," let us admit, is a Big If.  Theology is not rocket science, both in the sense that it isn't all that difficult and, more to the point, in the sense that it isn't all that precise.  Different exegetes can find in the Bible validation for wildly different doctrines and practices.  The Concordia tightens things up, but not merely as much as people might want to believe.  To make the case that one's colleague is actually distorting doctrine, knowingly and repeatedly, requires the ability to point to specific doctrines.  The nature of our confessions is such that if, for example, you want to bring a case against somebody for preaching works-righteousness or unitarianism, it is quite easily done.  If you want to "accuse" them of feminism or community-organizing, it is rather more difficult to make your case.  (As it should be, since some people would consider either of those to be natural extensions of a Biblical mandate.)

But here's the thing.  Fr. H. spends a great deal of time vituperating, and none whatsoever actually making his case.  He doesn't give any examples, name any names, or even  identify any actual doctrines that are in jeopardy.  He is clearly preaching to an imagined choir, a crowd of crazy aunties who already believe everything he is saying.  (And in case you somehow missed it, all of this is really about gay people.  Or wasn't that obvious?)

Sadly, however, he doesn't actually say quite what he's thinking.  Instead, he slanders the whole church, or at least much of its membership and leadership.  Because we disagree with him about a few highly debatable points of moral doctrine, we are all "Stalinists" -- his word, used often -- somehow complicit in the extermination of millions?  This is insulting, at the very least.  But beyond that, it is also a dramatic failure to observe the Eighth Commandment, as interpreted by the Small Catechism:  "... instead we are to speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light."

So Fr. H. has actually violated, habitually and publicly, one of the confessions he is bound to uphold -- and the most basic of them, the one he has doubtless taught to hundreds of young people through the years.  Perhaps his bishop ought to speak sternly to him about this.

A more generous soul suggested this morning that Fr. H.'s intemperance is mere hyperbole, "... like telling a woman who has on too much makeup that she looks like a painted hussy. That might be an exaggeration ..., but it should prompt her to look in the mirror to see if maybe she has over done it."

We think this misses both the gravity of the language and the wrongness of the claims.  A better analogy is to say that this Fr. H. sounds like a child whose mother leaves the house, dressed and made up like all the other moms in the neighborhood.  The child sneers at Mommy and says "You shouldn't go out that way -- you look like a whore."

Whether he is right or wrong depends upon one's idea of what a prostitute looks like.  But that is beside the point, because there is only one appropriate response to this sort of thing.  The child should be slapped silly, have his privileges taken away, and be warned that his father will be very angry.

People Who Live in Celibate Houses

... shouldn't throw stones at condoms.

A dumb line, but give us a break.  We've been away, and it takes a while to warm up.

As Egg readers surely know, Pope Benedict told a group of reporters that the distribution of condoms in Africa would not help control the spread of HIV, and could make it worse.  He said basically the same thing in 2005, when he argued that "The traditional teaching of the church has proven to be the only failsafe way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS."

On one hand, we want to roll our eyes at the subsequent media explosion.  Come on, people.  What did you think the Pope was going to say about condoms?  That's not exactly atough call.  Benedict is just toeing the party line here.

But on the other hand, he's a smart guy, and he should be smarter than this.  Yes, of course, abstaining from sex outside of marriage -- and marrying only certifiable virgins -- is the only failsafe way to prevent the sexual transmission of HIV.  That is a literal fact.  (Although the "marrying only virgins" bit isn't part of Papist doctrine at all. There are widows, for example -- and lots of them, on a continent in which HIV infection rates are horrifyingly high, and access to medication still infuriatingly limited.)

The Pope is an academic, and like academics has the rare privilege of dealing with abstractions and generalities.  Doctors and, not incidentally, parish priests have to deal with reality.  The reality, as anyone who has ever heard confessions knows all to well, is that sexual sin runs rampant through the world.  People copulate like bunnies.  They aren't always particular about their partners.  To pretend otherwise is simply foolish.  And it is far worse than foolish to deny them ready access to a simple and affordable device that will prevent them from paying for an indiscretion -- yes, granted, even a long pattern of adultery and fornication -- with their lives.

It would be a terrible overstatement to call Benedict's remarks "genocidal," or anything of that nature.  He is surely as moved as anybody else by the colossal suffering of Africans.  And yet his is blindered, both by the privileges of academia and by those of life in the West, where the ready availability of money to put somebody on "the cocktail" for life, combined with an aggressive public-health effort (focused, never forget, on condoms), has helped AIDS look less like the Plague and more like tuberculosis.  

Benedict is also, clearly, blindered not just by doctrine, but by having long ago chosen sides in a debate about how doctrine should be presented; he is so accustomed to denigrating condoms as a tool for preventing babies that he simply can't grasp how essential they are as a tool for saving lives.  This isn't willfully genocidal, but it is a potentially costly blindness, especially on a continent where, apparently, some people still actually listen to what the Pope says about birth control.

An African commentator, linked above, looks at Pope Benedict calling for Africans to pay for adultery with death, and Anglican bishop Peter Akinola calling for gay people asking for "to be mercilessly brutalised, without remorse," and asks what in context is an all-too-reasonable question:  What has Africa done to deserve Christianity?  

Game of the Week

Facebook users may be amused by a whimsical application called Take My Bishop, Please.  It is taking the internets by storm!

TMBP allows users to offer the bishop of their choice as a gift to their friends.  (At least as long as their choice involves ELCA bishops and a few special adoptees).  Ah, but wait.  Are they offering the said bishop with good intentions, as somebody whose gifts can benefit the greater church?  Or are they, in good Rodney Dangerfield fasion, imploring friends to take a given prelate off their hands?

App designer (and friend of the blog) Fr. William of Howard Beach answers that this ambiguity is what gives the game its deliciousness.  He's no doubt correct, but -- erring on the side of kindness -- we have made it our own custom to send out St. Ambrose of Milan, who remains to this day the Egg's vision of episcopus ne plus ultra.

In any case, we note that our own bishop, Robert Rimbo of these Minor Outlying Islands (and parts of the mainland, too) is currently the most gifted of all bishops.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

How Little to Live?

We're not back yet, but we will be soon.  The past few weeks have been dreadfully busy, and no complaints here, because much of the time they have been busy with the sort work for which one was, after all, ordained.  Still, it takes time, and leaves one depleted.

But just today, we have had an interesting thought, a propos of a the ongoing debate over the sustainability of so many congregations in these parts:  What is the minimum cost of operating a traditional Lutheran parish?

Let's define our terms.  By "traditional," we mean one that:  (a) owns its own church building; (b) pays a full-time pastor at the synod's suggested rate; (c) carries out at least the most basic functions of a congregation -- worship, Bible study, some manner of good works for the world outside its doors.  And let us average this over five years, since creative accounting and deferred maintenance can easily realize short -term economies which, while significant, are not sustainable.

Certainly, there are many other ways to operate a parish, and they may well be the wave of the future.  One of the most ballyhooed local congregations, Redeemer Presbyterian, rents its various worship spaces.  Another less-ballyhooed but feisty little congregation shares office and chapel space with a denominational service agency.  Many congregations are served, and effectively, by part-time pastors.  But these are rarely anybody's first choice of arrangements, and they may not be available to all that many congregations.

So:  What's the cost?

The cost of a pastor is nothing to sniff at.  It's also the easiest to ballpark.  Assume that the parish -- we call it St. Lazarus, after the most famous pauper in the New Testament -- calls a single pastor, fresh from seminary, with no spouse or dependent children, and houses this pastor in a parsonage.  The Rev. Lonelyhearts's base salary will average $36,270 over five years.  With Social Security, pension and the bare minimum medical and dental benefits, that comes to $50,673.  (We're omitting travel and professional expenses, mostly out of laziness.)  Not a fortune, especially given the outstanding college and seminary loans that the new pastor is surely paying off, but a lot of money for St. Lazarus.

Now, most of our congregations have an organist as well.  The minimum package, according to American Guild of Organists guidelines is $14,614.  That's for somebody with no degree, working quarter-time.  But can we share a little secret?  Very few congregations pay at or near AGO guidelines.  So let's say you've got a college kid who comes in Sunday, and rehearses with the choir for half an hour, and you pay him $50 each week.  That's still $2600, not including holidays.

We'll assume that there is no sexton, and that the members do a fine job of keeping the place tidy.  Thank you, Mrs. Kirschwasser.  Further, let's assume that worship costs, beyond a musician, are nil -- the bread and wine are donated, those musty old paraments only have a few holes in them (except for the purple set, which we just pretend not to notice) and people are still quite happy with the Service Book and Hymnal, thank you very much.

Then there's the building.  (Our own parish's figures are no help here, because they are well above any  reasonable minimum in size and use).  Even a small church building -- seats 100, let's say -- needs to be heated on Sunday, five or six months of the year.  Those high ceilings make it pretty expensive, too.  The parsonage needs to be heated every day.  The average Northeastern home was projected (by Consumers' Union) to spend $2725 for the winter of 2008-09 -- about double the national average, but of course we don't air-condition much up here.  Remember that (a) most parsonages are old and poorly-insulated; (b) most churches are used several times during the week.  This may be unrealistic, but let's say St. Lazarus can hold its cost to $5000 for both buildings.  

Then there are the costs of electricity and hot water.  These tend to run 45% of the total energy cost for a New York City home (whose heating costs, incidentally, are lower than than the region as a whole -- smaller homes, milder climate).  Churches use less hot water, but lots and lots of electricity.  So let's make the total energy costs for St. Lazarus, both buildings, $9000.

What about maintenance?  Oh, you can let the roof leak through a year or two, and you can get Mr. Waffleiron's bowling buddy to install some on-wall wiring when you really need a licensed electrician to address the sparks that fly whenever the Mr Coffee is turned on.  Sooner or later, there will be big jobs.  Call it $5000 per year, even though that may be one colossal job every five or ten years.

Ah.  But then there's insurance.  Both buildings need to be insured against damage, and the congregation itself needs to be insured against claims from people who may slip and fall on the sidewalk (which a paid sexton would have shoveled, but never mind).  The Council needs to be covered by D&O insurance.  The boiler may have a separate policy.  Let's call it all $10k, shall we?  This is a guess; our own parish spent something like six times as much last year.  And fair warning:  if you open a Sunday School, those numbers skyrocket.  Insuring against claims of sexual misconduct with children is less expensive than not insuring, but only a little less.

So far, we're at $92,887.  Throw in a few things that really do make a difference -- office equipment, including a telephone and a photocopier; those professional expenses we omitted; attendance at the annual synod assembly; piano tuning; somebody to plow the snow -- and you can break $100k easily.  This sounds to us like a bottom line.

But do you notice we haven't talked about program activity?  If you want a Sunday School, and the books and filmstrip projectors that accompany it (or that did in 1972), the cost goes up immediately.  Open the doors for a soup kitchen on Thursday, and it goes up again, especially if you tell your insurance agent.  What about postage for a newsletter, and somebody to answer the phone a few hours each week? And God forbid your minister gets married or has a kid; the Board of Pensions will soak you dry.  $150,000 per year may be a more realistic figure.

So then the next question:  Where does this money come from?  How many people show up, each week, to worship at a church with a small building, bad wiring, an amateur musician and a pastor still making all the rookie mistakes?  Fifty sounds generous, but let's call it 75.  (Reality check:  this is a very large number for small congregations in these parts).  If every one of those people gives $38.50 per week, the church can meet its bills without renting space to the Pentecostals or begging for money from an already destitute judicatory.

What are the odds?

We apologize for the wild guesstimates, and invite better numbers from those with better data.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Apology, and Restitution

Our apologies for the hiatus.  Father Anonymous has been collar-deep in a sea of work, some  pastoral and some drably administrative, but all urgent.  

When the Egg returns, about seven days from now, we hope to manage at least a few wry remarks concerning last week's news -- the death of Evangelicalism, the Cramer-Stewart slugfest, the tragicomic hints of self-criticism from Harvard Business School, whose alumni have destroyed the world; the tragicomic lack of self-criticism from AIG, whose executives went to Harvard Business School, and the further evidence that our synod is like an old lady with birds nesting in her hair because she won't look in the mirror.   Maybe worldwide Anglicanism will have self-destructed by then, too. 

But for now, a poem.  Little Baby Anonymous has been demanding them lately, and usually settles for something about Edward Bear and the King of France, or Bad Sir Brian Botany.  But tonight, somehow, he wound up hearing Jabberwocky, a several sonnets by Christina Rossetti, and this touching meditation on one of his favorite subjects:

In Church

I love the church: its labara,
its silver vessels, its candleholders,
the lights, the ikons, the pulpit.

Whenever I go there, into a church of the Greeks,
with its aroma of incense,
its liturgical chanting and harmony,
the majestic presence of the priests,
dazzling in their ornate vestments,
the solemn rhythm of their gestures -
my thoughts turn to the great glories of our race,
to the splendor of our Byzantine heritage. 

-- C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933)

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Pakistan to US: More Robot Bomb Flights!

We had assumed -- because the talking heads kept telling us -- that US bombing missions in Pakistan's tribal regions, carried ot by unmanned drones, were going to push the country into an anti-American fervor, and further complicate the pursuit of Al Quaeda.

Turns out we may have been misinformed.  Shame on you, oh Talking Heads!  Per Wired's Danger Room:

But a survey of Pakistan's tribal regions, released today in Pakistan's Daily Times, tells a different story. "Over two-thirds of the people viewed Al-Qaeda and the Taliban as enemy number one, and wanted the Pakistani army to clear the area of the militants. A little under two-thirds want the Americans to continue the drone attack[s] because the Pakistani army is unable or unwilling to retake the territory from the Taliban," researcher Farhat Taj says.

Surprise lesson for the Western press? Not all Muslims -- even "tribal" Muslims, which when you think about it is an expression smacking with racism -- think alike.  Some may even  -- gasp -- not be pawns of the Islamists.  

Friday, March 06, 2009

The Salt Loses Its Saltness

Sigh. The Internets are abuzz with a story -- perhaps it's a hoax? Please? -- about "Blessed Christians Table Salt." It's a new product (or, let's be honest, a new marketing device for one of the oldest products in the world) developed by a retired barber in Maryland, who was tired of hearing TV chefs recommend kosher salt, and wanted a Bible-thumping alternative. 

For the record, salt is kosher by nature, and "kosher" salt is so called because its larger grains make it useful in preparing kosher meat.

If you're wondering, the man who "invented" salt is a former Roman Catholic who "now holds Bible studies in his home."  A small red flag, for some of us.  According to the stories, a portion of the profits will go to "Christian charities." How much, and which charities? Nobody's saying.  A bigger red flag.

But here's the interesting part, from our perspective:  The stuff will be blessed by an Episcopal priest.  No name is provided, surely to avoid embarrassing some poor dope to death at his next diocesan sherry-tasting. Still, we don't doubt that a priest willing to undertake the task could be found. Bear in mind, these are Episcopalians; they'll bless anything.

Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, whose blog, WDTRPS?, is a strangely delightful collage of liturgical translation and advice, Republican politics, Papist traditionalism, and nature photography, makes three remarks on the subject:

1. The [E]piscopal priest can wave his hands around all he wants. He cannot bless anything.

A bit harsh, but true enough from a traditional Papist perspective.  For Fr. Z, the rest of us can't bless, confect, absolve or do much of anything priestly.  We think he's wrong, but Roman Catholics might consider this before paying the premium. 

2. But he can commit a sin of scandal by giving the impression of peddling sacred things [and] if he could bless the salt and make it a sacramental, it would be a sacrilege to sell it.... [So] I would be afraid for that person’s spiritual well-being and ultimate fate.

Actually, this one is right on target.  Selling Masses, indulgences, and so forth is a very bad thing, and we can't see how this is any different.  Unless, we suppose, the priest in question refuses to accept any money.  In which case (and even failing which) we wonder why he (or she) doesn't have more priestly duties to perform.

Fr. Z's third point is refreshing:

3. You might know that exorcised and blessed salt was used in the rite for blessing water. The exorcism and blessing for salt is a fearsome thing.

Salt is of those few things actually personally addressed as a creature of God and then exorcised:

O you creature of salt, I purge you of all evil by the living + God, by the true + God, by the holy + God, who commanded by the Prophet Elisha that you be put into water in order that the sterility of the water would be healed: so that you might be rendered a purified salt for the salvation of believers, and so that you might be a healthiness of soul and body to all who consume you, and so that you may put to flight and drive out from a place in which you will have been scattered every phantom and wickedness, and cunning trap of diabolical deceit, and every unclean spirit be solemnly banished by command through Him Who shall come to judge the living and the dead, and the world by fire.  Amen.

Holy Church does not kid around in these exorcisms and blessings.

He's got it in Latin, too. 

A Job for the Taliban

Buddhists are understandably nonplussed about Buddha Bar, the French chain of ... well, bars with big Buddha statues in them.  After all, abstinence from alcohol is one of the Five Precepts.

So Indonesian Buddhists recently held a rally outside the Jakarta franchise.  And they really let those religion-despising boozers have it, too:  they prayed, burned incense and held up banners.  There were some flowers, too.  We're not sure it was all that effective:

"Buddha Bar is open as usual," said the bar staff, who gave her name as Echi.

Come on, people.  What are you, Canadians?  Here's how you protest religious insensitivity:

In the past, supporters of [Indonesia's] hardline Muslim groups have smashed up bars and nightclubs for opening during the Ramadan fasting month. 

We modestly propose that Indonesia's Buddhists take lessons from their Muslim neighbors.  Or better yet,  they could bring in some foreign experts to consult.  We understand that the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan is awfully cold this year, which means that the Taliban might consider catching a plane for some fun under the tropical sun.  

After all, they have lots of experience in removing offensive images of the Buddha.  Remember Bamiyan?

Dept. of No Surprise: The President is a Citizen!

US District Judge James Robertson is a new hero for non-twits everywhere.  

As Egg readers may know, subscribers to the New Frontiersman and suchlike crazy-papers (yes, Herman Otten, we mean you) have argued for some time that President Obama is not a "natural-born citizen" under the Constitution, apparently on the grounds that they don't yet know about Hawaiian statehood.  Proving that lawyers get paid by the hour, they actually brought a civil suit seeking to annul the 2008 election.

Today, Robertson not only threw the case out, he suggested that the plaintiffs and their attorney have 

 ... violated court rules barring frivolous and harassing cases and [should] pay Obama's attorney, Bob Bauer, for his time ....

We should say so.  We have read comic books that weren't this frivolous, and hate mail from the mentally disturbed that wasn't this ill-considered.  Literally true, in both cases.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Pure Evil

Some people don't believe in it.  They think that values are ultimately relative, culturally-conditioned, creations of the human mind, while the universe moves on it sway without prejudice or compassion.  

They're wrong.

Consider this BBC account of an interview with "Adam," a fighter pressed into service in Darfur:

He was talking through a translator but his voice was quiet. I thought I heard anger, heard him slow and his voice drop: "I had no choice," he said "but I will say that I didn't kill anybody but the raping of the small children, it was bad."  I knew this [part of the interview] was going to be difficult and now it had begun.

What happens with the children, I asked. "They cry out," he answered. "And what happens when they cry out?" "Two persons will capture her while she is crying and another raping her, then they leave her there," came his reply.

The rest of the story is just as painful.

Dear Miss Taylor,

Or may we call you Elizabeth?  Loved you in that movie, by the way -- the one where your violet eyes made us shake our head in wonder at God's creative whimsy.  But then, that's all of of them. 

And over the years, we have been touched by your generous support of charities involved with HIV/AIDS.  We do not forget that you were out there, in public, at a time when the US president wouldn't even say the scary words.  Thank you for that.

Now we read that you are giving $100,000 to something called the Alliance for Christian Education, in Santa Barbara.  The ACE operates a school called Providence Hall. We don't know a thing about this school, except that it is new, small, and has an awesome website. The faculty is mostly young, and drawn largely from Christian universities: Azusa, Wheaton, and especially Westmont. Oh, and the UC-Sanata Barbara. We suspect many are in their first or second teaching post -- but that is not by any means a bad thing.

No, the place seems lovely.  We do find it a little curious that you have offered this donation "because our new president challenged us to break down barriers that divide us."  Which walls, exactly?  The ones between Christians, like those at Providence, and Jews, like yourself?  Or between the right and left wings of American culture?  Either way, we're all for it.

Our only real question is whether other needy Christian schools can look to you for help -- perhaps even some in poor neighborhoods, where both Romish and Lutheran parochial schools are having a terrible time, even though they are often the only feasible hope that children have for a decent education and a better life.  Because if you're interested, we know that this school could use $100,000.  So could this one.

Thanking you in advance.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

And So It Begins

The Christian Reformed Church has announced a series of moves designed to save money in these hard times:  pay cuts, pension reductions, and moving its 2010 synod from Edmonton to Grand Rapids.

As we have pointed out before, the myth that the Depression was somehow "a good time for churches" is not borne out by the facts, at least not according to the evidence of Lutheranism in New York.  Mission starts went from 60-zero in two years; pastors were unemployed; massive pay cuts were an annual event; churches lost their buildings when they couldn't pay the mortgage.

Well, guess what?  Colleges are scrambling to deal with their crashing endowments; arts organizations are closing, consolidating and cutting back; the entire world of Jewish philanthropy has been destroyed by Bernie Madoff.  Churches are the next logical domino.

The CRC is a small Calvinist denomination with Dutch roots, counting 1,049 congregations and 268,052 members.  This makes it about one-ninth the size of the Episcopal Church and one-seventeenth the size of the ELCA.  (Don't confuse it with the Reformed Church in America, which is similar in size but much longer-established.)  The CRC's modest size may make it especially vulnerable.  Or this may be the beginning of the fiscal apocalypse.

Guess which one the Egg thinks?

Monday, March 02, 2009

Washington 2009 in a Nutshell

Republicans don't count, and Democrats can't count.  We're not sure which is more dangerous to the nation.

The GOP apparently feels powerless because it no longer controls all the major wings of the federal government, as it did through most of the Bush Administration.  We are calling bullshit on this because, for starters, (a) they made their own bed and now get to lie in it; (b) they can still filibuster, and (c) the Supreme Court is probably now as right-leaning as it has ever been, and certainly as it has been within living memory.  So despite eight years of stunningly incompetent governance, they can still obstruct one branch, and control another -- more than the Dems could do just a couple of years ago.

But reality be damned, they still feel powerless. And parties without power are scary.  They can go theatrical, saying anything they want in the certainty that they will never be expected to act on it.  Hence the resurgence of Newt Gingrich, a smart man who evidently loves power more than he loves America.  Not to mention the unpatriotic bluster of Rush Limbaugh, who says over and over that he wants the President of the United States to fail.  (Limbaugh is, by the way, wrong when he claims that this what Democrats said about Bush, notably in Iraq; what they said was that Bush would fail, because his war was being prosecuted with such ideologically-blindered incompetence.  And they were right; he did fail, until rescued by David Petraeus, using tactics that Rumsfeld had rejected early on.  Sadly, his equally ideological and equally incompetent economic policies were never rescued.)

Anyway.  The Republicans are acting like a bunch of mad dogs, because they know they can.  But we are more disturbed by the Democrats who, while they haven't yet quite turned into pork-peddling icons of corruption on the lines of, say, Randy Cunningham or Ted Stevens, do seem to be showing another very serious symptom of too-much-power-itis.  It seems, at least, that they aren't even bothering to vet their nominees for appointive office.  Per the HuffPo:

The Senate Finance Committee says [that Ron Kirk,] President Barack Obama's nominee for trade representative owes roughly $10,000 in back federal taxes and has agreed to pay them. ...

Kirk becomes the latest nominee of the Obama administration with tax problems, although this one doesn't appear severe enough to jeopardize his confirmation as U.S. Trade Representative. Committee chairman Sen. Max Baucus of Montana calls the former Dallas mayor the right man for the job, adding he will try to move the nomination quickly.

Um, really, Max?  You really think that a guy who either can't figure out his taxes or won't pay a professional to do it properly (or, worst-case, is intentionally cheating) is the right man for a government job?

Actually, he might.  Apparently, his team -- and our President -- just don't find the failure to accurately report and pay taxes to be a big problem.  Witness Tim Geithner, Tom Daschle, Hilda Solis and Nancy Killefer.  And now Tim Kirk.

We're not imputing any intentional criminality here, to anybody.  All of these are most likely more-or-less honest mistakes.  Tax forms really are confusing, once you get past the 1040-EZ.  But still, as our old civics teachers taught us and notwithstanding Sarah Palin, paying taxes really is patriotic -- a basic duty of every law-abiding citizen.  By which reasoning, the failure to pay them, except perhaps a protest, a la Thoreau, is a sort of low-level treason.

Honest mistakes, we assume, in all cases.  But even so, this sort of failure does bespeak a lack of thoroughness that we find troubling in our public officials -- both those who don't run the numbers correctly and those who don't vet their nominees.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

We Should Have Seen This Coming

Because we at the Egg are old, old people, most of the video-game revolution has passed us by.  Although we cherish fond memories of Ms. Pac-Man, and played our way through Myst, there hasn't been much since then.  Certainly, the world of highly-detailed first-person shooters is as obscure to us as, say, Dante is to the greasy teems who play them.

Heh.  Funny thing about that.

Gaming giant Entertainment Arts is working on a video-game version of Dante's Inferno. Click above for some information, or below for some footage. We especially like the part where he uses a glowing cross to smite the army of unbaptized babies:

Anyway, it's a brilliant idea for EA, especially since it comes with ready-made sequels.  We're sure the team will have a field day animating Judas Maccabeus and William of Orange, from the Paradiso.  We're not so sure that St Peter Damian will be as stimulating.