Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Demographics of Credulity

It will no doubt surprise many readers to learn that much information available on the internet is false. You haven't already won 10 million euros; that nice lady in Nigeria has no inheritance to share; those pills won't make your waist any smaller or your fill-in-blank any larger.

Most of us know these things, of course. So you might assume that the only people who wire the funds or buy the pills are mentally defective, in the usual obvious ways. You know the poor type: bad hygiene, worse grammar. And yet the facts are apparently otherwise.

Years ago, we had a colleague and dear friend, much older than ourselves, who routinely forwarded to us electronic messages filled with truly alarming news. Much of it was about politics -- how many Democratic congressmen were Communists and so forth. Plenty was about religion, such as Madayln Murray O'Hare's campaign against Touched by an Angel. And a good bit was about how gay people are ruining Christianity for the rest of us. (Did you know that a pastor can be sued for not marrying every gay person he or she meets? It must be true, because I read it in a chain letter.)

At first, we wrote our lonely pal long, research-laden notes. Eventually, we just started sending him the relevant links to Snopes.com, since almost every single thing he sent us was debunked there. The funny thing is that he knew this; our friend wasn't stupid. He just liked to forward emails.

The other funny thing -- and a good deal funnier -- was this. Although a very traditional high-churchman, our friend wasn't especially conservative in his politics. Rather the opposite. But nearly everything he sent reflected a right-of-center perspective. We were never sure why. Maybe this was a reflection of who his friends were, or maybe of which friends liked to forward their mail to him.

But consider this. Long about 1999 or 2000, we were sitting in an undercroft before Mass, waiting for our cue to enter. Beside us was an altar boy, and beside him another colleague -- this one quite distinctly conservative in his social and political views. And as we listened, Father (let's call him) Arbogast explained to Junior the origin of some familiar phrases. You know the list: "Dirt poor" because poor homes had no floors; "raining cats and dogs" because those animals slept in the thatched roof, and tumbled out in a storm; "saved by the bell" and "dead ringer" are all about premature burial.

Father Arbogast wasn't joking. He was showing off. And let's be clear, he wasn't a mental defective -- he was and remains a bright guy and a capable minister. But here he was, trying to impress a kid by showing off a collection of completely spurious "facts."

We listened in silent horror. These things were all false. We knew they were false, because (when Arbogast sent us the email) we had done the five minutes of research required to be sure. We knew they were false -- but what could we do? Correct the old blowhard in front of a child? Ruin our relationship with Fr. Arbogast and his with the altar boy?

We kept a tactful silence, but ground our teeth.

And then it happened again. A few months later, on vacation, we ducked into a lovely little Episcopal church in a place you've never heard of it. The service was Rite 1, which pleased us no end; it was read in that self-consciously bad way which is the mark of the true Anglo-Catholic. The sermon was okay. Just. At coffee hour, we sat with a local and her grandson, and were joined for a while by the rector, a fat man in early middle age who quickly revealed his right-of-ours social views. Not that those views dominated his time at our table -- on the contrary.

Most of the time he spent with us was devoted to an avuncular chat with the boy. About cats and dogs and thatched roofs and rainstorms. And dead ringers and what the heck all else. The vein in our neck throbbed violently, but the fact is that we were on vacation, passing through a place we would never be again. It wasn't our place to swoop in like an avenging angel of truth and then disappear into the whispering forest. (Although, come to think of it, that would have been really cool). So, again, we sucked it up.

But you know what? It never ends. Just yesterday, our colleague Mr. Slope mentioned on one of those social-networking doohickeys that the most popular page on his parish website was one that details the "true meaning" of a beloved song, The Twelve Days of Christmas. Apparently, it's a secret Papist code to catechize young people. Which, of course, it's not.

The neat thing about social networking on the web is that it allows instant correction of bogus "data." And what do you know, somebody -- Our Beloved Godfather, as it happens -- directed Mr Slope's attention to the Snopes debunkerizing page.

Then, duly chastened, Mr Slope replied that he would quickly remove the page, lest its flights of fancy delude the faithful. Right? Isn't that what he said? Actually no. He said, more or less, "Harumph! I'm an historian, and I know that Snopes is always buggered on history. So I'll look into it." And maybe he will. And maybe he should have before posting the damned thing on this website. (Although, in fairness, the creator of this bunkum swears by it, without producing a shred of evidence. And Slope's site has another page which admits that there's no actual evidence, while claiming it's a true story anyway. Make of that what you will.)

So here is what we are wondering: Are socially conservative clergymen in middle age all dunderheads? Do they simply believe everything they read? Do they buy the pills and wire the money and do all the other halfwitted things that internet suggests they might? Frankly, we doubt it. The people we have been describing may lack judgment, but they don't lack intellect.

What we suspect is that they listen, very attentively, to their friends -- and very little to anybody else. At a certain point in life, they simply decide that the usual sources of information -- newspapers, television, the water-cooler -- cannot be trusted (which is probably true), but that their like-minded friends can be (which is probably not). And so they begin listening to fewer and fewer voices, but believing more and more readily what those voices say.

Doesn't everybody do this? Well, yes and no. There is, to be very sure, a fringe of extreme leftists who share their paranoid theories with each other, and believe it all. (Which reminds us that we need to de-friend Father Baltikus. The guy's a nutjob. A Chomskian nutjob.) But so far as we can tell from an examination of our own in-box, and the general tenor of the Snopes collection, we suspect that the rightist equivalent is larger and/or proportionately more active. By a mile. And more to the point, none of the people we have described is a true extremist. One was, on non-theological matters, notably liberal. But all were isolated -- not by necessity, but by choice -- from most of their colleagues and, it seems, from much of the world around them.

We suppose it is nothing more than a variation of Hofstadter's "paranoid style in American politics." But in just that sense, those silly stories about cats and dogs become a window into something a bit unnerving: the way socially and intellectually isolated people become prey to fantasies and delusions.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Jihadist Diet Plan

This just in: a fatwa, or legal judgment, posted on a jihadist website encourages attacks on "companies that distribute Jewish or American products, such as McDonald's and Coca-Cola."

Well, that's one way to lose a few ugly pounds: stop eating at your local Mickey D's because, you know, it's been incinerated.

From the same report comes the sober legal opinion that jihadists can work with Muslim gangsters to achieve their ends as long as doing so doesn't "harm the reputation of the mujahideen." We wonder what it would actually take to harm the reputation of the most hated people in the world. The gangsters should worry about their reputations.

Now, we expect that there are real Islamic jurists out there who could tear holes in this stuff, revealing it (to those who may doubt) as shabby reasoning even by the standards of shariah. We wish they would get busy.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Discovered: Most Pompous Writer on Earth

As a wee lad, barely out of his training cassock, Father Anonymous discovered a book on his family shelf called The Pooh Perplex. It was a series of essays on the best-known works of A.A. Milne, cleverly mimicking the styles of literary criticism in vogue circa 1964. Freudianism, Marxism, Catholicism, and so forth are all sent up magnificently.

Well. This essay from First Things, by one David B. Hart, looks at first like it belongs in the Perplex. And maybe it does. But we can't be sure whether Hart is the sender-up or the to-be-sent.

Playing off J.R.R. Tolkien's "sole anarcho-monarchist manifesto," a personal letter which is not in itself a model of clarity in either prose or thought, Hart first proposes that any lover of democracy will enjoy the occasional electoral rout of one party by another, a "bloodless bloodbath." True, and well said. Then, we report with sadness, he continues:
But, as is always the case here below in the regio dissimilitudinis, the pleasure is accompanied by an inevitable quantum of pain. The sweetest wine quaffed from the cup of bliss comes mingled with a bitter draft of sorrow (alas, alack). Tragically—tragically—we can remove one politician only by replacing him or her with another. And then, of course, our choices are excruciatingly circumscribed, since the whole process is dominated by two large and self-interested political conglomerates that are far better at gaining power than at exercising it wisely.

And yet we
must choose, one way or the other. Even the merry recreant who casts no vote at all, or flings a vote away onto the midden of some third party as a protest, is still making a choice with consequences, however small.
He works in a labored reference to Virgil, but then -- humbly! -- assures us that all his political ideas come from Izaak Walton and The Wind in the Willows. It barely matters; we had stopped listening at "merry recreant."

Whew. Hart may in fact be teasing. If so, he is apparently setting out to mock the tone of a high school essay written by one of those unfortunate children whose teachers are impressed by big words and off-point literary references. With some post-Marxist Catholicism thrown in. In other words, he has raised the FT house style to such a level that it now mocks itself.

Listen, people. We ourselves are no stranger to language done up for comic effect. And we recognize that those fellows at FT, like their less malignant peers at the National Review, all grew up wanting to be Buckley. But even when it is meant to be funny, bad writing is still bad writing. For mercy's sake, friends -- let's buy this man a Strunk & White.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"Hang Them, They Are After Our Kids"

That was the gently-worded and journalistically responsible headline on an Ugandan tabloid a little while back. Underneath was a list of "gay" Ugandans, including a straight 78-year-old Anglican bishop. Some of the people named by the paper have since been harassed and attacked. All of them are in danger, given the state of both rhetoric and emotions in Uganda these days. This is one of those places where it is easy to imagine an outbreak of truly homicidal mob violence.

And it's our fault.

Not the Egg's fault, mind you, nor the fault of its readers -- at least not as such. But the climate of anti-gay rage in Ugandas is the fault of Americans, and especially American Christians, a category which does include most of us.

The full take is in this story from Religion Dispatches. Here's how it works. American preachers like Scott Lively and Rick Warren have connections in Uganda. They show up to lead services, they send money, they do their thing. They say things like this:
Lively testified before parliament and told Ugandans, “The gay movement is an evil institution”; he equated gays with serial killers and sociopaths who, “do mass murder, you know, like the Rwanda stuff.”
And no, Warren isn't especially notorious in the US for any anti-gay vitriol. But consider this:

[Warren] has enjoyed close ties in Uganda ... where The Purpose Driven Life is reported to be almost as popular as the Bible. Warren was close to Pastor Martin Ssempa, though he’s since distanced himself from the pastor and come out in opposition to the AHB [a draconian anti-gay bill].

Ssempa, known for staging anti-homosexual marches where people chant “Kill the Gays” and “Arrest all Homos,” has shown gay porn movies in church to promote the AHB. ...

Kapya Kaoma, a Zambian Priest and author of a report on American evangelicals and anti-gay African clergy, told this reporter back in January, after Warren finally repudiated the bill in Dec. 2009: “Ugandans,” and Ssempa in particular, “are demanding an apology from Warren; the question is why are they demanding an apology? Warren misrepresented what he said in Uganda and [it] is very different tha[n] what he is saying now [in the U.S.]”

It isn't just the preachers, either. The RD article needs some editing, but it appears that Jeff Sharlet, a journalist who has investigated a powerful fundamentalist network he calls "The Family," has evidence that this network has been at work in Uganda, directing both foreign aid money and religious fanaticism into the country. He names Oklahoma senator James Inhofe as "the point man to represent the U.S. Congress and The Family."

“Ugandans are not concerned about the finer points of the American class system,” according to Sharlet. “They look at fanatics such as Lively, or a politician such as Inhofe, and they see the same thing: a smiling white man come to preach moral ‘purity’ as a path out of poverty.”

We aren't sure how much credit to give Sharlet, since his basic idea -- a shadowy conspiracy at the highest ranks of government -- sounds so much like the premise of a paperback thriller. This sort of thing seems awfully improbable, given the realities of church life. When people object to organized religion, we typically respond that we haven't yet found any.

But the fact remains that Peter Akinola and the other Anglican bishops of the so-called Southern Cone aren't the only Christians working overtime to deny basic human and civil rights to gay people, as well as to create a climate of impending mass violence. They have help from up north.

Touching Our Junk

Apparently, the diabolical TSA is divided between its desire to sexually humiliate air travelers and its desire to kill them slowly with radiation.

This, at least, is the impression you might get from reading the headlines and a great many blog posts lately. One of Father Z.'s readers, arguing that the choice of a thorough scan or a thorough pat-down was an unacceptable assault on what in Rome-speak is called "the dignity of the human person," proposed that all Roman Catholics ought to refuse to fly until the rules are changed.

As Studs Lonigan and his friends used to say, "Oh, bushwah."

A CBS New poll reveals overwhelming support for the new security measures:
... Americans overwhelmingly agree that airports should use the digital x-ray machines to electronically screen passengers in airport security lines, according to the new poll. Eighty-one percent think airports should use these new machines -- including a majority of both men and women, Americans of all age groups, and Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike. Fifteen percent said airports should not use them.
And, incidentally, most disapprove of ethnic and racial profiling, which the TSA does not use. Bottom line: the current approach is pretty popular.

More Americans think 9/11 was an inside job (16%) than oppose naked X-ray screenings at airports (15%). But the ones who oppose the X-rays happen to have access to your televisions and computers, so America is freaking out about the TSA.
The last line is prompted by the case Ben Smith has made at Politico, that the brain behind the anti-security rebellion has been Matt Drudge, a guy who sometimes flies to Europe for breakfast. This line of reasoning sees the anti-scanning ruckus as a class war, pitting the frequent-flyer elites against the reg'lar folks who don't fly as often, but want to live through the experience when they do.

On second thought, as Gawker says, it's less of a war than "a bunch of rich people whining into an echo chamber and passing it off as an uprising." But of course the elites control the media, so they win. We hope that makes them feel better when some guy wearing explosive underpants explodes midflight over the Atlantic.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Robert Benchley: Ecumenist

The brilliant Robert Benchley once said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don't. (This remark, in various forms, is also attributed to Karl Barth, who was not perhaps as brilliant as Robert Benchley, but also clever in his own way. If any readers were to direct us to an actual source, we would be very grateful.)

We thought of Benchley when Our Beloved Godfather directed our attention to this address by Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, who directs external relations for the Moscow Patriarchate. In September, Hilarion spoke to the Nicean Club; the event was at Lambeth Palace, but we prefer to imagine them in a real cub, sitting in leather chairs sipping something potent. This, of course, is the sort of environment in which Benchley shone, and we can't help wishing he had been there.

Hilarion expressed grave fears for the future of Orthodox-Anglican relations. (It's all about the women and the gays, natch.) He used what is, by the gentlemanly style of the ecumenical world, exceptionally strong language. It was a very impressive-sounding speech, but not one which we think bears up under serious analysis. The main problem is in these paragraphs:

All current versions of Christianity can be very conditionally divided into two major groups – traditional and liberal. The abyss that exists today divides not so much the Orthodox from the Catholics or the Catholics from the Protestants as it does the ‘traditionalists’ from the ‘liberals’. Some Christian leaders, for example, tell us that marriage between a man and a woman is no longer the only way of building a Christian family: there are other models and the Church should become appropriately ‘inclusive’ to recognize alternative behavioural standards and give them official blessing. Some try to persuade us that human life is no longer an absolute value; that it can be terminated in a mother’s womb or that one can terminate one’s life at will. Christian ‘traditionalists’ are being asked to reconsider their views under the slogan of keeping abreast with modernity.

Regrettably, it has to be admitted that the Orthodox Church and many in the Anglican Church have today found themselves on the opposite sides of the abyss that divides traditional Christians from Christians of liberal trend.

Ouch! It no doubt made the kindly old gents at the Nicean Club want to slip out of their wet clothes and into a dry martini. (Benchley said that, too.) In the language of theology, virtually nobody wants to be accused of innovation, or side with anything called "liberalism." That certainly includes the Egg's editorial staff. We hate that stuff.

But Benchley's Law applies at once. (Or Barth's Law; we don't really care.) The obvious problem here is that Hilarion has made division which, even "very conditionally," will not hold up. There are enough Christians in the world, after all, to have six or eight well-reasoned answers to any question. Delicate and difficult questions rarely admit only two answers. If they did, consider the question of divorce and remarriage, which Orthodoxy allows but Roman Catholicism does not. In fact, the moral reasoning is very parallel; only the juridical conclusion differs. And yet, using Hilarion's taxonomy, one would have to classify Orthodoxy as "liberal" in this matter.

One might just as easily divide the Christian world into those who identify apostolicity with episcopacy and those who do not; or -- closer to home for Hilarion -- those who recognize 2 Maccabees and Psalm 151 as authoritative and those who do not. Or those who consider KJV 1611 to be uniquely inspired and those who do not. And so forth. No, the conditional division is too easy, and fails from the outset.

But perhaps worse than this, Hilarion's speech also indulges in some outright ecumenical fear-mongering:

We have studied the preparatory documents for the decision on female episcopate and were struck by the conviction expressed in them that even if the female episcopate were introduced, ecumenical contacts with the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches would not come to an end. What made the authors of these documents so certain?

Nothing, of course. It's called bravado. The truth is that those relationships may end. And then what will happen? Hmm. Maybe the Pope will start a recruiting program for disaffected Anglicans. Oh, wait ... he's already done that.

Then it gets bad. In Benchley's words, "an ardent supporter of the hometown team should go to every game prepared to take offense," but when Hilarion introduces Lutheranism to the discussion, he makes it too easy:

The same document argued that despite a possible cooling down in relations with Catholics and Orthodox, the Church of England would strengthen and broaden its relations with the Methodist Church and the Lutheran Churches in Norway and Sweden. In other words, the introduction of the female episcopate ‘will bring both gains and losses’. The question arises: Is not the cost of these losses too high?

Um, is it? Let's see. Lutherans and Anglicans, on both sides of the Atlantic, have recognized in one another a common faith, and agreed to share sacraments and even exchange clergy when their mission demands it. Our full communion agreements, along with the others into which Lutherans have entered and alongside the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, are the most dramatic successes in the history of the ecumenical movement. Two centuries of Anglican-Orthodox talks have resulted in ... nothing. They can perform marriages and bury each other's dead, which were both agreed to long before the modern dialogue series opened in 1930. So if you are serious about church unity, who is the better partner?

The fact is that, as Lutherans discovered in the 16th century and have rediscovered recently, the Orthodox bring little to an ecumenical table. Okay, that's a cheap shot. They have exquisite liturgies, brilliant theologians, and a striking ascetical tradition. These are all things they can share, and from which Western churches have much to learn. What they signally lack is a commitment to establishing fully reciprocal relationships with non-Orthodox churches. Evidence: they've never done it.

When Hilarion starts threatening Anglicans with the end of their Orthodox dialogue, he is like Colin Powell at the UN, waving around packets of baking poweder when there were, demonstrably, no WMDs.

He goes on to make some trite distinctions between Orthodoxy and Protestantism -- one safeguards the deposit of faith, the other encourages critical thinking -- and to accuse the Anglicans of acting like Protestants. Apart from failing the Benchley's Law test, this is more fear-mongering, and of a very particular kind. First, you humor Anglicans by letting them believe that they are not "Protestant," an assertion that, whatever its actual meaning, is dear to many of them; then you tell them that they're acting as if they were. Oooooh, now they feel bad, and want to be just like you. But, rhetorically, this is a cheap trick; Anglicans are too blessed obvious about their class anxiety. As Benchley said, "Tell us your phobias, and we'll tell you what you're afraid of."

There is little in this rhetorical move to admire. Hilarion's "Protestantism" is a straw man, bearing only a notional relationship to historic Protestantism. Properly understood, the churches of the Reformation -- Lutheran, Anglican and Reformed -- have always attempted to embody the historic traditions of Christianity, as properly understood. Their common argument, from the beginning, was that they were indeed more Catholic than the Pope. Many of us still stand by that claim. Even if you think we are mistaken, you have a duty to acknowledge the claim.

For that matter, his "Orthodoxy" isn't especially credible, either. He makes it sound like the sort of stale, moralistic, anti-intellectual, institution that its worst enemies sometimes make it out to be. They are mistaken, and so is he.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

These Are A Few Of My Favorite Kings

Like some of our readers, Father A. is preparing to preach on the celebration of Christ the King. His sermon is nearly complete, and he has even posted a few chunks over at the parish milk-crate. But as so often happens, the sermon prep has left us with a few ideas that don't really belong in the pulpit.

For instance, it seems that Britain's Prince William is going to get married, and this has got people of a certain age waxing nostalgic for the marriage of Charles and Diana. Pardon us while we erupt with derisory laughter. We barely noticed the wedding, and as things developed cared little for the late Princess of Wales. Her saint's-cult appalls us on many levels, not least because it often seems to involve American Anglophiles genuflecting to a Barbie doll.

Generally speaking, we think that the British royals get far too much attention, especially on the left side of the pond. People seem to forget that we busted our butts just to be rid of one of the present queen's ancestors. But that doesn't mean we are anti-royalist! Far from it. While a weird affection for the Stuart clan is properly an Anglo-Catholic affectation, there are a few living monarchs (or would-be monarchs) of whom we are quite fond. Consider, if you will,

King Michael of Romania. Decent guy, from all reports. Had a Lutheran grandfather. Deposed by the Reds. Says he won't come back unless they ask him, which doesn't seem likely. But just in case they change their minds, he asked the Parliament to recognize his daughter's legal right to succession. Just in case.

Queen Margarethe II of Denmark. Lutheran, which is a plus. First female monarch of Denmark since the 14th century! She has formal training as an archaeologist and a political scientist, and is an accomplished painter. What thrills the neeks and gerds at the Egg, though, is that she illustrated the Danish edition of Lord of the Rings.

Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. Do they call her Queen Bee for short? Honestly, we just like that she wrote Peter Rabbit. Um, didn't she?

Emperor Akihito of Japan. Not a Lutheran; we checked. Still, the guy's got a throne made out of chrysanthemums, for crying out loud. Don't try to tell us otherwise, because we aren't listening. He's also a trained and published icthyologist, which invites some easy jokes about sashimi. (Have we mentioned that we miss JJ's fusion restaurant in Astoria? Oh, man, do we miss it.)

King Juan Carlos of Spain. Most definitely not a Lutheran, but we like him anyway. Sure, he helped his nation make the difficult transition from fascism and dictatorship to a modern democracy. Sure, he signed a bill legalizing gay marriage, which probably cost him a few points at the Monarch's Conference. But you know what we really like? The guy kills bears for fun. Have we mentioned that bears are not your fuzzy woodland friends, but savage marauders intent on eating your children?

King Jigme Sanhye Walchuk of Butan went Juan Carlos one better. He didn't just help them make the transition from absolute monarchy to parliamentary democracy, he demanded it. Then he abdicated so his son could play. But best of all, he was the guy who came up with the best-ever goal for a nation to pursue. Sure, global hegemony sounds nice; we suppose liberty, equality and brotherhood are okay. But Jigme called for an increase in "gross national happiness." No word on whether he is a Lutheran, but it sounds unlikely.

There are some others -- King Goodwill of the Zulus has a great name, for instance. There are two guys who claim to be King of France, and even though we don't know a thing about them, we will lay odds that they're both snobs. Italy has a handful of dukes and so forth with royal aspirations, and we don't imagine any of them could be worse than Berlusconi. So there's that.

Friday, November 19, 2010

We're Running for Congress!

Sure, we have to check our ethics at the door, but so what? Times are tough, and Baby needs a new pair of shoes.

Seriously, people. Here's how Gawker sums it up:

From 2008 to 2009, the median household net worth for a member of Congress went up 19 percent. During the same time, the national median plummeted by 15 percent. This is known as a plutocracy.
This is based on a detailed study from the Center for Open and Responsive Politics. Which is well worth a read.

Why does it matter? Heres why, from the Open and Responsive report:

The most popular investment among congressional members reads as [sic] a who’s who list of the most powerful corporate political forces in Washington, D.C. -- companies that each spend millions, if not tens of millions of dollars each year lobbying federal officials. Many of them likewise donate millions of dollars to federal candidates each election cycle through their top employees and political action committees.

gelogo.jpgWith 82 current members of Congress invested, General Electric tops this list. It’s followed by Bank of America (63), Cisco Systems (61), Proctor & Gamble (61) and Microsoft (54).

Apple, with 42 current congressional investors, edges IBM, with 41. Coca-Cola’s 39 congressional investors pop it a notch above PepsiCo, with 36.

BPlogo.jpgAnd at least 20 current members of Congress were also last year invested in companies that found themselves the subject of congressional or federal agency inquiries, including Goldman Sachs and BP.

Furthermore, the companies behind a number of lawmakers’ favorite investments played key roles in lobbying Congress on two of the most critical legislative initiatives of the past two years: health care reform and financial regulatory reform.

Wow. No conflict of interest there, huh? Especially not since the Supreme Court ruled that big companies can buy as many votes as they want.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Rodney Dangerfield of Religion

... would be Mormons. Cuz they don't get no respect.

Such at least is the claim of some scholars, reported in a Salt Lake Tribune article by Kristen Moulton. It's a decent article, and touches on matters that are pretty important, both to Mormons and to other observers of interaction among different faiths. The basic claim is that people respect -- or "like," a word used almost interchangeably in the article -- things like the Tabernacle Choir and the genealogical resources, but have little use for the theology.

According to Terryl Givens, who is a Mormon and also a professor at the University of Richmond, “in return for qualified esteem, the public reserves the right not to take [Mormonism] seriously as a belief system.”

The article goes on to say this:

In fact, a 2007 survey ranked Mormons — along with Buddhists and Muslims — among the nation’s least-liked faiths.

“Mormons like everyone else,” wrote Robert Putnam and David Campbell in their new book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, “while almost everyone else dislikes Mormons.”

Really? We doubt it. Here at the Egg, we like Mormons very much. We have only known a few, but they were uniformly bright, pleasant, and hardworking. Also white. And one was a drunk. And another got kicked out of her church. Oh, and another dated a married woman. So maybe we haven't known the widest or most representative sample. But we like Mormons just fine. Not as well as Buddhists, maybe, but well enough.

The real question is this business of "taking Mormonism seriously as a belief system." And this is where Professor Givens, along with any Mormons still eagerly awaiting their invitation to the World Council of Churches. A great many people have trouble taking their faith seriously, and always will. Among the world's religions, it is an odd, odd duck. From the new "Bible" to the funny underpants, it just strikes most of us -- including people who believe some pretty unlikely things -- as improbable.

Of course, everybody believes something that sounds risible to somebody else. We'll see your quantum singularity and raise you an incarnate deity. If you liked the Samoan cargo cult, you'll love the Raelians. And if you liked Communism, we have some real estate investment opportunities for you. What makes Mormonism any harder to take seriously than these things?

Nothing, really. It's all pretty absurd, in the specific sense that Tertullian so famously embraced. Mormonism, to the extent that it does not receive the respect its adherents may sometimes desire, is the victim of unhappy circumstance. First, it is far bigger than the cargo or flying-saucer cults; it is harder to write off as a harmless eccentricity. Second, however, it is far newer than any other "major" new religion, apart from Baha'i and Scientology. Look, Christians, and Buddhists may not share a view of the cosmos, but at least they are both old. There is a certain credibility, earned or not, that comes with age.

And third, Mormons want to be -- even believe themselves to be -- something the rest of the world knows instinctively that they are not: Christian.

In many posts over the years, we've been clear that we don't consider Mormonism to be "Christianity," which is circumscribed (if not indeed defined) by a handful of foundational texts, truth claims, and practices. Throughout history, there have been other movements which borrow the language and symbols of Christianity as a means of communicating their own quite different ideas. The various forms of ancient Gnosticism, as well as the modern New Age, have dabbled in this.

Unlike those movements, of course, Mormonism has no other form. There were second-century Gnostics who didn't give a hoot about Jesus, just as there are New Agers today who would much rather dumb down Hinduism or animism than Christianity. But Mormons have no alternative language. For better or worse, they are stuck with Jesus, which in their own minds makes them Christian. For the rest of us, their peculiar revelation, the Book of Mormon, makes them insuperably alien.

Perhaps they should just go with it. Givens claims that Mormons are torn between the desire to proclaim their own distinctive doctrine, and the competing desire to accommodate their doctrine to those of the Christians around them. This sounds entirely probable, and so long as it continues, Mormonism will be regarded just as most people regard it today: as the modern world's largest organized "Christian" heresy.

But what if the accommodationists lost, soundly and completely? What if Mormonism just stood up and said, "We are a tertium quid, God's new work, as different from Christianity as it was from Judaism"? What if they sucked it up and said, "Sure, our faith has roots in American protestantism. But we aren't really Christians, any more than Bernard of Clairvaux was a Jew"? Would statements like this get them theological respect?

Probably not in the short run. But frankly, Christianity's street cred ain't what it used to be. Who knows but that, somewhere down the line, disassociating themselves from Christianity might make them more credible to the general public. In any case, it would be more honest.

It's Not Just the Swedes

About a year ago, Father A. toured Transylvania with some officials of the Lutheran state church of Bavaria. They were nice guys, and very smart. We talked about ecumenism and one pastor's adventurous mission work in the Ukraine. (Key sentence: "When my wife and I realized that the sheet of ice on our kitchen wall wasn't going to melt, we wrote home that this was probably not good for the baby.")

As we say, nice guys. Little did we know that they were soft on the gays.

Yup. Per the Religion News Service, the 2.6 million-member Bavarian church has permitted gay and lesbian people to serve as pastors, and recognized the validity of their civil unions. It has just recently taken the further step of officially permitting couples in such unions to live in parsonages. (This is probably a great relief to the six or so couples who already do.) There is a bit of opposition in the church, but the RNS makes it sound fairly tepid.

This is interesting less on its own merits than in relation to other Lutheran churches. It is is easy to imagine that the ELCA and the Church of Sweden are isolated in their willingness to accept pastors living in same-sex unions. Certainly, a recent bit of grandstanding from Tanzania made it sound that way. In fact, they're not.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


The Egg congratulates New York's Archbishop Timothy Dolan on his election to the presidency of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

It's no substitute for the red had usually given to archbishops of New York, but perhaps in time Dolan will yet enjoy both honors. Apparently the idea is not to pack the College of Cardinals with bishops from any one nation or region. But, despite a health-care system that is almost as good as Costa Rica's, even American cardinals don't live forever.

Pre-Advent Special: You Saw It Coming

In an electronic newsletter from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, the new homiletics professor offers a criminally brief piece called "411 on the Emerging Church."

Ah, yes. We suppose that is to match the 911 on the rest of the church.

Swish? Seriously, People?

It is hard enough for an outsider to grasp the details of the Great Anglican Schism as it plays out in one's own nation. Following it in Britain -- where everybody uses school nicknames, euphemism, and comical understatement -- is daunting beyond words. To our ears, it all sounds like this: "As Bishop Skippy said to the Wanker at FiF last Barnabymas, 'These are the Times that try men's soles.' " And that's secret code for "My Lord Bishop of Chittingham observed to Sir Francis Witherpole during a Satanic ritual last June, 'The press itself is practically pushing us into the Pope's arms.' "

We are beginning to think that it will be necessary to create a scorecard and glossary for the use of foreign spectators.

But we do gather that the Anglo-Catholic loyalists are finally fighting back, and we applaud them.

Bit of timeline: First, the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus was promulgated on 4 November 2009. It described a plan for "Personal Ordinariates," meaning orders within the Roman Catholic church which would permit some form Anglican worship and church order -- details still to come.

Then, in July 2010 and after decades of debate, the Church of England's General Synod decided to ordain women as bishops. This decision is not yet a matter of church law; it must be approved by a majority of the 44 diocesan synods, and a 2/3 majority of the next General Synod, as well as receiving Royal Assent, which we take to be the Queen's rubber stamp.

This GS decision was extremely difficult on several counts. Arguably, at least, it would drive the most conservative Anglicans right over the Tiber. Abp Williams, with John Sentamu, Bp of York, had proposed a compromise plan which would have provided "alternative" bishops to help supervise dioceses in which the ordinary was a woman. This move actually won the greatest number of votes all around, but was narrowly defeated -- 5 votes -- by the clergy voting as a college.

So. What next? Would Anglo-Catholics, and perhaps even conservative Anglicans of a less floridly catholic disposition, start lining up to be smeared with oleum catechumenorum (or, perhaps, Anglicanorum)? Yes and no. There have been a small number of defections so far: a small schismatic church body, not even part of the Anglican Communion, joined en masse; five English bishops have declared their intention. And one does sense that there is a larger group sitting in the darkness, waiting to see what these ordinariates actually look like when they are formed. But one also senses that there are a great many Anglicans who, even if they do not especially like the current direction of their church, like being Anglicans, and have no intention to change.

And so was formed, in September 2010, the Mission Society of Saint Wilfred and Saint Hilda. It is the child of ten CofE bishops (including Gibraltar, which is England after all), who are on record opposing female bishops in their church, and yet who do not much care for "the ministry of the Pope as it is presently exercised." And who, therefore, won't leave home.

What is this Society? Will it offer some variation on the defeated alternative-oversight proposal? Nobody knows. Like any newborn child, the society has little character as yet. We don't really know who will join, or what they will do together -- although that doesn't keep the Interwebs from speculating.

Romeward-leaning conservatives aren't happy at all. Fr. Hunwicke has had a bit to say on the subject lately, although -- since he writes in English -- we aren't quite sure what. The most straightforward (and vicious) denunciation comes from William Oddie, writing in the Catholic Herald. He calls the Society "an incoherent scheme to undermine the ordinariate," which he believes has "the discreet backing of the Archbishop of Canterbury." (We certainly hope so. Frankly, we're a bit sick of Abp Williams' supine politeness in the face of a frontal attack.) Oddie does have some reasonable criticisms, though:
[The Society bishops] really think that they can plausibly claim to be “committed to the full visible unity of the Church” (there it is, in the very first sentence of their mission statement) while absolutely rejecting any notion of being in communion with the pope. So their ludicrous outfit ... will copy the Ordinariate in every detail but one: they will not be in communion with the pope (that is with over half of Christendom) but they will be in communion with all the women bishops the validity of whose orders they refuse to accept ....
Wait. A bit of incoherence in Anglican theological circles? Say it isn't so. Still, this is really not about dogmatics so much as polity, where they usually do quite well, so a little skepticism is merited. On the other hand, those ordinariates everybody keeps talking about don't exist yet. They have no constitutions, no rules, no hierarchies or liturgical formularies. So nobody can claim the high ground where clarity of vision is concerned.

Anyway. We mention all this for only one reason, and that is to make fun of the name. The Mission Society of Saint Wilfred and Saint Hilda, for reasons known only to its creators, has chosen to use the initials SSWH. They appear all over its website, and beg, even plead, to be pronounced one way: Swish.

Swish. As in nelly, nancy, fey, and so forth and so on. On one hand, we admire the bishops for their bold embrace of clerical campiness; on the other, though, we wonder if they have simply lost their minds. Because, yes, this is what Anglo-Catholicism as a movement needs: more ways to be mocked by the Evangelicals, the Methodists, and quondam Prots.

What were they thinking? What, in the midst of this messy business, is anybody thinking? We have no idea.

Thanksgiving Coincidence

Each morning, our iGoogle homepage presents us with assorted pieces of trivia -- headlines, how-tos, and a picture of some "sacred destination" for us to consider. Today, along with a lovely Norman church near Oxford, we saw two bits of data, culled from different feeds but presented right next to each other on the page:
For those lucky readers for whom the first point means nothing, let us explain. Charlie Rangel is a member of the House of Representatives, which naturally means that he is a scoundrel. Furthermore, he is a long-serving member from southern New York State, which means that he is a particular kind of scoundrel: a product of the Democratic machine, loud of mouth and ethically challenged by definition.

Living as we do in a country with notoriously inept government, we at the Egg are occasionally regaled by Romanian friends with their tales of venality, corruption, bureaucratic overkill and outright incompetence among officials both elected and appointed. Although outraged, they are often a little ashamed to admit such things to a foreigner. Trying to build a sense of comradeship, our customary response is to nod sadly and describe the New York State legislature, which is essentially indistinguishable from Bucharest.

Anyway, Rangel is one more turkey whom we will be happy to see recalled.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Bishop Opposes Blasphemy

... laws. He opposes blasphemy laws. Although we assume he also opposes blasphemy.

Our favorite conservative Anglican, by a wide margin, is is Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester. In a Guardian op-ed, he argues that Pakistan's blasphemy law must be repealed. This is, as Egg readers surely understand, the very least that can be said. Laws against blasphemy, in whatever nation and of whatever good intention, are by nature unjustifiable impositions upon the fundamental right of speech.

If God chooses to strike a blasphemer dead, there is plenty of lightning in heaven. Failing that, however, the rest of us have a duty to bear the abuse. Because God has given our neighbors, however impolite, bigoted or downright stupid, the right to express their opinions freely and without fear of harm.

Beyond this straightforward assertion -- which is, we hasten to observe, an assertion of Western post-Enlightenment values, alien to cultures in which the Enlightenment has yet to take hold -- Bishop Nazir-Ali throws out a few tidbits, and his readers offer more in their comments. You probably knew -- or at least guessed -- that laws against blasphemy exist in many or most predominantly Muslim nations, where they are used principally to punish Christians and other members of religious minorities. This means that, as with the American death penalty, one might therefore admire the laws in principle, while recognizing that they are discriminatory in application. (In this case, we despise even the principle, but some readers may feel otherwise.) But there's more.

Did you know that the first anti-blasphemy laws on the Indian subcontinent were imposed by the British raj? Yup. The idea was to keep the wogs from fighting each other, with all the racism and paternalism that slur implies. Laws in England, which (at least theoretically) protected Christianity alone from public ridicule, were only abolished in 2008. And one of the newest anti-blasphemy laws was put into effect this year, in the Republic of Ireland. So don't mistake our prattle about Western Enlightenment values for some blanket endorsement of Europe over Asia. There are freedom-hating idiots everywhere.

Still, there are some regional peculiarities worth noting. Nazir-Ali says that penalties under the British law were typically mild. The Irish law permits fines up to 25,000 euros, which doesn't sound especially mild -- but let's see if it is ever imposed. But depending upon the precise blasphemy, the law in Pakistan imposes a mandatory life sentence or death penalty. We'd much rather pay the fine, and so would you.

We're not saying that America's supposed ally in the war against extremist violence is a country that enshrines such violence in its own laws. We're not saying that Pakistan fails not merely to respect fundamental human rights, but even to understand them. We would never say such a thing unless it were -- oh, wait a second. That's what we're saying.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Convivium: The Cartoons

Fr. William of the Beach, friend of the Egg and namesake of a cardinal, has recently created several animated shorts which may amuse readers as much as they did us.

1. "For All the Saints." It is the deadpan alleluias that kill us.

2. "November." A letter from our ordinary, read by a cartoon character who bears as little resemblance to Himself as one can imagine.

3. "The Apostles Creed, Part 1." Sooner or later, for Lutherans, any new technology becomes a medium for the Small Catechism. That's just how we roll.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Newsflash: Calvin Still Not Dead

Well, okay, he's dead. But Calvinism is doing just fine, thanks.

Strangely, this surprises the occasional reporter. A while back, we mocked Time magazine and reporter David van Biema for the assertion that Calvinism had recently returned from the dead, and that this return somehow upended decades of American religiosity.

Comes now Kate Shellnut of the Houston Chronicle, making essentially the same claim. Her version is even more simple-minded than van Biema's: Reformed theology started on Reformation Day in 1517 (!), used to matter, and then "many American baby boomers distanced themselves from the theology side of their religion." (She actually says that.) But now at last, Gens X & Y are coming back to Calvin, led by Mark (Mars Hill) Driscoll, Tim (Redeemer Pres) Keller and Al (SBC) Mohler.

The appeal of this narrative is that is contains a germ of truth. A vast number of Boomers did indeed turn their backs of Christian theology, along with Christianity in general, preferring the dubious delights of sweat lodges, yoga classes, and being "spiritual but not religious." And many, many Christians in every age prefer semi-Pelagianism to orthodoxy, even when the terms mean nothing to them. However, very little else in the story is true.

Let's try a rewrite, shall we? Our second today.

Over nearly 500 years, "Reformed Christianity," shaped by John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli, has exercised a vast influence throughout the world. Today, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches claims 200 member churches with a total of 75 million souls, making it comparable in size to the Anglican and Lutheran communions. Since the Reformation, it has been the dominant religious force in Scotland, and continues to figure prominently in England and Swizerland. American history would be unfathomably different without the New England Puritans and Separatists (two different Calvinist movements), as well as their modern descendants -- the Congregational, Presbyterian, and Reformed churches.

Yes, Calvinism has been challenged from time to time, especially by the Arminian movement in its various forms, most notably that of Methodism. Yes, some Reformed churches have occasionally muted their insistence upon the ultra-Augustinian teaching of double predestination. But it is easy to overstate this phenomenon, which is little more than a matter of emphasis. Even among these seemingly "moderate" churches, almost all (pace the UCC) continue to be defined by confessions of faith which lay out the doctrines of depravity and grace in a manner that would be acceptable to the fathers of Dort.

We remember, from our many years at a proudly Reformed seminary, a certain friend. He was not merely a liberal, but by any reasonable definition a leftist, both in politic and theology. But we also remember the weeks he spent, prowling the dormitory hallways, muttering to himself. What was he muttering, you ask? The Westminster Larger Catechism. He was trying to memorize it. And why? Because, after the Bible, it was this document and the other PCUSA confessions which defined the faith of his church. It was as essential to his faith as it was to that of the neo-Hodgian downstairs, with his pipe and beard and fulminations against feminism (not to mention his door-poster, which read "Pelagiani Sugunt").

So let's be serious. There are (conservatively) four times as many Calvinists in the world as there are Jews or followers of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama's laundry list gets more attention than a WARC assembly, but perhaps not deservedly so. Calvinism has been an indispensable factor in the creation of modern Christianity, and arguably in the creation of modernity itself. Calvinists, no less than any other Christians, generally believe what their churches teach. The idea that this one strand of Christianity was somehow "dead" at any time in its history -- much less in America -- is laughable to any halfway serious student of history.

So what gives with writers like van Biema and Shellnut? Are they just lazy journalists looking for an easy hook? Maybe so; Shellnut's article in particular gives evidence of hasty composition. But we think there is something else going on as well. We think that they have heard, and are now passing on, one element in a myth that is abroad in our culture. Simply put, this is the myth* that "mainline denominations" have lost touch with their own traditional faith. That Calvinists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and even Vatican II-loving Roman Catholics have all tacitly agreed to merge into a single amorphous and theologically ambiguous body, which in turn is dying.

This myth is deeply beloved both of Baby Boomers, looking for any excuse to explain their own generational apostasy, and of theocon reactionaries in the supposed "renewal" movements, seeking to justify their own existence.

The facts, however, are quite different. While it is true that the principal strands of Latin Christianity have moderated much of their hostile rhetoric in recent years -- lifting anathemas, entering into agreements and sometimes even "full communion," carefully defined -- their distinctions and disagreements remain clear, and are parsed with excruciating care in countless volumes labeled "dogmatics" and "symbolics." We have spent half a millennium doing this, and are very, very good at it. It is unlikely that there are any religious bodies in the world able to describe their agreements and disagreements as precisely as the Reformed, Evangelical and Roman churches. Why do they bother? Because these are the things they believe, and which they believe matter.

So to the seasoned observer, Calvinism is like the old union leader in the song:

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you or me
Says I, "But Joe, you're ten years dead,"
"I never died," says he
"I never died," says he.
* And to be clear, since we know that the OBG will comment shortly, we mean "myth" here in two senses. It is both a story which is not true -- a lie, really -- and also a form of primitive symbolic expression which, in the words of Susanne Langer, "never breaks out of the magic circle of figurative ideas," or approaches the "the phase of logical thought and the conception of facts." The people whom we criticize do indeed live by this myth, as surely as ancient Greeks lived by the tales of the Homeric hymns. That makes the myth no more factual.

Rowan's Rhetorical Reserve

As the Great Anglican Schism continues, now with the encouragement of Pope Benedict, we have come to take a certain grim delight in the public statements of Archbishop Rowan Williams. At least as taken out of context by the press, they look ever more ineffectual.

Here's the latest. Per the AP, five Anglican bishops have decided to depart for the Roman communion. For the record, they are:
... Bishop of Ebbsfleet Andrew Burnham, Bishop of Richborough Keith Newton, Bishop of Fulham John Broadhurst — as well as retired bishops Edwin Barnes and David Silk ....
Well, fine. Whatever. There are so many Anglican bishops in the world that they can stand to lose a few. (We Lutherans don't have nearly as many, but we could stand t lose a few as well. You know who you are!). Still, they are bishops, stealing off to another church, hoping to join the ordinariates when they are actually formed. It's got to be a little embarrassing and more than a little infuriating. Yet here is Canterbury's tepid response:

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the world's Anglicans, said he had accepted the resignations of Burnham and Newton, "with regret."

"We wish them well in this next stage of their service to the Church," he said.

Seriously? Pardon us, your grace, but we at the Egg would like to propose a rewrite. Here, if we may, is what you might have said:

It saddens us that these bishops cannot keep the promises they have made, and have chosen to abandon the church they have vowed to serve. While we wish them long and happy lives as laymen, we cannot imagine that they will ever be entrusted with pastoral duties, far less episcopal ones, in any well-ordered church body.

Furthermore, we deeply regret that that the authorities of the Roman Catholic Church have chosen to lure away prelates of our communion, dangling before them the hope of undeserved honors in an as-yet-unformed club for unhappy old men. After decades of ecumenical rapprochement, the proposed ordinariates are a step backward toward the bad old days of Jesuit spies attempting to overthrow both the church and crown.
Or, better yet:
These men have proven themselves to be treacherous rascals, and the Church is well rid of them. We hope that they live out their lives in the obscurity and impotence they so richly deserve. Furthermore, we decry the overreaching hubris of the bishop of Rome, and declare that England will no more tolerate foreign interference with her Church than with her state.
Sure, it's over the top. But when the other side goes all Counter-Reformation, it seems to us that you almost have to get a little Reformation-y in response.