Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Best Christmas Catalog Ever

Every year around Christmas time, we get a catalog from World Vision. We get a lot of other catalogs, but this one stands out. For one thing, the photography is really good. For another, the stuff they're selling is totally great.

See, this catalog isn't full of new TVs or cute sweaters or baby toys or new cars. It's full of things like this:


Sheep are known to "go astray", but they are always worth finding! For cold, hungry families, a sheep's wool provides soft, warm, and long-lasting clothes. Sheep often give birth to twins or triplets, which can be sold at the market. Your gift of a sheep provides comfort and warmth, extra money, and nourishment.

Eye Surgery

This gift, given in your name through World Vision, will provide surgery to correct congenital blindness or vision impairment for a boy or girl in need. Soon, the eyes of a child in a country like Romania or Azerbaijan will literally be opened to the beauty of God's creation.

Now I don't know about you, but I think this catalog is a work of genius. I mean, it's pretty and the writing is nice, but the real power in it is that it forces our imagined altruism to go head-to-head with our consumerism. Once we've read this catalog, we can no longer tithe our tithe and do what we want with the rest of our money.

Thinking of buying yourself a few hardcover books? Instead, you could feed a village for a year.

Thinking of buying yourself a new computer? Instead, you could shell out that dough and help your son ... I mean, somebody else's son ... see a tree or a mountain or a ball for the very first time.

And the damage to our consumerism just keeps coming. The pictures in the catalog stick in our heads. So each time we think about spending a dollar on the movies or on a new car or on a fancy recliner, we're forced to consider what else we could be doing with the money ... and now that else includes feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and ... dear God ... giving sight to the blind.

(You can find the entire catalog here.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Avatar Sneakiness

Today, I changed my Instant Messenger avatar - the little glyph that shows up when I send an annoying chat message. My avatar used to be the program icon for one of our pieces of software. Now it's a doodle I did in Microsoft Paint.

Pretty, huh? Before you go asking me what it is, take a minute to look at it again. What do you think it is?

Time's up! The answer is, it's a digital Ink Blot. You're supposed to tell me what you think it looks like, and I'm supposed to figure out what your interpretation tells me about the deep undercurrents of your psyche. Tricky, huh? A buddy icon generally gives you information about me ... it might tell you what I look like, or what cartoon characters I associate with, or how boring I am to choose a program icon. But this avatar works the other way around, and gives ME information about YOU! A testament to my own paranoia!

<insert diabolical laugh here>

Ok, so let's look at my first couple of victims and see how they respond. First, my unsuspecting wife.

vryhotwife: what's that icon next to your words?
studmffn: what's it look like?
vryhotwife: gray and white clouds. i can't see it very well.
studmffn: nod
studmffn: it's actually a kind of an ink blot
vryhotwife: hmmm.
studmffn: what you think it looks like is supposed to tell me things about you
vryhotwife: oh, and what did you learn?
studmffn: um
studmffn: i dunno
studmffn: what else do you think it looks like?
vryhotwife: um, a little bird smoking underneath a big tree trunk?
studmffn: now you're talkin'

Yes, she actually said "a little bird smoking underneath a big tree trunk". And no, those aren't our actual screen names.

I also got a good response from one of my work compadres:

reep: What is that?
studmffn: it's an inkblot
studmffn: sorta
studmffn: it tells me the deep secrets of all of my chatting buddiez
reep: Whew. I was getting nervous. It looked like a Communist Revolution to me.

Which, incidentally, reminds me of some scary things that have been in the news lately:

this (courtesy of reep, because I happen to own a copy of the Little Red Book, straight from the heart of Red China)
and this (courtesy of me, because the President is off his rocker)

But I guess it just goes to show: If you work for the gov'ment, you don't need inkblots. Heck, you don't even need checks and balances! And as reep pointed out: if the Prez is straight on this one, wouldn't it make Watergate legal?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Evolution and God's Love

Some Christians who reject evolutionary theory argue that it conflicts with their understanding of a loving God. Put simply, they think it would be unloving for God to create sentient life using such a wasteful process; one with so many "dead ends".

But this argument only holds if you think of evolution as a tool for creating homo sapiens. But what if you're a little more skeptical about the worth of human beings? I mean, we can be pretty nasty little organisms. And perhaps we too are a step in the evolutionary process. Maybe our current set of DNA has yet to be perfected, and God's Ultimate Creation is still waiting in the wings.

Given these uncertainties, it seems more convincing to argue that homo sapiens (while groovy) is not the only part of the creation that God really cares about. Instead of saying that evolution is wrong because it allows for "dead-end" species, we should say that God valued the extinct species just like he values their ancestors, and no part of the chain has been exempt from God's oversight and care.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Uses for Euphemism

It seems to me that if you want to do something nasty to another person, the easiest way to justify yourself is to not think about it at all. If your conscience starts to nag you, don't fight with it; just ignore it. Give it a zennish dismissal; tell yourself, "I'll have to think about that ... but later."

Of course, you can't always get away with this. Sometimes, obnoxious people will show up and ask you pointed questions about the nasty things you want to do. In this event, you can salvage your blissful ignorance by speaking abstractly. For a good example of this technique at work, listen to the following interview with Representative Thomas Tancredo (R-CO).

Tancredo thinks that we should pursue a stricter immigration strategy. First, we need to seal our southern border, and second, we need to deport the nearly 2 million illegal the illegal immigrants now living in the U.S. Wait, did I say 2 million? I meant 20 million. We need to deport the nearly 20 milion illegal immigrants now living in the U.S. Of course, Tancredo wisely avoids describing the situation this way:

ALEX CHADWICK: But aren't there millions of illegal immigrants currently residing in this country? What are you going to do with all those people?

REP. TANCREDO: The most conservative estimate I have ever heard is 13 million, but I, I think it's much closer to even 20 million people who are here illegally. And what are you going to do? You're going to enforce the law.

Pure genius! What sleight of hand! Notice how deftly Tancredo points us toward the black-and-white world of legality, drawing our attention away from the ethical messiness that we might otherwise have to deal with. Obviously, says Tancredo, the only question here is whether or not the law should be enforced. And of course the law should be enforced! Case closed!

But Chadwick was asking about about people. And while it's easy to agree with a generic "we should enforce the laws", it's a bit more difficult to agree with, "we should hunt down 20 million people, uproot them from their homes and send them back to whichever third-world nation they came from." It's even more difficult to say, "we should arrest my neighbor Joe and his wife Alma, evict them from their house, and ship their entire family back to Panama." Therefore, if you want to protect the borders of the United States of America, you shouldn't start thinking about these real people. Instead, speak in abstractions. It's much easier that way.

Monday, November 14, 2005

An Odd Sort of Argument

Well, Texans did even worse than I expected, voting nearly 75% to 25% to approve a the Texas constitutional amendment to ban nontraditonal marriage. This is too bad, because:

1. The amendment is redundant, because Texas already has laws prohibiting gay marriage. But our representatives obviously don't have enough work to justify their paychecks, so they resort to passing laws about cheerleading and other unnecessary legislation.

2. The amendment denies legal, emotional and perhaps even the spiritual benefits of marriage to a long-ostracized minority group. For many voters, I suppose this outcome was just what they had in mind. That doesn't make their behavior any more ethical, or any less harmful.

3. God thinks that, all things considered, gay marriage is OK.

Statement #3 is simply a summary of what I think God thinks about gay marriage, which arises from an aggregation of the following experiences:

1. My upbringing in the church, which included lots of Bible reading. This means I have a good idea about what's actually in there, and what's not.

(An aside, here: please don't expect me to take seriously your comments about scripture if you haven't at least read the entire Bible. I consider that a minimal standard for competent discussion.)

2. Masters of Divinity friends discussing good ways and bad ways of interpreting the Bible.

3. Discussions with helpful acquaintances who considered themselves gay or lesbian.

4. A few years spent attempting to empathize with other people.

5. A few years spent thinking about suffering (disease, famine, natural disaster, pogroms, abuse, depression, post-nasal drip) and the way God interacts with the world.

6. A few years spent attempting to ask questions clearly and answer them precisely.

These ideas and experiences have lead me to the conclusion expressed concisely in statement #3: God thinks gay marriage isn't such a big deal. To support statement 3, I suppose I could provide a well-reasoned analysis of the Bible and the world, trying to prove that God thinks one way or another. This is probably what Paul was expecting when he once asked me to post on the topic of homosexuality. But in my experience, this sort of analysis isn't helpful unless you and the other party have spent some time trying to understand the history of thought that underpins your reasoning.

So here's my invitation to you. If you can spare a few brainwaves, take some time to think about God and gay marriage, and then take a few minutes to write a brief post for the rest of us. But don't just share your reasoning in this post; also summarize the experiences that make your belief ring true.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Election Tuesday Nov. 8

Just a friendly reminder to you Texans: This tuesday, you can vote on the proposed amendments to the Texas constitution.

My advice: if you want to give the thumbs-down to prop. 2, get out there and vote.

On the other hand, if you want to give the thumbs up to prop 2., first visit Liberty and Servanthood, Jeff Wilhite's blog. One of his recent posts gives some good reasons that social onservatives should vote against proposition 2.

If you read Jeff's post and you're still not convinced, just stay home on Tuesday. I mean, you're probably tired, right? I bet you've been working hard every day to defend the institution of marriage. You deserve a break.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Diablog Shelved

Just wanted to let you know that I've removed the Diablog links from my blog. I hadn't been able to give much time to developing it, and there didn't seem to be much interest in using it.

But if I'm wrong, and you're still interested in using Diablog or testing it, holler.

Friday, October 28, 2005

In Context

Here's something amusing. Hop on over to Bible Gateway and search the bible for something. "Poor", for example.

Now examine your results, which are broken up by individual scripture. There are three links for each scripture: one that will only show you the single scripture, one that will also show you the preceding and following verses ("in context"), and one that will show you the entire chapter ("whole chapter").

I like Bible Gateway. It's handy for finding things, it looks nice, and it's free. But there seems to be something fundamentally wrong with their labeling. Since when is three Bible verses "in context"? I mean, check out these three verses:

16 "They were the ones who followed Balaam's advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the LORD in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the LORD's people. 17 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

Now if you didn't know what was going on in the passage from Numbers, you might think that God was telling the Israelites to massacre a bunch of people, except of course the pretty young virgins. But if you read the entire chapter, you realize that the passage is actually saying that ... um ... God told the Israelites to massacre a bunch of people, except of course the pretty young virgins.

Nevermind. Bad example. We'll talk about interpreting the Old Testament another time.

What I meant to say was, when it comes to interpreting things, three verses aren't much different than one verse. Three verses certainly aren't going to give you any idea about what the author is trying to do in the book at large. The Entire Chapter may not even give you that.

So to be more accurate, I suggest that the Bible Gateway people change their labels to the following:

1 verse:
Prooftexters Click Here!!

3 verses:
Southern Baptists Click Here!!

Entire Chapter:

Suck It Up And Read the Book, Willya?

For more amusement, those of you who searched for "poor" should notice the number of results that returned, and then do a search for "homosexual".

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Proposition 2

For those of you who aren't aware, there's a special election in Texas this November. One of the items on the ballot is a so-called "protection of marriage" amendment. Just wanted to share some of the reasons that this is a bad idea.

1. Amending the Texas constitution is unnecessary.

Texas already has laws prohibiting same-sex marriages. An amendment would add to the number of laws in Texas without adding to their substance. If legislators expected these laws to be overturned because they are discriminatory, a constitutional amendment might be effective. However, based on the fact that every member on the Texas Supreme Court is elected, and every one is also a Republican, an amendment is unnecessary.

2. Amending the Texas constitution will not help defend the sanctity of marriage.

As described by the Texas Legislative Council: "If the purpose of the proposed amendment is to defend the sanctity of marriage, that purpose would be better served by state laws addressing the high incidences of divorce, adultery, and family violence that occur within traditional marriage between a man and a woman and that are more damaging to the institution of marriage, the welfare of children, and the stability of society, than same-sex marriages."

3. The imprecise wording of this amendment will have unintended consequences for women and children.

For example, it will reduce protectections against domestic violence for women and children in common-law marriages. (This is because of the section establishing that the state and its political subdivisions could not create or recognize any legal status identical to or similar to marriage.)

4. I don't think the following argument would convince my conservative co-workers, but this sort of amendment clearly discriminates against gay and lesbian couples.

That's why other states have overturned laws banning same-sex marriages: courts have ruled that the equal rights sections of their constitutions conflict with such laws. If you doubt that having your marriage recognized by the state confers any benefits or rights, visit this site and have a read.

The Texas Secretary of State's website contains more information about *all* the propositions in the November election, as well as arguments for and against.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

For Shame

Wow. A month and a day since my last post. If anyone's still visiting, I beg your forgiveness.

I also haven't read any blogs for the past month, and I haven't done any work on diablog. Instead, I've been trying to start a little side business. Between that and the time spent playing with my crazy baby (who is 9 months old today), my blog has fallen into disrepair.

I'm not sure if the business is going to go or not, but once I get things started I'll see if I can't get this old blog juiced up again.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Let's Hear a Hearing

Currently, we have Senators pontificating about the role of the Supreme Court.


I suspect Roberts is going to be confirmed without much trouble, so the questioning is probably the most telling part of this whole process.

Got to disagree with Kennedy somewhat. To some degree, interpretation of the existing constitution is important.

Hm. John Cornyn isn't so bright.

Expanding freedom. Hm. That seems reasonable.

Judicial activism? I think I'd be more inclined to attribute the polarization of American politics to ... oh ... the marriage of the Republican party and the Religious Right.

...ah, let's see what Roberts says.

- He says that a judge is like an umpire ... interpreting the laws, not creating them.

- Judges have to be humble and listen to the opinions of their colleagues.

- Wow. Beautiful description of the Rule of Law.

- More baseball imagery.

- Ends up with two commitments: 1) to be judicially modest 2) to defend the independence of the court.

- 6 minutes. Succinct. No wonder this guy was a spectacular lawyer.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Another Good Sermon

... although this one has a bit more cursing.

The coolness of the hushed church, the smell of incense lingering in the air, envelops me. I gaze down the length of the church and fixate on the tabernacle. The place where, when I was little, I believed God lived. I haven’t sat in a church in a long time. My mind is a sickened blank. What to say? What to ask the Almighty?

Almighty my ass. What a sick joke. When was the last time He saved anybody?

If you're game, visit waiterrant and read The God who Drowns. Thanks to Stu for the heads-up.

Oh, and I think the diablog engine is about ready for other people to try out on their blogs. I mean, it compiles and it's not trying to write 1 gig files anymore, so I figure it's pretty safe.

The links in my sidebar should subscribe you to all posts (instead of just one). Give it a whirl.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Curse You, Internet Explorer

Yes, Diablog is broken in IE.

I'm fixing it.

More Stuff by Other People

When things are going badly, it's hard to know what to say about God. Most of the time, I have the luxury of not having to say anything. But some people don't have that luxury: They have to get up and preach a sermon every Sunday. Katherine Torrance is one of these people.

In between our fits of praying and our acts of giving, we also have another task at hand: the important practice of trying to understand the events through the lens of our faith. There are questions to ask—the kinds of questions that don’t easily lend themselves to answers. Why do things like this happen? Why do some people survive and others perish? Does God have a role in natural disasters like hurricanes?

Visit Katherine's blog
to read the entire sermon.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Neck of an Hourglass

In the Gospels Jesus is asked 183 questions directly or indirectly. Of these, he directly answers three! Jesus’ idea of church is not about giving people answers but, in fact, leading them into liminal and dark space, where they will long and yearn for God, for wisdom and for their own souls.

As long as I'm not writing anything but software, I may as well pass along something interesting and readable.

The above quote is from Forty Years in a Narrow Space, by Len Hjalmarson. I originally found this piece with a little help from Grumblefish.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

My Son John

Departing from the buoyant subject of Diablog, Stu sent me a song performed by Boiled in Lead. I assume it is an Irish folk song.

One stanza in particular stands out:

All foreign wars I'll now denounce
'Twixt this king of England or that king of France
I'd rather my legs as they used to be
Than the King of Spain and his whole navy

This pretty well sums up my opinion about the value of this war in Iraq.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Poof! You're all beta testers!

Sorry for my negligence in posting. I've been spending my spare time putting together a little program to do something cool.

Well, at least I think it's cool.

The program is named "diablog", partly in honor of Paul's blog, and partly because it's intended to allow a little more dialog on blogspot blogs.

If you look at the bottom of each post, there's now a button that says "Diablog Me!" and a text area where you can enter your email address. If you put your email address in that box and click "Diablog Me", you will be subscribed to that post. That means that whenever ANYONE adds a comment to the post, the comment will be emailed to you. My intention is to make it easier to remain involved in a conversation about a post.

If this doesn't make sense, tell me.

I'm still testing the program and finishing it up, so please bang on it as much as you like. If you want to test the program on your blog, let me know and I'll help you get set up.

Wow. It can't just be a coincidence that I post this thing and all of a sudden get hammered with blog spam. From now on, we'll have to do that "type in a word" thing.

Another Update:
Has anyone actually tried to subscribe to comments? Because I haven't seen any subscriptions coming down the wire.

And if you wanted to subscribe but you haven't, why not? Is there some barrier to subscription that I haven't thought of?

Somebody should try subscribing and then adding a comment to see if it gets forwarded to their email correctly.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

One Last Look (at things that suck)


"Write the next post!" Stu says. "Wouldja hurry up and post? It's been a freaking week. What ya gonna post about? Huh? Huh? Huh?"

God, I love that man.

Happy birthday, Stu.

The Next Post

Ok, I'm ready to wind up this "things that suck" tirade. Depressing. Let's sprint through this as quickly as possible.

To make it seem faster, let's do it without using a full stop.

Thank you all for your comments and insight and encouragement about my family and about forgiveness it's comforting to see people from parts far distant demonstrating love for me and my family ... makes me smile

(Ick. This is like some well-paragraphed ee cummings freak show. Sorry. I'll stop now.)

Furthermore, I agree with many of the things you said about forgiveness, even some of the things that I argued against. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to play devil's advocate; to question assumptions like "forgiveness is the way of God".

Finally, I'd like to tell you a little bit about my weekend.

On thursday, I went back to the town where I grew up; I drove down to pick up my wife, son, and a moving truck full of my parents' boxes and furniture.

While I was there, I had the opportunity to go back to church for an hour or so. But this wasn't for a regular church service. It was for a funeral.

A young man my sister's age had died - a kid we grew up with - and my dad was performing his funeral.

Now, about my dad and funerals:

My dad prepares for a funeral by sitting down with the family and listening to their stories. He compiles those stories - picks the best of them - and spends most of the funeral telling stories about the deceased. The funny stories are his favorites, and usually they're the favorites of the family as well. So his funerals end up being a combination of sweet and funny and sad, which taken as a package, usally turn out to produce a little comfort as a by-product.

And that's probably nice when you've lost someone you love. You get to spend some time with your friends, enjoying those memories, listening to my dad paint a gritty, beautiful picture of someone you're all going to miss. No obsessing over heaven, no dire warnings about hell, no whitewashing of the person's faults, no platitudes, no false hope. It's difficult for me to explain exactly what he does, but whatever it is, I'm convinced that my dad preaches the best funerals in the world.

So it was nice to get to hear my dad preach another funeral from that pulpit in that church where he's been the shepherd for 20-odd years. My sister and I came in at the last minute and stood in the back ... the place was packed.

My dad did his job: the funeral was spectacular, as usual, especially considering that these were the people who had treated him so poorly.

He had told me a few days before that he was having trouble deciding what scripture might go best with the funeral ... and as you might expect, he ended up with the perfect one: the story of the Samaritan woman, whose love and enthusiasm tapped at the hearts of all the people she knew, making them ring and resonate with the love of Christ.

After my dad had finished speaking and the funeral directors prepared to run the final slide show, I left the crowd and went meandering through the shadowy hallways of the church building. I poked my head into every classroom, trying to remember what grade I had been in when I had gone to class in room 9, trying to remember who my teachers had been.

I looked out the windows and remembered looking out the same windows with church friends who were like my brothers and sisters.

I chuckled at the paintings on the walls of the Junior High classroom; my sister had done one of those clumsy, garish things. There were her initials and the initials of her friends.

Library, a small room, with books to the ceiling.

The tiny, dusty broom closet. The black, cylindrical iron mailbox.

White columns. White steeple. White walls.

Dark stairwells, dark hallways that still figure prominently in my best dreams and nightmares.

And, of course, those people I grew up with. I didn't spend much time with them. When I had finished my tour, I went back to my sister and told her I was going to skip the trip by the casket. I would go and get the car. I was ready to go home.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Things That Suck (Post 3)

For those of you who continue to follow this nonsense: thanks.

The Way of God?

I still need some convincing from Irina and company: What makes you think that "forgiveness is the way of God"?

The Story of Shimei

First, this link to my dad's take on the situation. I suspect that he means to communicate some particular message through the use of this story, but that might not be the case: he might just be tossing it out.

However, for those of us who feel inclined to back David here, let's remember that Shimei is at least being accurate: David is a "man of blood", and in many ways a "scoundrel". As David says, "Leave him alone; let him curse, for the LORD has told him to."

The Letter from My Sis

(I think it's very well done.)

To the Elders of the Church of AH,

Greetings in the name of God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. I hope this letter finds you well.

I know that you have received numerous letters about your choice to ask my father for his resignation in January. This is mine. You would have received it earlier, but I didn’t want it to be considered castigating.

In fact, nothing is further from my mind. I have held you all very dear to my heart–we were family.

I have grown up with your children, learned from you in bible class, attended your family functions and gone to camp with you. I have known some of you since the first Sunday my Dad started preaching at AH, a few months before my first birthday. The rest of you I welcomed into the family with open arms.

So I’m sure you can imagine how devastated I was to hear about the way my father was treated. I admit that I cannot know all the details surrounding his “release,” but I do know one thing: regardless of whatever wrongs he committed and whatever faults he had, I believe he was treated unjustly, because he was treated as hired help and not family.

I believe this set a bad example to the flock (I Peter 5:3) and was not a good way to manage the church family (I TImothy 3:5).

It is my belief that you saw your church in danger, that you were–as the rest of us–watching it fall apart slowly, inch by inch. And so you made a rash decision, lunged out to save something you love. But instead, that decision, and especially the way you handled it, caused more problems and more pain than you anticipated. We all know it caused pain in the AH family at large, and I can tell you that it has caused unspeakable pain in my immediate family and especially in my own life.

My father, as you know, has handled this whole situation very stoically and has–true to form–spent his time trying to ease the pain of the congregation and help its people to move forward in the love of Christ. The rest of our family, however, is having a harder time.

Surely you can understand that I can’t imagine ever attending services at AH again. I believe doing so would have the appearance of my stamp of approval–would send the message that I agree with your decision and the way in which you enacted it. And I obviously do not. I am grieving the loss of my childhood church, the family I have known my whole life, at your hands.

I feel betrayed by you, the men of my own beloved church family, at the treatment of my father, who deserved better if for no other reason than the fact that he had served the Lord and His people at AH for 22 years. But he has also cared for your own families in times of grief, pain and loss as well as those of celebration. And he has done no less for the other members of our AH family, who have expressed their own grief and outrage at the events that transpired in January.

And so, Elders of AH, I write to ask you for an apology. I ask you to apologize to my family at AH as well as my immediate family for how you handled the firing of my father. I am confused as to why it has taken this long, but let’s face it: AH is still in trouble, turmoil and pain. I believe that nothing else but your humility and the love of God will heal the body of AH.

But I want you to know that regardless of what you decide, you have my forgiveness anyway.

So please, for the sake of the people who we all hold dear, consider my request prayerfully.

In Christ,
(the sis)

Monday, August 01, 2005

A better approach to poverty

I think Larry James knows what he's talking about.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Geek Humor

I don't want to stop you all from sharing thoughts about rebuking and forgiving, but I want to break up all the serious with a little geek humor.

The Google bit is ethical, and the Unix bit is current events, so this isn't really off topic, right?

Don't Be Evil
Before it went public, one of Google's guiding principles was "don't be evil". Since the IPO, I've been wondering: is google still upholding this principle?

Now, thanks to the Gematriculator, we can see that is indeed Very Good.

This site is certified 95% GOOD by the Gematriculator

Microsoft, on the other hand...

This site is certified 54% EVIL by the Gematriculator

Backstroke of the West
Thanks once again to Reepicheep, that icon of Geek Humor.

Unix Geek Humor
I don't know if anyone else will get it, but this is pretty freakin' hilarious. It begins:

The War on Terror

As viewed from the Bourne shell.

$ cd /middle_east
$ ls
Afghanistan Iraq Libya Saudi_Arabia UAE
Algeria Israel Morrocco Sudan Yemen
Bahrain Jordan Oman Syria
Egypt Kuwait Palestine Tunisia
Iran Lebanon Qatar Turkey

$ cd Afghanistan
$ ls
bin Taliban
$ rm Taliban
rm: Taliban is a directory

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Things That Suck (Post 2)

Thanks for all your advice and encouragement. I think I'm starting to figure this out. I wasn't really even sure which questions to ask before, but I think I'm gonna be naked by the end of this song.


Sorry. Rogue meme. I meant, I think I'm gonna be able to ask some better questions by the end of this post.

Let's return to my previous "Things that Suck" post and consider your advice.


    Seems like a healthy, Christ-like, rebuke is always scriptural.
    Bryan, Kyle, The Sis, Emilyjane, Stu

    But don't try to get revenge.

    Throw in some scripture for good measure.

    Consider whether your actions are likely to make a difference.

    Don't lose your cool.

    Let them know you are sincerely struggling with how to come to terms with the situation and their motives

    Forgive the elders and let God do the work.
    Irina and The Wife

    Keep peace in the church.
    The Wife

    Consider what forgiveness should look like in this situation.
    The Dad

    Aggravate their sexual prejudices.

    Send them poop in a box.
    The Sis

All reasonable advice. But I'm starting to notice something interesting about it. In general, those of you who call for rebuke do not call for forgiveness; those of you who call for forgiveness do not call for rebuke.

Maybe, as Emilyjane suggests, the two aren't mutually exclusive.

As a disciple of Christ, I have an obligation to consider the teachings and character of Jesus as I decide my course of action. And as I consider things, It seems that Jesus rebuked AND forgave. Jesus smacked those darn Pharisees up one side and down the other ("whitewashed tombs, snakes, blind guides") but if our theology is anywhere near correct, he also forgave them.

Rebuke without forgiveness is unacceptable: as Irina and my wife point out, Jesus was nothing if not forgiving. One of the Big Ideas in the Christian faith is that somehow, the life and death of Christ engaged the forgiveness of God.

On the other hand, forgiveness without rebuke is irresponsible. Let's consider what Jesus is doing when he rebukes the Pharisees: He's laying into the religious leaders who are destroying the faith of God's children. The Pharisees have a responsibility to nurture and love the people they serve; instead they're stomping them into the ground.

Splash Damage

The Dad (k-rewx) points out that it is often harder for spouse and family than it is for the "victim.". This is precisely why both forgiveness and rebuke are necessary.

I think this is a good (simple) Christian model of conflict management:

1. The victim's job is to forgive those who hurt him.
2. The church's job is to rebuke those who hurt the victim.

This keeps the victim from pursuing revenge, and also provides an avenue for the correction of the wrongdoer. However, in this situation, I occupy the roles of both Victim and Church. As the son of the victim, I am indirectly harmed: the victim of "splash damage", so to speak. And because of this damage to me, I have a responsibility to forgive. In fact, if there were no damage done to me, there wouldn't be anything for me to forgive. But as the son of the victim, I am not also the victim himself. Therefore, I also have a responsibility to say something about the injustice being perpetrated upon the victim.

This is a very important concept, one that has huge implications for whether we go about pursuing social justice. Sally can forgive Biff for beating her up, but it makes no sense to say that I can forgive Biff for beating Sally up. That was a wrong done by Biff to Sally, and only Sally can forgive it. Rather than forgiving Biff, my job is first of all to protect Sally from any more victimization, and secondly to help Biff see the error of his ways.

In other words, I have a responsibility to turn my own cheek, but never to turn someone else's cheek.

Doing Something

So now I need to try and figure out what this forgivness should look like and what this rebuke should look like. Paul's suggestions are helpful here: don't be pitiful, and try to do something that will be effective.

Regarding a rebuke, I wonder: What makes for an effective rebuke? And what sort of action is a rebuke intended to cause?

Regarding forgiveness, I wonder: How do I know when I have sucessfully forgiven someone? What sorts of things can help me forgive? And, to encourage me to do this hard thing, what good is forgiveness? Can't I just be angry? What purpose does it serve?

Monday, July 18, 2005

Two Assertions

1. Management is easy to do poorly and hard to do well.

I base this assertion on my experience, the experiences of Bryan and Paul, and, anecdotally, the general bungling of the Bush administration. (Guess where Dubya got his degree.) But I suppose there might be counterexamples ... anyone have stories about good managers they've known? And what made them good managers?

By the way, thanks for your suggestions about my family's church situation. I'm going to process those ideas for a little while longer, and I'll post about them later.

2. This is going to be an interesting site.

I hope its writers succeed in making themselves heard despite the annoyingly loud rhetoric of those who equate Christianity with conservatism.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Things That Suck

Note to readers who happen to be my parents: you may want to skip this one because it's about dad's job.

To begin, a few salient facts:

1. I grew up in the denomination known as the Churches of Christ.

2. The Church of Christ is a congregational church, which means that in theory, there is no power hierarchy beyond the local church.

3. The Church of Christ has no ecclesiology to speak of. In other words, we don't have a theology that specifically informs the questions of who should lead the church and how. However, our emphasis on naively interpreting the text of the Bible means that we have some vague idea of congregational leadership by elders.

4. In addition to elders, who do their governing for free, our churches generally employ a head minister/pastor/preacher/evangelist and a youth minister.

5. For 20-plus years, my dad has been a pastor/preacher/minster/evangelist for a congregation in my hometown.

6. He's not anymore.

It's this last one that has gotten my goat. Not so much that he's not preaching, but the manner in which he lost his job.

I'll need to explain some more.

The way this elder thing works, every so often somebody, I'm not sure who, gets this great idea that we need more elders. Maybe one died or moved away or something. Then members of the congregation nominate certain people - and by people, I mean men - to be the new elders. By some prestidigitatious process, this list is filtered, and the new candidate elders are presented to the congregation. If anyone has a "scriptural objection" to the new elders, they can present it; otherwise, after some undetermined period has elapsed, the candidate elders become real elders.

Nobody really knows what elders are responsible for, but it seems to have something to do with "shepherding the flock", "hiring and firing", "spending the contribution money", that sort of thing.

Now as you might expect, when new elders come into a congregation, there's a shakeup in the existing power structure. Maybe there are now more conservative elders. Maybe more liberals. And maybe some elders become elders and discover that they don't have as much power in the congregation as they had hoped. Particularly if the church has a pastor who's been there 20 years.

What do you think happens in such a situation?

Well, being the cream of the congregational crop, the new elders behave humbly and wisely. They realize that the pastor has invested almost a quarter of a century of full-time and overtime in this congregation, a long stint in the Churches of Christ. Like good disciples, they listen to, and learn from, the experienced pastor.

Unless, of course, the elders are more concerned with their own ego and power in the congregation. Then things go something like this.

First, the elders shake up congregation. They critizize the pastor, try to dictate his sermons, and make his job a ridiculous pain, trying to get him to leave.

The pastor gets the picture. He starts looking for new employment ... employment in another field, if you please. Enough of these damn church people.

But things don't move quickly enough for the elders. The pastor is so entrenched, they can't fire him without getting the congregation up in arms. Instead, they kindly ask him to resign. Concerned by what will happen to the church if he resists, the pastor writes a letter to the congregation explaining that he is "burnt out" and will be resigning. Effective immediately. No last sermon to his congregation. No fond farewells. No hard-earned retirement.

Finally, the pious elders - who are always concerned for the spiritual health of their congregation - make a deal with the pastor: If your family will keep their traps shut about this business, we'll keep paying your salary for six months. (Of course, the pastor didn't have a contract. After 20-plus years, he thought he could trust those people.)

So the pastor has little choice but to accept all of the elders' demands, continue his job hunt and hope his little congregation holds together. As you might expect, he's going to take a heavy cut in pay, particularly since he's hunting for a job outside his field. He and his wife will probably have to move, which means that she has to find a new job, too. And the people who he would turn to in such a situation - his church - are the people who got him into this mess. In other words, things are pretty crappy.

But that was about six months ago, which means we have some distance from the situation.

It also means the statute of limitations on my ire is about to expire.

So my question for you, good friends, is this: Now that I am no longer restricted from doing anything that might be interpreted as "berating the elders", what should I do?

Should I write the elders a letter? Take out a TV ad? Send a chocolate cake?

Should I try to give the elders some perspective, try to make them feel some shame?

Should I raise some "scriptural objections" to encourage their ouster?

I keep trying to figure out what Jesus would do. Maybe you know.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

From the Episcopal Litany for Ordinations

For those in positions of public trust, that they may serve justice and promote the dignity and freedom of every person,
we pray to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear our prayer.

For a blessing upon all human labor, and for the right use of the riches of creation, that the world may be freed from poverty, famine, and disaster,
we pray to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear our prayer.

For the poor, the persecuted, the sick, and all who suffer; for refugees, prisoners and all who are in danger; that they may be relieved and protected,
we pray to you O Lord.
Lord, hear our prayer.

Thursday, July 07, 2005


Or, Beyond Figs and Fronds: Fruit Garnishes and Christian Metaphor

For the last few weeks, discussion on Paul's blog has focused on the different meanings we attach to the word "love". One of his readers (not a native English speaker) provided the following insight:

King Solomon's hymn. In the Orthodox Church this hymn is the symbol of Christ's love for His Church which is seen as His own body. The Church is formed by the Christians who are limes of Christ.

Ah, those limes of Christ.

As I read this, I experienced a flannelgraph vision: Flannelgraph Jesus standing next to a flannelgraph lime tree, tending his limes, keeping the good limes, and throwing the bad limes into the fire.

Flannelgraph Jesus wearing an apron, putting the limes through trials and tribulations so that they might be mushed into the perfect key lime pie.

The flannelgraph faithful singing a flannelgraph hymn, handing out limes and coconuts, encouraging the poor and destitute: "You put the lime in the coconut, drink them both together! Put the lime in the coconut ... then you'll feel better!"

This, of course, I found freaking hilarious. But then I started to wonder what our Orthodox friends would think of my amusement. Heretical? Possibly. Irreverent? Definitely.

And then I started to wonder again ... what's reverence? And what good is it, anyway?

Let's look at a biblical example from Job. For fun, we'll use the King James.

Then said his wife unto him, Dost thou still retain thine integrity? curse God, and die. But he said unto her, Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? In all this did not Job sin with his lips.

Job's wife is obviously encouraging her husband to commit an irreverent act so that God (apparently short on mercy, but stocked up on wrath) will kill him and end his misery. So now you tell me: What's wrong with the advice of Job's wife? Is it the suggestion that Job be irreverent? Is it her bent toward suicide? What?

Bonus question: What the heck is Job talking about when he says we should quietly receive evil at the hand of God?

Monday, July 04, 2005

Burnt Burger Extravaganza!

I spent a few minutes of my Independence Day sitting on the grass next to a softball field, eating a hamburger. The hamburgers and softball were both part of my church's annual Independence Day Softball Game and Fireworks-Watching Extravaganza, which I must say is one of our best social events of the year. The only one better is the Abilene Idol Karaoke Fest, which is nothing less than spectacular. The singing and softball aren't so great - in fact they're often amusingly bad - but both events manage to unite the two main socioeconomic groups in our congregation, and that, in a word, is spectacular.

My church is sometimes called an inner-city church, although Abilene really doesn't have an inner city. It just has a few poor neighborhoods that most of the churches in the city try to ignore, and the people who live in those neighborhoods are the ones we pay attention to.

We also attract lots of students from one of the local Christian universities; I'm not really sure why. Maybe it's because they read the Bible in one of their courses and realize that the church at large is doing a crummy job of caring for the poor. Maybe it's because we're fairly free-and-easy about our doctrine; maybe it's because we expect our members to actually do something other than sit in a pew. Maybe it's because we have a darn good preacher.

Whatever the reason, we've ended up with these two major groups in our church: "community people", who come from the socioeconomically depressed neigborhoods around Abilene, and "college people", who are going to the local university and, on the whole, come from middle and upper-class families. As you might expect, bridging this gap is difficult, and always a work in progress. But it's a work that needs to continue.

A few weeks ago, I asked the following question:

Is there significant racism in the Christian church?

I got a few interesting responses, including this comment from Paul:

As to prejudice in the church, the only thing I have to note in my limited church-going experience is that the churches I've happened to belong to or visit have been basically all black or all white.

As Paul implies, this is not racism per se, and it does not prove that most church members are racially prejudiced. The segregation of the American church could be a historical accident, or it could even be that certain cultures prefer certain forms of worship.

But integrating our churches racially and socioeconomically is much more important than simply teaching people the errors that arise from racial prejudice: As my preacher uncle recently reminded me, one of the church's main tasks is to model a peaceable kingdom to the rest of the world. Where the world is bigoted, the church must show acceptance. Where the world is merciless, the church must show mercy. And where the world is frenetic, the church must show peace.

So practically, it doesn't really matter whether the segregated church or its members can be called "racist". What matters is that the church is continuing to allow a kind of segregation that Jesus disdained. (Consider how Samaritans are treated throughout the gospels.) Not only does this segregation make the church less than unified, it also makes Christians look ridiculous to the outside world, ultimately diluting their witness to the power of Jesus.

Friday, July 01, 2005

About me

Not much to say, today. Maybe I should just make a

by Stephen Dobyns

The Nazi within me thinks it's time to take charge.
The world's a mess; people are crazy.
The Nazi within me wants windows shut tight,
new locks put on the doors. There's too much
fresh air, too much coming and going.
The Nazi within me wants more respect. He wants
the only TV camera, the only bank account,
the only really pretty girl. The Nazi within me
wants to be boss of traffic and traffic lights.
People drive too fast; they take up too much space.
The Nazi within me thinks people are getting away
with murder. He wants to be the boss of murder.
He wants to be the boss of bananas, boss of white bread.
The Nazi within me wants uniforms for everyone.
He wants them to wash their hands, sit up straight,
pay strict attention. He wants to make certain
they say yes when he says yes, no when he says no.
He imagines everybody sitting in straight chairs,
people all over the world sitting in straight chairs.
Are you ready? he asks them. They say they are ready.
Are you ready to be happy? he asks them. They say
they are ready to be happy. The Nazi within me wants
everyone to be happy but not too happy and definitely
not noisy. No singing, no dancing, no carrying on.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Monday, June 27, 2005

The End of the Universe

I work on the fifth floor of a five-story office building. Five stories might seem short unless you've been to West Texas, and then you understand that I can look out the east side of the building and see Fort Worth, out the west side and see El Paso.

Five floors directly beneath my office, in the basement, is a large, open room. A church used to meet there on Sundays. I've always wondered what it would be like to worship in the basement of an office building. I suspect it would be a lot like worshipping in a hotel conference room, which is what I did on Sunday.

On Wednesday evening, my wife, my kid and I bade a fond farewell to the Riverwalk, hopped in the car and began our drive to Dallas, where we would have the privilege of participating in that Fabulous Waste of a Weekend that is often known as a family reunion.

On Friday and Saturday, we did some fun family reunion things, like talk religion. At one point, I found myself seated in the study of a fairly opulent house - complete with hidden room behind the bookshelf - discussing reformed theology and the racial segregation of the Christian church.

In fact, I was kind of surprised that we didn't have more discussion about religion; my sister, who is currently working her tail off in Oakland as part of the Mission Year program, had recently sent a letter to her sponsors - many of them family members - criticizing our particular religious tradition and expressing fear that the church of Christ Mafia would soon be coming after her. Those of you who aren't part of the church of Christ tradition, relax. There is no church of Christ Mafia. If there were, it would have disposed of Max Lucado long ago.

Because our religion is a significant part of our family identity, we usually have a family worship service. On Sunday morning, we all crawled out of bed and made our way to the hotel's Bluebonnet Room.

As I was walking down the hall to the Bluebonnet, I noticed that the hotel had three conference rooms. Ours was the middle room; the first had a sheet of paper that read something like, "Harvest Church International will meet in the Magnolia Room".

"Interesting," I thought. "Two churches. But we probably won't be meeting at the same time."

As I entered the Bluebonnet Room, I noticed that while it contained a folding table at the front and two groups of folding chairs with a center aisle, the Bluebonnet Room did not contain any actual bluebonnets. Also, it wasn't a room. It was the middle third of a long room that had been partitoned using those carpet-covered wall divider things.

"Boy," I thought. "I sure hope that we aren't meeting at the same time as that other church."

By about 9:40, most of the family had gathered in the Bluebonnet Room and taken their seats. We began church with some singing, which we manage without instruments and, on this occasion, which was facilitated by a fairly loud songleader.

Before we could begin singing, a chant started in the Magnolia Room, on our right. It was facilitated by a tambourine. Our songleader hurried to begin our own singing, which I felt sure would drown out the poor chanters with the tambourine, and proclaim us to be the Religious Victors of the Holiday Inn.

Then, from the room to my right, I heard an odd hum. Was that an amp clicking on?

It was. A guitar, a female vocalist and a folksy praise tune quickly subverted both the tambourine and our stalwart a capella chorus.

Eventually, everyone finished their songs and settled down into the contemplation phase of their worship. Everybody did their church thing, and we even beat the Baptists to lunch.

But something about the whole exercise awakens this odd feeling, this insistent tugging at the leg of my mental pants. It's similar to the tug I get every Sunday, when I drive past a Baptist church and a church of Christ that just happen to be located across the street from another Baptist church.

It just seems slightly ridiculous, doesn't it?

But can we do instead?

Thursday, June 23, 2005

It's Thursday Already?

Ok, Ok, I said I would post on Monday, but I lied. Gone to our national users conference for work; scarcely time to breathe, much less write.

Now it's over, though, and I have some time to reflect, particularly on things that I've eaten. The conference was in San Antonio, so we ate on the Riverwalk several times. I know this is off-topic, but if you're going to San Antonio, Texas any time soon, try the following places on the Riverwalk:

Fancy kind of Southwestern stuff. They make guacamole at your table. It's fun.

Italian. Calamari made from strips of giant squid, apparently. Don't miss their appetizers.

This restaurant is on the second level. Don't go to the pizza place on the first level. I recommend the Tortellini Victoria with shrimp. Yum.

Don't go to:

Rio Rio
Not so great. They served my margarita in a tumbler. What's that all about?

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Curse of a Cluttered Mind

Three things.

Thing #1: The frequency at which I post to this blog.

It needs to be more consistent. Occasionally, I'll drop something every day; more recently, I've been posting once, maybe twice a week. And if you care to read my stuff, it must be annoying to check and not find anything.

So here's the deal: I'll post something every Monday and Thursday. I may post more frequently, but if you've been taking periodic hits of the crack cocaine that is my blog, here's a schedule for you: Monday and Thursday.

Maybe not crack cocaine. Maybe more like cigarettes.

Maybe a foot rub?

Thing #2: Book tag! I like books. I think I'll briefly respond to Paul's blanket book tag.

Total books ever owned: Probably about 100.

Last book I bought:
What are People For? by Wendell Berry. It was a gift.

I'm reading:
Blogs, and more blogs. Also, Lying Awake, by Mark Salzman. Gift from my sis.

Five books that mean a lot to me:
These aren't all good books, but they're responsible for a large chunk of my psyche:

Red Branch, by Morgan Llywelyn
No longer impressed by the writing, but it Celtified me.

The Gospel of Mark
This Jesus guy rocks.

The Once and Future King, by T.H. White
Taste the seductive kiss of the well-written fantasy novel.

Tortilla Flat, by John Steinbeck
Eh, I just love Steinbeck.

The Problem of Pain, by C.S. Lewis
And now I'm hooked on mediocre philosophy.

And now, three people who should consider themselves tagged:
Shane, K-Rewx and Bryan.

Thing #3: A question for you smart people.

Today at lunch, a bunch of us were talking about the appropriate relationship between the church pulpit and politics. One of us insinuated that racism is prevalent in the church. Several others questioned that assertion.

So are my questions to you:

Is there significant racism in the Christian church?
And what makes you think there is, or isn't?

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Those Darn Mossimos

This weekend I met Randal.

Randal looks to be in his early 50's. He wears a few days' worth of sad grey stubble, a beige cap with cloth flaps that cover his ears, and spectacles held together with medical tape. It's easy to see the dip stains between Randal's teeth, because Randal talks a lot. About all sorts of things.

When you meet a guy sitting on a street corner, a lot of times the guy wants to talk about why he's on the street corner. Or, in Randal's case, why he's coming to pick up his wife, who is panhandling at the intersection of an access road and a four-lane highway.

I've known Randal's wife, Deborah, for several months now. I see her every morning at 8 a.m., marching from her pitiful rent house to this intersection on the edge of town. She always comes to this intersection, even though it's on a highway with sparse traffic. The cops make her move from the intersections in town, she says. At this intersection she can sit all day, hoping people will toss her some rent money. But I hadn't yet met her husband.

I pull up to the intersection with two leftover blueberry muffins and a jug of ice water that Deborah had asked me to refill. Randal's bike is parked next to the concrete island where Deborah camps out, and he is sitting next to her, laughing about something.

I hand the water to Deborah.

"Matt," she says, "this is my husband, Randal.". We shake hands.

"I'm a welder," Randal says. "Least I used to be, until those mossimos came around and started taking my welding jobs."


"Mossimos?" I think.

After a few minutes of diatribe, I figure out that the Mossimos are probably Mexicans, although they could be Italians or Russians, I guess. Whoever they are, they are partly to blame for the loss of Randal's welding job. Them and the robots.

"Robots?" I ask.

The robots, of course, are the other force responsible for the country's economic downturn. Industrial robots, the kind that make cars.

"Ok," I think, glad I brought sunglasses to hide behind. "I'm meeting a racist ex-welder."

Then, perhaps to prove his welding prowess, Randal starts telling me about his bike. It looks like a tandem bicycle, but with a sidecar. On the back, Randal has affixed a 4-cycle, 5-horsepower Briggs & Stratton engine.

"Like a lawnmower engine," I say.

It is, Randal explains, just like a lawnmower engine. But he's made some modifications to keep the engine cool.

At this point, Deborah stops paying attention to us and resumes making pitiful faces at the passing cars.

Randal, on the other hand, is engrossed in our conversation. He talks for a good 10 minutes about the air scoop he added, and how he can get 150 miles per half-gallon of gas, and how he can get his bike going 30, maybe 40 miles an hour, and how he can pull his two nephews (200 and 190 lbs) from Abilene to Tye (that's where they live).

"150 miles per half-gallon?" I ask.

Yes, he says. His motorcycle is the wave of the future, what with gas prices being so high. It's much more fuel-efficient than any car, and therefore better for the environment. But that's nothing compared to the air-powered cars and electric cars and vegetable oil cars that are coming. Why, a good electric car can accelerate as fast as a Dodge Viper! And his motorcycle is also good because you always kill the engine at stoplights.

"Ok," I think. "Add inventor and environmentalist."

"Yeah," Randal says, "My daughter had a dream about how I sold it on Ebay for $30,000. So I wrote them a letter to find out what I need to get an auction started. I thought I might try to sell it for $1,200, because then I could build another one."

"Entrepreneur," I add, smiling and nodding.

About this time, a black truck zips by.

"Get a job!", the passenger shouts, helpfully.

"If only your mom hadn't spent all her money on crack," I think. But I don't say anything.

"You know," Randal says, "the president and government and stuff think that we're over there to protect the oil. But I think God has us over there for a different reason. We're over there to protect Israel."

A zionist! I manage to pull myself together behind my sunglasses.

"Oh," I say.

Randal goes on to tell me some other things: How the river of life will be restored, and how computers are the tool of the beast, and how we will all have to give up our cash money, and have little grains of rice implanted in our foreheads.

After some discussion, I agree to put together Randal's motorcycle auction on Ebay, although I suppose this makes me his emissary to the beast. We shake hands again, and Deborah gives me an embarrassed grin. She squeezes into the sidecar. Randal mounts up, checks for traffic, and pedals his bike out into the intersection. I hear the motor start, and watch the 9-foot motorcycle race down the highway.

"Hm," I say. I climb into my gas-guzzling Toyota and drive home.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Fruit Flies

Gentle readers beware! The following article contains graphic descriptions of Fruit Fly Sex!

Single Gene Controls Sexual Orientation of Fruit Flies

This is an interesting article, mostly because it repeatedly uses the words "sex" and "fruit flies". On the other hand, it contains some particularly nasty material, including the following statement from from Dr. Michael Weiss of Case Western Reserve University:

"Hopefully this will take the discussion about sexual preferences out of the realm of morality and put it in the realm of science."

What? That doesn't even make any sense.

The discussion about sexual preferences can't be "taken out of the realm of morality." Science can ask questions about the mechanisms behind sexual behavior, but the rightness or wrongness of such behavior is inherently a moral question.

So if you get into a discussion about homosexuality anytime soon, please disregard the wild goose of "genetics vs. environment". If eating plums is immoral, then I shouldn't eat them, regardless of whether I want to. Same goes for kissing my wife, kissing your wife, playing kickball, reading books, feeding the hungry, or having homosexual sex.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Put Down Yer Dukes

Sandefur's latest post regarding government and commerce was very helpful: he's obviously given a lot of thought to these sorts of issues. But sadly, it looks like we're coming to the end of our discussion. Sandefur is hanging up his blogging gloves.

In light of this revelation, I'm going to try and bring some sort of closure to the argument. I'll begin with a blatantly simple summary of our argument.

ST. PIERRE: Humans are greedy little beasts, so the government should redistribute wealth.

SANDEFUR: The greedy ones are the ones who want to redistribute the wealth! Redistribution of wealth is tantamount to robbery.

ME: I agree. Redistribution of wealth is tantamount to robbery. But allowing the market to proceed unchecked is tantamount to oppression. So redistributing some of the wealth is morally justifiable.

SANDEFUR: Your premises are bad. Capitalism is not inherently oppressive because wealth is not a zero-sum game.

ME: Ok, but it doesn't matter that wealth can be created. What matters is that capitalism excludes people from the market based on factors that are beyond their control. It's oppressive because there is no real correlation between wealth and virtue.

SANDEFUR: No, capitalism is not oppressive. Most of the time, people who work hard increase their wealth. And even if it were oppressive, trying to ensure that people can keep what they have is more important than trying to ensure that everyone gets a fair shake.

And while I'm at it - can you provide a principle that justifies government intervention in providing for material needs, but restricts government attempts to provide for spiritual needs?

ME: [Scratches his head] Well, I'm going to continue to insist that capitalism is inherently oppressive. While capitalism may increase the absolute wealth of a society, what matters more is power in a society, which is determined by relative wealth. And over time, pure capitalism is guaranteed to concentrate relative wealth in the hands of a very few people.

To address the other question: Government should attempt to intervene in the market because there is a right to pursue property, but it should not attempt to enforce spirituality because there is a right to religious freedom.

SANDEFUR: Aha! Your name is no longer Matthew, it is now Mike.

ME: Um, Ok.

SANDEFUR: Furthermore, the only legitimate role for government is to protect people's rights. It doesn't harm anyone for me to practice my religion, so the government can't regulate it. It doesn't harm anyone for me to make money, so the government can't take it. In fact, I have a right to keep it, so the government must defend that right.

ME: Anything else?

SANDEFUR: Well, capitalism isn't oppressive, viz. burgers and blankets. Also, the right to pursue property, as you've defined it, is not a right. Get your stuff together, Mike.

ME: My name isn't Mike.

SANDEFUR: [Leaves.]

After considering this discussion, I think we have two major disagreements - three if you count the one about whether my name is Mike.

1. What is the extent of the legitimate role of government?
2. Is capitalism inherently oppressive?

I'm going to briefly summarize my answer to these two questions, and then I'll be done.

First, I think that the legitimate role of government may extend beyond the protection of the rights of people. I think it may include some secondary role, such as encouraging virtue. But I don't have enough theory to back up such an assertion, so I'll just leave it until I've done some more reading.

Furthermore, I am rethinking my wording regarding capitalism and oppression. I think it makes sense to talk about a system or a society or a person being oppressive, but capitalism is none of these - it is a relationship between government and the market. Therefore, I think I would be better off talking about the tyranny of a society that chooses never to intervene in the market. Such a society would be tyrannical because in choosing never to intervene, it would guarantee that the wealthy would continue to oppress the poor.

This is because, as we observed earlier, the market does not reliably reward virtue. Instead, it gradually funnels wealth into the hands of the people who begin with the most resources.

And as we discussed before, this relative wealth corresponds to real power. Not just power to get things, like cars and Rolex watches, but the power to make people do things. Sometimes this power is expressed in multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns. Sometimes in controlling the work lives of thousands of employees. Sometimes in bribing politicians. But this economic power is as real as physical power, and often more effective.

This, I think, is one thing about the libertarian position that really bothers me. Economic power and physical power are treated entirely differently.

In other words, it's OK for the government to have a monopoly on violent coercion, because then it can protect me from Big Joe who would walk in, beat me up and take my stuff. But it's wicked for the government to attempt to redistribute a little wealth, much less control the means of production, even though this would protect Poor Joe from wealthy me!

So to answer badger's question, yes, I do think it's useful to seek rational principles that could moderate the government's role in religion and economics. If nothing else, the seeking exposes our own ignorance or prejudice. If we're lucky, it may even help us decide how to vote.

Therefore, I'm going to bid a fond farewell to Timothy Sandefur, and hope that we meet more interesting people like him as this blog continues.

Or maybe I could bait Sandefur into coming back.

ME: Ayn Rand sucks!

Friday, May 20, 2005

Why I'm going fishing on Sunday morning

Aaaand we're back. After spending a series of weekends traipsing across the height and breadth of Texas visiting relatives, my 4-month-old son has discovered a deep theological truth: Carseats are hell.

Now be forewarned: This post is going to be fairly lengthy, because I'm returning to my endlessly diverting discussion with Sandefur and St. Pierre.

In a recent post, Sandefur poses a question for me:

Continuing our conversation about the market, virtue, and everything, I have a question: should people be forced to join a church?

It can’t be reasonably argued that every person-or even that most people-for whom religion isn’t an important part of life is a convinced atheist. Instead, the discrepancy is largely the result of ignorance: people who haven’t read the Bible; who haven’t attended church when they were kids; who don’t really know what Christianity is all about. You might say these people have been “crippled,” in a sense, by their families or surroundings, in that they will live and die without really being exposed to the teachings of God. This is certainly not fair to these people. They may not know it, but they are in serious moral and personal danger, through no fault of their own. Should this not be remedied by forcing people to attend church?

A few paragraphs later, he recasts the question:

On what principle ... can we say that “society” should be responsible for people’s material needs, but should leave them free to run their own lives when it comes to their spiritual needs?

Before I seriously engage this question, l'd like to juxtapose it with our previous discussion of taxation, social services and capitalism. In previous posts, we've been discussing whether it is a good idea for a government to tax people to pay for social services. I use the vague phrase "good idea" here because I can't come up with anything more specific. Sometimes we seem to be arguing that such taxation is (or is not) morally justifiable; in fact, this was what I tried to do in my "thieves and oppressors" post. More often, though, we seem to be arguing about whether such taxation would be (or would not be) part of the Best Possible Government. I suppose the moral justification argument would be an important part of this argument, because we would want our ideal government to be completely morally justifiable. Therefore, I'd like to make a few more comments on moral justifiability before I move on.

My argument for the moral justifiability of social programs leans heavily on another argument: namely, that free-market capitalism is inherently oppressive. In the interest of clarity, let's pause here to define some terms.

When I use the phrase "free-market capitalism", I am referring to a relationship between government and commerce. Namely, I am referring to the relationship in which government makes no laws regarding commerce. In a free-market system, there would be no tariffs, no regulation of monopolies, no minimum wage. To maintain this relationship, the government might go so far as to include in its constitution a restriction such as: "Congress shall make no law respecting commerce." While nothing about free-market capitalism prohibits the creation of social programs by the government, income taxes and social insurance would probably have the deck stacked against them.

When I use the term "communism", I am referring to a relationship between government and commerce in which the government controls the means of production. Factories, refineries, electrical utilities: all are owned by the government. In this system the government is a social program, hence the sister term "socialism".

Now from a moral standpoint, capitalism is flawed in two significant ways: First, it imperfectly rewards virtue, and sometimes rewards vice. I may work 15-hour days to make my small grocery succeed, but if a mountain of capital such as Wal-Mart moves in down the street, all that hard work is for nothing. Meanwhile, a factory boss gets wealthy by exploiting poor workers.

Second, in a capitalistic system, power inevitably shifts from many people to few people. This is because capitalism is a resource game, and those who have resources are best equipped to get resources. This traps the poor in what's sometimes called the poverty cycle, a well of no resources from which they are unable to escape. And while overall economic lift may occur when the rich choose to invest their money (as Sandefur argues), those who have resources will continue to gain more resources, and the wealth gap in the society will continue to grow.

The distinction between overall wealth and relative wealth is critically important here. Overall wealth determines comfort, but relative wealth determines power. Because wealth gradually shifts toward people who began with the most resources, power is gradually funneled into the hands of fewer and fewer people.

If you don't buy this, take a moment to think about the effect of the compound interest. Let's say I start with $1000 and you start with $10. If we both simply stick our money in savings accounts that earn 2% interest, this is what we get:

Year 0: difference of $990
Year 1: difference of $1009.98
Year 25: difference of appx. $1600

So even if the wealthy had no resources other than money, the wealth gap would continue to grow.

But I digress. My point is that it's morally justifiable to tax rich people to pay for social programs if the social programs helped relieve some of the moral problems inherent in free-market capitalism. And my point before that was that Sandefur's question about church bypasses the moral justification debate and takes us back to the wider debate about the Best Possible Government.

So now I'm going to attempt to answer Sandefur's question: What principle justifies my saying that the BPG should include social programs but not "spiritual" programs?

I'll begin by mentioning that the BPG discussion is not one of constitutional law. While I wholeheartedly agree with Sandefur when he says that the Constitution is a spectacular bit of design, the particulars of our constitution don't matter in this discussion, because we're talking about the government that ought to be. Therefore, I can't simply answer his question by saying, "Forcing people to go to church is unacceptable because the First Amendment has an establishment clause prohibiting such laws, but there is no comparable restriction on the redistribution of income."

But now I must apologize to Sandefur, because I'm about to utterly demolish his argument, completely shatter it, brutalize it and make it cry for its mommy.

The principle that justifies social programs and prohibits religious programs IS ...

Um ... yeah. I can't think of one. And the more I think, the more I am convinced: I can't come up with a single principle that always provides justification for social programs and always prevents the government from forcing people to go to church.

The simplest thing I can come up with is this list of four assertions.

1) The government should never infringe upon the rights of its citizens, except when these rights conflict.
2) The right to be free from religious coercion is a legitimate right.
3) The right to keep one's property is a legitimate right.
4) The right to pursue property is a legitimate right.

Some comments on each of these assertions:

Protection of Rights
I don't think this needs much explanation. Randal has a right to bear arms, but if he begins interfering with peoples' right to live, the government is justified in taking Randal's guns.

Religious Freedom
This means that people should be able to freely practice their religion, but possibly more importantly, it means that the government should never force people to participate in any sort of religious activity. While I think that a few people might be more virtuous people, and have better lives, if they were forced to go to church, I think that most of the population's virtue and quality of life would be unaffected. Besides, putting the power of government together with the power of religion results in a concentration of power that is just too dangerous to be allowed.

Right to Property
Here's where things start to get all messy. Most of us believe that people have a right to keep their property, which probably includes their income. However, we tend to think it's OK for the government to deprive people of their property if the people are given some sort of due process and convicted of obtaining that property illegally. This suggests that there is some relationship between a person's right to property and the virtue that was involved in obtaining that property.

Now I'm not suggesting that the government should be able to sail in and take money from pornographers because James Dobson says pornography is wicked. I am simply asserting that there is some sort of connection between virtue and property rights.

This is significant, because it means that if we assume wealth is primarily a result of virtue, we tend to support a strong right to property. If, on the other hand, we suppose that wealth is primarily a result of chance, or of a particular economic system, we tend to support a weaker right to property. This affects how we view the relationship between the right to property and the next right I'll discuss.

Right to Pursue Property
In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson offers as important rights "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", modifying John Locke's triad of rights - life, liberty, and property*. (To be fair, Locke also wrote a few things about the pursuit of happiness.) This encourages some people to posit a "right to pursue property".

In protecting the right to property, the government has both negative and positive responsibilities. It must not take people's property itself, and it also must ensure that people are able to keep the property they have. Similarly, the right to pursue happiness has a negative and a positive side. The government must ensure that it is not itself a significant impediment to the pursuit of happiness, and must work to create a society in which all of its citizens have the chance to pursue happiness.

Somewhere between the two lies the right to pursue property. It is a less ambitious right than the right to pursue happiness, but more difficult to ensure than the right to keep one's property. In the context of this discussion, I think it may be better understood as "the right to an opportunity to increase one's wealth". And in a purely capitalistic society, the poor have no significant opportunity to increase their relative wealth. Therefore, a capitalistic society contains an inherent a conflict of rights.

So what?
If all four of these assertions stand, then it becomes clear why I support government-driven social programs and do not support forcing everyone to go to church. If there is a right to be free from religious coercion, but no right to learn virtue, then the government should respect the right to be free from religious coercion.

And if there is a right to property, and also a right to pursue property, then taxation presents a legitimate conflict of rights - in fact, it's a double bind. You can't allow the wealth gap to continue to widen because it deprives more and more people of their right to participate in the market. On the other hand, you can't take money from people and give it to other people without threatening the right to property.

And as I have asserted in previous posts, the right thing to do in this situation is to split the middle. A government that chooses capitalism as its economic system has a moral obligation to address the harms of poverty, and attempt to break the cycle of poverty. But because its citizens also have a right to the property they have already acquired, it must also attempt to protect the right to property when gathering wealth from its citizens.

*Some people suggest that the original draft of the Declaration of Independence read "life, liberty and the pursuit of property", rather than "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." However, when I look at the draft, I can't see any evidence that this is so.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

In the meantime...

(Update: Two posts from Sandefur, here and here. Responses coming as soon as I can get enough time to form a coherent thought.)

'Bout to be out of the loop for a few days.

In the meantime, here's something from Mike Cope's blog that you can chew on.

The Christian Affirmation document is at

And yes, "Christian Affirmation" seems to be an Orwellian name. Those of you who grew up in the Church of Christ tradition will probably get it. The rest of you will think it's the most ridiculous thing you've ever seen.

Feel free to discuss, but please forego any disparaging comments about signatory James Thompson's moustache.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Ante up!

Sandefur makes two good arguments challenging my previous post.

First, he argues against my premise that life is, on some level, a competition for resources. He points out that in modern society, wealth is not a zero-sum game. So as I make money, I am not necessarily taking it away from other people. In fact, if I invest the money (in a business or bank) I may be providing other people with the opportunity to make money.

This is an excellent point, because it encourages us to refine our thinking about economics. If Ann has 1000 businesses, or even 1000 Rolex watches, there's no reason to believe that she is doing the society any harm. In fact, if Ann has 1000 businesses, she's probably improving the standard of living for the people around her.

The obvious question is: If money can be created, why don't we all have as much money as we want? And why do whites have proportionally more money than blacks?

I suspect that Sandefur would attempt to explain this disparity based on virtue. In other words, the rich are more virtuous than the poor - they work harder - and therefore they have more money. (I doubt that he would go so far as to assert that whites have proportionally more virtue than blacks.) But having some personal experience with the poor, I feel justified in saying that this explanation is inadequate. We cannot characterize the poor as "moochers" and "looters". Some poor people are lazy. But some rich people are lazy, too. And some poor people work extremely hard. So I don't think that this explanation is sufficient.

Instead, I would argue that our current distribution of resources has little to do with virtue and more to do with the fact that you must have resources to get resources. If this is true, my first premise stands: Life really is a competition for resources, and some of us start out so far behind that we can't compete.

Second, he questions my use of the word "oppression". How can free-market capitalism be characterized as oppressing the poor?

Pure capitalism is oppressive because it excludes the poor from the market based on factors that are beyond their control. In particular, it excludes them based on poor schooling, bad family life, skin color, weak social connections, and lack of capital. People with mental and physical disabilities are also marginalized.

Capitalism might work perfectly if everyone started out with equal resources. But in the current system, you have to ante up to play, and a lot of people can't make the ante. If you realize this, and allow the system to continue unmodified, I think it would be fair to characterize you as oppressing the poor.

Now if Sandefur disagrees and says that the poor have equal opportunities to generate wealth, this is the point we will have to debate. But if he agrees, we can ask another question that I think is more interesting: How should we change the current system?

Briefly, I'll state my opinion.

First, I think that we should create government programs that mitigate the immediate harms that result from the imbalance of resources. Government-sponsored health care would be one such program. Welfare would be another.

But I also think that we should work to re-balance the system by empowering the poor. As a society, we should help the poor get resources - such as healthy families and good schooling - that will really help them play in the market. Creating these valuable resources, more than handing out money, will help alleviate our oppression of the poor.

(Update: new posts from St. Pierre and Sandefur. And guys, please try to spell Sandefur's name right.)

Friday, May 06, 2005

Thief or Oppressor?

(Update: Sandefur has seen fit to comment on the post below .. and he makes a good point. More later.)

For the last day or two, Mr. Sandefur (a lawyer) and Mr. St. Pierre (a Software Engineer) have been using their blogs to argue about libertarianism. This is not unusual for Sandefur, whose blog makes it clear that he is a staunch libertarian. Their argument centers on one of the key injustices that libertarians propose to fix: the theft implicit in paying for social programs with tax dollars.

Theft, you say? Yes, Mr. Sandefur rightly asserts. If the taxee does not agree to be taxed, taxation is theft. To enforce this point, let's suppose that while I'm walking home from work today, a robber leaps out from behind a garbage can.

He screams, "Give me all your money!"
"No," I say.
"Give me all your money, or I'll shoot you."
"OK," I say, and hand over my money.
Satisfied, the robber takes my money and leaves.

I continue my walk home, and soon an IRS agent approaches me. Crap. I missed the filing deadline.

"Pay your taxes," he says.
"No," I say.
"Pay your taxes or you're going to jail," he says.
"I'm not going to jail," I say.
"If you don't cooperate, I'll shoot you," he says.
"I didn't know that IRS agents got guns," I say.
"This is Texas," he says. "Everybody has a gun."
"Good point," I say, and write him a check.
Satisfied, the IRS agent takes my money and leaves.

Of course, the workings of government are a bit more convoluted than this. In particular, the fact that citizens vote for their representatives means that they have some input into how much they are taxed and what these revenues are used for. Also, there's the consideration that some of the taxes will be used for "public goods": things that all citizens derive benefits from (and, some might argue, derive those benefits in proportion to the amount of money that they put into the system). But if I'm in the minority, or if the system isn't working, and I decline to pay my taxes, the government has the option to come after me using force. I don't see how you can avoid equating this with robbery. Therefore, we shouldn't tax people because we might end up spending it on things they wouldn't approve of. Right?

Let's look at the other side of the argument.

First, let's suppose that both Sandefur and St. Pierre are correct in asserting that people are "greedy little beasts."

Second, let's suppose that at some level, life is a battle for resources. A resource is anything that can be used to fulfill a need or desire.

Third, let's observe that all resources can be used to get more resources. Examples: food, shelter, wit, knowledge, money, property, family connections, physical strength.

Fourth, let's notice that the people who are best suited to get resources are the people who already have resources.

If this is an accurate picture of the world, then it seems obvious that over time, the balance of resources will shift toward the people who begin with the most resources. And once people get into the well of No Resources, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to get out. Allowing this sort of oppression, I think, is morally unacceptable. Hence our dilemma.

And it's a textbook ethical dilemma: you're wrong if you steal from the rich, and you're wrong if you allow the rich to oppress the poor. So what should we do? I think we have to accept guilt on both sides and try to split the middle.

A government that allows resources to flow as they will avoids the problem of "theft" discussed earlier, but it would also result in a dramatically unbalanced distribution of resources. A government that enforced an equal distribution of resources ... well, it sounds fair, but communism just doesn't seem to work.

What seems to work? A government that allows an unequal distribution of resources, but occasionally steals from the (undeserving) rich and gives to the (equally undeserving) poor.

So instead of arguing about stealing and oppression, I'd like St. Pierre and Sandefur to suggest where a line might be drawn. How much stealing from the rich is too much? How much oppression of the poor?

Wednesday, May 04, 2005


will the wind ever remember
the names it has blown in the past?
and with its crush, its old age and its wisdom
it whispers no, this will be the last.

and the wind cries

Monday, May 02, 2005

Journalistic Balance

Well, my wife just told me that Jeff's song is actually TEN times funnier when you hear the music, which, being translated, means: "Without the music, it's not really funny at all."


So as penitence for ruining a pretty funny song, and for repeatedly dogging on my Church of Christ heritage, I'm going to link you to something good that comes out of our tradition.

Manhattan Church of Christ Resources

The kiddy stuff is nice, I guess, but what you really want to peruse is A Community Without Barriers: Women in the NT and the Church Today. (Unless you speak Spanish, and then you want Una Comunidad sin Barreras. You'll probably also want to read the Spanish translation of this blog, which will be available just as soon as I become fluent in something other than Spanish curse-words.)

One of the nice things about our tradition is that it's very interested in knowledge, and also very interested in the Bible. This accounts for the fact that some of the world's best biblical manuscript scholars have come out of the Churches of Christ. (I'm sure there must be a better term than "biblical manuscript scholars", but you guys are going to have to help me on that one.) For me, this means that it's easier to respect the text while critiquing it, floating somewhere between the Bible-bashers and the Bible-worshipers.

A Community Without Barriers is a study guide written by Dr. Thomas L. Robinson, the senior minister of the Manhattan Church of Christ. It investigates what the NT has to say about women, giving particular attention to Jesus' interactions with them.

Robinson's guide is good because it encourages the church to realize the full humanity and equality of women. But it's really good because it does so without exploding the traditional Church of Christ hermeneutic. In other words, it doesn't flagrantly break any of our rules for interpreting the Bible, which makes it accessible to (the tradition's) moderates, and even some conservatives.

If you don't have time to read the full 120 pages, at least read the chapter summaries. Nothing earth-shattering there, but you might get hooked and read the whole thing.