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Monday, November 25, 2013

The First Thanksgiving (A Repost of Sorts)

Two years ago I wrote that Thanksgiving is the American Exodus story ("Thanksgiving and American Civil Religion"). Just like the ancient Israelites, many of whom didn't descend from those who fled from Pharaoh but later joined with those who did, most Americans don't descend from the Pilgrims but have joined with those who did by adopting the Thanksgiving story as their own. On the 4th Thursday of November, most of us join family and friends and either implicitly and explicitly recall the first Thanksgiving. How we recall the first Thanksgiving, however, may not be entirely accurate. In fact, what may have actually happened is the subject of the a re-podcast on Tony Gill's "Research on Religion" ("Tracy McKenzie on the 'First' Thanksgiving"). Here's a brief description of the podcast from the Research on Religion website:
Just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday here in the United States, Prof. Tracy McKenzie (Wheaton College) takes us on a tour of the world of the Pilgrims who landed in Plymouth. We discover who they were, how they worshipped and the interesting (not commonly known) history of The “First” Thanksgiving. More than just a “grade school” understanding of this American tradition, Prof. McKenzie challenges Christians to engage in a deeper understanding of their own history. This interview will make for great conversational tidbits around the dinner table! 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

What the Oregon Ducks Could Learn from Phil Couchee

Most Giants fans will remember that when in the 6th game of the 2002 World Series, Giants' manager Dusty Baker took the Giants' starting pitcher, Russ Ortiz, out of the game with the Giants leading the Angles 5-0, Baker gave the game ball to Ortiz even though there was still almost three innings left to play in the game. In doing so, Baker violated one of the cardinal rules in sports: don't say or do anything that'll give the opposing team something to rally around. In this case, Baker acted as if the game was in the bag, but as any baseball fan will tell you, "It ain't over until it's over." And sure enough, the Angels rallied, scoring three runs in the bottom of the 7th, another three in the bottom of the 8th, and finally winning the game 6-5. They then went on to win the 7th game of the World Series the following night.

Baker could have learned a thing or two from Phil Couchee, one of my youth league coaches and one of the best coaches I ever had, at any level. He taught us never to assume we'd won a game until it was over and the gear (i.e., baseballs, catcher's equipment, etc.) was sacked up, ready to go. In fact, giving the game ball to Ortiz is akin to sacking up the gear before the game is over. Indeed, one of Phil's teams once found itself down several runs, heading into the top of the last inning, and the other team started to sack up the gear. Phil's son, Mike, noticed, and yelled, "Look! They're sacking up the gear. They're sacking up the gear. They think they've won!" (or something to that effect). And we responded by scoring several runs and winning the game (I'm guessing that was the last time the other team's coach ever sacked up the gear early).

Texas Longhorns' coach Mack Brown (and his staff) committed a sin similar to Baker's last year in a game against West Virginia ("It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over"). West Virginia had jumped out to a 21-7 lead, but then Texas came back and tied the game at 21-21. As the game-tying touchdown was under review, the Texas stadium's disc jockey played the early 1990s dance hit "Jump Around," and most of the Texas fans started jumping around, as did the entire Texas Longhorn football team (along with a few coaches). But the game was only in the 2nd quarter. I know if I'd been West Virginia, I would've been a little put out if I'd had looked across the field and saw the other team dancing as if they'd already won the game. Not surprisingly, West Virginia won the game in the end.

Contrast this with former 49er head coach, Bill Walsh. To the best of my knowledge, in the lead up to a game he (or any of the 49er players) never said anything that the opposing team could post on its locker room bulletin board. I don't know if it was an official policy or not, but the Niners seemed to go out of their way to complement their opponents (there must have been a few slip ups along the way but I don't remember any).

That apparently isn't the case with the current 49ers. Prior to their match up with the Seattle Seahawks back in September, Niner running back Anthony Dixon tweeted that the team was "prepping for the 'She-Hawks,'" which, as one commentator noted, provided the Seahawks with "unnecessary motivation" ("Anthony Dixon Offers Seattle Unnecessary Motivation with 'She-Hawks Tweet"). NFL observers know that the Seahawks crushed the Niners a few days later.

Urban Meyer, who won two national championships when he coached Florida and is currently undefeated as the head coach of Ohio State, has a similar policy to Bill Walsh's. The players are not allowed to speak in public and are taught to talk about their teammates, their team, and to always be respectful of the team they're getting ready to play or the team they had just played. In fact, recently when one of his players, Evan Spencer, stated that Ohio State would "wipe the field with both of them" (referring to #1 Alabama and #2 Florida State), Meyer remarked ("Urban Meyer: I Can't Stand That!")
I'm very disappointed, I can't stand that. Our players are taught [not to do that], and I know Evan well enough and I even talked to him briefly and he was kind of smiling the way he said it. But, no, I can't stand it. He's certainly not the spokesman for our team. As a result, Evan won't talk to the media for a long, long time. You don't do that. It's not good sportsmanship, and that's not what we expect. ... Talk about your teammates, talk about the team and move on.
Which brings us to the Oregon Ducks, whose players (well, a couple) have been sticking their feet in their mouth lately. First, it was De'Anthony Thomas stating that the Ducks were going to score at 40 points against Stanford (they didn't and lost 26-20), and then it was Thomas again, along with teammate Josh Huff, publicly expressing their disappointment of having to settle for the Rose Bowl rather than play for the National Championship, even though they still had to win three more games to qualify for the Rose Bowl (they didn't and lost big to Arizona this past week). Instead of being as critical of Thomas and Huff as Meyer was of Spencer, Oregon coach Mark Helfrich called their comments, "part ignorant, part out of context." No doubt they were, but they still didn't help the Duck cause against Arizona.

That is not to say that it wasn't appropriate for Thomas to think they would score 40 points against Stanford and to feel disappointed that they weren't going to play for the National Championship, but there are some remarks that are suitable for public consumption and some for the locker room. These belonged in the locker room.

Would the Ducks have beat Arizona (and Stanford) if Helfrich kept his players from speaking to the media? It's hard to say, but it certainly wouldn't have hurt, which is why Helfrich could learn a thing or two from Urban Meyer. And from Phil Couchee for that matter.

P.S. The Phil Couchee connection isn't as far-fetched as it might seem at first. Phil's son, Mike, pitched for the San Diego Padres and was one of the coach's for the 2002 World Series Champion Angels (he has a ring). He was there when Dusty handed the ball to Ortiz.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Practicing Gospel

Most of us think of "theology" as an academic discipline (often with a philosophical bent) that belongs in the hallowed halls of universities, divinity schools, and seminaries but not in the day-to-day life of the church. As theologian Edward Farley has noted
[Theology] refers to something that has to do with the head not the heart, with philosophy not scripture, schools not churches, books rather than life. Even when theology is not a pejorative term, it suggest something on the margin of life, ministry, and congregation ("Practicing Gospel: Unconventional Thoughts on the Church's Ministry," p. 4).
According to Farley, however, it was not always this way. In the early Church, theology was the domain of all believers, but over time its domain has narrowed so that it is now only "practiced" by professional theologians, those who have a PhD in theology or a closely-related discipline, such as theological ethics or philosophy.

Farley laments this narrowing because Christian theological reflection, in its most practical sense, is simply the interpretation of situations in light of the Gospel (i.e., the interpretation of situations in light of Jesus' life, ministry, death, and resurrection). As he notes the question isn't whether we will interpret situations or not. Rather, the question is whether we'll interpret them in light of the Gospel or some other ideology (secular or otherwise).

This's why Farley is so adamant that theological education belongs at the congregational level. Some will (or at least should) occur through worship and the listening to sermons, but that is often not enough. Instead, what's needed are robust educational programs (for adults, youth, and children) that equip Christians with the tools necessary to interpret what happens around them and in the world in light of the Gospel. Otherwise, we could interpret them in terms of the latest ideological or social scientific fad (not that all ideologies or social scientific theories are fads -- but many are).

Of course, Farley's argument applies to other faith traditions as well. Muslims should be equipped with the tools to interpret situations in light of Islamic theology, Jews in light of Jewish theology, Buddhists in light of Buddhist philosophy/theology (some Buddhists embrace a notion of god, some don't), and so on. But this is unlikely to happen if faith communities continue to treat theology as something that exists on the margins of their life and ministry.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

C.S. Lewis: In Memoriam

On September 8, 1947, C. S. Lewis was featured on the front of Time Magazine with the caption: His Heresy: Christianity. As some readers know, Lewis was a novelist, poet, literary critic, and academic. He held academic positions at both Oxford University (Magdalen College), 1925–1954, and Cambridge University (Magdalene College), 1954–1963. He was also good friends with J.R.R. Tolkien of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings fame. Today, he is best known for his fictional work, in particular The Chronicles of Narnia, but at the time of the Time Magazine cover, he was probably best known for his wartime broadcasts on Christianity, many of which served as the basis of his classic book on Christian apologetics, Mere Christianity.

Lewis was not always a Christian. Although he had been baptized in the Church of Ireland, which was part of the Anglican Communion (i.e., the Church of England), he fell away from his faith when he was 15; he later described his young self as being paradoxically "very angry with God for not existing." Largely due to the influence of Tolkien and some other friends, Lewis first embraced theism in 1929 and Christianity in 1931, albeit quite reluctantly. He joined the the Church of England much to the disappointment of Tolkien, who had hoped he join the Roman Catholic Church (Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic). Because Lewis had fallen away from the faith and was drawn back kicking and screaming, following his conversion, he was called "The Apostle to the Skeptics."

Interestingly, although Lewis was an Anglican, of which the American Episcopal Church is a part, Lewis has found a larger following among evangelicals than among mainline Protestants. In fact, the flagship evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, named Mere Christianity as the best book of the twentieth century.

Lewis is commemorated on the 22nd of November in the church calendar of the Episcopal Church, which marks the day he died in 1963. In fact, he died the same day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated (Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, also died the same day), which is why his death received little press coverage at the time. To mark the 50th anniversary of his death, this Friday Lewis will be honored with a memorial in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey.

Lewis is also the subject of the latest Research on Religion podcast, "Micah Watson on C.S. Lewis," which can be downloaded from iTunes or listed to at the Research on Religion website. Here's the summary of the podcast:
On the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’s death, we take a moment to review his life, times, and writings with Micah Watson, an associate professor of political philosophy at Union University in Jackson, TN... We begin with a general overview of Lewis’s life, growing up in Northern Ireland, his drift away from Christianity, his astounding brilliance in school, his time as a soldier during WWI, and then his gradual return to the Christian faith. In somewhat of a non-synchronous fashion, we flitter in-and-out of his time at both Oxford and Cambridge, mixing intellectually with the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien and Owen Barfield. We then develop the intellectual themes of his writing, both fiction and nonfiction. We learn about the wide range of genres and styles of writing that he undertakes, including everything from apologetics to science fiction to children’s books and poetry. His broad repertoire — including radio broadcasts — earned him some cautionary disrespect from his intellectual colleagues, but also allowed him to reach audiences that he may not have had access to otherwise. 
Prof. Watson walks us through some of Lewis’s works, including The Space Trilogy, and how he developed his immaginative thoughts. We learn how Lewis uses imagery and narrative to circumvent the ”watchful dragons” of more orthodox Christianity. Prof. Watson considers Lewis’s ability to speak in the vernacular to a non-academic audience one of the main reason why he remains so popular today. He also notes that following a debate with G.E.M. Anscombe, Lewis stops writing pure apologetics and weaves his defense of Christianity into a more nonfiction narrative style. Given Micah’s own interest in political theory, we also talk about natural law and Lewis’s political views, which were never strongly stated but were nonetheless present in his scholarship. The interview ends with Micah’s reflections on how Lewis has influenced our contemporary intellectual landscape and his own personal development as well.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Want to Double Your Kids' Chance of Injury? Have Them Specialize in a Single Sport

It's been a while since I wrote about the connection between sports specialization and the increase in youth injuries ("Aristotle, Virtue & the Youth Sports-Injury Epidemic," "Kids and Sports: How Young is too Young? How Much is too Much?," "Overuse, Not Curveballs, Hurts Young Arms"), but a recent series on youth sports in the San Francisco Chronicle ("Injuries Exploding as Youths Focus on One Sport") has once again highlighted the dangers of youth specializing in a single sport. To be sure, there are benefits to specializing. It "can sharpen skills and even set young athletes on the path to scholarships and college success. But it also means more repetition, more strain and more injuries." To wit:
Overuse injuries are responsible for nearly half of all sports injuries to middle school and high school students. Specialization is a logical culprit. A report this year by the sports medicine department at Loyola University of Chicago found that "kids are twice as likely to get hurt if they play just one sport as those who play multiple sports."
The exponential increase in youth sports injuries has led the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine to help launch StopSportsInjuries.org, which is a website devoted to educating parents and youth about sports injuries.

A related problem is burnout. It is not uncommon for kids to dedicate themselves to one sport starting at a very young age, and then reach their junior or senior year of high school and not want to play anymore. Or, I am aware of instances where they had actually earned scholarships to Division I programs and decided they no longer enjoyed playing ("On Athletic Success").

One of the sources quoted in the article encourages young athletes not to specialize until they reach high school. Personally, I don't think they should specialize until college (if they get that far: less than 1% of high school athletes get a Division I college scholarship and only about 5% go on to play sports in college). Kids bodies develop at different rates, and they may not excel at a particular sport until "late" in their careers (e.g., I played college baseball with someone who went to college on a golf scholarship). But, if they've already given that particular sport up, they'll never know.

Bottom line: Encourage kids (1) play as many sports as reasonably possible (we don't want their parents to be run ragged); (2) take breaks from every sport they play in order to avoid injuries from overuse; and (3) don't specialize until college. It's pretty simple.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Steven Colbert, Catholic Comedian


Back in October, comedian Steven Colbert, who is host Comedy Central's The Colbert Reportwas the keynote speaker at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, which was held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. With NY Cardinal Timothy Dolan sitting next to him (see picture above), Colbert remarked that Dolan's outfit of robes and cap made him look like a "flamboyant Zorro" and joked that he was "proud to be America's most famous Catholic" (yes, Colbert is a Roman Catholic). He went on to say
And I'm sure the Cardinal is thinking, 'Stephen, pride is a sin.'  Well, Cardinal, so is envy, so we're even.
He also poked a little fun at Pope Francis, nothing that if the Pope had planned the event, it would've been held at the local iHop restaurant (Source: The Christian Century, November 13, 2013)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

International Day of Prayer for Persecuted Christians: November 10th

Today is the International Day of Prayer for Persecuted Christians. Some may scoff, but according to the International Society for Human Rights, 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world are directed toward Christians. In fact, according to The Pew Forum, between 2006-2010, Christians faced some sort of discrimination in 3/4 of all the nations of the world (139 to be exact), and by one estimate as many as 11 Christians are killed each hour somewhere in the world. As noted in the most recent issue of The Christian Century (November 13, 2007, p. 7):
In Eritrea, one of the earliest Christian countries in the world, a military compound has been turned into a prison complex housing 2,000 to 3,000 Christians. They are imprisoned because they are part of a small independent Protestant community that is not approved by the government... 
Of the 65 churches in Baghdad, 40 have been bombed since the United States' invasion of Iraq in 2003. Iraq had a flourishing Christian community of 1.5 million at the start of the war; now it is a third that size. In Egypt, 40 Coptic churches were burned and looted in August in a wave of attacks blamed on radical Islamists. In September a suicide bomber attacked a church in northwestern Pakistan, killing 85 people. Living under strict antiblasphemy laws, Christians throughout the country are being accused of blasphemy because of their Christian convictions. In Syria, Christians are caught in the cross fire of a civil war and are targeted by radicals on both sides. 
Persecution is occurring not only in the Middle East but in Nigerian, Kenya, Burma, India and North Korea. North Korea may be the worst place in the world to be a Christian; it's believed that a quarter of the country's Christians live in forced-labor camps.
However, as John L. Allen, Jr., author of the The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution, notes that this persecution is the greatest story not being told in the 21st century. Why? Allen believes that one reason is that because many of us have learned about Christian imperialism, we have a hard time believing that Christians can be among the oppressed and not always the oppressor. And as The Christian Century points out, "others are wary of the anti-Muslim fervor that fuels some people's focus on Christian persecution." And while, no doubt, this latter point is true, it isn't an excuse for looking the other way when a religious community is being persecuted, whether it's Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, or something else (Source: The Christian Century, November 13, 2013).

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Aristotle and the Righteous Mind

For decades, the conventional wisdom concerning moral development was that our moral selves begin as blank slates and then are formed and developed through our interactions with the world and our exercise of reason. This perspective has fallen on hard times in recent years, however. Steven Pinker ("The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature") and others have discredited the notion that we're born with the blank slate, and moral psychologists (along with evolutionary, cognitive and neuropsychologists) have demonstrated that we are appear to be born with intuitive understandings of right and wrong, which is why most of use routinely make moral judgments about other peoples’ behavior without really thinking why. In fact, when we're asked why, we often have a hard time articulating a reason.

For example, Jonathan Haidt ("The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Religion and Politics") and his colleagues have run a series of experiments in which he asks people to imagine a variety of scenarios in which the subjects do disturbing things but harm no one in the process, such as “imagine eating your dead pet dog,” “imagine cleaning your toilet with your nation’s flag,” or “imagine someone having sex with a dead chicken before cooking it for dinner,” and in almost every case, his subjects felt immediate disgust. But when asked why, seldom could they provide a reason. They just did.

What’s more, Haidt has run these experiments in a variety of settings, from the slums of Brazil to the universities of the U.S., and he has found that across cultures, people share similar moral instincts. Of course, he had to alter the scenarios so they’d fit the culture in which they were presented, but he and his colleagues have consistently found that people in different cultures react similarly to analogous scenarios. This suggests that our moral intuitions a prior to culture, not after, that they’re deeply embedded within our psyches, that they’re something with which we’re born. This is not to say that there’s no moral variation across cultures. There is. But it appears that most of us are born with similar moral intuitions that are then modified through our interactions with the societies in which we live and move and have our being. As David Brooks notes:
Jonathan Haidt, Jesse Graham, and Craig Joseph have compared these [inclinations] to the taste buds. Just as the human tongue has different receptors to perceive sweetness, saltiness, and so on, the moral modules have distinct receptors to perceive certain classic situations. Just as different cultures have created different cuisines based on a few shared flavor senses, so, too, have different cultures created diverse understandings of virtue and vice, based on a few shared concerns (Brooks, "The Social Animal," p. 286).
In fact, Haidt and his colleagues have developed a theory (Moral Foundations Theory) that has identified six moral intuitions: (1) care/harm, (2) fairness/cheating, (3) liberty/oppression (4) loyalty/betrayal, (5) authority/subversion, and (6) sanctity/disgust. I've discussed these previously ("Miley Cyrus and Moral Outrage"), so I won't rehash them here. Briefly stated, what their research has found is that the blank slate is a myth; all of us are born with similar moral instincts, which are then modified by the cultures in which we live.

Why is this? It’s largely due to the way we think. As I've noted in previous posts ("Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow"), our minds engage in two types of thinking: one intuitive, one reflective; one instinctive, one deliberate; one fast, one slow. Most of the time, however, we react instinctively without reflecting on what we’re doing. And a lot of the time this is a good thing. As we listen to others speak, we don’t have think about every word they utter. If we had to, we’d be incapable of carrying on conversations. Likewise, when we’re driving, when someone cuts us off or slams on their brakes, we act instinctively. If we had to abstract away from what was happening, we wouldn’t last two seconds on our nation’s highways. This is not to imply that our reflective self never plays a role; it does, and it often keeps us in check, but reflective thinking’s hard work and takes a lot of mental energy, which is why a lot of the time, we operate on autopilot, unaware of how our unconscious guides our behavior.

Unfortunately, our intuitive self doesn't always act the way we'd like it to. We're a mix of selfish and moral instincts, and the former often carry the day. All is not lost, however. We may be guided more by our selfish instincts than our moral ones, but as Aristotle (and the Buddha) argued long ago, we can cultivate our moral instincts through repetition and practice. This isn't rocket-science. Academics, artists, and athletes have known this for centuries. We may be born with innate intellectual, musical, or athletic ability, but if we don't practice, if we don't turn our talents into habits, into virtues, we'll never become great academics or artists or athletes.

So it is with the moral life. However, as Aristotle also pointed out, we can't know what practices to cultivate without first knowing what the goals we seek are. We first have to consider what our ends and purposes are before we can know what is right and good and just. Put more simply, we can’t know what the right thing to do is without a prior idea of what constitutes what is good. Take health care, for instance. If the ultimate goal is to make a profit, then it’s perfectly legitimate to limit the time that doctors spend with their patients so that they can see as many as possible. But if the ultimate goal is to provide quality health care, then the right thing to do is to insure that doctors spend as much time with their patients as needed. In short, our goals, what we consider to be good, drive what we consider to be right and good and just.

Moreover, as Michael Sandel reminds us ("Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do"), as hard as we try, we can’t separate our beliefs about right and wrong from the social circles in which we are embedded. It’s impossible for us to separate our notions of what is good from the moral claims of the communities in which we’re embedded. Complete objectivity and complete neutrality are noble goals, but they’re quixotic ones, which is why we can’t derive principles of justice apart from a prior conception of what’s good. Unfortunately, most political and moral discourse doesn't focus on what is good but on what is just, which is why many of us talk right past one another.

But even recognizing that we should begin with what constitutes the "good" rather than what is "right" doesn't guarantee that we'll reach agreement on various hot-button issues. That is because our moral communities often disagree with constitutes what is "good." Nevertheless, it is the place to start. We need to attend to the various conceptions of what the purposes and ends of the good life are. Does this mean that through deliberating about the ends we serve we can resolve all issues that will come before
us? Of course not, but as Sandel notes
A just society can’t be achieved simply by maximizing utility or by securing freedom of choice. To achieve a just society we have to reason together about the meaning of the good life, and to create a public culture hospitable to the disagreements that will inevitably arise (Sandel 2009:261).
Reasoning together requires, however, that we respect the opinions of others. Calling them silly, ignorant, morally bankrupt, or stupid accomplishes nothing other than making us feel good about ourselves (self-righteousness can be emotionally satisfying but is generally unhelpful in building a civil society). Instead, we need to take the approach advocated by Jonathan Haidt in his essay, "What Makes People Vote Republican." In it, he begins by summarizing the typical explanations that psychologists, most of whom are political liberals, have offered for why some people are conservatives:
Conservatives are conservative because they were raised by overly strict parents, or because they are inordinately afraid of change, novelty, and complexity, or because they suffer from existential fears and therefore cling to a simple worldview with no shades of gray. These approaches all had one feature in common: they used psychology to explain away conservatism. They made it unnecessary for liberals to take conservative ideas seriously because these ideas are caused by bad childhoods or ugly personality traits. I suggested a very different approach: start by assuming that conservatives are as sincere as liberals, and then use Moral Foundations Theory to understand the moral matrices of both sides ("The Righteous Mind, p. 164).
What a novel idea. Begin by "assuming that conservatives are as sincere as liberals." Of course, such advice cuts both ways. Conservatives will also have to come to the table assuming that liberals are as sincere as conservatives. Will it happen? I doubt it, at least not among the partisans on both sides who are so convinced that they're right that they can't see past their own ideological blinders (it must be great being them). But I do have hope for rest, who somewhere along the way, learned that for now we only see through a glass darkly (1 Cor. 13:12).

Monday, November 4, 2013

What's Normal?

Once when I was exploring various blogs, I came across a blogger who stated that he'd started his blog in order to figure out why some people are religious. By framing the question in this way, however, he's almost certainly biased whatever conclusions he arrives at. It reminds me of academics who search for reasons why people vote "Republican." It's as if "Republicanism" is some sort of disease of which people need be cured. And like such academics, the blogger appears to regard religion as a disease in need of a cure, which if found, could rid the world of religion and then everyone could become like him: normal.

From a statistical point of view, however, given that most of the world is religious, it is people of faith, rather than those without faith, who are normal. As the sociologist Peter Berger cogently observed back in 1996 (The National Interest, #46):
A few years ago the first volume coming out of the so-called Fundamentalism Project landed on my desk. The Fundamentalism Project was very generously funded by the MacArthur Foundation and chaired by Martin Marty, the distinguished church historian at the University of Chicago. A number of very reputable scholars took part in it, and the published results are of generally excellent quality. But my contemplation of this first volume gave me what has been called an "aha! experience." The book was very big, sitting there on my desk--a "book-weapon," the kind that could do serious injury. So I asked myself, why would the MacArthur Foundation shell out several million dollars to support an international study of religious fundamentalists?
Two answers came to mind. The first was obvious and not very interesting. The MacArthur Foundation is a very progressive outfit; it understood fundamentalists to be anti-progressive; the Project, then, was a matter of knowing one's enemies.
But there was also a more interesting answer. "Fundamentalism" is considered a strange, hard-to-understand phenomenon; the purpose of the Project was to delve into this alien world and make it more understandable. But to whom? Who finds this world strange? Well, the answer to that question was easy: people to whom the officials of the MacArthur Foundation normally talk, such as professors at elite American universities
And with this came the aha! experience. The concern that must have led to this Project was based on an upside-down perception of the world, according to which "fundamentalism" (which, when all is said and done, usually refers to any sort of passionate religious movement) is a rare, hard-to-explain thing. But a look either at history or at the contemporary world reveals that what is rare is not the phenomenon itself but knowledge of it. The difficult-to-understand phenomenon is not Iranian mullahs but American university professors--it might be worth a multi-million-dollar project to try to explain that!
In short, what constitutes normal is largely a matter of perspective. This does not make all perspectives equally valid, but it should give us pause and make us consider whether it's others who are in the need of fixing or whether it's us. Or to paraphrase a wise philosopher, perhaps we should take the plank out of our own eyes before we remove the speck out of the eyes of others.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

When You're Hot, You're Hot

I believe it was San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich who last year remarked that he cared less about what seed his team earned for the playoffs and more about whether his team was hitting on all 8 cylinders when the playoffs arrived. True to form, although the Spurs did not earn the top seed in Western Conference for last year's NBA playoffs (the Oklahoma City Thunder did), the Spurs reached the NBA finals and almost upset the favored Miami Heat in the finals. (It is also worth noting that the Spurs have won four NBA championships and were only the top seed in two of those four years.) Put simply, in order to win a major professional championship, whether its the World Series, the Stanley Cup, the Super Bowl, or the NBA's O'Brien Trophy, not only do you need to be good (in order to reach the playoffs), but also you have to hot, you need to be peaking, as the 2008-09 San Jose Sharks (winners of the President's Trophy), the 2012 Texas Rangers (the best team in April and May), and 2013 Dodgers (who were virtually unbeatable in June and July) painfully discovered. Or as the late Jerry Reed put it, "When You're Hot, You're Hot, When You're Not You're Not!"