Monday, February 28, 2011

The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Part III: The Jesus Seminar

The Jesus Seminar is a group of about 150 biblical scholars founded by Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan under the umbrella of the Westar Institute. It held its first meeting in March of 1985 at the Pacific School of Religion. The seminar votes to decide their collective view of the historicity of the deeds and sayings of Jesus of Nazareth. The seminar has produced a new translation of the New Testament and published their results in three books: The Five Gospels in 1993 (the 5th Gospel is the Gospel of Thomas), The Acts of Jesus in 1998, and The Gospel of Jesus in 1999. They also run a series of lectures and workshops (The Jesus Seminar on the Road) in various cities across the United States.

 One of the stated purposes of the Jesus Seminar was to develop a scholarly consensus on the sayings attributed to Jesus in the New Testament and other early Christian writings. Another was to raise the biblical consciousness of people in the pews. Many of the Jesus Seminar's members lament the fact that pastors do not pass on to their parishioners what they learned in seminary.

Typically, the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar have earned a Ph.D. in New Testament studies although there are exceptions, such as Paul Verhoeven, who doesn't hold a Ph.D. in biblical studies but a M.Sc. in mathematics and physics and has made his mark primarily as a film director.  Most are professors at North American universities although there are a few from overseas.  They come from a variety of Christian denominations although most are either Roman Catholic or from Mainline Protestant, rather than Evangelical Protestant, denominations.

Data and Methods

The Fellows met twice a year, and each meeting focused on a particular collection of sayings.  Members would write and circulate papers on the collection of sayings that was being discussed at the upcoming meeting, so that at the meetings themselves the Fellows would discuss the sayings rather than listening to people presenting their papers.  Each saying was discussed until no one had any more to say, and then they would move on to discuss the next one.  Once they completed their discussion, the Fellows would then vote by secret ballot, dropping one of four differently colored beads into a ballot box.
  • A red bead meant that a Fellow believed that the words were the authentic words of Jesus
  • A pink bead meant that they believed that the words closely approximated what Jesus said
  • A gray bead meant they believed the words weren’t Jesus’ but they may reflect his ideas
  • A black bead meant Jesus definitely did not speak them
Someone else proposed that the meanings could be understood as follows:
  • Red = “That’s Jesus”
  • Pink = “Sure sounds like him”
  • Gray = “Well, maybe.”
  • Black = “There’s been some mistake.”
They then tallied the votes and the results are summarized in “The Five Gospels,” which represented the first phase of their study. A second study examined the historicity of the events surrounding Jesus, "The Acts of Jesus." More recently they've turned their attention to Paul's letters.

Rules of Evidence and Assumptions

Like all contemporary biblical scholars, the Jesus Seminar follows a number of rules of evidence, which I'll cover in a later post since they are not unique to the Jesus Seminar. However, in their discussion of these rules (The Five Gospels, pp. 16-34) they include a number of rules that are actually a priori assumptions concerning Jesus and the Gospels, which not surprisingly influence their conclusions about Jesus. Here are a few examples:
  • The oral memory best retains sayings and anecdotes that are short, provocative, memorable--and oft-repeated (p. 28)
  • The most frequently recorded words of Jesus in the surviving gospels take the form of aphorisms and parablies (p. 28)
  • The earliest layer of the Gospel tradition is made up of single aphorisms and parables that circulated word of mouth (p. 28)
  • Jesus’ sayings and parables cut against the grain of the dominant society (p. 31)
  • Jesus rarely makes pronouncements or speaks about himself in the first person (p. 32)
  • Jesus makes no claim to be the Messiah (p. 32)
Results and Conclusions

The Seminar concluded that of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the five gospels, only about 18% of them Jesus actually said (red and pink sayings). Other findings included:
  • Parables and Aphorisms: Jesus’ parables and aphorisms consistently ranked highest in the voting. This is not terribly surprising considering the first three assumptions listed above. That is, if prior to voting one of your "rules of evidence" is that the only sayings in the Gospels that can be traced back to the historical Jesus take the form of aphorisms and parables, then you shouldn't be too surprised when the votes are tallied that Jesus' parables and aphorisms end up at the top of your list.
  • Jesus’ self-understanding: Jesus did not speak of himself as “Messiah” or “Son of God,” nor did he think of his death as having some greater purpose. Again, not a surprising conclusion given that one of the Seminar's a priori assumptions was that Jesus rarely made pronouncements about himself. spoke about himself in the first person (I guess he was kind of like Bob Dole in that regard) and made no claims to be the Messiah.
  • Gospel of John: They concluded that John’s Gospel reflects little of the historical Jesus but is rather the creation of the community formed after the resurrection. Again, not surprising, since in the Gospel of John Jesus speaks in long discourses rather than in short pithy sayings.
  • Eschatology (Last Things): The Seminar consistently voted “black” all sayings in which Jesus speaks about the “end of the world,” the last judgment, the coming of the Son of man, his own second coming, and so on.  Marcus Borg says this is “news” because it is a rejection of Albert Schweitzer’s conclusion. Not all NT scholars agree with Borg, however; in fact, most disagree (e.g., Bart Ehrman, Amy-Jill Levine & Paula Fredricksen).
  • Kingdom of God: The Seminar voted “black” all the sayings of Jesus where Jesus speaks about the kingdom of God as occurring in the future. The Seminar voted “pink” and “red” many of those where he speaks about the kingdom as being in the present.
  • The Lord’s Prayer: The Seminar voted that Jesus did not teach the Lord’s Prayer as we find it in the Gospels. They did conclude that parts of it were traceable to the historical Jesus.
As should be clear a number of the Seminar's conclusions follow directly from their prior assumptions, which has made them the target of a number of criticisms, often from other contemporary (liberal) scholars who don't share all of their assumptions (e.g., the agnostic Bart Ehrman), which is one of the reasons why the Seminar's goal of developing a scholarly consensus on the sayings attributed to Jesus has not been reached. However, the Seminar has done a fairly decent job of raising biblical consciousness of people in the pews. The introductory chapter of "The Five Gospels" is an excellent summary of what contemporary New Testament scholars do, and Robert Funk was a master at marketing the Seminar's work.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Part II: Background

In an earlier post ("Why the Quest for the Historical Jesus is Good for Mainline Protestant Ethics") I argued that quest for the historical Jesus was good for mainline Protestant ethics because it provided mainline Christians with a sense of Jesus' life, ministry, death and resurrection from which they could derive an ethic that distinctly Christian. I also hinted that there were some methodological problems associated with the quest, and it is to that topic and others that I will begin to take up.  Before all of that, however, I thought it would be helpful to provide some historical background on the scholarly quest for the historical Jesus. Generally, scholars divide up the quest into three different quests, so that is how I organize this post.

The First Quest for the Historical Jesus

The first quest for the historical Jesus refers to the numerous attempts by various scholars from the mid-eighteenth century to the early twentieth century to use modern biblical criticism to discover who Jesus was, what he said, and what he did.  Most of the early quests were attempted by deists. Most assumed that Jesus was not divine, or at least not uniquely divine, and that God does not get involved in human affairs.  From their perspective, God is like a great clock maker, someone who wound up the world and let it go.

Although Hermann Reimarus (1695 – 1768) was not the first person to quest after the historical Jesus, he is generally seen as the founder of the movement. Reimarus concluded that Jesus wasn’t divine, that the miracles of the Bible didn’t happen, and so on.  Reimarus did not publish his findings during his lifetime, probably out of fear of what the Church might do to him. Instead, his student and friend Gotthold Lessing published his study after he died.

Reimarus heavily influenced David Strauss (1808 – 1874), who argued that there should be an "unprejudiced" investigation into the life of Jesus, by which he meant an investigation that was untainted by religious convictions (he evidently believed that it was OK, though, for such an investigation to be tainted by agnostic or atheistic convictions). Strauss assumed that the Gospels were full of myth and could not be taken at face value, so to discover what Jesus actually said and who he was, we need to first peel away the Bible’s myths and the miracles, and that is what he attempted to do.

There were a number of others who attempted to uncover the historical Jesus, and most of them assumed at the outset that miracles couldn’t happen, that Jesus wasn’t divine or at a minimum, that he did not consider himself to be divine, that the Resurrection didn’t happen, etc., but then along came Albert Schweitzer.

Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) was something of a renaissance man. He was an academic, a world-renowned organist, a medical doctor and a biblical scholar who gave up his academic career to found a mission hospital in Africa (Lambaréné Hospital – Republique du Gabon) for which in 1952 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  In 1906, when he was 31, Schweitzer wrote a book called the “Quest for the Historical Jesus” in which he summarized the various attempts to discover who Jesus actually was, what he said, and what he did. He concluded that most of these accounts were more autobiographical than historical. He believed they reflected the biases of the scholars themselves, rather than told us much about who Jesus actually was. “These scholars looked in the mirror, saw themselves, and said, ‘That’s Jesus.’”

Schweitzer’s book essentially ended the first quest for the historical Jesus. Part of the reason was that his analysis presented a Jesus that many academics were not interested in following.  Most of the first questers assumed that central to Jesus’ teachings was what Jesus called the “kingdom of God,” and that this kingdom, rather than something that would arrive in the future, was something that we can discover here and now.  Schweitzer argued that just the opposite was true. He concluded that Jesus truly believed that arrival of God’s kingdom was a future event that would occur in the near future.  Schweitzer didn’t believe in such an event, but he did believe that Jesus believed in one. In other words, Schweitzer thought that Jesus was mistaken, and because most academics concluded that Schweitzer was right, they were disheartened. They didn’t want to study, follow and worship an apocalyptic (and apparently mistaken) Jesus – so much of the motivation lying behind the first quest went away.

Schweitzer’s study also raised the question whether anyone can be objective enough to bracket out their own personal biases when studying the historical Jesus. Many concluded that it was impossible. Some went so far to argue that the historical details of Jesus’ life and ministry aren’t important for the Church. What is important, is the Christ of faith, by which they seemed to mean how Christians encounter the risen Christ in their lives.

The Second Quest for the Historical Jesus (1950 – 1970)

By the 1950s, however, scholars began to reject this position, arguing that if historical details of Jesus’ life could be uncovered, then they should be relevant for the Christian faith. Ernst Kasemann (1906-1998) helped give birth to the second quest, and he was joined by several other scholars, such as Herbert Braun (1903-1991), Ernst Fuchs (1903-1983), Gunther Bornkamm (1905-1990), Gerhard Ebeling (1912-2001), Hans Conzelmann (1915-1989), Walter Schmithals (1934- ) and James Robinson (1924- ) (Robinson is also considered as an active participant in the third quest).

The second quest viewed Jesus as completely dissimilar from the Judaism of his day and early Christian teaching, and from this perspective there developed one of the most important rules that scholars still use in identifying whether a particular saying of Jesus is genuine: namely, the principle of "discontinuity" which holds that when the Gospels report that Jesus did or said something that was different from prior Jewish tradition or later Christian teaching, then the saying or deed is probably authentic. They based this rule on the belief that that Jesus must have stood out from "human culture in order to have been memorable, compelling and original" (Catherine Murphy, The Historical Jesus for Dummies, p. 57).

While the principle of discontinuity still functions as one of the rules for identifying authentic deeds and sayings of Jesus, a lot of scholars found (and find) the rule implausible. "They wondered how anyone could have understood Jesus if he was so unusual" and "how could a tradition have developed after him that had so little continuity with his teachings?" (Murphy, p. 57). Thus, scholars started to develop new approaches to understanding the life of Jesus, one that argued that Jesus was best understood as a Jew and that his authentic teachings could be distilled from early Christian teaching, and it was these new approaches that helped set the stage for the third quest.

The Third Quest for the Historical Jesus (1980 – Present)

The 1980s mark the beginning of the third quest. Several scholars began drawing on the different critical methods of studying the Bible in an attempt to reconstruct what we know about Jesus in his historical and cultural context.
Instead of looking for Jesus' discontinuities with Judaism, early Christianity, and human culture, the third-quest scholars seek the opposite: continuities. For them, the goal is to create a plausible portrait of Jesus. In other words, they want to create a portrait that best explains all the evidence, fits Jesus into his time and place, and accounts best for what happened (Murphy, p. 59).
As Murphy points out, the final portrait that emerges from these scholars efforts depends largely on their assumptions/conclusions are about Jesus' primary activities, teachings and concerns as well as how they understands Jewish and Roman society at the time of Jesus. Consequently, in spite of determined efforts to be more objective than were the first questers, a number of different portraits of Jesus have emerged over the last 30 years (Murphy, p. 59):
  • A wandering cynic philosopher who used primarily parables and pithy sayings to communicate his vision of God's kingdom
  • An anti-Temple wisdom teacher
  • A charismatic holy man and miracle worker
  • A spirit-filled exorcist
  • An end-time prophet
  • A radical social reformer
  • A rebel and social bandit
The best known scholars include John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Robert Funk, Bart Ehrman, N. T. Wright, Amy-Jill Levine, Paula Fredricksen, Geza Vermes, E. P. Sanders and John Meier. Perhaps the best known group of scholars that has pursued this topic is the Jesus Seminar, which is a group of scholars who met regularly for a number of years to vote on the authentic sayings and deeds of Jesus. The group, to say the least, is a bit controversial, and since they are a topic in their own right, the next post will be dedicated to them.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Unintended Consequences and Social Policy

In a recent podcast, Freakanomics author Stephen Dubner tells why he wears noise reduction headphones on his morning commute on the NY Subway ("Bring on the Pain"). It isn't so that he can listen to music (he generally doesn't). It isn't because he wants to block out the sound of the subway hurtling down the tracks (he actually enjoys listening to the "clackety-clack" of the trains traveling over the rails). It's because when he arrives at the station, the alarms set off by commuters exiting through "emergency exit only" doors are, according to Dubner, "downright painful" to listen to. At least they are to him.

Why do commuters use the emergency exit doors rather than the turnstiles that they are supposed to use? Because the new turnstiles that NY Metropolitan Transit Authority recently installed to prevent commuters from using the subway without paying aren't as efficient as the old ones, so they take longer to pass through, which causes lines to form and leads impatient commuters to use the emergency exit doors.

This is an example of what is commonly referred to as an "unintended consequence." The new turnstiles were installed to prevent cheating, but in so doing, they created a situation that ultimately generated a tremendous amount of noise pollution not to mention the fact that once an emergency exit door is opened, people can get on the subway for free (so much for preventing cheating).

Another example of an unintended consequence can be witnessed on many (if not most) airplane flights these days. With more and more airlines charging for baggage, more and more passengers have decided to carry their baggage on to the plane. However, because their carry-ons are often quite large, airline stewards spend an substantial amount of time arranging and rearranging luggage in order to get them fit into the overhead bins, and if that doesn't work, they have to gate-check them.  What's the unintended consequences here? Overhead bins are fuller, it takes longer for passengers (and their luggage) to settle into their seats, planes are often late in leaving the gate, and connections between flights are tighter.

Or, consider one of the reasons why the unemployment rate tends to be higher in European countries than it is in the US: it is because the "replacement rate" in Europe is higher. That is, because unemployment benefits are typically higher in Europe than they are in the US, there is less incentive for European workers to seek employment than there is for US workers. Hence, the unemployment rate in the US tends to be lower, which helps the US economy outperform most European economies, which in turn places additional downward pressure on the US unemployment rate.

This last example is why many lawmakers and policy wonks often oppose certain social programs -- not because they think the program's intended benefits don't help people (they almost always do) but because the unintended costs (e.g., higher unemployment, lower economic output) cause more harm than the good the programs generate.

Of course, such criticism are empirical in nature, which means that they can be put to the test. In other words, just because a particular social program has unintended costs doesn't mean that they outweigh the benefits the program confers. However, it does seem to me that if we want to defend a particular social program, we must first acknowledge that there could be costs associated with it that may not be immediately obvious, and then we need to do our best to determine what those costs are. Only then, I believe, can we have an honest debate about whether it is worth keeping or not. My guess is that there are a number of programs out there that appear wonderful on the surface but either do more harm than good or provide few net benefits which means that our money could probably be better spent. But until we do our homework, we won't know. However, in an era of severe budget constraints, this seems like the moral thing to do.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Scofflaws and Carpool Lanes

Like most folks who live and drive in urban areas, I get a little bent out of shape when, during rush hour and the commute (carpool) lanes are in effect, cars with only one person, cut into the carpool lane and leave me far behind. Once I calm down, however, I remind myself that carpool scofflaws don't slow my commute down. They actually speed it up. When they choose to drive in the carpool lane, fewer cars are in my lanes, which means that my commute time drops. So, if they want to risk getting a exorbitant priced ticket, who am I to complain?

There are folks who do slow my commute down, however. These are the folks in cars with two or more individuals that, during rush hour, don't take advantage the carpool lane. When these law abiding citizens don't use the carpool lane, more cars are in my lanes and, as such, my commute slows down.

Just a little food for thought.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Why Evangelical Churches Thrive (or, Why Strict Churches Are Strong)

In 1972 sociologist Dean Kelly, who was working for the National Council of Churches at the time, wrote a book entitled, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, in which outlined the reasons why he believed theologically conservative churches were more successful in attracting and retaining members than were more liberal churches. In particular, he argued that conservative churches were more successful because they placed high demands on their members, thus making their worship and membership experience more meaningful.

At the time Kelley’s thesis flew in the face of conventional wisdom that assumed that high-octane forms of religion were ill suited for the modern world and, as such, doomed to fail.  We now know that Kelley was right.  Over the years high octane religious groups have outperformed their milder counterparts, and as I noted in a post last week ("The Myth of Evangelical Decline"), they continue to do so.

In a preface to a later edition of the book, Kelley noted that his preferred title for the book was “Why Strict Churches Are Strong,” but his publisher insisted on the more provocative title, “Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.” Kelley preferred the former title because his main point was that it is strictness, not conservativeness per se, that leads to higher levels of commitment, and high levels of commitment provide churches with a competitive advantage in the religious marketplace. In Kelley’s view liberal churches were capable of being strict and the fact that most weren’t was beside the point (or at least a topic for a different day).

Twenty years after Kelley’s book was first published, economist Larry Iannaccone revisited Kelley’s thesis (“Why Strict Churches Are Strong,” American Journal of Sociology, 1994:1180-1211). He noted that the rapid growth of strict churches presented a problem for standard economic theory because why would someone join a “high-cost” church when plenty of “low-cost” alternatives are available?  That is, why join a church that requires you to spend 15-20 hours per week at church when you can join one that only requires that you spend one or two?  The costs of strict churches aren't only measured in time, however. Membership in some strict churches can invite ridicule and persecution, sometimes limits one's chances for social and economic advancement, and often bars access to secularly endorsed pleasures (e.g., Halloween).

Iannaccone’s Solution

Iannaccone's solution to this paradox is that strictness increases church strength in at least three ways:
  • It raises overall levels of commitment
  • It increases average rates of participation, and 
  • It enhances the net benefits of membership
Strictness accomplishes all three of these things because it eliminates free-riding, which is where individuals benefit from the efforts or contributions of others without putting forth a corresponding effort or contribution of their own (e.g., people who listen to public radio but don't donate).  In religious communities free-riders are those who show up for and benefit from worship services but only contribute marginally to the services themselves. Iannaccone argues that free-riding can undermine the collective activities of groups like faith communities because it reduces the average level of participation, enthusiasm, energy and so on.

With strict groups, however, only those fully committed to the groups join or at least stick around for the long term. This leads to an increase in the average level of participation, which in turn leads enthusiasm and energy levels to be higher.

The important thing to emphasize here is that religion is a "commodity" that people produce collectively. For example, the satisfaction I derive from worship doesn’t depend just on how much I contribute to the worship service but also on how much other people contribute. If only half of the congregation participates (e.g., the singing of hymns), then the collective product will not be as good as it would be if everyone participated, which means that my worship experience will be less than it would have been if everyone had participated.

Churches can get too much of a good thing, though. Too much strictness drives “away all current and future members” because the benefits no longer outweigh the rewards of belonging. Consequently, churches must strike a balance between strictness and leniency; otherwise they will wither and die. Striking a balance can be tricky, though – churches can choose the wrong areas in which to be strict and in which to be lenient.

The Rise of Christianity: Strictness and Christian Rewards 

In The Rise of Christianity Rodney Stark draws on Iannaccone’s strict church thesis to help explain the success of the early Christian Church. He notes that the early Church placed heavy demands on members, to the point of being willing to die for their faith (i.e., martyr).  And while the martyrdom of Christians was sporadic and relatively minimal (I know, conventional wisdom has it that Christians were martyred repeatedly throughout the Roman empire -- but that simply wasn't the case. It did happen but not nearly as often and regular as most people believe), people who joined the early Church were expected to fully participate in its ministries and worship.  This led to worship services that “must have yielded an immense, shared emotional satisfaction” and levels of care that generated many "this-worldly" rewards to church members (p. 188):
"Because the church asked much of its members, it was thereby possessed of the resources to give much. For example, because Christians were expected to aid the less fortunate, many of them received such aid, and all could feel greater security against bad times. Because they were asked to nurse the sick and dying, many of them received such nursing. Because they were asked to love others, they in turn were loved. And if Christians were required to observe a far more restrictive moral code than that observed by pagans, Christians – especially women – enjoyed a far more secure family life.”
Thus, although membership in the early Christian Church was costly (e.g., martyrdom and other forms of sacrifice), it was still a bargain.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Grammys and Lady Antebellum

The Grammy awards have come and gone, and the band, Lady Antebellum was the big winner, taking home five Grammys. My son assures me that Eminem deserved to win, and while I'm not an Eminem fan, I wouldn't be surprised if he's right because the Grammys has a knack for getting things wrong. A case in point: Lady Antebellum has already won more Grammys than the Rolling Stones, The Who and Led Zeppelin, and it only needs to double its output before it passes The Beatles. The Stones didn't receive their first Grammy nomination until 1982 and didn't win their first "real" Grammy in 1995 (they received a lifetime achievement award in 1987).  The Who and Led Zeppelin have only won lifetime achievement awards and four of The Beatles awards came long after the band broke up -- three in 1997 and one in 2008.

Now, I don't want to suggest that Lady Antebellum's song, "Need You Now," isn't any good (it clearly is), but surely no one really thinks it has the staying power of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," "Pinball Wizard," "Stairway to Heaven" and "I Saw Her Standing There."

Monday, February 14, 2011

Cinderella Story (It's in the Hole!)

It's been thirty years since Bushwood Country Club's assistant greenskeeper Carl Spackler (a.k.a. Bill Murray) uttered these immortal words, which rank 92nd in the American Film Institute's 100 top movie quotes of all time from US films:
"Cinderella story. Outta nowhere. A former greenskeeper, now, about to become the Masters champion. It looks like a mirac...It's in the hole! It's in the hole! It's in the hole!"
And while the Crosby (oops, I mean the Pebble Beach National) Pro Am isn't the Masters and Bill Murray was never a greenskeeper (at least I don't think he was), this past Sunday fiction sort of morphed into history. In case you missed it, Bill Murray and his professional playing partner, D.A. Points, won the Pebble Beach Pro Am title (Points also won the professional title). Again, it isn't the Masters but definitely a "Cinderella story."

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Myth of Evangelical Decline

Much recent research into American religious trends has concluded that evangelical Protestantism is in the decline, perhaps not as much as is mainline Protestantism, but in decline nonetheless. Leading evangelicals have greeted this news with dismay and calls for the need to evangelize the unchurched and those who have fallen away from the faith. By contrast many secularists and liberal Christians have reacted to the news with undisguised glee, the latter because they see evangelicalism as distorting the faith proclaimed by Jesus, and secularists because they view religious belief in general, but evangelicalism in particular, as a sign of societal ignorance (although they often tolerate liberal Christians because at least they are "right" on the issues).

The research is wrong, however.  Evangelicalism is not dying, nor is it fading away. The reason why many researchers have concluded that evangelicalism is in decline is because of how and what questions surveys ask or don't ask. What researchers at Baylor University have found is that many evangelicals who attend nondenominational churches often identify themselves on surveys as "unaffiliated" or (amazingly) "having no religion." As Byron Johnson, a professor of social science at Baylor University notes,
Because traditional surveys do not provide categories that adequately describe those who attend nondenominational congregations, their members often check "unaffiliated" in typical surveys and questionnaires" (Johnson, "The Good News About Evangelicalism," First Things, February 2011: 12). 
However, when surveys ask respondents to not only identify themselves by their religious family (e.g., Baptist) and denomination (e.g., Southern Baptist) but also by their local congregation (as the Baylor Religious Surveys do), the supposed evangelical decline disappears (the same cannot be said about mainline Protestantism, however). In particular, researchers at Baylor found that:
  1. American churchgoers feel more connected to local congregations than to denominations (e.g., United Church of Christ) and religious families (The Reformed Tradition)
  2. Currently 10.8% of Americans are unaffiliated, which is much less than the 14-16% reported in a lot of other surveys 
  3. Many of those who identify themselves as unaffiliated are affiliated with congregations and of those who are, most attend evangelical churches 
  4. America is more evangelical than previously reported in other surveys. "Fully one-third of Americans... affiliate with an evangelical Protestant congregation. Indeed, evangelicals remain the numerically dominant religious tradition in the United States" (Johnson, First Things
Why evangelicalism remains such a potent force in America is a topic I'll take up in a future post ("Why Evangelical Churches Thrive"). For now it is suffice to say that reports of evangelicalism's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Super Bowl and Violence Against Women (The Myth of)

Many of you are probably familiar with the claim made in 1993 that on Super Bowl Sunday violence against women jumps by as much as 40%. This was first noted by a coalition of women’s groups at a news conference a few days before the 1993 Super Bowl and followed up with an article in the Boston Globe a couple of days later. Also, a psychologist from Denver appeared on “Good Morning America”, claiming that she had gathered 10 years worth of data backing up this claim.

What you may not know is that there are no data supporting this claim. An investigative reporter from the Washington Post found that the Denver psychologist had never shown her data to anyone (and still hasn’t), and the other studies cited by the women’s groups in the original news conference did not support the claims that they made. Consequently, the Boston Globe retracted the story a few days later.

A blow-by-blow account of what happened can be found in Christina Sommers book, “Who Stole Feminism?”, and the citations to the articles, etc. can be found in the book's endnotes. Here are a few pertinent facts:
  • January 28, 1993 (Thursday) – News conference called by a coalition of women's groups announcing that anecdotal evidence suggests that Super Bowl Sunday is "the biggest day of the year for violence against women." It was also reported that Old Dominion University had conducted a study that had found that police reports of beatings and hospital admissions in northern Virginia rose 40% after games won by the Redskins during the 1988-1989 season. 
  • January 29, 1993 (Friday) – A Denver psychologist named Lenore Walker claimed on "Good Morning America" to have compiled 10 years worth of data showing a sharp increase in violent incidents against women on Super Bowl Sundays. 
  • January 30, 1993 (Saturday) – Article in the Boston Globe reports that women's shelters and hotlines are "flooded with more calls from victims on Super Bowl Sunday than on any other day of the year." She noted that one study of women's shelters in the West showed a 40% increase in calls on Super Bowl Sundays. 
  • January 31, 1993 (Super Bowl Sunday) – NBC broadcasts Super Bowl game and makes a special plea for men to remain calm, broadcasting a public service spot reminding men that domestic violence is a crime. CBS and Associated Press called Super Bowl Sunday a "day of dread." 
  • January 31, 1993 (Super Bowl Sunday) – While most newspapers and other media outlets picked up the story at face value, Ken Ringle of the Washington Post actually called around to check on the sources of he story and exposed the claims as a myth. He asked Janet Katz, professor of sociology at Old Dominion who was one of the principal investigators of the study about the connection between violence and football, and she said “That's not what we found at all.” Instead, they found that an increase in emergency room admissions “was not associated with the occurrence of football games in general.”
  • Ringle also called the reporter of the Boston Globe article to find out where she got her information. She said she never saw the study but had been told of it by a representative from FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting – a media watchdog group that fell down on the job in this case). FAIR then told Ringle that the authority for the 40% figure was Lenore Walker (see above) who in turn referred him to Michael Lindsay, another Denver psychologist, who admitted that he had never seen any data supporting the 40% figure. More to the point, Lenore Walker refused to release the data on which she based her claim, saying she doesn't use data for public consumption.
  • February 2, 1993 – The Boston Globe retracts its January 30th article in a story by Bob Hohler, who quotes several psychologists/counselors who said they didn’t believe the 40% figure when they heard it. He concluded, “Despite their dramatic claims, none of the activists appears to have any evidence that a link actually exists between football and wife-beating.”
  • May 1993 – A separate investigation by the American Journalism Review also concluded that there was no data to support the 40% figure although it did take exception to Ringle’s selective use of quotes out of context. 
Why a handful of people thought it necessary to make all this up is a question for another time. For now, enjoy the game.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

OMG! A Center for Theological Conversation

Here's a story that is both tragic and inspirational that recently appeared in the Christian Century ("Freelance Theologian"). In 2004, Anna Madsen and her husband were studying theology in Regensburg, Germany, and just before she and her family were to move to Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to take a teaching post, Anna's husband and (nearly) three-year-old son, Karl, were hit by a car. Her husband died, and her son Karl suffered a traumatic brain injury.  Her daughter, Else, who was not in the car, was only eight months old at the time. In spite of all this, she still moved to South Dakota to take the job at Augustana College.

2009 turned out to be a year of change for Anna. She remarried (Reynold) and, with the encouragement of her husband, she left her tenure-track job at Augustana and started a business as a "freelance" theologian. Her venture is called OMG: Center for Theological Conversation through which she works with individuals and churches to address theological concerns. OMG has a website where several theological conversations are on-going, and Anna has a regular blog (far more developed than mine). You can find it here (OMG: Center for Theological Conversation). A couple of recent articles some of you might find interesting are ("An Epiphany about Metabolized Theology") ("Injustice in Health Care") and ("MLK, Jr., Crosshairs, Amygdalae, and Agape").