Monday, December 26, 2011

Your's Truly on Research on Religion

Previously I've mentioned the Research on Religion podcast, which is hosted by the political scientist Tony Gill, a professor at the University of Washington. Below, I have posted links (as well as brief descriptions taken from the website) of some of the recent podcasts. Note that the last one listed is an interview with your's truly on dark (i.e., covert and illegal) networks.

Jason Jewell on John Locke & Religious Toleration. Jason Jewell enlightens us on the life, times, and philosophy of John Locke with specific attention to his views on religious toleration. We discuss Locke’s influence on Western culture as well as how he may have affected our views on church-state relations and religious liberty. Jason and Tony also contemplate the role of intellectuals on history and Jason gives us some insight into his online project to read the Great Books of Western Civilization.

Jared Rubin on Christian and Islamic Economic History. Did religion or church-state institutions have anything to do with the great economic divergence between Christian Europe and the Islamic world beginning in the 11th century? Prof. Jared Rubin of Chapman University reviews the economic history of these two civilizations, covers the dominant explanations for the observed divergence, and then discusses his own research showing that the relationship between religious and political authorities in each region of the world had a great deal to do with why Europe surged ahead economically. We focus primarily on the role of usury laws and financial interest, but Prof. Rubin gives us a taste of some of his work relating to the economic importance of the printing press.

Mark Glickman on the Cairo Genizah. It is amazing what can be found hidden in plain sight! Rabbi Mark Glickman recounts the tale of the discovery of valuable Jewish documents located in the genizah of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, Egypt during the late 19th century. While many individuals knew there was a storehouse of old documents in this synagogue, it wasn’t until Rabbi Solomon Schechter of Cambridge University got hold of a snippet of the Ben Sirah manuscript that anyone realized how remarkably valuable these documents “hidden in plain sight” were. Rabbi Glickman takes us on the journey of discovery, reveals the treasures contained in these documents, and tells his own story of his visit to the Cairo Genizah. A “must listen to” podcast for those interested in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Allen Hertzke on Religious Liberty. Prof. Allen Hertzke of the University of Oklahoma joins us to discuss religious liberty around the world. We cover why religious liberty has become an increasingly important issue in foreign affairs and why many intellectual and government elites tend to dismiss its importance. The conversation also includes current threats to religious freedoms in many parts of the world and what positive effects might arise from the spread of religious liberties.

Steve Pfaff on Denominationalism, Sin & Other Stuff. Sit in on a collegial discussion with Tony and his good friend Prof. Steve Pfaff as they discuss a range of topics including denominationalism and whether churches today emphasize sin enough. These two topics lead us down several different paths taking a look at how and why churches create brands, the benefits of religious pluralism, youth religious practice and whether megachurches are really just soft-peddling Christianity. This open-ended discussion is a window into what Tony & Steve often talk about while hanging out at the University of Washington and is a great wrap around to several recent podcasts we’ve featured on the show.

Sean Everton on Dark Networks. Dark networks are clandestine organizations that often engage in nefarious behavior. Often associated with religious terrorist groups, these dark networks are the focus of our discussion with Prof. Sean Everton of the Naval Postgraduate School. He covers the nature of these groups, how we learn about them via network analysis, and how counter-insurgency efforts are being crafted to disrupt these networks in places like Colombia, Indonesia, and Iraq.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Christmas Story: Luke 2:1-20

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.

While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ [a] the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Cards and Family Pictures

Like many we get our share of Christmas cards from friends and family. I enjoy getting them because they're often accompanied by short (and sometimes not so short) notes about what they've been doing for the last year. Many also include pictures, which allow us to see how people have changed and grown. One tendency I've noticed is that when peoples' kids are young, the cards often contain picture(s) of the entire family, but as the kids get older, they sometimes only contain pictures of the kids.

Why is that? Are people embarrassed what they look like as they age? Heck, we're all getting older; it's a part of life. I don't think there's a Benjamin Button among us (although there was a girl at my recent high school reunion that appeared to be heading in a different direction than the rest of us). Do they think we only want to see what their kids look like? I certainly don't. It's not that I don't care what their kids look like. I do care, and I am interested, but I also want to see what my friends and family look like. I don't think I'm alone in this.

Just saying.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Sunday, December 18, 2011

O Christmas Trees!

These photos of Christmas trees from around the world were sent to me by email by Billie Cole, a friend from church. Enjoy:

We begin with the Christmas tree at the Capitol building in Washington DC. It is decorated with 3,000 ornaments that are the handiwork of U.S. schoolchildren. Encircling evergreens in the 'Pathway of Peace' represent the 50 U.S. states.

The world's largest Christmas tree display rises up the slopes of Monte Ingino outside of Gubbio, in Italy 's Umbria region. Composed of about 500 lights connected by 40,000 feet of wire, the 'tree' is a modern marvel for an ancient city.

A Christmas tree befitting Tokyo 's nighttime neon display is projected onto the exterior of the Grand Prince Hotel Akasaka.

Illuminating the Gothic facades of Prague's Old Town Square, and casting its glow over the manger display of the famous Christmas market, is a grand tree cut in the Sumava mountains in the southern Czech Republic.

Venice 's Murano Island renowned throughout the world for its quality glasswork is home to the tallest glass tree in the world. Sculpted by master glass blower Simone Cenedese, the artistic Christmas tree is a modern reflection of the holiday season.

Moscow celebrates Christmas according to the Russian Orthodox calendar on January 7th. For weeks beforehand, the city is alive with festivities in anticipation of Father Frost's arrival on his magical troika with the Snow Maiden. He and his helper deliver gifts under the New Year tree, or yolka, which is traditionally a fir.

The largest Christmas tree in Europe (more than 230 feet tall) can be found in the Prado Comrcio in Lisbon, Portugal . Thousands of lights adorn the tree, adding to the special enchantment of the city during the holiday season.

'Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree': Even in its humblest attire, aglow beside a tiny chapel in Germany's Karwendel mountains, a Christmas tree is a wondrous sight.

In Paris, even the Christmas trees are chic. With its monumental, baroque dome, plus 10 stories of lights and high fashion, it's no surprise this show-stopping department store draws more visitors than the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower.

In addition to the Vatican 's heavenly evergreen, St. Peter's Square in Rome hosts a larger-than-life nativity scene in front of the obelisk.

The Christmas tree that greets revelers at the Puerta del Sol is dressed for a party. Madrid 's two-week celebration makes millionaires along with merrymakers. On December 22nd, a lucky citizen will win El Gordo (the fat one), the world's biggest lottery.

A token of gratitude for Britain 's aid during World War II, the Christmas tree in London 's Trafalgar Square has been the annual gift of the people of Norway since 1947.

Drink a glass of gluhwein from the holiday market at the Romer, Frankfurt's city hall since 1405 and enjoy a taste of Christmas past.

Against a backdrop of tall, shadowy firs, a rainbow trio of Christmas trees lights up the night (location unknown).

Arlington National Cemetery. These wreaths are donated by the Worcester Wreath Co. of Harrington, Maine. The owner, Merrill Worcester, not only provides the wreaths, but covers the trucking expense as well. He's done this since 1992. Also, most years, groups of Maine school kids combine an educational trip to DC with this event to help out.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Loyalty and Albert Pujols

Although it potentially benefits my San Francisco Giants, I was disappointed when I learned that Albert Pujols had signed with the Anaheim Angels. I was hoping he would finish his career in St. Louis, that he was something of a throwback to the day when players felt a sense of loyalty to their teams.

That said, I'm not sure whether I blame him. I have little doubt that if he had stayed with the Cardinals, toward the end of his career, the Cardinals would have jettisoned him, just like the Giants did with Willie Mays, the 49ers with Joe Montana, the Packers with Brett Favre, and the Patriots will probably do with Tom Brady. By leaving now, Pujols was able to have his pick of teams, and he chose one that wasn't a rival of the Cardinals. Heck, they're not even in the same league, so the only possibility that they'll meet is in the World Series.

This may sound like a minor detail, but just ask Packers' fans how they felt about Brett Favre playing for the Minnesota Vikings. "Judas" is a not uncommon term used to describe him. But one has to ask, "How many choices did Favre have?" He wanted to keep playing and play for a contender. If he had had his drothers, he would've played for the New Orleans Saints, but they already had Drew Brees; they didn't need Brett Favre. So, Favre's choices were limited, and the Vikings were the ones who came knocking. All I can say is that I'm glad that Mays didn't end up with the Dodgers or Montana with the Rams or Cowboys!

Thus, while we shouldn't expect Cardinals fans to be happy that Pujols left for Anaheim, I suspect they'd be even less happy if in a few years, he signed with the Cardinals' chief rival, the Chicago Cubs, because they were the only team that showed any interest in him.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Incentives, Biases, and Bowls

Bowl season is upon us, and as usual, there is some disagreement about which teams belong in which bowls (in particular the national championship game) as well as the yearly clamoring for a national playoff (which actually appears more and more likely as conferences continue to consolidate). As many readers know, the teams chosen for the championship game is based on a ranking that, in turn, is based on human polls and computer rankings.

I suspect that it will not come as too much of a surprise that voters (in particular, coaches) are biased in terms of which teams they rank high and which teams they rank low. A recent study by Matthew Kotchen and Matthew Potoski ("Conflicts of Interest Distory Public Evaluations: Evidence from the Top 25 Ballots of NCAA Football Coaches") found that football coaches vote in ways that benefit them:
Using individual coach ballots between 2005 and 2010, we find that coaches distort their rankings to reflect their own team's reputation and financial interests. On average, coaches rank teams from their own athletic conference nearly a full position more favorably and boost their own team's ranking more than two full positions. Coaches also rank teams they defeated more favorably, thereby making their own team look better. When it comes to ranking teams contending for one of the high-profile Bowl Championship Series (BCS) games, coaches favor those teams that generate higher financial payoffs for their own team. Reflecting the structure of payoff disbursements, coaches from non-BCS conferences band together, while those from BCS conferences more narrowly favor teams in their own conference.
A short write-up about the study can be found at the Freakonomics website ("We Are Shocked — Shocked! — to Learn that College Football Coaches Exhibit a Conflict of Interest When Rating Teams").

Friday, December 9, 2011

Top Holiday Songs...

In addition to being inundated with holiday movies, most of us are also being inundated with holiday songs. Searching the web I tracked down a couple of top 100 lists that you might find interesting. I only list the first 10 of each list and provide a link for those who want to explore all 100. First, the Top 100 Pop Performances:
  1. Happy Xmas (War is Over) - John Lennon
  2. The Christmas Song - Nat King Cole
  3. Have Yourself a Merry Christmas - Judy Garland
  4. O Holy Night - Celine Dion
  5. Santa Claus is Coming to Town - Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi
  6. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) - U2
  7. Jingle Bell Rock - Billy Idol
  8. The Little Drummer Boy - David Bowie and Bing Crosby
  9. Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer - NYNSC
  10. White Christmas - Bing Crosby
And the 100 greatest Christmas songs as compiled by WCBS FM:
  1. White Christmas - Bing Crosby
  2. The Chipmunk Song - The Chipmunks
  3. Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer - Gene Autry
  4. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus - Jimmy Boyd
  5. Jingle Bell Rock - Bobby Helms
  6. The Christmas Song - Nat King Cole
  7. Snoopy's Christmas - The Royal Guardsmen
  8. Here Comes Santa Claus - Gene Autry
  9. Little Drummer Boy - Harry Simeone Chorale
  10. Donde Esta Santa Claus - Augie Rios
And finally here's a few of my favorites (in alphabetical order):
  1. All I Want for Christmas Is You - Mariah Carey
  2. Angels We Have Heard on High -- Glee Cast
  3. Auld Lang Syne - James Taylor
  4. Baby, It's Cold Outside - Dean Martin
  5. Baby, Please Come Home for Christmas - Eagles
  6. Believe - Josh Groban
  7. Blue Christmas - Elvis Presley
  8. Carol of the Bells - Various
  9. The Chanukah Song - Adam Sandler
  10. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) - U2
  11. Christmas Can't Be Very Far Away - Amy Grant
  12. Christmas Canon - Trans-Siberian Orchestra
  13. Christmas in Your Arms - Alabama
  14. The Christmas Shoes - NewSong
  15. The Christmas Song - Nat King Cole
  16. Christmas in Hollis - Run D.M.C.
  17. Christmas Island - Jimmy Buffett
  18. Christmas Waltz - Michael W. Smith
  19. Cold December Night - Michael Bublé
  20. Do You Hear What I Hear? - Whitney Houston
  21. Extraordinary Merry Christmas - Glee Cast
  22. Feliz Navidad - José Feliciano
  23. Frosty the Snowman - Jimmy Durante
  24. Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer - Elmo & Patsy
  25. Grown Up Christmas List - Amy Grant
  26. Happy Xmas (The War is Over) - John Lennon
  27. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - Vonda Shepherd
  28. Hey Santa - Carnie and Wendy Wilson
  29. Holly Jolly Christmas - Burl Ives
  30. Home for the Holidays - Kenny Loggins
  31. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus - John Mellencamp
  32. I'll Be Home for Christmas - Michael Bublé
  33. It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year - Andy Williams
  34. I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm - Frank Sinatra
  35. Jingle Bell Rock - Bobby Helms
  36. Let it Snow - Dean Martin
  37. Linus and Lucy - Vince Guaraldi Trio
  38. Little Alter Boy - The Carpenters
  39. Little Drummer Boy - Bing Crosby
  40. Merry Christmas Baby - Bruce Springsteen
  41. Merry Christmas Darling - The Carpenters
  42. Mister Santa - Amy Grant
  43. Mistletoe and Holly - Frank Sinatra
  44. Nothin' New for New Years - Harry Connick, Jr. & George Jones
  45. The Nutcracker Suite - Various
  46. River - Joni Mitchell
  47. Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer - Burl Ives
  48. Santa Claus in Coming to Town - Bruce Springsteen
  49. Skating - Vince Guaraldi Trio
  50. Silent Night - Sarah McLachlan
  51. Snoopy's Christmas - The Royal Guardsmen
  52. Snow - Bing Crosby, Danny Kay, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen
  53. Song For A Winter's Night - Sarah McLachlan
  54. Tennessee Christmas - Amy Grant
  55. There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays - Perry Como
  56. This Christmas - Vonda Shepard
  57. Walkin' Round in Women's Underwear - Bob Rivers and Twisted Radio
  58. What are You Doing New Year's Eve? - Ella Fitzgerald
  59. White Christmas - Bing Crosby
  60. You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch - Boris Karloff

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Baker's Dozen of Holiday Movies

The holiday season is upon us, and we are inundated with holiday movies. For instance, ABC Family is once again running its "25 Days of Christmas" program that features at least one Christmas movie a day for 25 days. In the interest of helping readers sort the wheat from the chaff, I offer the following list of holiday movies worth viewing:
  1. A Charlie Brown Christmas (Charles Schultz)
  2. A Christmas Carol (George C. Scott, David Warner, Susannah York, Roger Rees)
  3. Die Hard (Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson)
  4. Elf (Will Ferrell, Bob Newhart, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel)
  5. The Family Man (Nicholas Cage, Tea Leoni, Don Cheadle)
  6. Groundhog Day (Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell)
  7. The Holiday (Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Jack Black, Eli Wallach)
  8. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Boris Karloff)
  9. It's a Wonderful Life (Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Henry Travers, Lionel Barrymore)
  10. Miracle on 34th Street (Maureen O'Hara, Edmund Gwenn)
  11. Rudolph, the Red-Nose Reindeer (Burl Ives)
  12. The Santa Clause (Tim Allen, Judge Reinhold, Eric Lloyd, David Krumholtz)
  13. White Christmas (Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen)
Note: the list appears in alphabetical order and does not pretend to be exhaustive. On another day, I might have included other movies on the list (e.g., Love Actually, Polar Express, Home Alone) than those listed above.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Unpious Colonial America

In my previous post I made a passing reference to the fact that Colonial America was anything but pious. In fact, it is far more religious now than it was then. In fact, the celebration of Christmas in early America devolved to such an extent that the Puritans were appalled and made it illegal to celebrate Christmas. Cotton Mather, for instance, an prominent Puritan minister who later became involved in the Salem witch trials, remarked
"The Feast of Christ's Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in all Licentious Liberty... by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by Rude Reveling..." (quoted by Steven Nissenbaum in The Battle for Christmas, p. 7)
And one Anglican clergyman to remark that we do more to dishonor the name of Christ during the 12 days of Christmas "than in all the twelve months besides" (quoted by Nissenbaum in The Battle for Christmas, p. 7).

But how could this be? Most of us were taught as children that the people fled to the future United States in order to worship God freely. Implied in this story was the notion that most of the early colonists were church-goers, so it seems inconceivable that such behavior could occur.

The problem with the story is that it is only partially true. People did flee to the US to worship freely (or at least differently from how they worshipped in Europe), and most of those that did were regular church-goers who found the ribald behavior of their fellow colonists appalling. However, they were not the only ones who came to America. Some were fleeing from the law (e.g., a few European countries shipped prisoners to America); others came seeking fortune (e.g., Jamestown was founded as an economic outpost not a religious one); others were social misfits who had no ties keeping them from leaving (i.e., they were social isolates). In short, while some colonists were religious, many were not, which is why early American piety was not widespread.

This fact has been empirically demonstrated by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark in their book, "The Churching of America," which was originally released in 1993 and then updated in 2007. What they uncovered from a variety of sources was that the church adherence rate was only around 17% in 1776 and then grew at a steady rate until 1980 when it peaked at 60%, the level at which it remains today. Why it has increased over time is a story for another day; for now, it is sufficient to note that Finke and Stark's empirical research confirms the historical (but largely anecdotal) research of Nissenbaum.

Note: the church adherence rate shouldn't be confused with church attendance. The church adherence rate refers to the number of people who are either "church" members or children of members -- that is because in some denominations (e.g., Baptist) children cannot become members until they are older, while in other denominations (e.g., Episcopal) children can become members.