Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Regression to the Mean and the 49ers' Next Coach

Regression to the mean is the statistical tendency for traits that lie far above or below the mean for a population to move (regress) toward the mean. That is why the IQs of children of extremely low or high IQ parents will, on average, cluster much more closely around the population mean than those of their parents. It is also why professional golfers who shoot extremely high or low scores in the first round of a tournament will probably shoot scores in the second round that will bring their scores after two rounds closer to the tournament average. In other words, a golfer who shoots a very low score in the first round is likely to shoot a higher than average score in the second.

This phenomenon also helps explain why when a NFL team fires its head coach, the team almost always finishes with a better record the following season. As a recent FiveThirtyEight article explained ("There's Not Much Evidence A New Coach Will Help the Jets, 49ers or Falcons"):
Teams that change coaches have a strong tendency to improve the following season, which could be taken as prima facie evidence that swapping in a new coach makes a profound difference. But it also could simply be the residue of regression to the mean. A poor record is generally required for a team to consider dismissing its coach, but much of the differences in NFL team records is due to luck and not the comparative skill levels of the teams themselves. When that luck evens out, the team appears to improve, even if its underlying skill didn’t change all that much.
In other words, it's likely that regardless who the Jets, 49ers or Falcons hire as their next head coaches, they will post regular season records in 2015 better than their 2014 records. This will almost certainly be true for the San Francisco 49ers who were one of the most injury-plagued teams in the NFL this season ("NFL Injury Report"). Thus, even if the Niners finish next season with a better record than 2014, it's unlikely that it'll have anything to do with who the new coach is. That may even be true even if the Niners win the Super Bowl next year.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

NCAA Basketball: One and Done?

Basketball fans either love or hate John Calipari, the head basketball coach for the Kentucky Wildcats (although most who hate him would love him if he coached their hometown team). A common criticism of him (and the Kentucky program) is that most of his recruits only play for a year before leaving for the NBA. But that really isn't his fault. It's the NBA's. It allows players to declare for the draft after playing only one year in college. If it changed its rules and required players to stay at least three years (like college baseball players), one and done programs like Kentucky would have to change.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Schulmerich and Malmark: Battle of the Bells

Schulmerich and Malmark, Inc. are the two largest handbell companies in the world and are located just down the street from one other. In fact, a former employee of one started the other. However, while handbells often conjure up images of harmony and goodwill (especially around this time of year -- e.g., "Carol of the Bells"), until recently these two companies were at logger heads with one another, routinely suing one another for real or perceived infractions. Luckily, there's a happy ending to this story, and on a rebroadcast of a Planet Money podcast ("Bell Wars") you can hear (learn) all about it.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Christmas Stories

Mainline biblical scholars tend to regard the Christmas stories more as theology than history. This is largely because of the considerable differences between the narratives found in Matthew and Luke. For example, according to Matthew Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem and Jesus was born at home, whereas in Luke they lived in Nazareth and traveled to Bethlehem for a census and Jesus is born in a stable. Or again, in Matthew Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee to Egypt because Herod the Great orders the killing of all male infants under the age of two in Bethlehem, and after all is safe, settle in Nazareth; by contrast, in Luke, Jesus and his family simply return home to Nazareth after his birth. Finally, in Luke Jesus is visited by shepherds, whereas in Matthew he is visited by the magi (i.e., the wise men).

That said, Matthew and Luke do not disagree on all of the facts. For example, they agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and grew up in Nazareth. They also agree that Mary and Joseph were engaged, not married, when Jesus was born. And they agree that Jesus was a descendant of King David, even though they trace the lineage through different genealogies.

Nevertheless, the differences between the two accounts have led most mainline scholars to argue that what we find in Matthew and Luke is mostly fiction. For example, they argue that Matthew and Luke have Jesus born in Bethlehem for theological reasons, not historical ones, in order that a prophecy in the book of Micah, which predicted that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, would be seen as fulfilled. In other words, Matthew and Luke didn't base their birth narratives on historical evidence but rather on a theological conviction that the Messiah had to be born in Bethlehem.

This argument, although widely held, strikes me as a case of special pleading, however. Why? Because most, if not all, first century "messiahs" didn't come from Bethlehem. In fact, most of their birthplaces are unknown:
  • Simon of Peraea (c. 4 BCE), a former slave of Herod the Great, who rebelled and was killed by the Romans (birthplace = unknown)
  • Athronges (c. 4–2? BCE), a shepherd turned leader of a rebellion with his four brothers against Herod Archelaus and the Romans after proclaiming himself the Messiah (birthplace = unknown)
  • Judas of Galilee (6 CE), Judas led a violent resistance to the census imposed for Roman tax purposes by Quirinius in Iudaea Province around 6 CE (birthplace = Gamala in Gaulonitis)
  • Menahem ben Judah (?), the son or grandson of Judas of Galilee, was a leader of the Sicarii (birthplace = unknown)
  • Theudas (?–46 CE), a Jewish rebel of the 1st century CE, at some point between 44 and 46 CE (birthplace = unknown)
  • John of Gischala (? after 70), was a leader of the Jewish revolt against the Romans in the First Jewish-Roman War, and played a part in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE (birthplace = Gush Halav)
  • Simon bar Kokhba (also: Bar Kosiba) (?– died c. 135) (birthplace = unknown)
This suggests that hailing from Bethlehem wasn't a necessary requirement for messiahship in the eyes of most first century Jews and, coupled with the fact that two independent sources (material unique to Matthew and material unique to Luke), may help explain why even the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar, hardly the bastion of conservatism, hesitate to entirely write-off the claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Indeed, they voted the passage in Matthew that indicates Jesus was born in Bethlehem as gray, not black:
Jesus was born at Bethlehem, Judea, when Herod was king (Matthew 2:1)
Although the narrative passages the Jesus Seminar colored gray can be interpreted in different ways, essentially they indicate that although something has probably been lost in the transmission, they still might contain a trace of history. With regards to Matthew 2:1, the "gray" vote indicates that some members of the Jesus Seminar thought it possible that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

An explanation that is just as plausible and parsimonious is that, for whatever reason, Jesus was born in Bethlehem but raised in Nazareth, and this led Matthew and Luke construct infancy narratives that accounted for this. How they did so differed, but that doesn't mean there isn't some traces of history in their accounts. In fact, I also think it likely that Mary and Joseph were engaged, and not married, when Jesus was born. Of course, all this doesn't challenge the claim that the Christmas stories contain less history than they do theology, but it also doesn't mean they we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater either (or maybe the baby out with the straw in this case).

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Top Holiday (i.e., Holy Day) Movies

1.   A Charlie Brown Christmas (Charles Schultz)

The best of the Charlie Brown movies (although "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" is a close second). It's one of the few Christmas movies that actually includes a reference to the biblical story. After Charlie Brown asks, "Can anyone tell me what Christmas is all about?", Linus quotes Luke 2:8-14:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.'"
Then Linus concludes, "... and that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown." Yes, that is what Christmas is all about. (Note how he lets go of his blanket as he says, "Fear not!" -- Thanks to Walter Taylor for pointing that out)

2.   A Christmas Carol (George C. Scott, David Warner, Susannah York, Roger Rees)

There are several great versions of Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," but this is my favorite. When George C. Scott's Ebenezer Scrooge yells, "Mr. Cratchit!", there's little doubt that he holds poor Bob in contempt. Plus, Scott is (was) such a great actor. That said, several other versions are worth considering, such as the one starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge ("A Christmas Carol"). When I was kid, I was especially taken with "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol." An alternative is listening to Jonathan Winters's reading of Dickens's book, which is quite good.

3. A Christmas Story (Peter Billingsley, Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon)

Adapted from a memoir by Jean Shepherd (who narrates the film), the movie is primarily about Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley), a young boy living in Indiana in the 1940s who desperately wants a Red Rider BB gun for Christmas and tries to convince his parents, teachers, and Santa that it's the perfect gift for him, while they counter that he'll shoot his eye out. In 2012, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

4. Christmas with the Kranks (Tim Allen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Dan Akroyd)

It's too bad that the movie's producers didn't keep the title of John Grisham's book on which the movie is based: "Skipping Christmas" (see picture at right). My sense is that the movie's title leads people to expect one kind of movie when in fact it's actually something quite different. The movie tells the story of a couple (Luther and Nora Krank) who, because their daughter (Blair) is going to be Peru for Christmas, working for the Peace Corps, decide to skip Christmas (i.e., don't buy a Christmas tree, hold their annual Christmas party, decorate their house, etc.) and use the money they save to go on a cruise. Their decision to skip Christmas doesn't sit well the Luther and Nora's neighbors (especially Dan Akroyd), who continually pressure them to get into the holiday spirit. A battle, of sorts, plays out between the Kranks and their neighbors, threatening the harmony of the neighborhood. Then Luther and Nora get a call from Blair and learn that she's coming home for Christmas after all and now the Kranks have less than 24 hours to prepare for their annual party. How the neighborhood comes together to pull this off and what Luther does with the tickets for their cruise speaks volumes about the true meaning of Christmas.

5.  Die Hard (Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson)

OK. Not your traditional Christmas movie, but it takes place on Christmas Eve, is a battle between good and evil, and includes some traditional (and not so traditional) Christmas songs. It stars Bruce Willis (when he still had hair) as NY police detective John McClane, who flies to LA to reconcile with his wife. He meets her at her company's Christmas party, but while he's changing clothes in the men's room, the party's taken over by a terrorist group (headed by Hans Gruber -- played by Alan Rickman who a few years later plays Severus Snape), which holds them hostage, all except for McClane, who sneaks away before they know he's there. The rest of the movie is the battle between McClane (good) and Gruber (evil) and includes a lot of classic lines ("Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs..." -- see picture above).

6.  Elf (Will Ferrell, Bob Newhart, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel)

This movie is too fun. Will Ferrell is great in this movie as someone (Buddy) who thinks he's one of Santa's elves but is actually a human being who, through a twist of fate, was adopted by an elf (Bob Newhart) when just a baby. Unfortunately, he's not a very good at elf things (e.g., making toys), and once he learns that he's not an elf, he heads to New York where his biological father (James Caan) lives. There he falls in love (with Zooey Deschanel -- aka "New Girl"), helps NY recapture the Christmas spirit, and has a heck of a lot of fun (well, most of the time), as does the audience. Along the way you also learn about important things, such as the elvish four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup. There's also allusions to other Christmas classics like "Rudolph, the Red Nose Reindeer" and "Miracle on 34th Street" (see #12 and #13 below).

7.   The Family Man (Nicholas Cage, Tea Leoni, Don Cheadle)

One of my favorites. It's is a cross between "It's a Wonderful Life" and "A Christmas Carol." It tells the story of Jack Campbell (JC = Jesus Christ?; his boss/advisor is named Peter), played by Nicholas Cage, who chooses to spend the year after graduating from college in London as an investment banker rather remaining in New York with his girl friend (played Tea Leoni). Not surprisingly, the relationship doesn't last, and when the movie begins (13 years later), he's a very successful investment banker who loves money and fine things, but cares little for women or family. However, when he wakes up one Christmas morning, he's living the life he would've lived if he hadn't gone to London. He's married (to Tea Leoni), has two kids, and works as a car tire salesman (for his wife's father - Big Ed). Although he initially despises this life, he eventually comes to love it more than the one in which he drove fast cars, wore designer suits, and had his pick of women. The movie's climax occurs after he wakes up back in his old life, tracks down his old girlfriend, and tries to convince her not to leave New York to take a job in Paris.

8.   Groundhog Day (Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell)

When it comes down to it, the Christmas story is, at least in part, about personal transformation, and this movie hits it on the head. Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, an arrogant and egocentric Pittsburgh TV weatherman who, during a hated assignment covering the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, gets caught up in a time loop and ends up repeating the same day over and over again ("It's Groundhog Day!"). After indulging in hedonism and attempting suicide numerous times, he starts to re-examine his life, turns into a decent guy, and eventually gets the girl (Andie MacDowell). Director Harold Ramis (who starred with Murray in Ghostbusters) makes a cameo appearance as a local doctor. MacDowell is charming as Rita; just a year later she starred with Hugh Grant in another classic, "Four Weddings and a Funeral."

9.   The Holiday (Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Jack Black, Eli Wallach)

This movie tells the story of two women (Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet) who, suffering from guy-problems, swap homes with each other (they don't know on another -- they "meet" through an on-line home exchange website) where they each meet someone and fall in love. Diaz's character (Amanda) lives in LA, is a producer of movie trailers, and breaks up with her boy friend after she discovers that he's cheated on her. Winslet (Iris) is a journalist working in London, who's in love with someone who wants to keep her around but doesn't want to commit. When she learns that he's engaged to another journalist, she becomes suicidal, but luckily chooses to spend the holidays in LA instead. A side story concerns elderly gentleman (Eli Wallach--the "ugly" from "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"), who lives near Amanda and whom Iris befriends. It turns out that Wallach is a widowed and retired screen writer whom the screen writer's guild wants to honor. He doesn't want to attend, but Iris talks him into it. Personally, I think Wallach should have won a best supporting actor for his role. A pleasant surprise about the movie is that shows that Jack Black can actually act. It's too bad he doesn't get more parts like this. Also, Iris's cottage (see above) is also featured in the final episode of "Burn Notice."

10. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Boris Karloff)

One of the best holiday movies ever (the animated version, that is, not the one that Opie Taylor directed several years later). In it the Grinch, a cave-dwelling creature with a heart "two sizes too small," lives on Mount Crumpit, a steep mountain above Whoville, home of the Whos. His only companion is his faithful dog, Max. Every year from his perch atop Mount Crumpit, the Grinch hears the "clangy" noisy Christmas festivities that take place in Whoville. Annoyed and unable to understand why the Whos are so happy, he sneaks into town on Christmas Eve and takes all of their Christmas presents, decorations, and food in order to prevent Christmas from coming. However, when Christmas morning arrives, the Whos still celebrate Christmas even though all their presents and decorations have been stolen. Realizing that Christmas is more than gifts and presents, the Grinch's heart grows three times in size, and he returns all the presents and trimmings and joins the Whos for the Christmas feast.

10. It's a Wonderful Life (Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Henry Travers, Lionel Barrymore)

I'm not sure how much I need to say about this movie since it is so well known. Briefly, it stars Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, a man who has repeatedly given up his dreams in order to help the dreams of others, and whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve (because of a financial disaster not of his own doing) brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), who has yet to earn his wings (he's an angel second class). However, by showing what the world would have been like if George had never been born, Clarence keeps George from committing suicide (and thereby earning his wings). George sees that his life hasn't been a waste but has in fact touched (and improved) the lives of almost all those around him in Bedford Falls. He is, as his younger brother Harry puts it, "The richest man in town." Although the movie opened to mixed reviews, it has become a perennial Christmas classic that captures the true meaning of Christmas. There is a scene at the railroad station when George Bailey learns that his younger brother is not going to take over the family business so that George can go to college. For about 5 seconds, Stewart says nothing; his (i.e., George's) disappointment and frustration only shows in his facial expressions. It's a wonderful example of why Jimmy Stewart is one of the greatest actors of all time. For more on the movie, see the following post ("It's a Wonderful Life").

12. Miracle on 34th Street (Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Natalie Wood)

Although the 1994 remake of this movie, starring Sir Richard Attenborough (as Santa Claus), Dylan McDermott, and Elizabeth Perkins, is decent, it doesn't come close to the original with Maureen O'Hara and a very young Natalie Wood. The story takes place between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day and focuses on the impact of the Santa Claus hired to work at the Macy's on 34th St. in NY City, who claims to be the real Santa and acts accordingly. For example, he some times he ignores instructions to steer parents to goods that Macy's sells like the time he directs one shopper to another store for a toy fire engine that Macy's doesn't have in stock. And he tells another mother that Macy's rival Gimbels has better skates for her daughter. The film won Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Edmund Gwenn), Best Writing, Original Story (Valentine Davies) and Best Writing, Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Picture but lost to Gentleman's Agreement (how many folks watch that movie any more? I haven't even heard of it!).

13. Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer (Burl Ives)

When I was a kid, I couldn't wait for this to come on TV. I only got to see it once a year, and it was a big deal when it came on. Not just for me, but for most of my friends. Now, of course, you can get it (and virtually any other Christmas movie) on DVD or Blue Ray, or download it from iTunes or Amazon, so it (and other Christmas movies) has lost its "specialness." Nevertheless, I still love watching this retelling of the original Robert L. May story ("Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer"), in which Rudolph's rejection by his peers (for his shiny nose) leads him to run away from home with by a similarly-outcast elf (Hermey) whose dreams of becoming a dentist. These two eventually join up with a prospector named Yukon Cornelius, and after a battle with the Abominable Snowman, they return home to the North Pole just in time for Rudolph to lead Santa's sleigh through a terrible snow storm, thus keeping Christmas from being cancelled.

14. The Santa Clause (Tim Allen, Judge Reinhold, Eric Lloyd, David Krumholtz)

Tim Allen stars as Scott Calvin, a cynical, divorced, advertising executive for a toy company, who accidentally causes a guy dressed like Santa Claus to fall to his death from his roof on Christmas Eve. Scott and his son Charlie (who is spending Christmas Eve with Scott) discover a sleigh with eight reindeer on the roof, and they conclude that the man must have been Santa Claus. They also find a card in the Santa's suit, instructing that if something should happen to him, that whoever finds the clothes, should put them on and get in the sleigh. Charlie convinces Scott to follow these instructions, and the reindeer take Scott to children's houses around the world to finish Santa's deliveries. After fthis, the sleigh takes them to the North Pole where they learn that Scott is the new Santa (because of the clause in the instruction card they found -- that is, the "Santa Clause") and convince his former wife that he's the new Kris Kringle.

15. White Christmas (Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen)

What more can you say about this one? It's got Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" (not once, but twice); it has Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen dancing (several times); it has George Clooney's mom singing and dancing; and it tells a nice, heart-warming story that some may think is a bit corny. But, to paraphrase Kate Winslet's character in The Holiday (see above), sometimes corny is just what the doctor ordered. The song, "Count Your Blessings" (written by Irving Berlin), was nominated for an Oscar (White Christmas won the Oscar 12 years before for the movie, Holiday Inn), but my favorite (aside from White Christmas) is Snow, sung by Crosby, Kaye, Clooney (George's Aunt), and Vera-Ellen on the train from Miami to Vermont (pictured above).

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Top Religious Liberty News Stories of 2014

The Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty (BJC), formerly known as the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, was founded in 1936 and is the only faith-based agency devoted solely to religious liberty and the institutional separation of church and state. It is composed of representatives of 15 national, state, and regional Baptist bodies in the United States, such as the Alliance of Baptists, American Baptist Churches USA, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the National Baptist Convention of America, and the Progressive National Baptist Convention.

The Southern Baptist Convention used to support the BJC, but it cut its funding to the BJC in 1990, accusing the BJC of leaning too far to the theological left. It also wanted the BJC to support the nomination of Robert Bork, which the BJC refused to do, not, however, because it didn't support Bork but because it doesn't take positions on Supreme Court nominees. Rather, BJC limits its activities to a small number of issues relating to religious liberty and the separation of church and state: church electioneering, civil religion, free exercise, government funding, political discourse, public prayer, and religious displays. It will, however, file amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) briefs with the Supreme Court in order to argue on behalf of specific points at issue in a case. Over the years, the BJC has filed more than 120 legal briefs in court cases.

The BJC recently released it's top religious liberty news stories of 2014 ("Court decisions, accommodations dominate 2014 religious liberty news"). Below is an abridged version of the news story that appeared in its newsletter. The full story can be found here: "Court decisions, accommodations dominate 2014 religious liberty news."

1. The U.S. Supreme Court Sides with Hobby Lobby

By a 5-4 vote the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a religious liberty challenge to the contraceptive mandate. It held that for closely held, for-profit corporations the requirement to provide certain contraception coverage in their health care plans violated their rights to run their businesses according to their faith. Many argue Hobby Lobby opens will allow businesses broad rights of conscience to avoid government regulations on religious grounds, but others don't think so. As the BJC's Brent Walker recently pointed out, just because some for-profit corporations may be able to raise religious liberty claims because of Hobby Lobby, that doesn’t mean they will prevail. Courts still must balance those claims against the interests of government and the interests of third parties. Moreover, the majority opinion emphasizes the decision relates only to closely held corporations. The Court did not address the issue of larger or more-diversely held companies. That may be the next legal battleground in this dispute over whether, and to what extent, corporations can claim an exemption from a government regulation.

2. Supreme Court Upholds Christian Prayers at Local Government Meetings

By a 5-4 vote the Supreme Court held that the town’s policy allowing clergy to offer sectarian prayer does not violate the separation of church and state. The majority emphasized the historical tradition of opening legislative sessions with prayer, including Christian invocations. Because of that tradition, the Court rejected arguments that such prayers must be non-sectarian and inclusive to be lawful, and it declined to draw any distinction between a state legislative assembly and a town commission meeting. The Baptist Joint Committee filed a brief urging the Court to prohibit such prayer policies in local government meetings in which citizens must be present to make their voices heard.

3. Supreme Court Hears Argument Over Religious Freedom Rights of Prisoners

In the case of Holt v. Hobbs, the Supreme Court questioned Arkansas Department of Correction officials over their refusal to allow an inmate to grow a beard as required by his faith. A brief signed by the BJC urged the Court to side with the plaintiff, Gregory Holt, a practicing Muslim serving a life sentence. While the state has a strong interest in ensuring safety and security in its prisons, here they offered only hypothetical security concerns. Justice Samuel Alito joked that perhaps combing through such a beard would helpfully reveal guns or other contraband hidden there. A decision in the case is expected in 2015.

4. Religious Nonprofits Continue to Challenge Contraception Coverage Rules

While the Hobby Lobby decision settled questions regarding the contraceptive mandate for closely held for-profit corporations, other challenges are still making their way through the courts. The Affordable Care Act exempts houses of worship from the requirement altogether, and it provides an accommodation mechanism for religiously-affiliated nonprofit organizations. However, many organizations argue that the mechanism is insufficient because it will trigger another provision in the law that provides employees with access to contraception through other means. The Supreme Court halted enforcement of this rule in one case while litigation is pending. Appeals courts have largely ruled in favor of the administration, finding that any burden placed on the religious exercise of such organizations by having to file the form is not substantial enough to invalidate the provision.

5. Obama Non-Discrimination Order Declines Religious Exemption

The White House issued an executive order in July barring federal contractors from discrimination in hiring based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Many religious leaders pressed the administration to include an exemption for contractors that are religious organizations, but the president’s order rejected that request. President Obama did leave intact an order that allows religious organizations that contract with the government to discriminate in hiring based on religion. Many advocates, including the BJC, argued against the exemption, saying that when a religious group agrees to take federal funds, it should be bound by the same hiring rules as other federal contractors.

6. Religious Accommodation Policies in the Military Questioned

In January, the Defense Department announced changes to its policy of religious accommodation. The changes evinced a new willingness to make exceptions to grooming standards when they conflict with a service member’s religious beliefs. Previously, such accommodations were extremely rare.
Many religious liberty advocates argued the changes did not go far enough in assuring adherents of minority faiths the right to serve in the armed forces. In April, a letter to the Pentagon signed by the BJC expressed concerns that service members under the new policy would be required to comply with grooming standards while they await the outcome of their request, and they would have to resubmit the accommodation request upon transfer.

7. Conscience Rights Dominate Religious Freedom Discussion

A growing trend in 2014 was the focus on the right of business owners to refuse to provide marriage-related services to same-sex couples. In states and cities where non-discrimination laws prohibit such refusal generally, this year’s increase in same-sex marriage legalization has brought with it understandable conflict for those who object on religious grounds. While churches and houses of worship will not have to participate in same-sex marriages, the rights of other individuals and businesses to refuse is still the subject of debate, and in the coming years courts will have to consider where the proper lines should be drawn to balance the religious freedom rights of service providers with the rights of individuals to be free from discrimination.

The BJC also noted the key religious liberty stories that are likely to emerge next year:

Workplace Discrimination: The Supreme Court agreed to take up a case of religious discrimination in employment involving Abercrombie & Fitch, a clothing retailer that refused to hire a female applicant because of her head covering. The company argues they were unaware the head scarf was a religious requirement.

School Vouchers: The Colorado Supreme Court will decide the fate of a school voucher program. The BJC joined a brief arguing that the program violates the state’s constitution because it sends taxpayer funds to support religious education. And in North Carolina, the Supreme Court has intervened to hear the appeal of a ruling that vouchers in that state are unconstitutional.

Contraceptive Mandate (Part 2): Next year could see the Supreme Court take on the question of whether the Obama administration’s accommodation process for religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations violate their religious freedom rights.

RFRA debates: This year’s religious accommodation battles changed the way state Religious Freedom Restoration Acts are viewed. Instead of focusing on their helpful religious liberty protections, the legislation is often seen as a way to refuse service to others based on religious grounds. Will this continue?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The 12 Days of Christmas Don't Begin Tomorrow

The 12 Days of Christmas don't begin tomorrow. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the 12 Days of Christmas are not the 12 days before Christmas but the 12 days after, running from December 25th to January 5th (although in some traditions the twelve days run from December 26 to January 6th). It culminates with the Feast of Epiphany, which commemorates the time when the Wise Men present gifts to the young Jesus, who may have been as old as two years old at the time (the Bible's unclear how long it takes them to track Jesus down). Some households (such as ours) celebrate Christmastide by giving gifts on all of the 12 days, but this is more the exception than the rule. When most people hear "The 12 Days of Christmas," however, they probably think of the song:
  • On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... "A Partridge in a Pear Tree."
  • On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... "Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree."
  • On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... Three French Hens, Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.
  • On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... Four Colly Birds (some versions using "mockingbirds" or "calling birds"), Three French Hens, Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree . . . 
  • And so on until the 12th verse. . .
  • On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... Twelve Drummers Drumming, Eleven Pipers Piping, Ten Lords-a-Leaping, Nine Ladies Dancing, Eight Maids-a-Milking, Seven Swans-a-Swimming, Six Geese-a-Laying, Five Gold Rings, Four Colly Birds, Three French Hens, Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.
The song's origin is unclear, but one story that has little historical support but is still fun to consider is that it originated as a Catholic "Catechism Song" in England during a time when Catholicism was "discouraged" (1558-1829). According to this tradition,
  • The "true love" in the song refers to God, while the "me" refers to those who receive the gifts mentioned in the song from God
  • The "partridge in a pear tree" refers to Jesus Christ whose death on a tree (i.e., the cross) was a gift from God
  • The "two turtle doves" refer to the Old and New Testaments - another gift from God
  • The "three French hens" refer to "faith," "hope" and "love" three gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 13)
  • The "four calling birds" refer to the four Gospels, which sing "the song of salvation through Jesus Christ" 
  • The "five golden rings" refer to the first five books of the Old Testament, also known as the Torah. 
  • The "six geese a-laying" refer to the six days of creation
  • The "seven swans a swimming" refer to the "seven gifts of the Holy Spirit." (1 Corinthians 12:8-11) 
  • The "eight maids a milking" refer to the eight beatitudes
  • The "nine ladies dancing" refer to the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) 
  • The "ten lords a-leaping" refer to the Ten Commandments
  • The "eleven pipers piping" refer to the eleven faithful disciples
  • The "twelve drummers drumming" refer to the twelve points of the Apostles' Creed
For a more scholarly (but almost certainly less entertaining) take on the song's origins see the Wikipedia article on the topic.

Friday, December 12, 2014

What's Broken? America's Schools or its Students?

Much ink has been spilled on what is wrong with America's schools and what should be done about it. There seem to be a lot of good ideas out there, but it's hard to know which ones will work and which ones already have. Some people recommend fixes focus on the recruiting and training of teachers. Others focus on how to improve the communities in which students live.

Two recent Freakonomics episodes explore America's education system: "Is America’s Education Problem Really Just a Teacher Problem?" and "How to Fix a Broken High Schooler, in Four Easy Steps." In the first you'll hear from Joel Klein, the former New York City schools chancellor (and head of the U.S. Dept. of Justice’s Antitrust Division) who now runs Amplify, a News Corp education-technology startup; David Levin, a former teacher who co-founded, with Mike Feinberg, KIPP, the Knowledge is Power Program; John Friedman, an economist who works on public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School; and Dana Goldstein, author of The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession. The second features a program called Pathways to Education, which came out of a community health center in a housing project in Toronto that reduced the dropout rate among high schoolers from 56% to 10%. Both episodes are interesting but one comes away with the sense that there are no easy fixes.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Bowls, Bowls, Bowls

I love the college bowl season, not just because it's politically incorrect (although that's an incentive, but because unlike most sports where every team that qualifies for the post season loses its final game except the champion, in college football there are multiple winners. The winners of each of the bowl games. In fact, there will be 38 winners this year, which means the players and fans of those schools will be able to end of their football season on a high note. No other sport does that, and that's nothing to sneeze at. Here's a brief summary of each bowl game: "Ranking the Bowls 1-38"

Saturday, December 6, 2014

C'est La Vie, Jim Harbaugh?

Apparently, the 49ers plan to sever ties with Jim Harbaugh at the end of the season. All of this is stunning considering that Harbaugh almost single-handily resurrected the Niner franchise: A 43-16-1 record, 3 straight trips to the NFC Championship game and 1 trip to the Super Bowl. One would think that a record like that would allow a head coach to have an off year, but it is looking more and more that this has been the Niners' plan all along (last year's rumors of trading Harbaugh to Cleveland were apparently genuine). Perhaps if the Niners won the Super Bowl this year, there might have been a chance of Harbaugh staying on, but that's not going to happen. Evidently, the Niners brass (i.e., Jed York and Trent Baalke) simply don't like Harbaugh. Then again, not too many folks like Bill Belichick, but that hasn't led the Patriots to cut ties with him.

You'd think the Niners would think twice about jettisoning Harbaugh since the last time they let a successful coach go (Steve Mariucci), they went nine years before they reached the playoffs again (under Harbaugh). Of course, it doesn't have to work out badly for the Niners. Back in May the San Francisco (oops, Golden State) Warriors fired their head coach, Mark Jackson in spite of the fact that he led the Warriors to consecutive playoff appearances for the first time in over 20 years; they then hired in his stead, Steve Kerr, and that move, at least for now, appears to be working out. Niner fans can only hope that York and Baalke display the same sort of wisdom of Warriors co-owner Joe Lacob.

P.S. The Niners may want to seriously consider trading up in the draft to pick up Marcus Mariota and then hire a coach that likes to run a read-option offense. Who knows, maybe they can trade Harbaugh for Chip Kelly?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

101 of the Best Holiday Songs (Updated with iTune links)

If a singer's career lasts long enough, they will almost certainly cut a Christmas (oops, Holiday) album at some point. Even Neil Diamond has (he's released three), and he's Jewish! I grant that the continuous playing of Christmas songs (and movies) can be a bit much this time of year, but for now I am, once again, caught up in the spirit of the season ("'Tis the Season") and enjoying listening to the songs the season has to offer. In keeping with that spirit, below are some of my favorite versions of 101 of holiday songs. There are a handful of changes from last year, but more importantly, they now include links to iTunes, so you can listen to (or at least preview) the songs yourself. They appear in alphabetical order (hopefully):
  1. Adestes Fideles - Frank Sinatra
  2. All I Want for Christmas Is You - Mariah Carey
  3. Almost There - Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant
  4. Angels We Have Heard on High -- Glee Cast
  5. Auld Lang Syne - Colbie Caillat
  6. Ave Maria - The Carpenters
  7. Away in a Manger/Child in a Manger - Michael W. Smith
  8. Baby, It's Cold Outside - Dean Martin
  9. Believe - Josh Groban
  10. Blue Christmas - Elvis Presley
  11. Breath of Christmas - Amy Grant
  12. Carol of the Bells - The Carpenters
  13. Carols Sing - Michael W. Smith
  14. Celebrate Me Home - Kenny Loggins
  15. The Chanukah Song - Adam Sandler
  16. Christ is Born - The Carpenters
  17. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) - U2
  18. Christmas Can't Be Very Far Away - Amy Grant
  19. Christmas Canon - Trans-Siberian Orchestra
  20. Christmas Hymn - Amy Grant
  21. Christmas in Your Arms - Alabama
  22. Christmas in Heaven - Scotty McCreery
  23. Christmas in Hollis - Run D.M.C.
  24. Christmas is Coming - Vince Guaraldi Trio
  25. Christmas Island - Jimmy Buffett
  26. The Christmas Shoes - NewSong
  27. The Christmas Song - Nat King Cole
  28. Christmas Time is Here - Vince Guaraldi Trio
  29. Christmas Waltz - Michael W. Smith
  30. Christmas Was Meant for Children - Sandi Patti
  31. Christmastime - Michael W. Smith
  32. Cold December Night - Michael Bublé
  33. Deck the Rooftop - Glee Cast
  34. Do You Hear What I Hear? - Whitney Houston
  35. Do They Know It's Christmas - Glee Cast
  36. Emmanuel, God With Us - Amy Grant
  37. Extraordinary Merry Christmas - Glee Cast
  38. Feliz Navidad - José Feliciano
  39. The First Noel - Josh Groban & Faith Hill
  40. Frosty the Snowman - Jimmy Durante
  41. Go Tell It On The Mountain - James Taylor
  42. God is With Us - Casting Crowns
  43. Going Home For Christmas - Phil Coulter
  44. Good King Wenceslas - The Piano Guys
  45. Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer - Elmo & Patsy
  46. Greensleeves - Vince Guaraldi Trio
  47. Grown Up Christmas List - Amy Grant
  48. The Happiest Christmas - Michael W. Smith
  49. Happy Xmas (The War is Over) - John Lennon
  50. Hark the Herald Angels Sing - Diamond Rio
  51. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - Vonda Shepard
  52. Hey Santa - Carnie and Wendy Wilson
  53. High Plains (Christmas on the High-Line) - Philip Aaberg
  54. Holly Jolly Christmas - Burl Ives
  55. I Believe in Father Christmas - Emerson, Lake & Palmer
  56. I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day - Casting Crowns
  57. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus - John Mellencamp
  58. I Saw Three Ships - Craig Duncan
  59. I Wonder As I Wander - Sandi Patti
  60. I'll Be Home for Christmas - Michael Bublé
  61. In the Bleak Midwinter - Phil Coulter
  62. It Snowed - Meaghan Smith
  63. It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year - Andy Williams
  64. I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm - Frank Sinatra
  65. Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring - Amy Grant
  66. Jingle Bell Rock - Bobby Helms
  67. Jingle Bells - Michael Bublé
  68. Joy to the World - Amy Grant
  69. Last Christmas - Glee Cast
  70. Let it Snow - Dean Martin
  71. Linus and Lucy - Vince Guaraldi Trio
  72. Little Alter Boy - The Carpenters
  73. Little Drummer Boy - Bob Seger
  74. Manger 6 - Bob Rivers and Twisted Radio
  75. Merry Christmas Baby - Bruce Springsteen
  76. Merry Christmas Darling - The Carpenters
  77. Mister Santa - Amy Grant
  78. Mistletoe and Holly - Frank Sinatra
  79. Nothin' New for New Years - Harry Connick, Jr. & George Jones
  80. The Nutcracker Suite - Various
  81. Pat-a-pan - Various
  82. Please Come Home For Christmas - The Eagles
  83. River - Joni Mitchell
  84. Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer - Burl Ives
  85. Santa Claus in Coming to Town - Bruce Springsteen
  86. Santa Baby - Madonna
  87. Skating - Vince Guaraldi Trio
  88. Silent Night - Sarah McLachlan
  89. Sleigh Ride - The Carpenters
  90. Snoopy's Christmas - The Royal Guardsmen
  91. Snow - Bing Crosby, Danny Kay, Peggy Lee, and Trudy Stevens
  92. Song For A Winter's Night - Sarah McLachlan
  93. Sweet Little Jesus Boy - Casting Crowns
  94. Tennessee Christmas - Amy Grant
  95. There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays - Perry Como
  96. This Christmas - Vonda Shepard
  97. Walkin' Round in Women's Underwear - Bob Rivers and Twisted Radio
  98. What are You Doing New Year's Eve? - Ella Fitzgerald
  99. Where Are You Christmas? - Faith Hill
  100. White Christmas - Bing Crosby
  101. You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch - Thurl Ravenscroft

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Geniuses for Jesus

Some would have us believe that religion and science are incompatible, but as the late evolutionary biologist Steven J. Gould (who was, at best, an agnostic) once remarked (Scientific American, 1992):
To say it for all my colleagues and for the umpteenth millionth time. . . science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists. . . Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs—and equally compatible with atheism, thus proving that the two great realms of nature’s factuality and the source of human morality do not strongly overlap.  
While Gould isn't the final word on the matter, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that science and religion are not incompatible. Take, for instance, James Henry Leuba's 1914 survey of scientists, which some mistakenly point to as evidence of their incompatibility. Leuba asked a large sample of scientists: "Select one of the following statements about belief in God"
  1. I believe in a God to whom one may pray in the expectation of receiving an answer. By “answer,” I mean more than the subjective, psychological effect of prayer.
  2. I do not believe in God as defined above.
  3. I have no definite belief regarding this question.
42% of the scientists chose the first option, which is remarkable considering it's a highly restrictive definition of belief. In fact, most mainline Protestant pastors probably couldn't affirm it. Less restrictive definitions can be found on more standard surveys, such as the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey, which asked the following question: "Which one statement comes closest to your personal beliefs about God?"
  1. I have no doubts that God exists
  2. I believe in God, but with some doubts
  3. I sometimes believe in God
  4. I believe in a higher power or cosmic force
  5. I don't know and there is no way to find out
  6. I am an atheist
  7. I have no opinion
It's likely that if Leuba had phrased the question like this, the percentage of scientists who affirmed a belief in God or a higher power (whether with some doubts or not) would have been higher. Perhaps more interesting is that when Leuba's survey was repeated in 1996, 40% of scientists chose Leuba's first option, a statistically insignificant change from the first survey more than 50 years before. So much for the inevitable march of secularization...

Similarly, increased levels of education don't seem to damper church attendance rates, at least not in the United States. As the table below indicates, people who didn't graduate from high school are more likely than any other group to report that they don't attend church at all, and their rate of non-attendance is only slightly higher than those with only have a high school or junior college degree. Just as striking is the group that is most likely to report weekly attendance: those with a four-year college degree (those with junior college or graduate degrees are right behind):

If we use these data to predict average days of attendance per year (see the graph below) there is a slight but clear increase as one moves up in terms of level of degree earned. In other words, on average people who have earned a graduate degree report that they attend church at higher rates than do those without a high school degree.

But I digress. Sociologists of religion have known about this relationship between education and religion for decades although for some reason, it has not filtered out to the larger population. My intention in this (extended) post is not to reiterate known facts but to provide a series of brief biographies of "geniuses" who are/were also Christians. Some are scientists (e.g., Steven Barr, Francis Collins, John Polkinghorne), some are philosophers (e.g., René Girard, Alasdair MacIntyre, Gabriel Marcel, Charles Taylor), some are writers (e.g., Maya Angelou, Flannery O'Connor, Dorothy Day, Marilynne Robinson, Dorothy Sayers, John Updike), and some are hard to classify (e.g., Jaques Ellul, C.S. Lewis, John Sexton, J.R.R. Tolkien). Most are Roman Catholics, which is somewhat surprising given the disdain that many intellectuals have for the Catholic Church. This, of course, isn't a random sample, so I may have a bias toward Catholics although I'm not one myself. And there are some notable folks I could've included but didn't (e.g., Alastair McGrath, Peter Berger, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Søren Kierkegaard, Cornell West), and I purposely left professional theologians out since they might be seen as "biased." Of course, although this post focuses on intellectuals who are Christians, one could just as easily write about intellectuals who are affiliated with other faiths (e.g, the philosophers Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas). But, I'll let someone else take up that task.

Note: Information on the geniuses was gleaned from numerous sources, such as Wikipedia, news reports, websites about the individuals, etc. They appear in alphabetical order.

Maya Angelou (Baptist)—Angelou is probably best known for her series of autobiographies, the first of which, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, tells about her life up to the age of 17. She became a poet and writer after holding a series of occupations as a young adult, including fry cook, prostitute, nightclub performer, and coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She was active in the Civil Rights movement and worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. From 1982 onward she taught at Wake Forest where she held the lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies. She taught a variety of subjects, including philosophy, ethics, theology, science, theater, and writing. In 1993 she recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" (1993) at President Bill Clinton's inauguration, becoming the first poet to give an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost gave one at President John F. Kennedy's 1961 inauguration. Angelou used the same "writing ritual" for many years. She'd wake early in the morning and check into a hotel room, where the staff was instructed to remove any pictures from the walls. She would write on legal pads while lying on the bed, with only a bottle of sherry, a deck of cards, Roget's Thesaurus, and the Bible. She averaged 10–12 pages of written material a day, which she would edit down to three or four in the evening. Angelou was a member of both Mount Zion Baptist Church in Winston-Salem (for over 30 years) and Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco. Both held services after she passed away in May 2014.

Stephen M. Barr (Roman Catholic)Stephen Barr is a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware, and a member of its Bartol Research Institute. He does research in theoretical particle physics and cosmology and in 2011 was elected Fellow of the American Physical Society, the world's second largest organization of physicists. Barr obtained his Ph.D. in physics from Princeton University in 1978. He went on to do research at the University of Pennsylvania as a post-doctoral fellow (1978–80), the University of Washington as a Research Assistant Professor (1980-85), and Brookhaven National Laboratory as an Associate Scientist (1985-87), before landing at the University of Delaware in 1987. Barr is a Roman Catholic and writes about religion and science. He is the author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, and he serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of the religious journal, First Things, in which many of his articles have appeared. In 2007, he was awarded the Benemerenti Medal by Pope Benedict XVI, and in 2010 he was elected a member of the Academy of Catholic Theology.

Francis S. Collins (Evangelical)Collins is an American physician/geneticist noted for his discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the Human Genome Project. He is currently the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. He earned his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry at Yale in 1974 and then enrolled in medical school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, from which he graduated in 1977. He became known as a gene hunter when working at the University of Michigan, which led him to be to be appointed the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). He has been elected to the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences, and has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Science. Collins's parents were, at best, nominal Christians, and by graduate school he considered himself an atheist. Dealing with his dying parents, however, led him to investigate various faiths, and C.S. Lewis's book, Mere Christianity, played an instrumental role in becoming a Christian. H has written several books on science, medicine, and spirituality, including the bestseller, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

Dorothy Day (Roman Catholic)Dorothy Day was an American journalist, social activist, who after living something of a bohemian life in New York, converted to Catholicism and helped give birth to the Catholic Worker Movement, a pacifist movement that continues to combine direct aid for the poor and homeless with nonviolent direct action on their behalf. Her parents were nominal Christians who rarely attended church, but as a young child she displayed a religious streak, reading the Bible frequently. When she was ten she started to attend an Episcopal church, after her brothers join the church choir. She eventually was baptized and confirmed in that church. She quickly drifted away from the faith, however, and she soon described herself as an anarchist and a socialist. She worked for several Socialist publications and wrote in support of women's rights, free love, and birth control. She had long love affair with Mike Gold, who later became a prominent Communist, and in the early 1920s, after the end of a love affair that resulted in an abortion, she was married in a civil ceremony to Berkeley Tobey. The marriage evidently didn't take because she soon became involved with Forster Batterham, but their relationship became strained when Day became increasingly interested in Roman Catholicism. Soon after the birth of their daughter Tamar Teresa, she had their baby baptized in July 1927, but Batterham refused to attend the ceremony. And after one last fight in late December, Day was baptized into the Catholic Church.

Jaques Ellul (Reformed)Ellul was trained as a sociologist although many consider him a philosopher. He was a professor of History and the Sociology of Institutions on the faculty of Law and Economic sciences at the University of Bordeaux. He authored 58 books and more than a thousand articles. Many of these focused on the threat to human freedom and religion created by modern technology. Ellul was educated at the universities of Bordeaux and Paris, and during World War II he was a leader in the French resistance. For his efforts to save Jews he was awarded the title, "Righteous among the Nations," by Yad Vashem in 2001. He converted to Christianity when he was about 20. According to Ellul, a few years before, while translating Faust, Ellul knew he was in the presence of a something so astounding and overwhelming that he jumped on a bike and fled, eventually concluding that he had been in the presence of God. This kick started a conversion process that continued over the next few years. Ellul was heavily influenced by the work of three people: Karl Marx, Søren Kierkegaard, and Karl Barth. Marx and Kierkegaard were the only two authors of which he read all of their work, and he considered Barth the greatest theologian of the 20th century. Ellul was active in the worldwide ecumenical movement although he later criticized it for its often uncritical endorsements of leftist positions. He was, however, also critical of those on the right, and he staked out an explicitly anti-political stance as an alternative to both. Ellul is also credited with coining the phrase, "Think globally, act locally."

René Girard (Roman Catholic)Girard was born on December 25, 1923, in Avignon, France. He studied in Paris’s École Nationale des Chartes and specialized in Medieval studies. In 1947, he emigrated to America and earned a doctorate at the University of Indiana. He remained in America and taught at several different institutions, including Indiana University, State University of New York in Buffalo, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Bryn Mawr, and Stanford until his retirement in 1995. During the beginning of his career as lecturer, Girard was assigned to teach courses on European literature. As he read the great European novels in preparation for the course, he became especially engaged with the work of five novelists in particular: Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky and Proust. His first book, Mensonge Romantique et Vérité Romanesque (Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure) (1961), is a literary comment on the works of these great novelists. Until that time, Girard was a self-declared agnostic. As he researched the religious conversions of some of Dostoyevsky’s characters, he converted to Christianity and ever since has been a committed and practicing Roman Catholic. However, his Christian views were not publicly expressed until the publication of Des Choses Cachées Depuis la Fondation du Monde (Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World) (1978), widely considered to be his greatest work. In 2005, Girard was elected to the Académie Française, one of the highest distinctions that French intellectuals can attain.

C. S. Lewis (Anglican)As an undergraduate student at Oxford University Lewis won an unprecedented triple first, that is, the highest honors in three areas of study: Greek and Latin literature in 1920, Philosophy and Ancient History in 1922, and English in 1923. He was then elected a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, where he worked for nearly thirty years until 1954 when he was awarded the newly founded chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University and elected a fellow of Magdalene College. As a scholar he concentrated on the later Middle Ages, but he is probably best known for his Christian apologetics (e.g., Mere Christianity) and the Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis was raised in a church-going family in the Church of Ireland (Anglican), but he became an atheist at 15, describing himself as being "very angry with God for not existing." He slowly re-embraced Christianity, influenced largely by arguments with his colleague and friend J. R. R. Tolkien (see below) and the book, The Everlasting Man, by G. K. Chesterton. He first converted to theism in 1929 and then to Christianity in 1931, following a late-night discussion with Tolkien and another friend. He became a member of the Church of England, much to the disappointment of Tolkien, who had hoped he would become a Roman Catholic. Lewis is commemorated on the 22nd of November in the Episcopal Church's church calendar, which marks the day he died in 1963 (the same day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated). On the 50th anniversary of his death, Lewis was honored with a memorial in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey.

Alasdair MacIntyre (Roman Catholic)MacIntyre is a Scottish philosopher known primarily for his moral and political philosophy but known also for his work in history of philosophy and theology. He was educated at Queen Mary College, London, and has Master of Arts degrees from the University of Manchester and the University of Oxford. He began teaching in 1951 in the UK and then moved to the US in 1970. He has taught at numerous universities, including University of Manchester, Oxford, Vanderbilt, and Notre Dame. He was a relatively well-known Marxist philosopher for years until his "conversion" to Aristotelean ethics, which he articulated in his most famous book, After Virtue. Shortly thereafter he converted to Roman Catholicism after he became a fan of Thomas Aquinas. His conversion to Aristotelian ethics and the Roman Catholic Church hasn't led him to completely abandon his Marxist leanings, however. He has, for instance attempted to combine historical insights of Marx with those of Aquinas and Aristotle, and he does nothing to hide his contempt for liberal capitalism, which he believes dominates the world both in the realm of ideas and in its manifestations in political and social institutions. Thus, although he is in many ways a traditional Catholic, his politics often leans to the left.

Gabriel Marcel (Roman Catholic)Gabriel Honoré Marcel was born in Paris in 1889 and is remembered as a philosopher, playwright, music critic, and Christian existentialist. He authored over a dozen books and at least thirty plays, but he is best known for his two-volume work, The Mystery of Being (1951), the 1949–50 Gifford Lectures, one of the most prestigious lecture series in the world. Marcel's mother died when he was young, and he was raised by his aunt and father. His father was an agnostic, and Marcel was an atheist until he covered to Roman Catholicism in 1929. Marcel obtained the agrégation in philosophy in 1910 at the age of 21. During the WWI he worked with the Red Cross to convey news of injured soldiers to their families. He then taught in secondary schools, was a drama critic for various literary journals, and worked as an editor for Plon, a major French Catholic publisher. For many years, he hosted a weekly philosophy discussion group through which he met and influenced important younger French philosophers like Jean Wahl (Jew), Paul Ricoeur (Christian), Emmanuel Levinas (Jew), and Jean-Paul Sartre (Marxist). Evidently, Marcel was disappointed that he was known almost entirely for his philosophical works and not on his plays, which he hoped would appeal to a wide lay audience.

Flannery O'Connor (Roman Catholic)—Flannery O'Connor was an American writer and essayist, who wrote two novels—Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960)—and 32 short stories, some of which are collected in A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955) and Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965). Her posthumously published collection of short stories, The Complete Stories, won the 1972 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction. O'Connor was born in 1925, in Savannah, Georgia, and her writing reflects her Southern roots. In 1945 she graduated with a degree in social sciences from Georgia State College for Women (Georgia College & State University), in an accelerated three-year program. In 1946, she was accepted into the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa where she got to know a number of important writers and critics who lectured or taught in the program, including Andrew Lytle, who was the editor of the Sewanee Review in which he published several of her short stories. In 1951, she was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus, the same disease her father died of. She was only expected to live 5 more years but lasted 14, dying at the far too young age of 39. O'Connor was a devout Roman Catholic. She collected books on Catholic theology and gave lectures on faith and literature, sometimes traveling quite distances in spite of her poor health. In 2013 her prayer journal ("A Prayer Journal"), which she kept while in Iowa and was just recently discovered among her papers, was published to rave reviews.

John Polkinghorne (Anglican)The Rev. Dr. John Charlton Polkinghorne is an English theoretical physicist, theologian, writer, and Anglican priest. A prominent and leading voice explaining the relationship between science and religion, he was professor of Mathematical physics at the University of Cambridge from 1968 to 1979. For 25 years, he worked on theories about elementary particles, played a role in the discovery of the quark, and researched the analytic and high-energy properties of Feynman integrals, and the foundations of S-Matrix theory (whatever that is). He also spent time at Princeton, Berkeley, Stanford, and at CERN in Geneva, and in 1974 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, which is the oldest an probably the most prestigious society for science in the world. In 1979 he resigned his chair in order to study for the priesthood, and in 1982 he was ordained an Anglican priest. He is the author of several book on physics and theology (e.g., Belief in God in an Age of Science), the latter of which tend to focus on the relationship between science and religion. He delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures in 1993-94, he was knighted in 1997, and in 2002 he was awarded the Templeton Prize, which is something of the Nobel Prize for religion; it is awarded to a living person who, in the estimation of the judges, "has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension."

Marilynne Robinson (Congregationalist)Marilynne Robinson was born in 1943 and is an American novelist and essayist. She has received several awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2012 National Humanities Medal. She was born and grew up in Sandpoint, Idaho, and earned her undergraduate degree in 1966 (magna cum laude) at Pembroke College, the former women's college at Brown University, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington in 1977. Robinson has written three highly acclaimed novels: Housekeeping (1980), Gilead (2004), Home (2008), and Lila (2014). Housekeeping was a finalist for the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (US), Gilead won the 2005 Pulitzer, and Home received the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction (UK). Lila, which was just released this year, has received excellent review. Home and Lila are companions to Gilead and focus on different aspects of the family of a Congregationalist minister. Robinson grew up in the Presbyterian church but later became a Congregationalist, worshipping and sometimes preaching at the Congregational United Church of Christ in Iowa City. Her Congregationalism, and her interest in the Protestant Reformer John Calvin, have influenced her writing. In an interview with the Church Times in 2012, Robinson said: "I think, if people actually read Calvin, rather than read Max Weber, he would be rebranded. He is a very respectable thinker."

Dorothy Sayers (Anglican)Although she was a poet, playwright, essayist, translator (e.g., Dante's, The Divine Comedy), and worked in advertising (she is credited with coining the phrase, "it pays to advertise"), she is best known for her mystery novels featuring the Lord Peter Wimsey, which are still in print and continue to remain popular; in fact, several have been turned into BBC and PBS movies. Sayers also wrote several essays and plays on the Christian faith, including Creed or Chaos? (1940), The Mind of the Maker (1941), and The Man Born to be King (1942). In fact, her religious works presented the orthodox Anglican theological position so well that, in 1943, the Archbishop of Canterbury offered her a Lambeth doctorate in divinity, but she declined. Although not a member of the Inklings, she was good friends with many of them, including C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien. Sayers was born in 1893 at the Head Master's House, Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, where her father was chaplain and headmaster of the Choir School. When she was six, her father began teaching her Latin, and in 1912 she won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford where she studied modern languages and medieval literature and finished with first-class honors. At the time women Oxford did not award women degrees, in 1920 when the policy changed, Sayers became one of the first women to receive a degree (Master of Arts) from Oxford.

John Sexton (Roman Catholic)—John Sexton is New York University's (NYU) 15th President. He joined the University's Law School in 1981, was named the Dean of NYU's Law School in 1988, and became NYU's president in 2001. While he was the Law School's Dean (1988-2002), it was named one of the top 5 law schools in the country by U.S. News and World Report, since he has taken over as the school's President, NYU has been named the “number one dream school” four times by The Princeton Review. And in November 2009, Time Magazine named Sexton one of the 10 Best College Presidents. Sexton earned a B.A. in History in 1963 from Fordham College; an M.A. in Comparative Religion in 1965 and a Ph.D. in History of American Religion in 1978 from Fordham University; and a J.D. (magna cum laude) in 1979 from Harvard Law School. Unlike a lot of university presidents, he continues to teach a full course-load, including the exceedingly popular (and hard to get into) class, "Baseball as a Road to God," which was featured on Bill Moyers Journal and was later turned into a book of the same name. The class had its genesis in a crack about baseball that a student made to Sexton several years ago:
I hear you're a big baseball fan. I think the sport is silly and I don't understand why anybody would waste time on it. 
To which Sexton replied,
You are among the unwashed...   
If you will read twelve books that I choose next semester, I will direct you in an independent study at the end of which you will realize that baseball is a road to God.
And the rest, as they say, is history ("Baseball as a Road to God").

Charles Taylor (Roman Catholic)—Taylor is a Canadian philosopher who has been awarded the Kyoto Prize (arts and philosophy category), which is Japan’s highest private award for global achievement, and the Templeton Prize, which is is awarded to a living person who, in the estimation of the judges, "has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works." He also delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures in 1998-99 (and again in 2008-09), which became the basis of three books: Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited; Modern Social Imaginaries; and A Secular Age. Many people (e.g., Robert Bellah) believe the latter is already one of the most important books ever written on social and philosophical theory. Taylor earned his undergraduate degree at McGill University (B.A. in History in 1952) and then studied at Oxford, first as a Rhodes Scholar at Balliol College in 1955 (B.A. in Philosophy, Politics and Economics), and then as a post-graduate (D.Phil. in 1961) where he studied under Isaiah Berlin and G. E. M. Anscombe. He was the founder of the Universities and Left Review (predecessor to the New Left Review) and a vice-president of the New Democratic Party. Perhaps his best known student is Michael Sandel, whose "Justice" series (the Harvard class, the PBS series, and the book) turned Sandel into something of an academic rock star and helped raise Taylor's profile outside of the academy.

J. R. R. Tolkien (Roman Catholic)—John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is best known for his books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but he was also a professor of English Literature at Oxford for a number of years. Tolkien's first job after WWI was at the Oxford English Dictionary, where he worked primarily on the history and etymology of words of Germanic origin beginning with the letter "W." In 1920, he took up a post as Reader in English Language at the University of Leeds, and became the youngest professor there. In 1925, he returned to Oxford as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, with a fellowship at Pembroke College. While at Pembroke, Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings. As most people know, Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and he played a significant factor in the conversion of C. S. Lewis. Tolkien vocally opposed Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party prior to WWII, and he especially despised Nazi racist and anti-Semitic ideology. He retired in 1953 and lived quite comfortably because of the sales of his books. He became something of a cult figure among the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, something with which he wasn't too pleased. He was, after all, a traditional Catholic.

John Updike (Episcopalian)John Updike was an American novelist, poet, short story writer, art critic, and literary critic. He is considered one of the greatest American fiction writers of his generation and is best known for his "Rabbit" novels (Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; Rabbit At Rest). He is one of only three authors (Booth Tarkington and William Faulkner were the others) to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction more than once. Updike was also a Christian and theological themes pervaded his books (see e.g., Roger's Version). In fact, at a 2004 talk at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan, he told the audience of 300 that his Christian faith had “solidified in ways less important to me than when I was 30, when the existential predicament was realer to me than now. … I worked a lot of it through and arrived at a sort of safe harbor in my life... When I haven’t been to church in a couple of Sundays, I begin to hunger for it and need to be there... It’s not just the words, the sacraments. It’s the company of other people, who show up and pledge themselves to an invisible entity.” Unlike many of his mainline Protestant contemporaries, Updike apparently wasn't afraid to affirm tenets of the Christian faith, such as Christ's bodily resurrection, which many find embarrassing if not downright intellectually irresponsible:

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.

-- "Seven Stanzas at Easter," John Updike (1960)