Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Starbucks' "War" Against Christmas

As most readers probably already know, some Christians have accused Starbucks of being anti-Christmas because of the minimalist cups it is using this holiday season (see above). You may have seen the video produced by Joshua Feuerstein (who evidently has quite a following) in which he reveals Starbucks' "clear and sinister conspiracy" against Christmas (see below):

Really? As a clergy acquaintance of mine put it, if we think we should boycott organizations and other entities that remove Christ from Christmas, then perhaps we should boycott the gospels of Mark and John because they don't include stories about Jesus's birth. Moreover, aren't there other things we should be worrying about? Perhaps, we can take a cue from former President Jimmy Carter who, driven by his Christian faith, has sought to make the world a better and much safer place for all. That strikes me as what the "meaning of Christmas" is all about. Not worry about the designs of Starbucks cups.

Note: Feuerstein must be loving Peets Coffee, whose cups are replete with symbols associated with Christmas (although many have pagan, not Christian, roots).

P.S: I was in a Starbucks recently that was selling Advent calendars. Kinda Christmasy, don't you think?

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Timothy McVeigh was not a Christian Terrorist

In light of the terrorist attacks in Paris, many of the Republican Presidential candidates have openly opposed letting Syrian refugees into the United States (except those who are Christians). And Donald Trump has stated that he favors the surveillance of U.S. mosques, a database of Syrian refugees, and possibly the creation of a registry for all Muslims (sometimes it feels like we've returned to the McCarthy era or that we're about to -- and I wasn't even alive back then). Implicit in these policy positions is the assumption that Christians are less violent than Muslims.

As a response to all this, many people have been quick to point out that Christians have not always lived up to Jesus's understanding of God's Kingdom (which should not be confused with heaven). And a favorite poster boy, at least among secularists and theologically liberal Christians, is Timothy McVeigh. However, although McVeigh attended Roman Catholic mass regularly in his youth, he abandoned the church as an adult. At the time of the Oklahoma City bombing, he had not darkened the door of a church in years. In fact, in his biography he declared that science was his religion, that he did not believe in the afterlife, and certainly did not believe in hell. And on the day before his execution he declared that he was an agnostic. He was, in short, what researchers today refer to as a religious "none" ("God is Alive and Well in the U.S.")

Some point to the fact that he took Last Rites from a Roman Catholic priest just before his execution as evidence that he was a Christian, but given his previous statements, this seems more like a covering of one's bases than a profession of belief. In fact, when McVeigh was asked what he would do if it turned out he was wrong about the afterlife and hell, he remarked that he would “improvise, adapt, and overcome, just like they taught him in the Army.”

I find it curious, though, why some Christians are so eager to claim McVeigh as "one of their own." I certainly am not. I suspect that their motivation is more political than theological (never let facts get in way of a convenient ideology). However, as my previous post illustrates ("Refugees and Terrorism"), one doesn't need to invoke Timothy McVeigh to oppose the overblown rhetoric (and misguided policy positions) of Donald Trump and others.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Refugees and Terrorism

Currently, it is quite fashionable for the Republican candidates for President to oppose letting refugees from Syria into the United States. Quite a few Republican governors feel the same way, and today the U.S. House of Representatives just passed a bill that will make it next to impossible for Iraqi and Syrian refugees to enter the United States. Amid reports that one of the terrorists involved in the terrorist attacks in Paris last week, their reasoning is understandable. It is based on the assumption that if we prevent Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the United States, we lower the probability that we will experience a terrorist attack.

Although their logic is understandable (and rational), I think it is flawed. Why? For the very simple reason that if al-Qaeda, ISIS, or some other terrorist organization wants to insert one of its operatives into the United States, they will. It will most likely be someone who is not on a terrorist-watch or no-fly list and possesses a legal passport. Someone, in other words, who the authorities would not consider a threat. This is not to suggest that groups such as ISIS will not take advantage of the refugee crisis if opportunities present themselves (e.g., it appears that the terrorist who coordinated the Paris bombing was from Belgium who had traveled to Syria and then snuck back into Europe by joining refugees pouring into Greece). Rather, it is to argue that even if higher restrictions on refugees are put in to place, it is unlikely to make the U.S. less vulnerable to a terrorist attack.

Perhaps more concerning is the effect that this bill and rhetoric will have on Muslim perception of the United States and the West. The last thing we need to do (if we're interested in stemming the tide of people joining ISIS) is to create the impression that we (i.e., those of us in the West) are hostile to people of the Islamic faith. Unfortunately, I can't help but think that remarks by Jeb Bush, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz are doing just that. We can only hope that Muslims around the world realize that not all Americans and Western Europeans think like they do.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

What Are Christians to Make of Communion?

What are Christians to make of communion? We call it by numerous names: Lord's Supper, Eucharist, Breaking of Bread, Blessed Sacrament, Holy Communion. Some of us believe that Jesus is somehow present in the bread and the wine; others of us think the celebration simply recalls the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples. Drawing on the work of my professors at Vanderbilt (David Buttrick -- see citation below), I'd like to suggest that communion functions (and indeed functioned for the first disciples) as a witness to what Jesus called the reign (or Kingdom) of God. It does not do this apart from the Church but as an integral part of it. In particular,
  1. Congregations are called to be a living witness to God's reign as exemplified in Jesus' life and teachings
  2. Preaching is one avenue for conveying what this reign looks like (or at least should like)
  3. However, because it's hard for congregations to be a living witness, communion, with its attendant images of a table where all are welcome and no one is turned away, serves as a secondary witness.
In other words, communion isn't simply a remembrance of the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples, but rather it recalls all of the images associated with an open table, whether they are from ancient Israel, Jesus' table fellowship with his disciples, or the numerous parables he told about God's heavenly banquet:
How did the Lord's Supper function in the hermeneutic consciousness of the first disciples? What were the mental associations they grasped the significance of the meal? Obviously, a meal will be understood by recalling previous prototype meals. The list is astonishing. As good Jews, the disciples would have recalled Passover, remembered Covenant ritual, dreamed the Messianic Banquet bash promised on Mt. Zion. More, as disciples surely they would remember past eating and drinking with Jesus, thought of his feasts with sinners, perhaps the glut of wine at Cana, the feeding of the hungry five thousand with borrowed loaves and fishes, the solemn bread breaking on the eve of his death, resurrection parties, the sayings so full of Kingdom banquet talk (Buttrick, "A Sketchbook: Preaching and Worship," p. 35).
In other words, by symbolically capturing the nature of God's Kingdom, communion can step-in when and where the Church falls short.

All of this raises the question as to how often should we celebrate communion? My immediate response is, "As often as possible." Symbolically recalling what it means to witness to God's reign is not something Christians should do occasionally. This does not necessarily mean that we should celebrate it weekly (although that isn't necessarily a bad idea), but it does suggest that we should celebrate it frequently enough so that God's reign is regularly held up for all to see.

David G. Buttrick, 1982. "A Sketchbook: Preaching and Worship." Reformed Liturgy and Music, pp. 33-37.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Mystery of Faith and the Catholic Church

When I was compiling my annotated "Geniuses for Jesus" post last year, I couldn't help but notice how many intellectuals either were or had converted to Roman Catholicism: Stephen Barr (physicist), Dorothy Day (activist), RenĂ© Girard (philosopher), Alasdair MacIntyre (philosopher), Gabriel Marcel (philosopher), Flannery O'Connor (writer), John Sexton (professor and President of NYU), Charles Taylor (philosopher), J. R. R. Tolkien (professor and writer). At the time I wondered (briefly) if this had to do with the Catholic Church's ability, primarily through the liturgy, to capture the mystery of faith, that is, that aspect of belief and practice that cannot be summarized in a theological treatise or biblical commentary.

Of course, my list of geniuses isn't a random sample, so one can't make too much of it and probably why I didn't pursue this line of inquiry at the time. However, when I attended the memorial mass of a good friend this past summer, I began wondering about it again. The singing, almost chanting, prior to the service evoked a sense of awe that's difficult to capture with words. In fact, I almost didn't want the priest to begin talking, not because he didn't have anything worthwhile to say (he did), but because it seemed to break the spell of the moment.

All of which made me wonder whether the Roman Catholic Church should seriously think about returning, at least in part, to the Latin mass. Not the homily, of course, but some of the liturgy. There is, in fact, a movement to do so, and anecdotal evidence suggests that Catholic parishes that use the Latin mass are highly successful (i.e., in attracting worshippers). One of the best attended Roman Catholic churches in Silicon Valley is Our Lady of Peace, which celebrates the Latin Mass and attracted worshippers from up to 100 miles away ("Parish Dreads Change"), and more and more parishes are implementing the Latin Mass ("Latin Mass resurgent 50 years after Vatican II"). To be sure, not everyone will be attracted to the Latin Mass, but what this apparent resurgence points to is that a significant portion of the religious market is.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Election Update

It's been a while since I wrote about next year's Presidential election. Hillary Clinton seems on course to wrap up the Democratic Party nomination, and in spite of the attention paid by the media to Ben Carson and Donald Trump, I think that Marco Rubio has the inside track ("The Republican Establishment Inches Toward Marco Rubio"). He is climbing in the polls, and more importantly, he's picking up endorsements while the other candidates are not, and at this point in an election, endorsements are a better predictor of who wins the nomination than polls ("The Party Decides" "The Endorsement Primary").

Perhaps a more interesting question concerns next year's general election. Currently, it appears that it's Clinton's election to lose, but it's unclear what state the economy will be in this time then ("We Have (Almost) No Idea What The Economy Will Look Like On Election Day"). If it's humming along, then Hillary has a good chance of wining, but if it tanks between now and then, we could be watching Marco Rubio take the oath of office in January of 2017.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Take and Read: The Boys in the Boat

If you haven't read it yet, get it, and read it now: The Boys in the Boat: Nine American and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics. It's the story about the University of Washington eight-oared rowing team that represented the U.S. in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

And it's one heck of a great story. One learns, for instance, that in the 1930s, rowing was one of the nation's most popular sports with millions following the Olympic race on the radio (75,000 people attended the race in Berlin). One also learns about one of the boat's rowers, Joe Rantz, who was abandoned by his family at an early age and forced to fend for himself. It tells how he survived, paid for his way through school, met and married the girl of his dreams, and how rowing helped him regain his sense of self and trust of others. One also learns a bit about the art of rowing: in particular, about the importance of the rowers finding their "swing," and the strategic role that the coxswain plays in the pace of the boat. Finally, one learns about how for the games Hitler and the Nazis into an adult playground for the games, hiding all evidence of their terrible treatment of Jews, gypsies, gays and lesbians, and Jehovah Witnesses.

But most of all, one learns about the nine boys in the boat, who (as the book's website notes) were
The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers from the American West, the boys took on and defeated successive echelons of privilege and power... Against the grim backdrop of the Great Depression, they reaffirmed the American notion that merit, in the end, outweighs birthright. They reminded the country of what can be done when everyone quite literally pulls together. And they provided hope that in the titanic struggle that lay just ahead, the ruthless might of the Nazis would not prevail over American grit, determination, and optimism.
You don't need to be a rowing fan (I'm not) to be riveted by the tale. I listened to the audio version (read by the actor, Edward Herrmann, who is excellent), and the miles flew by. The retelling of the final race in Berlin, as well as the National college championship race a couple of months before, are hard to put down (or in my case, turn off). I can't recommend the book enough. If I hadn't read it already, I'd put it on my Christmas list. You should put it on yours.

Note: The Weinstein Company has acquired the film rights to the story, and the actor and director Kenneth Branagh is set to direct it. I hope it's good. In fact, I hope it's great because it's a great story. Still, I'm skeptical that the movie can capture all that went on in the minds of the rowers (and their coaches).

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Proximate and Distal Causes of Niner Woes

Philosophers, theorists, and scientists often draw a distinction between proximate and ultimate (distal) causes. A proximate cause is what is immediately responsible for causing a particular phenomenon whereas the ultimate cause is what is believed to be the real reason it occurred. For instance, a severe rain storm may cause flooding and would be considered the flooding's proximate cause. However, some might argue that climate change is what lies behind the rain storm's severity in the first place and thus the flooding's ultimate cause.

Niner owner and general manager, Jed York and Trent Baalke, would like us to think that Colin Kaepernick is the cause of the Niners' woes this season. And to be sure, Kap's season has been anything but stellar. After throwing four picks against the Arizona Cardinals, his passing has been tentative and remarkably inaccurate. However, Kap is at best the proximate cause of the Niners' problems, but he isn't the reason why the Niner's offensive line is terrible or why so many players bolted the team (either by retiring or signing with another team) after York and Baalke forced the "mutual parting" of Jim Harbaugh.

No, the ultimate cause of the Niner's woes lies squarely with York and Baalke, but it's unlikely they'll take responsibility for their ineptitude. And since it is unlikely that Kap will be back, you can only wonder whose "fault" it will be next year: Jim Tomsula? Carlos Hyde? Jarryd Hayne (oh that's right, the Niners released their only feel-good story this season yesterday)?

I think the Niners are in a similar state that the Golden State Warriors were in when Chris Cohan owned the team. They had a lot of talented players over the years but only reached the playoffs twice. Unfortunately, I think it's unlikely that the Yorks will sell the team, which could mean several years Niner mediocrity. I suppose there is a small chance that York will wake up one day, realize that he knows next to nothing about football and that his sidekick, Trent Baalke, doesn't know a whole lot more, and hire someone who does. A fan can dream.