Thursday, August 31, 2006

CT: Wide Is the Road to Geneva

This month's Christianity Today features on its cover an article entitled, "Young, Restless, Reformed," reporting that "Calvinism is making a comeback -- and shaking up the church." The upshot of the article is that various bits of anecdotal evidence suggest increased commitment to Reformed theology among young evangelicals.

What does SWNID make of this alleged phenomenon?

First, we think it's false to see Calvinism as having recently been in decline among evangelicals and only more recently becoming resurgent. From our post-Reformed (I've always wanted to be "post-" something) point of view, Calvinism constantly dominates what is generally identified as "evangelicalism." We have seen an unrelenting interest in the tension between divine sovereignty and human freedom, the classic topos of Reformed theology, in our lifetime. Evangelicals constantly churn these issues. Our SWNIDish self has been trying to talk about other things for 25 years, but folks keep insisting that we come back to this issue. (So we happily defer to Son of SWNID's analysis of the merits of Reformed distinctives.)

Further, the leading institutions of what is generally identified as "evangelicalism" have consistently been dominated by Calvinism, at least soteriologically. Among the major evangelical seminaries, only consciously Wesleyan Asbury and totally pluralistic Fuller can escape the label "mostly Reformed" in regard to soteriology. The good Calvinists at Westminster Theological Seminary may bristle at the association, but the fact is that their dispensational nemeses at Dallas Theological Seminary are just as Reformed as they in regards to sin and salvation.

Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, whose diploma adorns our SWNIDish wall, is cited in the article as a place where folks report a growing number of students committed to Reformed theology. From our experience we find that unsurprising. When we studied there over 20 years ago, there were only two faculty members in Bible or theology who weren't Reformed. That may be down to one now, and he's near retirement. A generation of alumni have referred their progeny to what was in the generation before theirs a largely Arminian institution but which was transformed by Kenneth Kantzer into something different. As TEDS morphed from a seminary for Scandinavian immigrants who believe the Bible to the Evangelical Free Church's gift to evangelicalism at large, it has assimilated to the Reformed mainstream of evangelicalism.

We also see Calvinism's constant dominance of American evangelicalism in the rhetoric of Calvinist evangelicals. It is a commonplace for evangelical theologians to insist that only Reformed theology is genuinely "evangelical." This was the case most recently when the Evangelical Theological Society voted on the exclusion of advocates of "openness theology." The motion failed--barely--but it was justified by its advocates in language that would have excluded garden-variety Arminians as well as the more radical "openness" theologians. In other words, those guys take for granted that only the Reformed deserve the label "evangelical."

Second, we think that this alleged resurgence has more to do with the "rock star" prominence of John Piper and Al Mohler among some young, mostly male, budding evangelical seminary students and ministers. It's not that there are more folks of the Calvinist persuasion; it's that they've got some celebrity authors and speakers to rally around.

Third, we'll observe that this trend excludes what is most recently identified as North America's fastest-growing group of religious adherents with membership over one million, namely, the independent Christian churches and churches of Christ, a decidedly un-Reformed bunch if ever there was one. Of course, we Campbellites are used to being ignored. But more on that in a couple of paragraphs.

Fourth, we'll say that we are a little tired of CT telling us which "road" evangelicals are on now. In our lifetime, we've seen the magazine of evangelical record tell us that we were on the road to Canterubury, the road to Rome, the road to Byzantium, and the road to Azuza Street. We may have missed it, but maybe we were also on the road to Aldersgate sometime. And so now we're on the road to Geneva.*

It seems that there's always some sectarian trend among evangelicals who are looking for a more authentic expression of their Christianity, a more fulfilling and radical form of discipleship. Of course, one nasty consequence of getting on such a road is the message that it sends to others: if you aren't on the road with me, you are probably too stupid or evil to realize that you should be on this road, as it's obviously the right one.

And now a confession: the combination of observations three and four discomfit us. We think that more prominence should be given to the road to Bethany, West Viriginia, or the road to Cane Ridge, Kentucky or whatever road you're on if you're one of the growing host of Campbellites.

But whoops! Now I'm in the position of condescending to those not on the road with me. Evil Calvinists! Stupid Pentecostals! Silly Baptists! Join us, the only Christians! ... I mean, Christians only!

How hard it is to be right and not be smug.

Update: High-output Neutestamentler Scott McKnight details his own road away from Geneva here. Are there others? Let's sing another verse of our invitation hymn, "Conditional Election: It's Good Enough for Me," and step forward if you have a free decision to make.
*Historical/geographical key: Canterbury = Anglicanism, Rome = Roman Catholicism, Byzantium = Eastern Orthodoxy, Azuza Street = Pentecostalism, Aldersgate = Wesleyanism, Geneva = Calvinism.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Plamegate Officially Over

Christopher Hitchens (a.k.a. The World's Smartest Person) has what we expect and hope will be the last word on Plamegate. With the revelation that Richard Armitage, Colin Powell's assistant at the State Department, told Robert Novak--at Novak's instigation--that Valerie Plame recommended her unemployed husband Joe Wilson for the temp job of investigating the Iraqi-Niger yellowcake connection.

For those who have even less interest in this non-scandal's whimpering end than SWNID, we offer some explanations and observations from Hitchens's thick-with-allusions article:

  • Bush opponents have widely alleged--no, accused--that Bush administration officials, especially Evil Genius Karl Rove, deliberately "outed" Plame to punish Wilson for his report that was critical of administration actions. Armitage, however, was an opponent of the Iraq invasion. So much for the cruel, ruthless conspiracy hypothesis.
  • Armitage is not the only opponent of the invasion in executive-branch offices. Much of the State Department and the CIA was against it and remains so. If there is a campaign to discredit, it has been folks in Foggy Bottom and Langley who have sourced articles blaming the administration for poor planning and execution. Next time you read that some high percentage of government officials think the invasion was a bad idea, remember who is being counted.
  • Hitchens therefore notes "the extraordinary venom of the interdepartmental rivalry that has characterized this administration." Yet Bush has made no attempt to punish or purge within the State Department or the CIA. On the contrary, he has remained patient and loyal to these bureaucracies, probably unduly so.
  • Ironically enough, all the unreconstructed romantic warriors of the Vietnam and Watergate eras who have focused their radical energy on the administration's alleged misdeeds in "outing" Plame have in fact been doing the work of Washington diplomats and intelligence officers who are trying to keep their bureaucratic control of foreign and military policy. Again, this is how pathetic the radical left in this country has become.
  • Reporters continued to write about a Bush administration scorched-earth campaign to discredit critics of the administration, citing Plame as an example, even though many knew that the whole matter was initiated by reporter Robert Novak, a critic of the invasion, and sourced by Armitage, also a critic. Meanwhile, the members of the California State Legislature are imploring Congress to pass a federal bill protecting reporters from having to reveal their sources. With such a stellar record of honesty in this matter, who could object to giving reporters the same privileges accorded lawyers, medical doctors, mental health counselors and clergy?

Monday, August 28, 2006

Maynard Ferguson, 1928-2006

Belatedly and with sadness we note the passing of the Spartacus of the Jazz Trumpet, Maynard Ferguson, who died last Wendesday.

Like many band geeks of the 1970s, we got our notion of what was possible with a wind instrument expanded by Ferguson's ever-expanding range of pitches, dynamics and styles. Attending one of his thousands of performances -- most, it seemed, given in high school auditoriums that felt like a regathering of the kids we met weeks before at all-state band rehearsals or state solo and ensemble contest -- was the social and cultural highlight of our personal That 70s Show.

But we can't say it better than it has been said by David Von Drehle of the WaPo, whose tribute needs to be read in full by all Ferguson aficionados but which we exerpt here:

Ferguson lit up thousands of young horn players, most of them boys, with pride and excitement. In a world often divided between jocks and band nerds, Ferguson crossed over, because he approached his music almost as an athletic event. On stage, he strained, sweated, heaved and roared. He nailed the upper registers like Shaq nailing a dunk or Lawrence Taylor nailing a running back -- and the audience reaction was exactly the same: the guttural shout, the leap to their feet, the fists in the air. We cheered Maynard as a gladiator, a combat soldier, a prize fighter, a circus strongman -- choose your masculine archetype....

Maynard Ferguson did his best to blow some hormones back into the band room. Along the way, he turned a fair number of us on to the more subtle achievements of more refined musicians. For that, we forgive all the reverb and rayon, all the electronics, even the lamentable disco phase.

24 Wins TV's Self-Promotion/Self-Congratulation Award

Gentle readers are no doubt by now aware that our small-screen obsession 24 received the Emmy award for Outstanding Drama Series.

We note this fact simply so that we can ignore it, on the following grounds:
  • Award shows insult the viewer as attempts by the entertainment industry to promote itself by congratulating itself.
  • Award shows insult the viewer by their assumption that we want to see actors when they aren't doing their jobs, i.e. acting (if indeed actors ever aren't acting).
  • Committed viewers of 24 will find the award at best ironic as they know that this season was hardly the best in the show's distinguished history, save for the brilliant acting performances of Jean Smart and Gregory Itzin in utterly implausible situations.
  • Anyone who will only watch 24 because it won this award or who will watch it with greater regularity and interest because it won this award is unworthy of the experience of watching 24.

Georgetown U Attempts Command, Monopolistic Economy for Protestantism

Inside Higher Ed reports that Georgetown University, an avowedly Roman Catholic and markedly prestigious institution of higher education, is eliminating all independent Protestant groups from its roster of official campus organizations. Per the article, the expulsion includes InterVarsity Fellowship. We would guess that Campus Crusade is another.

The move was prompted by a decision by the university's Protestant chaplain to try to unify Protestant ministries on the campus. It seems that the students didn't respond to the Protestant chaplaincy's services and programming, so the expulsion of other groups creates a monopoly that the chaplain hopes will force Protestant students to join in the ecumenical spirit of things.

First, we want to note that Georgetown is noteworthy for even having non-Roman Catholic campus ministries. Some other prestigious Roman Catholic universities, notably Notre Dame, at our last check did not have any religious life on campus that was not of the Roman Catholic variety. That a private, faith-based university would allow any religious diversity at all is a remarkable occurrence.

However, we predict utter failure for this ill-informed move to limit groups formerly granted campus activity status. Command economies and state-enforced monopolies have a miserable historical record. The intangible matter of faith and its expression is, furthermore, impossible to control in an authoritarian way. Trying to force a particular kind of religious expression by restricting the supply will undoubtedly fail, as it always has in the past.

We also confess ourselves amused by the remark attributed to Georgetown's Protestant chaplain, the Rev. Constance C. Wheeler, who gave no reason for her decision to eliminate outside Protestant groups except that it came "only after much dialogue with the Lord." Her words suggest the following exchange between Isaiah and his wife after the gravid events of Isaiah chapter six:

PROPHET'S WIFE: What did you do today, dear?

PROPHET: Oh, I just went to the temple and had some dialogue with the Lord.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

From the SWNID Files: Top Ten Obscure Facts About the Protestant Reformation

On a day that is slow for news and busy for SWNID, we offer something from our files that fits our criterion for publication on this blog (i.e., utterly amusing to the blogger, regardless of what gentle readers might think). As we recall, this list was a group production by ourself and some colleagues, though our aged memory is imperfect on this point. We also aver that the last point will be opaque except to denizens of the University of East Price Hill, where we serve.

Top Ten Obscure Facts About the Protestant Reformation
10. What Luther wrote with chalk in Latin on that table was not "This is my body" but 'large, thick-crust, sausage, onions and extra cheese."
9. Some of the polygamists in Munster escaped and made their way to Utah.
8. Calvin had to file for an extension when he missed the deadline for submitting the Institutes.
7. Henry the Eighth's marital misadventures were deemed by the pope "not to rise to the level of an impeachable offense."
6. Thesis number 91: "Tastes great." Thesis number 92: "Less filling."
5. The Vatican briefly experimented with the Powerball Lottery before opting for the sale of indulgences to finance St. Peter's.
4. The Council of Trent would have been finished 18 months sooner had the network not kept crashing.
3. The Diet of Worms did not taste like chicken.
2. Papal bulls have no horns.
1. Melanchthon didn't know Jack.

Friday, August 25, 2006

OH Senate Race: Brown with Lead, DeWine with Momentum

RealClearPolitics provides a helpful summary of current polling on the Ohio senate race, and it's telling about the general prospects for November.

All recent polls show Sherrod Brown with a lead close to the margin of error. But all polls show that his lead is less than it was a few weeks ago. DeWine is overcoming negativity about Republicans and moving up.

Hence, analysis of the polls leads the polling organizations to call the race a toss up. That is, except for Congressional Quarterly, who see it as leaning to the Rs.

It will be an interesting campaign season, which is a cliche offered when one is not confident enough to risk predictions. But we will not be surprised if the Democrats spend Thanksgiving in recriminations about lost opportunities of November 2006.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Embryonic Stem-Cell Developments: Societal Morals Marginally Less Coarse

Per press reports, today's issue of Nature announces the development of a new technique for human embryonic stem-cell extraction that does not destroy the human embryo.

Will this mean an end to the debate about stem cell research? Probably not, but it might mean some movement.

It is reported that there are questions and complications with the technique, not surprising as the article about it hasn't even been officially published until today. And some ethicists of the pro-life position will be concerned even if a single extracted stem cell could itself potentially develop into a human embryo.

Also, the White House has made a preliminary statement that it would prefer that stem cell research not use human embryos at all.

However, the main objection to embryonic stem-cell research is that it destroys actual human embryos. And this technique may make it possible for researchers to do their research without that outcome.

So we expect that if the technique pans out, the Bush White House will reverse its objection to federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, perhaps with some additional caveats or lesser restrictions.

But here's the observation you won't see many other places: it's unlikely that anyone would have bothered to devise this embryo-saving technique if Bush hadn't stood firm on the funding issue. There would be no demand for such a technique if the supply of embryonic stem cells weren't limited by the restriction on federal funding.

Pro-life advocates generally refer to the coarsening of societal morals that legalized abortion and euthanasia create. We can easily imagine the coarser outcome had Bush not stood firm on this issue. And we prefer the less coarse course.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

A Brief History of Debt

Gentle readers who are contemplating the prospects of mortgages, college loans and credit card purchases will want to read Robert Samuelson's precis of debt past and present, not to mention a hedged glimpse of the future.

In sum, consumer debt is not all bad, as it democratized such things as home ownership and fueled a strong work ethic and optimism about the future. But everything has its limits, and the United States may be near the end of the expansion of borrowing.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Next Iraq Debate: Unity or Partition

It appears that despite the efforts of partisan politicians to make the Bush administration "failures" in Iraq the singular issue of public attention, the real future of Iraq may yet be discussed in public forums. And the real future of Iraq revolves around one question: should Iraq be preserved as a single nation state or should it be partitioned into three or more smaller states.

Historical precedents for partition are many. The Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia are recent nation states that are now multiple nation states. In the more distant past, British India became India and Pakistan, and the latter divided into Pakistan and Bangladesh.

A debate of sorts on this issue can be experienced by reading diplomat Peter Galbraith's summary case for partition of Iraq in the NY Daily News and Michael Hirsh's critique of Galbraith in Washington Monthly.

What is the SWNID position on this? Still evolving, but intrigued that partition may alleviate the present crisis, as it did in other nations. Hirsh is right that it's illogical to decry the Bush administration's "mistakes" in Iraq and then proclaim that partition was inevitable. But it is also true that with hindsight no one would suggest that India could have emerged as a single, independent nation or that it should have remained under British imperium rather than be divided.

We suspect that it may take another American administration to advance the prospects of partition effectively. Bush has apparently exhausted his political capital, domestic and global, with the liberation of Iraq's Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis from Saddam. Any move he now makes is inevitably suspect simply because he makes it. Like Truman stuck in Korea (we remain fixated on the many ways that Bush is like Truman), he probably needs a successor administration to conclude the peace, such as it is.

None of this negates what the war has accomplished. People decry the situation in Iraq because they lack the memory and the imagination to consider what a world with Saddam still in it would look like. The cynicism that prefers the "stability" of a genocidal dictator with imperial ambitions doesn't bear comparison to the idealism that accepts the risks of removing such a tyrant. And in the end, the risks inherent in the cynical stability are inevitably greater.

Monday, August 21, 2006

New Nominating Calendar for Ds: Good News for Hillary

In the never-ending quest to perfect their system of nominating candidates for POTUS who can in turn lose the general election, the Ds have decided to alter their calendar of caucuses and primaries for 2008. Specifically, Nevada and South Carolina will join Iowa and New Hampshire in the dark days of midwinter.

Ostensibly this move is to bring more ethnic diversity to the nominating process, specifically Hispanic-Americans from Nevada and African-Americans in South Carolina.

We will not comment on the (racist?) assumption that people identified with an ethnic group in a less urbanized state like South Carolina have the same political interests as those in a more urbanized state like Michigan, or that the distinct economic issues of Nevada will play out politically with a particular ethnic group in the same way they do with that ethnic group in Texas or Florida. As always, we wish the Ds well with their good intentions grounded in the politics of special interest.

But we suspect another set of intentions, as the effect of this move is patent. To wit, moving the selection of yet more delegates to a point nearly eleven months before the general election puts a huge premium on early fundraising and name-recognition.

So call this the first victory in Hillary's '08 campaign, the result of which will give her, like the early-nominated John Kerry before her, sufficient time to wear down the electorate with her inherent insufferability before November.

Allen's "Macaca" Debacle: Social Darwinism Works!

We'll assume that gentle readers by now know all about George Allen's recent unfortunate remark. If "a majority of Virginians" know about it, certainly our sophisticated readership does as well.

We will confine ourselves to this observation. We believe that Allen's implosion as a national candidate was inevitable. And we think it a blessing to the GOP that it happened before the presidential nominating process began in earnest. Now his diehard conservative supporters can recover their senses and reorganize themselves to support some candidate with the ability to win a general election.

Many in our republic decry the length of time devoted to presidential campaigning. On aesthetic grounds, we join them. But the perpetual campaign may yet have a salutary effect along the lines of social Darwinism. "Survival of the fittest" takes time. Our drawn-out campaigns at least provide the circumstances to exterminate the least able candidates.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Kerry: Lieberman the New Cheney. SWNID: What's Wrong with That?

On "This Week with George Stephanopolis" John Kerry is reported to have "blasted" Joe Lieberman, specifically for "adopting the rhetoric of Dick Cheney."

This, of course, is Kerry's attempt at a bitter insult, like saying, "Your mother wears army boots."

But its power to insult depends entirely on one's evaluation of the predicate. To discuss chiastically, we begin with the latter insult. A mother who wears army boots is a source of pride to any child who believes that service in the armed forces is a noble and self-sacrificial act, suitable to both genders. And so the insult says more that is negative about the values and perceptions of the person who offers it than of its intended object.

So likewise, for those who pay attention to the real Dick Cheney--a man whose considerable record of scholarship, public service and private enterprise is not the fantasy of evil created by left-wing bloggers and columnists--the assertion of any similarity to Mr. Cheney is naturally construed as complimentary.

SWNID fancies ourself able to remember events of the distant past--like six years ago. We recall that the acknowledged highlight of the 2000 presidential campaign was the vice-presidential debate at Kentucky's Centre College between one Dick Cheney and one Joe Lieberman. Pundits and pols alike lauded both candidates for their reasoned, civil, rational and even courageous discussion of issues. Campaign talking points were significantly less in evidence than in the presidential debates, as both vice-presidential candidates exercised a willingness to discuss isssues on their merits and out of their own considerable experience and expertise.

So it's no suprise, really, that Lieberman should sound like Cheney, and no insult for either to be compared to the other.

Too bad Kerry can't remember back that far. Perhaps he can't remember because his consciousness is so full of the subjunctive that he has no cognitive room from the indicative. To wit, once again Kerry intoned what a hypothetical Kerry-Edwards administration would have done with the present Middle-Eastern distress: "I know that I would have handled the diplomacy."

In other confusions of fantasy with fact, Kerry intoned that Lieberman is out of step with the voters of Connecticut, this despite Lieberman's substantial lead in current polls regarding the general election. But perhaps it is Republicans who give Lieberman his edge in November, and so perhaps Mr. Kerry advocates the statutory disenfranchisement of all registered Republicans because of their association with the Evil Genius Dick Cheney.

Once again, like a voice crying in the wilderness, we plead with members of the opposition party to get serious. When losing general elections with positions grounded in the discredited ideology of the extreme left is seen as a badge of honor among Democrats, our republic is ill served by its two-party system.

SWNID Makes Social Scientific Discovery: Sex Sells

We are pleased to announce to the world a new insight into human behavior, discovered by us:

Humans are very interested in sex.

The proof is this blog.

Between our recent comments on l'affaire JBC and our link to an essay on the state of sexual ethics among evangelicals, we've had a bumper crop of hits and comments.

We will ponder this insight for its implications. One, we believe, is that sexuality might be used for commercial purposes. For example, pictures of attractive women might be used to sell products of interest to young men--say, beer and automobiles. But we have to think about that to be sure.

We also doubt that we'll deliberately pander to this interest to keep the hits coming.

Friday, August 18, 2006

When Wholes Are Far Less Than the Sum of the Parts

As gentle readers know, SWNID is very interested in the politics of our republic.

We are also anxious to see the forthcoming summer blockbuster, Snakes on a Plane, surely the most imaginative vehicle for Samuel L. Jackson ever devised.

So what happens when someone combines politics and SOAP?

Well, when the someone is the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, it's something so unspeakably stupid as to defy description.

Thanks, DSCC, for reminding us why even in trying times like these, it's wise to stick with the GOP.

Surveillance Ruling: SWNID, WaPo Agree

Gentle readers have not come to expect this blogger to agree with the editorial stance of the Washington Post. Such agreement is even less expected where questions of national security versus civil liberty are concerned.

But today the WaPo criticizes the decision of U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor finding for the ACLU and against the government on the constitutionality of the NSA's surveillance of phone calls between folks in the United States and those on foreign shores suspected of terrorist involvement. Remarkably, the consummate beltway insiders acknowledge that the President does have a constitutional position worthy of consideration, even though they disagree with it.

Still, they acknowledge the significance of the debate and scold Judge Taylor for her inflammatory rhetoric that dismisses it out of hand.

What the WaPo wanted was a more nuanced opinion on a difficult issue. Here SWNID disagrees. What we need is not a nuanced opinion from a judge but a carefully thought-out statute from Congress. The House and Senate need to define what the NSA is to do and how oversight is to be exercised. That's why they were elected. The courts don't need to find an answer to this question out of the tea leaves and goat entrails of legal opinion about the applicability of the Constitution. No one is that smart, least of all someone with a JD and the political connections to score a presidential appointment.

We've said this before. And just over two months ago, we were promised just this kind of legislation.

So when will it ever happen? Sooner than the next time SWNID agrees with the WaPo, we hope.

McIntyre: Romney the Rising Alternative to GOP "Moderates"

RealClearPolitics co-blogger John McIntyre notes that George Allen's political decline thanks to Macacagate happens to coincide with the rise of Mitt Romney as a credible GOP presidential contender to rival frontrunners Giuliani and McCain. He offers further that if Romney weren't a Mormon, he'd be the frontrunner.

We agree. Believing Mormon theology doesn't foster the impression that one is critically minded. But one can overcome that impression with competency in other areas.

And for those who wonder about our SWNIDish political preferences, we would be very comfortable with the Governor of Massachusetts as Republican candidate for POTUS should he prove a strong enough candidate to be likely to clobber the Junior Senator from New York in November 2008. We know Rudy can, but if Mitt can, that's all good too.

Wheaton Professor Analyzes Evangelicals and Sex

The indispensable Opinion Journal today provides space to Wheaton College Professor Christine Gardner's analysis of current attitudes among evangelicals toward contraception and sex. In sum, "plan B" bad, contraception good (mostly), abstinence before marriage excellent, marital sex most excellent.

For those who wonder about Sam and Bethany Torode, the authors of Open Embrace that argued evangelical couples should be less inclined to use contraception and more inclined to be open to the possibility of the blessing of children, Gardner notes that their web site now announces that the Torodes have three children and proclaim themselves "more mellow" about telling other people to have loads of kids.

Gardner's closing analysis, however, is this: evangelicals have really embraced a "great sex" ethic: (a) because it's your body and your choice, stay chaste before marriage for great sex after marriage; (b) contraception has a legitimate place in a marriage where great sex is a legitimate expectation. Her last word:

Some evangelicals charge that the Pill has contributed to the moral breakdown of society; perhaps, but evangelicals' embrace of the contraception culture has not helped. It may have made Christianity sexier to potential adherents but diminished a public understanding of marriage in the process. For evangelicals, this may be a bitter pill to swallow.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Claremont Emeritus Professor Proves Everyone Has Kooks

As if the Presbyterian Church in the USA didn't have enough on its plate already, a new book from its publishing company, Westminster/John Knox Press, has added an issue of utter outrageousness.

Specifically, W/JK is releasing a book by David Ray Griffin, a retired professor of theology from Claremont School of Theology, that offers the trenchant, rational allegation that the tragic events of September 11, 2001 were orchestrated by the Bush administration as a pretext for expanding the "demonic" imperial power of the United States.

The book is entitled Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11.

We think that this event illustrates several immutable truths:

  • Theologians, this blogger excepted, are generally awful at analyzing contemporary events.
  • Publishing houses, even those not owned by for-profit corporations, are willing to publish almost anything that they believe will sell. The truth, to neuter a familiar phrase, be darned.
  • Christian publishing houses will publish on any subject as long as the title of the book can somehow be christianized. Christian leftist-conspiracy-theory books can now be added to Christian diet books, Christian how-to-make-a-million-in-real-estate books, Christian romance novels, et cetera ad nauseum.
  • The left continues to careen between the incompatible hypotheses that (a) the Republicans are unspeakably stupid; (b) the Republicans are so smart that they can launch massive, undiscovered conspiracies to manipulate events toward their nefarious ends. And of course, only the left is smart enough to perceive both of these realities at once.
  • Some Americans are so convinced of the omnipotence of their own government and the invulnerability of their lifestyle that they prefer to believe utterly unsupported and implausible conspiracy hypotheses instead of the obvious truth that terrorists killed a lot of people one day.
  • Jacob Neusner never spoke truer words than he did in a debate on William F. Buckley's Firing Line program in the early 1990s. Debating in favor of the proposition "We have nothing to fear from the religious right," the great scholar of rabbinics said to Cornell West, "Look, you have your kooks; we have our kooks. We don't want to trade our kooks for your kooks."

Ohio School Rankings: Say What You Will, Something Is Working

The annual report of state rankings for school districts in Ohio is out, and it's good news for just about everyone in southwest Ohio. Lots of districts moved up, only a couple moved down, about half are in the top two categories and none are in the bottom two.

Of SWNIDish importance is the ranking of Cincinnati Public Schools, which continues for a second year in the middle category of "continuous improvement," safely above the bottom categories where the district struggled for years.

What grand lessons do we confidently draw from these data?

  • Lots of things ail public education, and some of them have to do with the fact that it's "public," which is to say a function of government with its inefficiency. But we are beginning to see that continuous attention to best practices and clear objectives can yield improvement. Public schools are not as doomed as some people allege. We do know a little about how to facilitate learning.
  • There remains a pretty clear and obvious link between the quality measures of a school district and the prosperity of its students. Districts with a higher concentration of economically poor students have generally lower rankings than rich districts. And this has less to do with how much money is spent on the schools (some districts with poor students have lots of money to spend) than on the way that poverty generally impoverishes students' experiences outside of school and make it harder for them to learn. Regardless of the school, parents remain the most important factor in education.
  • So urban districts that are making improvement deserve recognition for doing a very, very hard job better than they have before.
  • District rankings don't mean much if a district is very big. Within large districts there are certainly good schools and bad, irrespective of the district's rank as a whole. Parents who make decisions about their children's education based solely on district rankings are exposing the weakness of their own education. And so we remind our gentle readers again: Cincinnati Public Schools has some awful schools and some great schools, and the good news is that just about anyone can go to one of the great ones. So don't move from the city just yet.
  • We hope that Hamilton County's second biggest school district, Northwest, is not in a tailspin. It's one of the two area districts that went down a notch. The district is having a tough time holding onto superintendents, its most recent levy was voted down, and the last board meeting rivaled the Jerry Springer show for disorderliness. Our confidential sources fear the district is in a pattern of decline from which it may never recover. That would be bad. We hope that the district's many able and committed educators and parents prevail.

Finally, an unscientific, subjective, anecdotal and personal observation. We are entering our seventeenth consecutive year as a postsecondary educator. And it is our firm conviction that today's college students of traditional age are as a whole better prepared for college and more serious about learning than their counterparts a decade or two ago. We observe greater experience in serious reading and extended writing, not to mention such things as higher-level mathematics and foreign languages. Not all is well in our high schools; they are massively uneven. But as a whole, they've been a lot worse.

Monday, August 14, 2006

SWNID Passes 1st Anniversary Quietly, Receives Papal Endorsement

SWNID celebrated our first anniversary of blog publication yesterday. Yes, this indispensable compendium of truth and clarity began on August 13, 2005.

The celebration was quiet, as we napped on our back patio. No other guests attended the fete.

This occasion makes us especially grateful to have received an endorsement from none other than Pope Benedict, who in an AP article is quoted as saying:

I'm not a man who constantly thinks up jokes. But I think it's very important to be able to see the funny side of life and its joyful dimension and not to take everything too tragically. I'd also say it's necessary for my ministry.
We are, needless to say, happy to provide His Holiness with an infallible source of humor, at least when we jest ex cathedra.

We also hereby assert our rights to "Seldom Wrong, Never in Doubt" and "SWNID" as our trademarks. Attention world: No marketing merchandise that exploits these distinctive speech acts without our license. We have kids to put through college.

As a reminder to gentle readers, now often numbering over 100 per day, we repost our original justification--largely fulfilled in this last year, we hope--for this blog (with minor editorial modifications to adhere to our current SWNID style manual):

Greetings, gentle readers, and welcome to "Seldom Wrong, Never in Doubt"! This is where we, SWNID, share our self-important, inflated thoughts with the world. Or at least with some of our friends. Who, we hope, remain our friends even after reading this.

Why another blog? Because we are using a lot of time to send links and such to our friends and family. This will be easier for us, and will spare some of you a cluttered inbox, if we've had the habit of sending you things of interest.

What can you expect here? Well, we don't know, because we are neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet. However, here's what we expect to post:

  • Links to news and opinion pieces on the web that we find interesting.
  • Some of our own rants on topics political.
  • Maybe an occasional link to Christian sites that we find interesting (these will be occasional because, frankly, we don't find Christian sites all that interesting for the most part).
  • Some occasional reflections on things that are happening around us at the places where we hang out, namely Cincinnati Christian University and White Oak Christian Church (but no "inside information," as that would be inappropriate).
  • Some reflections on what we're reading that isn't in cyberspace.
  • The odd picture now and then.

Why the name? We don't remember a time when we didn't know this pair of phrases--seldom wrong, never in doubt. Our SWNIDish father said this all the time as a sarcastic, self-depreciating way of acknowledging that he was opinionated. So we picked up both the attitude and the phrase from him.

And to be honest, even though both Father of SWNID and SWNID are being sarcastic when we utter these magical words, we really think they're true, though we would never admit it.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Cheap Travel Advisory: Megabus Does What High-Speed Rail Might Do Someday

Gentle readers know the SWNIDish penchant for finding alternative ways to enjoy travel cheaply.

Now it looks like our cheap-travel jones just got its ultimate fix.

It's Megabus.

Full, almost-too-good-to-be-true details are on the web site, but here's an executive summary:

  • The company is Scottish (!) and has been offering a similar service in the UK for awhile.
  • It operates with one hub in the US, but the one that SWNID would want to be first: Chicago.
  • From Chicago, it serves major cities in the Midwest.
  • From Cincinnati, the bus generally leaves from downtown around 7:30 a.m. and arrives in Chicago at Union Station around 12:45, making only one stop in Indianapolis, so it's essentially as fast as driving yourself.
  • The return trip from Chicago to Cincinnati starts at midafternoon and arrives home in time for a late dinner and a very reasonable bedtime, i.e. before 9 p.m.
  • Reservations are required and are available up to 45 days in advance.
  • All reservations are made via the internet.
  • All payment is made via credit or debit cards.
  • Fares vary, as with airlines, depending on demand. They go as low as $1 (!) plus a 50-cent (!!) reservation charge.

We ran an experimental check of the reservation system and were offered a $1 fare each way for travel over a weekend in October for one passenger. When we added a theoretical spouse and child, the total cost went to $17 each way (that's $17 for three passengers, or $5.67 per person each way), plus the 50-cent reservation charge.

Midwesterners may wait a generation or more for intercity high-speed rail service. When it comes, it won't be much faster than this, but it will be a lot more expensive.

So plan that excursion to Chicago now. Book Megabus, order a Chicago Transit Authority pass, reserve a room at the Lincoln Park North Days Inn, and enjoy one of the world's greatest cities for a little more than the cost of a movie with large popcorn and Goobers.

Friday, August 11, 2006

CT Primary Fallout: McCain-Lieberman '08?

The most obvious tragedy of the Connecticut primary election is that the Nutmeg State Democrats seem determined to make Hillary Clinton the most moderate Democrat in the US Senate.

But the ever-astute Michael Barone serves up a more interesting potential consequence: a McCain-Lieberman GOP presidential ticket in 2008. The prospect demands that Lieberman win the Connecticut general election for the Senate this November, an outcome that Barone already deems likely (Lieberman probably wins more Republican votes than the weak Republican token candidate and certainly wrests from Lamont most of the 48% of Ds who voted for him).

Also interesting is Barone's remark that important private polls show either Giuliani or McCain handily beating either Hillary or Gore in '08.

All the buzz is about the Rs being in trouble in '06. But Barone sees a pool table in the Democrats' River City in '08. And the trouble will linger as long as the hard left runs their party.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

On Today's Foiled Bomb Plot: Prognostication Makes Everyone Look Dumb

To the many lessons and reminders being drawn from today's stunning announcement of the arrest of persons plotting to use liquid explosives to destroy planes in flight between London and the United States, we will offer one more.

Predicting the future will make anyone look stupid.

We say this because our favorite print publication, The Atlantic Monthly, has been getting things so horribly wrong with such exquisite timing lately.

This month, James Fallows, in an informed, stimulating, nuanced and thoughtful article (link requires subscription for full access), proposes that our government declare the war on terror to have been won and so move from a war footing to a different approach to bringing an end to the Islamist threat. Among his observations that could be cited as evidence of victory is that Al Qaida has essentially been rendered powerless to take aggressive actions and that airport security exists more to reassure the public than to stop terrorists, who would never think again of hitting the hardened targets that airliners have become.

Well, so much for that.

Meanwhile, in the previous issue, Mary Anne Weaver, in an informed, stimulating, nuanced and thoughtful article (again, link requires a subscription for full access) declared that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi posed little actual threat to United States' interests and had little effective connection to Osama Bin Laden. While that issue was still on the newsstands, American forces killed al-Zarqawi, and the aftermath of reduced insurgency (as opposed to sectarian violence) and statements from Bin Laden demonstrated otherwise.

So much for that, too.

Now what's notable about all this is not that the esteemed journal got it all wrong. It's that the Atlantic's editorial position for several years has been that the Bush administration did not properly assess the threat of Iraq or plan and execute the occupation once the decision was made. In other words, Bush has been incompetent to prognosticate.

Well, now we know why he proved so incompetent and why the Atlantic was early to notice. For the former, the future is hard to know. For the latter, it takes one to know one.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Homosexuality and Christianity Again UPDATED

We've had a lot of traffic looking for our response to former Johnson Bible College Professor John Rumple's "open letter" to his former employer. Yesterday, we gladly granted our permission to JBC to reproduce and disseminate our post to its students and other interested parties.

Because the original post is about to slip from the main page of the blog, we here provide a link to the archived post, for those who are looking for it.

Making your web surfing easier since 2005, we remain,

Caustically yours,


Update: Rumple has posted a rejoinder here. SWNID is not interested in a blogged debate with Rumple, having already labeled further debate on this issue superfluous. And in this hectic academic season, we haven't the time. As we said, that's Gagnon's job, and he's already done it very well.

We will assert, briefly:
  • Rumple has mostly missed or avoided our point--too subtly expressed?--that the gospel compels all disciples to restrain certain impulses, some of them quite powerful, leaving those who experience same-sex attraction in the same boat of discipleship as the rest of us sinners.
  • That the ancients might not recognize all the nuances of the modern construct "sexuality" does not ipso facto evacuate the theological significance and ethical relevance of the Bible's condemnation of same-sex relations. The illogic of this move (one that first made its way into publication in the 1970s, we recall) is patent.
  • Rumple has freely engaged his right to lace his rejoinder with rhetoric that identifies us and any who would agree with our position as closed minded and any who move toward his as Spirit-led. Acknowledging that we have freely engaged our right to our favored rhetoric of haughty scorn, we nevertheless think that Rumple's rhetoric begs the question egregiously (but predictably).
  • Rumple's evaluation of the people of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement is different from ours. He finds them insulated and uninformed on this issue. We find them pretty well informed, certainly at least as informed as most Christians of any denominational or nondenominational identity. And so while the overt condescension that we adopt as the style of this blog is playful and--we hope--mildly amusing to some, we expect that his subtle condescension is sincere and will be off-putting to most.
  • This issue isn't about whether people of homosexual orientation should be allowed openly to minister in the church. It's about whether homosexual practice is morally acceptable for any Christian. Rumple obfuscates this point. Homosexuals have properly ministered in the church in every generation--while not acting on their desires and probably with as much "openness" as anyone exercises about his or her most powerful impulses toward actions he or she believes to be wrong.
  • We are most hurt by his insinuation that our response was typical of many that he has received. We fancied that it was by far the wittiest. We are humiliated by our apparent banality.
Finally, we say a warm "you're welcome" to the folks at JBC who have expressed appreciation to us. For their sake we are also glad that in his rejoinder to us Rumple's assertions of abuse from JBC seem now to be reduced to a milder castigation that his situation could have been handled better--more biblically.

We don't know the details of JBC's handling of his situation; we don't want to know the details. We certainly think that any situation can be handled better than it was. Hindsight and all that.

But from what we've read, we understand that Rumple did not simply conceal his experience of same-sex attraction but his established, ongoing sexual relationship with a person of the same sex. JBC, we assume, prohibits sexual activity outside of monogamous, heterosexual marriage, not the experience of same-sex attraction as such. We also know the administration and faculty of JBC to be, as we said, understanding, patient, humble and loving--exceptionally so, in fact--not to mention much better informed and more thoughtful and reflective than Rumple allows.

So when Rumple insinuates that anyone merely revealing same-sex attraction would be summarily dismissed at JBC, we doubt it. But in any case, that's not what happened with him.

Hanson: Insane, Amoral Posturing on Global Jihad

We urge gentle readers to consider classicist Victor Davis Hanson's essay on the disturbing tendency of political figures to equate the actions of Hezbollah and Israel. Hanson compares the excuses made for Islamic terror to the equanimity with which democracies viewed the rise of facism in the 1930s:

Our present generation too is on the brink of moral insanity. That has never been more evident than in the last three weeks, as the West has proven utterly unable to distinguish between an attacked democracy that seeks to strike back at terrorist combatants, and terrorist aggressors who seek to kill civilians.

It is now nearly five years since jihadists from the Arab world left a crater in Manhattan and ignited the Pentagon. Apart from the frontline in Iraq , the United States and NATO have troops battling the Islamic fascists in Afghanistan . European police scramble daily to avoid another London or Madrid train bombing. The French, Dutch, and Danish governments are worried that a sizable number of Muslim immigrants inside their countries are not assimilating, and, more worrisome, are starting to demand that their hosts alter their liberal values to accommodate radical Islam. It is apparently not safe for Australians in Bali, and a Jew alone in any Arab nation would have to be discreet — and perhaps now in France or Sweden as well. Canadians’ past opposition to the Iraq war, and their empathy for the Palestinians, earned no reprieve, if we can believe that Islamists were caught plotting to behead their prime minister. Russians have been blown up by Muslim Chechnyans from Moscow to Beslan. India is routinely attacked by Islamic terrorists. An elected Lebanese minister must keep in mind that a Hezbollah or Syrian terrorist — not an Israeli bomb — might kill him if he utters a wrong word. The only mystery here in the United States is which target the jihadists want to destroy first: the Holland Tunnel in New York or the Sears Tower in Chicago .

In nearly all these cases there is a certain sameness: The Koran is quoted as the moral authority of the perpetrators; terrorism is the preferred method of violence; Jews are usually blamed; dozens of rambling complaints are aired, and killers are often considered stateless, at least in the sense that the countries in which they seek shelter or conduct business or find support do not accept culpability for their actions.

We mourn the death, destruction and privation that Israeli actions have wrought on Lebanon. But we know of no effective alternative. When Hezbollah is lobbing rockets that explode to shoot ball bearings like bullets 100 meters in every direction, killing civilians indiscriminately (Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze, by the way, as illustrated by this poignant picture of an Israeli Druze woman killed by a terrorist rocket), and when they deliberately place their rocket batteries in populated areas and then threaten to kill anyone in the community who tries to evacuate, we know of nothing that can be done except to rout out the monstrous terrorists who perpetuate this madness.

"Collateral damage" understates the human toll of military action. But the alternative is to let the murderers expand and perpetuate their murder, a far deadlier outcome.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Enquirer Guest Columnists Read SWNID, Repeat Analysis

It took a few weeks, but the Enquirer has caught up to our SWNIDly trenchant analysis of Cincinnati's much maligned population loss.

Local development experts Steve Johns and Tom Huenefeld say it's because Cincinnati is not an "elastic city." Unlike its neighbors, it hasn't added contiguous communities to its boundaries.

That means not just a statistical difference but political and economic differences as well. The elastic Indianapolis, Louisville, Lexington and Columbus have a big voice in lobbying state and federal governments and in marketing themselves to businesses.

Remember, you read it here first.

Of course, what would it take for local Ds to give up power in the city, local Rs to give it up in the county, and every elected and appointed official in such tiny communities as Elmwood Place, Deer Park, Crosby Township, or Glendale to do the same so that Hamilton County, Ohio could be come a single, united municipality?

More than even SWNID can imagine.

Dionne: Conservatism Dead? SWNID: If So, Liberalism Is Double Dead.

E. J. Dionne, a lefty pundit whom SWNID reads with some expectation of decent thought, fulfills that expectation in part with his column today. It poses the question, which Dionne says is quietly making its way through conservatives circles, as to whether political conservatism is dead. In fact, he asks whether it died this week.

Dionne's evidence is the fissures among the conservative coalition over Iraq, government spending, immigration and taxes. Do these signal the end of conservatism as a coherent, confident, forward-looking movement? More particularly, is the cynical move by the Republican majority in the Congress to introduce a bill, since defeated, that would raise the minimum wage while eliminating inheritance taxes on the largest of estates a sign of political mortality?

Dionne closes this way:

Political movements lose power when they lose their self-confidence and sense of mission. Liberalism went into a long decline after 1968 when liberals clawed at each other more than they battled conservatives -- and when they began to wonder whether their project was worth salvaging.

Between now and November, conservative leaders will dutifully try to rally the troops to stave off a Democratic victory. But their hearts won't be in the fight. The decline of conservatism leaves a vacuum in American politics. An unhappy electorate is waiting to see who will fill it.

Of course, the problem is that there's nothing there to fill it. If conservatism is dead, as Dionne seems to hope or believe, then liberalism is dead, decayed down to dust, and blown apart in the wind without leaving behind a gravestone.

And we chide Dionne for not noting that the Rs' backing of a bill that both raises the minimum wage and lowers estate taxes is no more politically cynical than the Ds insisting on raising the minimum wage to begin with. The Ds' support for the minimum wage is not genuinely charged by concern for those who earn it, a tiny and ever-shrinking percentage of workers. It is charged by organized labor, which negotiates contracts setting union wages at multiples of the federal minimum wage, giving their workers an automatic wage hike every time the minimum wage goes up.

Such political cynicism is nothing new, and Dionne, who does know history (he rightly credits modern political conservatism as the product of the 18th century's Edmund Burke and the 20th century's William F. Buckley), knows as much.

We suspect that the current fatigue of conservatives will pass as debates on issues clarify choices for November. That should inject a bit of life into the sick body politic for the short term.

But note what has to happen for a real infusion of life: the Democratic party must loosen its ties to its discredited antiwar and antibusiness elements, move closer to the center right, and begin a debate centered on the specific details of broad policies historically proven sound.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

SWNID on Early Ohio Gubernatorial Polls

With Ohio seen as the pivotal electoral state in our republic, the media has lavished much attention of late on polls that show Ted Strickland well ahead of the SWNID-favored Ken Blackwell. What does the ever-optimistic SWNID, thoroughly confident and completely amateur political prognosticator, make of these data?

First, with many, we note that it's early. Election season starts on Labor Day, but for statewide contests, most voters don't give elections a thought until nearly Halloween.

Second, Strickland can lay claim to be modestly more moderate than the norm for his party. That has made him an acceptable alternative to Ohio's country-club Republicans, considerable in power if not in numbers, who accept the notion that Blackwell is a wing nut.

Third, Blackwell has been the object of an enormous campaign of slanderous disinformation since before 2004. For the Ds, this campaign has served the broad objective to foster the impression that they lose elections because of Republican violation of voters' rights and the specific objective to undermine the perception of a genuinely electable African-American of the GOP. But for voters only mildly engaged, the vague impression that Blackwell is untrustworthy is enough to evoke a response for his apparently scandal-free opponent with decent name recognition.

Fourth, Blackwell suffers from guilt by association with the corrupt country-club establishment of the Ohio Republican Party. This is odd, of course, because Blackwell has been leader of the conservative insurgency within the Ohio GOP, but such nuances aren't reflected in early polls.

Fifth, we suspect that most polling persists in overestimating the likelihood that Ds will actually cast ballots while underestimating that Rs will. This has been the pattern in the last several electoral cycles, as pollsters continue to struggle with the changing demographics of the American electorate.

Sixth, like all Rs, Blackwell suffers from the electorate's fatigue with the party in power. Since no party can create the utopia for which voters long, any party that holds power long enough will be tossed out in favor of any alternative.

Now what do these factors add up to? Essentially, an imperative that the Blackwell campaign get busy as soon as the AFL-CIO picnic ends on September 4. And here's what they should get busy with:

  • Blackwell's story as a poor child of the ghetto who has achieved influence and power with a distinguished record of public service.
  • The issues, or rather the issue, which for Ohio is the lousy business environment created by high taxes and costs of government and an economy dependent on manufacturing instead of knowledge.

Both of these are powerful weapons in the Blackwell arsenal. The first is something that Strickland cannot duplicate and that will blunt any but the most egregious and outrageous of political attack ads. It will have traction with sensitive independents who fancy that they vote on character and competency instead of ideology, and it will persuade some African-American voters to consider the party that abandoned them in 1968.

But the second is really powerful. Strickland owes too much to labor interests to campaign on lower taxes and an more positive business environment. AFSCME, the NEA and the AFT won't allow the former, and industrial unions, married to the zero-sum notion of economics, won't allow the latter. With a campaign focused in that direction, Blackwell loosens Strickland's hold on independents and calls all but the most die-hard country-clubbers back to the Republican fold. That campaign theme will also confront voters with the real stakes of a throw-the-bums-out spasm, as it paints Strickland--accurately in the SWNID view--as the candidate of the stagnating status quo in Ohio.

The latest Rasmussen shows an 11-point gap. That means that Blackwell needs to move about one voter out of twenty. We think it's entirely possible. If the campaign is run right, we'll say that it's likely.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Leon Morris, 1914-2006

We thank gentle reader Scott for drawing our attention to the obituary of Dr. Leon Morris, whose passing we note with sadness.

As his obituary notes, Morris was a singularly prolific individual, not just as an author of widely used commentaries and other books but as a leader and builder of institutions that have furthered theological education. Those of us who excuse our lack of scholarly production because of the press of administrative duties are reminded to our shame that Morris managed to do both superbly.

Our admiration for Morris began when we were first exposed to his impressive commentaries. What made them impressive was not just their erudition but the straightforward simplicity with which they were expressed. Morris rarely wrote a sentence with more than 15 words. Yet the simplicity was never the product of oversimplification. Morris had the rare gift, perhaps nurtured by his very unconventional theological education (he was self-taught in theology except for his PhD, which, from a British university, was still largely self-directed), for expressing difficult ideas in plain language.

Circumstances made it possible for us to take two classes with Dr. Morris at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he was a guest lecturer during the 1984 spring quarter. We found him to be a thorough gentleman of utterly humble demeanor. Our eschewing of such characteristics in our own teaching should in no way be taken as disrespect or disregard of his example.

We wish we could be half the person that this soft-spoken, slightly-built giant proved to be.