Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Anti-Apocalyptic Apocalyptism

The Gray Lady gives space to one Matthew Avery Sutton, associate professor of history at Washington State University and author of Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America to suggest that Christian apocalyptic expectation may fuel the rise of a seriously libertarian candidate who could receive the GOP nomination for POTUS and actually win the election.

SWNID responds, "Hmm!"

Sutton offers a history of American apocalyptism that's in the SWNIDish view just fair enough to be noted and just imprecise enough to leave the impression that super-strong end-time speculation is a serious part of many evangelicals' daily lives and decision-making. As an example, Sutton offers:

Conservative preachers, evangelists and media personalities of the 20th century, like Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson, Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell, shared these beliefs.

Graham? Really? Yes, Graham believes in the return of Christ and has often stated that it could be imminent. But we defy Sutton to offer any repeated example of Graham indulging in speculation that this or that move might presage the end. More specifically, we defy him to show that Graham held to the notion that the return of Christ is connected to the rise of one-world government. One must observe the differences before drawing conclusions on the similarities.

We emphasize that point because it appears to us that Sutton routinely assumes that all expectation of Christ's return among evangelicals is somehow subject to the concomitant belief that one-world government will arise and that all moves toward the same must be opposed. This is, of course, nonsense.

It's especially nonsense because even those who profess to believe as much don't believe it enough to act on the belief in a serious, panicky kind of way. SWNID asserts that most evangelical Christians who take seriously the idea that a one-world government will arise near the end, and who even wonder whether this or that political development is the prelude to such, nevertheless are unwilling to stake a significant decision on that outcome. To wit: few liquidate their assets and households to acquire gold, rural land and firearms. To wit: few act differently about financial and career planning than do others in their social group. To wit: few in the end decide to back a political candidate because that political candidate seems least likely to cooperate with a one-world government.

An example: Years ago, we were at one of those academic meetings that we are blessed to attend, this one populated entirely by leaders of Christian IHEs. A person leading a session was talking about changes in federal regulations for IHEs, mostly stuff about steps of compliance for continued good standing to receive Title IV student-aid funds, the lifeblood of American higher ed. In the Q&A, someone asked this gentleman where he thought everything was headed. He replied, "Well my answer is determined by my eschatology. I believe that we're headed toward a one-world government." So he said, things will get more stringent, and eventually all of us Christian IHEs will be made illegal. The remark garnered the kinds of grunts that signify grudging assent to an inconvenient truth.

SWNID guarantees that not a single officer of a single IHE at that meeting went home to develop a contingency plan for keeping some kind of leadership training operation going through the tribulation, and that includes those who don't believe in a pre-tribulational rapture. And these folks are about as hard-core as they come.

Granted some folks do have their decisions dictated by specifics of apocalyptic speculation, and maybe a few more will in 2012, thanks to the miserable state of the economy. But last we checked, Mitt Romney still had a lot of political support, more than Michelle Bachmann and Ron Paul put together. And Rick Perry's sudden rise (and fall?) can hardly be explained as the apocalyptic libertarian vote finally having found a voice.

In other words, this stuff plays virtually no role in political decision-making.

The end of Professor Sutton's essay is, we believe, the best explanation for the anxiety that it presents:

Barring the rapture, Mrs. Bachmann or Mr. Perry could well ride the apocalyptic anti-statism of conservative Christians into the Oval Office. Indeed, the tribulation may be upon us. 

There it is! The rise of a libertarian-minded conservative would be The End of the World as We Know It. There's the secular, liberal version of Armaggedon: a world in which Bible-thumpers are in charge and the welfare state is systematically dismantled. The main prop of their smaller-government message is a bunch of hooey about a one-world government and the rise of the antichrist. How quaint, but how pernicious and ignorant! Pray to the God who isn't there that this doesn't happen!

OK, here we go on the SWNIDish big picture.

First, why do so many Christians listen to and seem to take seriously the warnings that this or that political thingie means that the end is near? Well, largely because such announcements are presented by people who seem knowledgeable, who appeal to deeply held respect for God and fear of his judgment, and who prey on the average American Christian's ignorance of the Bible and unease about her or his relative comfort. Folks want to believe these talented preachers, don't want to be unprepared for judgment, don't really know much about the Bible, and don't feel that they are entitled to the prosperity that they enjoy, though they can't really contemplate life without it.

Second, why do so few Christian act on these warnings? First, because they're at least unconsciously hedging their bets to preserve their prosperity in the present. Second, because acting on the hard things that belief demands is, well, hard. But thirdly, and here we're going out on a limb, in their heart of hearts they know there's something fishy about what they're being told. They realize that per the typical dispensational-premillennial description of the "rapture" and the "tribulation," the God who is Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is going to do weird, inexplicable stuff before he brings his world to his intended goal. So they're holding out some unconscious skepticism about the conclusion.

Which brings us to another conclusion: most Christians, whatever they claim, functionally are "pan-millennialists," including our apocalyptically minded colleagues at the aforementioned academic conference. That is, they trust God to take care of the future and don't worry much about the details (except their personal details, about which they worry as most people worry, as in "will I keep my health and wealth?"). Apocalyptic hucksters may sell books and gain a following in the media, but they don't influence the substantial decisions of more than a handful of tragically misled people.

Which is why the Republicans, evangelicals and all, will nominate a relatively mainstream conservative, who will be able to govern only as conservatively as Congress and the judiciary and the body politic allow him to govern. And why people like Dr. Sutton should be ignored by their prospective audience of lefty seculars, who shouldn't be taken in by his prophecy that somehow the weirdos are taking over.

Without realizing it, though, Sutton has indirectly raised a point of theology that does impinge on political decision-making for thoughtful Christians. The Bible's apocalyptic imagery portrays the fall of the autocratic human empire to the reign of God. Along the way and especially in the end, God, not overweening humans who build kingdoms and empires and towers to make a name for themselves and become like God, will rule all. Humans, when they try to rule all, always fail in the end. Utopian claims are inherently and fatally flawed.

That observation cautions Christians against the hope that their government can do bunches of stuff for them. They look for incremental progress in human affairs that's grounded in the transformation of the human character. They don't look for geniuses to take over and make things better.

That means that they don't expect a utopia to emerge by means of smaller government, either. They just don't want a government that makes things worse by trying to do what government inherently can't do because of the inherent weakness of all people who govern and who are governed.

So chill, Dr. Sutton. Wild-eyed masses of people who read Left Behind for instructions on voting--they're just not out there. And the world won't collapse if the Bismarkian experiment with welfare statism happens to gently be reversed to a more appropriate point of deployment.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Mishap at the Brent Spence Bridge

The President visited Cincinnati yesterday, as we expect he and everyone else running for POTUS will do a lot for the next thirteen months or so.

His visit was to tell John Boehner and Mitch McConnell to fund the replacement of the Brent Spence Bridge, a famously sturdy but obsolete span that carries I-75 and I-71 from the Queen City to the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

The double-decker bridge is famous for being narrow and without breakdown lanes, though it is perhaps most famous for this slightly lame joke:

Q: Why is the northbound lane of the Brent Spence Bridge below the southbound lane?

A: So that Kentuckians returning home can drop their shoes to Kentuckians leaving home.

But really, why show up at this spot to call for more infrastructure spending to replace crumbling stuff and get the unemployed to work? As a local-government web site innocuously points out, planning for the bridge's replacement has been going on since 2002, and no one in Cincinnati thinks that anything will be done before 2015. There's not even a consensus on a plan for replacement, let alone a plan for what to do during construction. And since much of the regions critical infrastructure and many of its most expensive buildings are close to the span, there are good reasons to plan carefully and well.

So even the left is admitting that this is far from a "shovel-ready" project, "shovel-ready" having joined such political phrases as "Middle-East peace plan" in the lexicon of the politically oxymoronic.

Of course the bridge will be replaced. Certainly it won't be replaced absent a workable plan for replacement. The only significant question is whether it will be replaced with dollars borrowed, collected in still higher taxes, or collected at present or lower rates of taxation with concomitant reductions in other, lower-priority spending.

So why did the President make the trip? For the very reason that he sarcastically denied: to stir up his base in the home turf of two leading Capitol Hill Republicans. It's all part of his pitch for what James Taranto dubs "Stimulus, Jr.," the half a trillion (or roughly $1500 per American) that BHO proposes to subsidize unionized public employees and unionized highway workers at the expense of nonunionized taxpayers and all Americans' children.

Postscript: We note the Bushism in the President's speech: claiming that America built the "Intercontinental Railroad." Now that's a bridge!

How to Make Money in a Recession

One way is to appeal to people's anxious sense of paranoia, and call it patriotism.

Like the guy running this money-spinner, a super-secret survival kit for the coming apocalypse.

You may not have enough health or life or house or car insurance. You may not have a retirement account. You may not be prepared for things that often or always happen. But you need to be prepared for the imminent return of the Stone Age.

When this guy's ads come up on Facebook, click them. It'll cost him money.

A Voice in the Wilderness on Standardized Testing

Standardized tests are what's wrong with American public schools, right?

Well, maybe not so much.

We give a SWNIDish salute to the high school English teacher Ama Nyamenkye, who offers a thoughtful, positive assessment of the power of the standardized test, originally in Education Week and more widely disseminated by the potent National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NIOLA, a.k.a. SWNID's favorite higher-ed organization). Here's a little quote that epitomizes her take on taking standardized tests:

The 2010 Scholastic-Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation survey of 40,000 educators nationwide found that only 27 percent felt state standardized tests were essential or very important in measuring student performance. I'm now convinced that these sentiments are the product of a testing movement that has become more about fear and politics than pedagogy. Teachers, I believe, are pumping their fists for the wrong reasons. . . .

Sadly, the actual merits and shortcomings of standardized testing often get lost in this stalemated debate that positions the test as either a scourge on teachers or a panacea for reform. In truth, the test is nothing more than a tool. It will not singlehandedly turn around swaths of failing classrooms or be the death of public education.

Only policies, leaders, and, most importantly, teachers wield that kind of power over school performance. Like any assessment tool—including the ones teachers regularly generate and assign—standardized testing has strengths and limitations.

When I "depoliticized" the test, I found a useful and flawed ally. The exam excelled where I struggled, offering comprehensive and standards-based assessments. I thrived where the test fell short, designing creative, performance-based projects. Together, we were strategic partners. I designed and graded innovative projects—my students participated in court trials for Shakespearean characters—and the test provided a rubric that guided my evaluation of student learning.

You betcha, says SWNID. The truth is that even the most personally invested of teachers at any level is naturally reticent to allow someone else to measure her or his students' learning, precisely, in fact, because the teacher is so personally invested. "These are my children," we all think, "and no one will say they're ugly except for me. Sure, standardized tests can be stupid. Sure it's hard to measure everything that students know or ought to know.

But isn't it better to measure something rather than nothing? And isn't it better that there be some level of objectivity in the measurements?

Nyamenkye's essay represents the work of someone who is less afraid of being evaluated than of neglecting something that her students need to learn from her. She's admirably externally focused, student-centered, outcomes-oriented.

May her noble tribe increase.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Not a Good Sign for BHO or the Republic

It appears that the Obama 2012 campaign is down to about one tactic: scaring people from voting for Evil Republicans.

Witness AttackWatch.com, an Obama campaign site devoted to "fact checking" and "debunking" Republicans' lying attacks on the Greatest President of Our Lifetimes. Sporting severe black-and-red graphics, distorting already unflattering pictures of conservative pundits and candidates, employing panicky language, AttackWatch contrasts rather sharply with such successful presidential re-election themes as "Morning in America":

though perhaps it is inspired by this successful classic:

At any rate, we don't have a lot of SWNIDish optimism about where all of this is going, not least because the Rs don't seem to have a candidate of sufficient stature to command Presidential respect.

Killing Us Softly

The SWNIDish political philosophy is negatively epitomized in the twin aphorisms, "Pacifism kills," and "Socialism impoverishes."

Today we approve of an exposition, only slightly longer, of the first aphorism.

At the indispensable First Things, Michael Cantarino offers "The Painful Naivete of Pacifism."

Indeed! Call it "deadly naivete" if you care to be direct.

Cantarino briefly and provocatively lays out the best reasons not to regard pacifist cant as a thoughtful application of Christian principles.

We wish things were different in this regard, but they aren't.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

A Curmudgeonly Look at Higher Ed

Prolific author James Schall offers what would be merely a typical rant against the current state of higher ed, were not the rant so eloquent. We will refrain from quoting, and nearly every sentence is quotable.

Reading Schall, we believe that much of our present confusion in higher ed stems precisely from what Schall rants about mostly in the beginning of his rantification: that we expect everyone to go to college, not just those with the abilities and preparation. Don Peck in Atlantic Monthly has what seems to be the proper answer: according greater emphasis, dignity and encouragement to educational ventures that put people in skilled trades.

Want to waste a human being's time? Send a marginally literate high school grad with no specific ambition to a community college for remedial coursework. Want to redeem a human being's time? Provide dignity, encouragement and support to adolescents and young adults who show potential as plumbers, HVAC technicians, machine-tool operators, and tool-and-die makers.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Celebrity Christian Food-Fight, Round 2

It's Mohler versus McLaren again, in a Battle Royale!

Now the subject is Adam. Mohler insists that anyone who denies a single, identifiable Adam in history as the beginning of the gospel "metanarrative" (point loss for using that banal neologism) has destroyed the gospel. McLaren says that's goofy, and Mohler should be ashamed of himself for being so narrowly sectarian.

Details here, at Associated Baptist Press.

Now the SWNIDish view.

First, let's note that Mohler's assertion that the gospel depends on a singular, historical Adam is a consequence of his commitment to the Reformed notion that universal human guilt flows from a singular, historical Adam's first sin. That is, all us humans are sinners because we inherited guilt from Adam, plus a tendency to sin to boot.

But if you don't think that Romans 5:12 means what Mohler says, you've got much less at stake theologically in a historical Adam.

So, say our skeptical but still gentle readers, is SWNID indifferent to the theology of Genesis? Hardly! However, note well how the narrative of the first parents works in context. Both "Adam" and "Eve" are names that strongly suggest more than just individuals but archetypes (of course, something can be both at the same time). Their place is at a junction of four rivers of which only two are identifiable, suggesting a lost, greater place than that which is home to a Great Empire. They encounter a creature reminiscent of the pagan, theriomorphic gods of chaos, a snake who speaks, enticing them to an experience that by its very name, eating fruit of knowledge of good and evil, suggests loss of innocence, with an enticement that is nothing short of self-centered rebellion against the Creator. The consequence of their action is that they are responsible for their alienation and suffering in a world which ought to be "very good" for their habitation.

And thereafter in the sacred canon, their story is referred to as the archetype of all such rebellion. So Hosea says that Israel is like Adam in its disobedience to covenant. And, as we noted above, Paul says that death spread to all people because all sinned--as Adam sinned. The point is not that there must be a single human whose sin explains all of our lostness, but that all of us have done what Adam did and so share Adam's guilt and sentence. We don't need guilt plus depravity to be passed along through Adam's line of descent to explain universal human sinfulness. We just need to look around to say, death spread to all people because all sinned--like Adam.

Dare we say it, then? Loath to declare ourselves in a battle between two theological publicity hounds, we grudgingly say that in this round, McLaren is right this time.

But . . .

Presently the whole "historical Adam" controversy largely hangs on a single observation of genetics and paleoanthropology: that the present state of human genetic diversity had to arise from an original population of "modern humans" of about 10,000. Hence, no singular Adam.

However, where did the 10k community come from? Well, they came from earlier homonids of the quasi-human variety, of course.

Take the Neanderthal, so maligned in the human imagination. Seems likely that "modern humans," obviously slumming, mated and procreated with Neanderthals. And the issue of such unions were themselves fertile, not like mules and other animal hybrids.

Meanwhile, our paleoanthropological friends tell us that there's still singular human ancestry in the background. It's just prior to "modern humans."

See the problem, gentle readers? It's the boundary of the category "human." Is that handsome person with his high foreheard, inconspicuous eyebrow ridge, slender chest and lithe limbs someone like me? Of course! What about that brute with the sloping forehead, prominent eyebrow ridge, barrel chest and awkwardly powerful limbs? Ugh. Clearly not a part of my family.

As long as we understand the problem of taxonomy, there's every possibility that behind a larger community of modern humans who comprise our common ancestors, there's an earlier homonid pair, self-conscious in the same way that you and we are, who are our first ancestors.

Which, then, is the SWNIDish view? Either.

What's important is that we see ourselves and our situation--for all of us--as described in the Adam story, whether it is both a story of one person and an archetype or is an archetype alone. It is a true and factual story, describing the factuality and truth of human rebellion against God and its consequences, either way.

Anticipated response plus rejoinder: If Adam is not historical, what about the second Adam? And if the second is historical, isn't the first also? Answer: Maybe, maybe not. The narrative of Christ is different in its nature of historical position and witness. Further, the singular, historical incarnation is vital to everything about the gospel in ways that a singular Adam is not, as we've noted above. There's no reason why the one who comes in space and time to reverse human sinfulness cannot be compared to one who might be an archetype but not a singular, historical individual. Unless he was.

Additional anticipated response plus rejoinder: Adam: historical or not? Direct answer please! Answer: Yes, either historical or not. We refuse to take sides on issues for which we have insufficient warrant to take sides. One ought to know what one doesn't know.

Yet another anticipated response plus a rejoinder: You and your Adam-denying ilk are just pandering to modern, secular views, watering down the biblical message to make it acceptable to people who are sinners and need their minds and hearts changed. Answer: We disagree only with a couple of words. Change "just pandering" to "deliberately addressing," and "watering down" to "trying to focus on" and "acceptable" to "clear and without unnecessary obstacles of our own making" and we're good with all of that. Just a little revision, that's all.

Final anticipated response plus rejoinder: If we don't know, why bother discussing it? Shut up, please! Answer: Making sure that we don't insist on certain beliefs as part of the faith if they aren't really part of the faith is a means of being sure we do believe what is part of the faith--and concentrate on it.

On Food and Our Future

WSJ's "Weekend Interview" is always a must read. Today's is especially so.

Nestle's chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe holds forth on global macroeconomics regarding food, agriculture, fuel, and the food industry. Too, too many insights abound in his discourse to summarize here, but we'll summarize a few:

  • Food and fuel are linked by the calorie. Because we always use many more calories for fuel than for food, we can never replace our use of fossil fuels with biofuels.
  • Using biofuels always drives food prices upward. That has little impact on the West, but lots on the South.
  • Certainly we can feed the number of people projected to live in the world in 2050, but not without the ongoing "Green Revolution" propelled by advances in agricultural production. Those are now propelled by genetically engineered crops, for which the powerful Europeans have such an irrational hatred that they are stifling the growth of agriculture in the developing world.
  • Organic farming is unproductive and so a burden on the world's poor imposed by the world's rich who imagine falsely that organic means healthy.
  • Putting a cost on water may be the best way to ensure that it's used efficiently, so as to boost global food production over time.
  • Without a food industry, we'd all either starve or become subsistence farmers, meaning we'd mostly starve.
Compassionate folk, including those of Christian faith but not only such folk, often imagine that the world is hungry because of a shortage of compassion. Indeed, if we all shared more, people would be better off.

But perhaps the most potent solution is to make use of the agricultural and marcoeconomic forces that lie ready to hand, that don't depend on ideally selfless donors, that allow more people to pursue their aspirations for physical health and economic self-sufficiency, including having some healthy meat proteins in their diets now and then.

Give for sure, gentle readers. But back policies that really boost the production of food globally and so deliver more people from hunger and toward dignity.

A Little Perspective on the Present Versus the Past

Recently as SWNIDish friend became engaged in an unfortunate social-media argument about the merits of the present versus the past. Baited by the whining rants of self-absorbed twentysomethings, he vainly attempted to persuade the young and clueless that multiple, significant facts refute their narcissistic fixation that they live in the Worst Situation Ever.

Readers can imagine our friend's inability to persuade in such a situation. Facts are useless among those who make their own facts.

Into the same breach now enters National Journal's Ronald Brownstein. Obviously, he says, the decades containing the Civil War and the Great Depression were worse, and so were those framed by Kennedy's assassination and Watergate and by Kent State and the failed rescue of hostages in Iran.

And why not mention such decades as those containing World War II or World War I plus the Spanish Influenza? Fun times erecting public monuments with the names of your friends and relatives in wholesale lots!

Brownstein doesn't gloss over the travails of the decade since 9/11/01, of course. Things have been rough of late, though not as rough as we once imagined they'd be (we have water stored in the SWNIDish basement as a hedge against terrorist-induced disaster, now a decade in its plastic containers and doubtless unsafe to drink, but a potent reminder of what we haven't experienced).

But by just about any significant measure of human misery, for Americans and much of the rest of the world, it's still been better of late than at many times in recent history.

Of course, Brownstein offers that if things don't improve, the next decade will be as bad as or worse than the one just concluded. We hold these truths to be self evident: that if things don't get better, they'll be worse, or at least about the same.

So herein and hereby we offer the SWNIDish Declaration that the decade of 9/11/11 to 9/11/21 will be a No Whining Zone for all of our Republic's citizens. Quiet down and boost productivity, pampered Americans!