Tuesday, March 31, 2009

State Department and Western media ignore ‘the end of Christianity’ in Iraq

In December 2008 the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its Report of the United States Commission on Religious Freedom on Iraq (PDF).

The report recommended that Iraq be designated as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) because of its “ongoing severe abuses of religious freedom and based on the Iraqi government’s toleration of these abuses as described in this report, particularly abuses against all of Iraq’s most vulnerable and smallest religious minorities.”

It continues:
“there has been continued targeted violence, as well as threats and intimidation against persons belonging to religious minorities, and other egregious religiously-motivated abuses are continuing and widespread. The lack of effective government action to protect these communities from abuses has established Iraq among the most dangerous places on earth for religious minorities.”

The situation is “especially dire” for ChaldoAssyrian Christians, other Christians, Sabean Mandaeans, and Yazidis.

”These communities report that their numbers in Iraq have substantially diminished, and that their members who have left the country have not to date showed signs of returning in significant numbers,” the report said. “Legally, politically, and economically marginalized, these small minorities are caught in the middle of a struggle between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the central Iraqi government for control of northern areas where their communities are concentrated. The combined effect of all of this has been to endanger these ancient communities’ very existence in Iraq.”

The report itself catalogues the depopulation of religious minorities in Iraq. From page 14:

”In 2003, there were estimated to be as many as 1.4 million Christians in Iraq, including Chaldean Catholics, Assyrian Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox, Armenians (Catholic and Orthodox), Protestants, and Evangelicals. Today, it is thought that only 500,000 to 700,000 indigenous Christians remain in the country. Moreover, while Christians and other religious minorities represented only approximately three percent of the pre-2003 Iraqi population, they constitute approximately 15 and 20 percent of registered Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria, respectively, and Christians account for 35 and 64 percent, respectively, of all registered Iraqi refugees in Lebanon and Turkey. Christian leaders have warned that the result of this flight may be ‘the end of Christianity in Iraq.’

“The most recent attacks took place in the northern city of Mosul in late September/early October 2008, when at least 14 Christians were killed and many more report they were threatened, spurring some 13,000 individuals to flee to villages east and north of the city and an estimated 400 families to flee to Syria. The United Nations has estimated that this number is half of the current Christian population in Mosul.”

In the last days of the Bush Administration, the U.S. State Department declined to deem Iraq a CPC, Catholic News Agency reports. That's pragmatism in inaction.

If Iraq is still a U.S. responsibility, it’s hard to tell from observing the media’s December coverage of the USCIRF report.

The story merited less than 140 words in the Washington Post, which placed it on page B09 under its “Religion Briefing.” The Post followed a Reuters story given more space at Radio Free Europe.

A brief search of the New York Times site reveals no recent stories specifically on religious freedom in Iraq, the USCIRF reports apparently being last mentioned in September 2007.

Perhaps the press had more important religion reporting to do in December 2008, like reprinting frenzied complaints about Pope Benedict’s tangential criticism of gender theory.

Who does Google News suggest is providing the most coverage of USCIRF action on Iraq?

The Assyrian International News Agency, which published its USCIRF report summary in December.

AINA also reported that Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) in December accused the U.S. of turning a blind eye to anti-Christian persecutions in Iraq. AINA further reported that Sens. Brownback, Casey, Wicker, Cardin and Levin had sent a March 5 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton which reiterated portions of the USCIRF report.

This letter was not even announced on any of the Senators’ web sites. Friends of long-suffering Iraqi Christians should not have to ask for that token publicity.

There is a backstory to the religious freedom commission, again covered mainly in the religious press. The Associated Baptist Press in May 2008 blamed political division in the USCIRF’s failure to secure an initial recommendation on Iraq’s CPC status, reporting:
The 10-member panel has nine voting members. Of those presently serving, five commissioners were appointed by Republicans, and four by Democrats. According to the Sun, all Democrat-appointed commissioners supported elevating Iraq to CPC status this year, while most Republican-appointed commissioners opposed the designation and the report accompanying it.

Even this conflict availed little, given the U.S. State Department’s ultimate decision not to deem Iraq a CPC.

Are the USCIRF findings underreported because the commission is largely symbolic, or is the commission largely symbolic because its findings are underreported?

Iraq is now far more Muslim than it was before the 2003 invasion. For all the happy stories about Iraqi families resettling in Western lands, those who drove them out and those who failed to protect them ought not escape attention.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Feser on Teleology and Design

Philosopher Ed Feser over at What's Wrong with the World is tearing into the intellectual shortcomings of certain atheist books.

Asked about the distinction between Paley's design argument and St. Thomas Aquinas' Fifth Way, he obligingly answered:

Teleology can be either inherent in the nature of a thing (as an acorn has an inherent tendency to become an oak) or imposed from outside (as the materials that make up a coffee machine have no inherent tendency at all to make coffee, but must be forced to do so by an artisan). The former, immanent sort of teleology is what Aristotelians mean by final cause, and what Aquinas is interested in in the Fifth Way. When one denies final causes, the only sort of teleology left is the latter, extrinsic sort, which is what Paley is interested in. Hence the design argument's tendency to characterize the world as a machine or artifact.

For Aquinas, by contrast, final causality is evident in nature precisely insofar as it is not like an artifact[bold mine -kjj]. This is also why complexity matters so much to design argument defenders but not to Aquinas: Artifact-like objects can seem impossible to account for in terms of impersonal processes only to the extent that they are so intricate that their resulting from such processes is improbable. For Aquinas, by contrast, even something extremely simple like a match's tendency always to generate heat and flame specifically, unless impeded from outside, is an unmistakable mark of final causality. And for this reason, finality exists wherever regular causal patterns do (which is of course everywhere in nature, down to the level of basic physics); complex biological phenomena are not particularly important for the argument, being just one, fairly uncommon instance of final causality among others.

(Contrary to a common misconception, final cause is NOT equivalent to "function" in the biological sense; such functions are just one special case of a more general phenomenon. What is essential to final causes is just directedness towards an end, something evident in every regular causal relation, however simple. For Thomists, the main reason to believe in final causality is that without it efficient causality of any sort becomes unintelligible, thus opening the way to e.g. the standard Humean puzzles. All of this is explained in detail in [Feser's book] The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism.)

Feser points out the simplicity St. Thomas can see in nature. While Paley cites the designedness of a complex watch as evidence, St. Thomas' Fifth Way may cite any pattern. He uses the image of an archer guiding an arrow, but only by way of analogy.

Those of us still under the influence of mechanistic physics may hope that Feser's book further addresses how teleology still is observable in nature.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Upcoming poetry and politics events around Denver

America's Future Foundation's Denver affiliate is sponsoring a panel discussion on the topic Is Capitalism Dead?.

Panelists include Conor Friedersdorf, of the late Culture11, Gene Healy of the Cato Institute and Ross Kaminsky.

The discussion will begin at 7 pm at the Denver Art Museum on March 26, after an hour of drinks. I have yet to attend an AFF event.


Also on March 26, novelist and Catholic deacon Ron Hansen will speak at Regis University on the Catholic literary imagination. Details are incomplete, but apparently the lecture begins at 7 pm. I would guess it takes place in the Science Building's amphitheater.


After a hiatus of one year, the Denver Gerard Manley Hopkins Conference returns to Regis University this March 27 – 29.


The schedule is now available here, with more information available here. The poet's collected works are reproduced here.


On April 3 at 7 pm libertarian writer Thomas E. Woods will be speaking at CU-Boulder. Details here


And let's not forget the Thomas Aquinas Center's upcoming lectures on the CU-Boulder campus.

Prof. Janet Smith's April 6 talk is titled "The Sexual Mess That We Are In and How We Got Here."

Prof. Christopher Tollefsen, co-author with Robert P. George of _Embryo: A Defense of Human Life_, will speak on April 23. His lecture is "Embryo-Destructive Research and Abortion: Are They Different Moral Issues?"

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Archbishop Chaput's sober reckoning of U.S. Catholicism

Today in Detroit Archbishop Chaput attacked Catholics' indifferent complacency and warned Catholics not to delude ourselves about "what we have allowed ourselves to become."

"November showed us that 40 years of American Catholic complacency and poor formation are bearing exactly the fruit we should have expected," he began, continuing:

...too many Catholics just don’t really care. That’s the truth of it. If they cared, our political environment would be different. If 65 million Catholics really cared about their faith and cared about what it teaches, neither political party could ignore what we believe about justice for the poor, or the homeless, or immigrants, or the unborn child. If 65 million American Catholics really understood their faith, we wouldn’t need to waste each other’s time arguing about whether the legalized killing of an unborn child is somehow ‘balanced out’ or excused by three other good social policies.

Comforting statistics also should not cloud our vision:

We need to stop over-counting our numbers, our influence, our institutions and our resources, because they’re not real. We can’t talk about following St. Paul and converting our culture until we sober up and get honest about what we’ve allowed ourselves to become...

Referring to St. Paul's preaching before the Sophists of the Areopagus, he added:
When Catholics start leading their daily lives without a hunger for something higher than their own ambitions or appetites, or with the idea that they can create their own truth and then baptize it with an appeal to personal conscience, they become, in practice, agnostics in their personal lives, and Sophists in their public lives.

Archbishop Chaput also broke through the dodgy descriptor "post-Christian," calling apostasy by its real name:

"If Paul felt so fiercely compelled to preach the Gospel -- whether ‘timely [or] untimely’ -- to a pagan world, then how should we feel today, preaching the Gospel to an apostate world?”

Nonetheless, he counseled courage, saying: "Fear is the disease of our age."


Upcoming decades are likely going to be difficult for Catholic Christianity in the U.S. They will be even more difficult without clear recognition and repudiation of the apathy found among clergy and laity both.


In related news, American Papist reports that the Archbishop in his comments encouraged his audience "write charitably" to the President of Notre Dame University to protest its invitation of President Obama to deliver its commencement address.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The wisdom of property

Many traditional conservative critiques of capitalist and business ideology emphasize that these encourage an amputated view of man, reducing him only to his desires and choices.

This reductionist ethos tends to cut off the individual from his family, his history, his country and even his God.

The same ethos has direct bearing on cultural conflicts surrounding sex and bioethics, where lifestyle individualism merges with consumerist demand to deny and to transgress the limits of bodily nature.

Yet the link to Liberal philosophy's view of property is rarely highlighted.

In this spirit, Villanova Prof. Mark Shiffman provides an excellent and concise critique of Lockean anthropology in his discussion of The Human Meaning of Property at Front Porch Republic.

According to Locke, our right to property derives from our investment of our labor to improve something that did not belong to another already (Second Treatise, chapter 5). This right includes property in our own person – our body and our mental faculties. Locke’s formulation of our relationship to ourselves in terms of labor-derived property hints at the view of the human person that underlies it, which is the reduction of the person ultimately to the will. For if it is our labor that makes our bodies our property, and the same goes for our minds, then what is the “self” that initiates and is responsible for this labor, if not the will that makes us stretch our limbs and direct our attention to what is around and inside us?

....The will places value on things, initiates the labor that improves their value, and shapes the way we think of them in terms of the right to exercise itself in their disposal. Locke’s examples, like Madison’s, emphasize agrarian property, but do so solely in terms of the prospect of infinitely increasing yields... The will imposes its limitless terms on the world, rather than recognizing natural limits to its satisfaction – except the limits that have to be observed and enforced by government to accommodate the existence of other wills seeking their own satisfactions. These latter limits, seen from the point of view of the person protected by them, are what we call “rights.” They are thus negative or prohibitive in character, grounded on the valuation imposed on the world by the individual will, and formulated so as to coordinate all the individual and conflicting wills that fall under one system of government and laws.

This “right” that precedes and legitimates government is natural in the sense that the passions of all human beings lead them to lay claim to it. If we take the will of the individual and extract what is universal in it (or sufficiently universal for practical purposes), this will provide us with the basis for elaborating a reliable system of rights, or a set of exemptions from interference that everyone can sign on to. Madison quite correctly asserts a reciprocal equivalence between property and rights. Unfortunately for his republican cause, this equivalence opens the door to the marketization of every aspect of life.

This habit of making the will foundational to man and to government ends up placing all choices beyond criticism, provided they do not conflict with other choices. Reason, one of man's mental faculties, is the "property," and thus the instrument, of the unquestioned will.

Such voluntarism calls into question the humanity of those who do not present obvious evidence for having wills, such as the brain-damaged and the unborn.

It also distorts the meaning of nature, seeing it not as good in itself, but only insofar as it is transformed into an expression of human will and the imperialist self.

Proposing a less willful view of property, Shiffman follows Richard Weaver:

The responsibility for property that is intimately connected to our life as a person (and this is the meaning of proprietas: what is one’s own and characteristic of oneself) calls upon virtues that render us more complete human beings. Foremost among these virtues is practical judgment, informed by long-term views of our life as a whole and our relationship to our community. Thus only property that satisfies this criterion falls under “metaphysical right,” i.e. must be recognized as rightly belonging to our very being and its fulfillment as what it most truly is.

While I would scrutinize the place of practical judgment as a foremost virtue, his essay brings to the fore the distinction between property as an instrument to satisfying human desires and property as an instrument to advancing human goods. Even the "instrument" takes on different connotations depending on its object: is property best used "to the extent desired" or used "to the extent it is beneficial"?

For advancing the wisdom of property, Shiffman's essay may be used to benefit.

The Natl. Review Board’s clerical sexual abuse reports: behind the press releases

The U.S. Catholic bishops' publication of the 2008 Annual Report on the Implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People presents the opportunity to compare the U.S. bishops’ press releases on the two most recent reports and to consider how they summarize the original reports.

Examination reveals an increase in the number of allegations concerning abuse of those under 10, while the disproportionate percentage of male victims is cloaked by the summaries’ word choices.

Additionally, the reportage of financial costs of sexual abuse settlements leaves out legal fees and other expenses, which can total more than 10 percent of the reported several-hundred million dollar settlement figures.

The press release on the 2007 report was published in March 2008, while the release on the 2008 report was released in March 2009. For clarity’s sake, I will distinguish the press releases according to the year of the report each covers rather than the year each press release was published.

The reports themselves use data from the Georgetown University-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).

From the press release on the year 2007 report:

The CARA survey, to which 194 of the 195 dioceses responded, found five credible accusations of abuse that occurred in 2007 to persons who were minors in that year. Overall, CARA reported that in 2007 more old cases came to light as 689 victims made 691 allegations against 491 offenders. Most incidents took place decades ago, most frequently in the 1970-79 period. Most victims were male and more than half between the ages of 10 and 14 when the abuse began.

According to the press release on the year 2008 report:

Last year, dioceses received ten new credible allegations of abuse to a person still under 18 years of age. CARA reported that in 2008, more old cases came to light as 620 victims made 625 allegations against 423 offenders. Most incidents took place decades ago, most frequently in the 1970-74 period. Most victims were male and a little more than half were between the ages of 10 and 14 when the abuse began. About 23 percent were younger than age 10.

Note how the “1970-79” becomes “1970-74” in the more recent report.

In 2007, 105 allegations were made against diocesan clergy concerning the 1970-74 period, while 93 were made concerning the period of 1975-79. In 2008, these numbers were 108 and 85 respectively.

The press releases correctly describe these periods as the peak years in diocesan and eparchial abuse allegations, but they exclude religious institutes from consideration. In 2007, allegations peaked at 19 in 1970-74 and then 16 in 1975-79. In 2008, allegations concerning religious institutes spiked to 47 in 1965-69 before dropping to 21 in 1970-74 and 11 in 1975-79.

It’s curious that the press release for the 2008 report states the percentage of alleged diocesan and eparchial clerical abuse victims under ten (23 percent) while the version for the 2007 report does not. According to the 2007 report, the percentage of under-10 victims was 14 percent, meaning that the number of reported under-10 victims has increased.

Many editorial decisions are made on the fly and can’t bear much demand for consistency. More concerning are the data obscured by language choice.

Take the press releases’ “most victims were male” comments. In the 2007 report, “most” means 82 percent of diocesan and eparchial allegations. In the 2008 report, “most” means 84 percent of such allegations.

In these instances, male victims compose a supermajority. Yet in common speech, “most” means an unspecific “more than half.”

Alleged victims of religious institutes are slightly less disproportionately male, composing 78 percent of all new allegations in 2007 but falling to 67 percent of all new allegations in 2008.

The accounts of the financial costs also bear closer scrutiny. The reports themselves distinguish between the expenses of diocese and eparchies, on the one hand, and religious institutes on the other. Expenses are categorized according to settlements, attorneys’ fees, therapy for victims, “support for offenders” and “other costs.”

A total combining the expenses of dioceses, eparches and religious institutes is presented in the reports, but not always in the press releases. These various figures can easily confuse. (The Catholic News Agency story on the report authored by me in 2008 at one point mixed up total figures and settlement totals.)

Concerning financial expenses, the statement on the 2007 report says:

“The total allegation-related expenditures by dioceses, eparchies, and clerical and mixed religious institutes increased by 54 percent between 2006 and 2007,” CARA reported. There was “a near-doubling (90 percent increase) in the amount paid for settlements in 2007,” CARA reported. Dioceses paid $420,385,135 in settlements and religious orders paid another $105,841,148. Not all money that courts awarded in 2007 was slated for distribution that year and some money was paid out by insurance companies.

The 2007 report itself reveals that the figure of $420 million in settlements from dioceses and eparchies does not include about $53.4 million in attorney’s fees, $7.2 million for therapy for victims, $13.3 million for support for offenders, and $4.3 million in “other costs.” In total, clerical sexual abuse cost the Catholic dioceses and eparchies in the U.S. $498 million in 2007, half a billion dollars.

Figures for the religious institutes are significant here, costing $105.8 million in settlements, $7 million in attorneys’ fees, $2.1 million in support for offenders, and less than $1 million each in therapy for victims and “other costs.”

The combined 2007 cost to dioceses, eparchies and religious institutes was $615 million.

Here is the U.S. bishops’ press release on the 2008 report:

"The total allegation-related expenditures by dioceses, eparchies, and clerical and mixed religious institutes decreased by 29 percent between 2007and 2008" after increasing in each of the previous three years)," CARA reported. Dioceses, eparchies and religious institutes paid a total of $374,408,554 in settlements.

Not considering religious institutes, the Catholic dioceses and eparchies paid $324.2 million in settlements in 2008. But again, this figure excludes attorney’s fees ($29.6 million), therapy for victims ($7.1 million), support for offenders ($11.6 million) and other costs ($3.8 million). This totals $376.2 million.

Religious institutes paid a total of $59.9 million: $50.2 million in settlements, $5.9 million in legal fees, $2.6 million in support for offenders, and less than a million each for therapy for victims and other costs.

The combined total 2008 cost for clerical sexual abuse thus comes to $436.1 million.

Both the 2007 and 2008 combined totals exclude child protection efforts, which cost $22.2 million in 2007 and $24.6 million in 2008. The most recent U.S. bishops’ press release highlights this “increased spending.”

It’s important not to be too conspiratorial in seeing deliberate design in the press release discrepancies. The U.S. bishops’ press releases use boilerplate and, though that may seem odd to the layman, this is a common and reasonable timesaving practice among busy spokesmen and public relations writers.

There is also the question of the U.S. bishops’ responsibility for religious institutes. The statistics for such organizations may be underreported precisely because the writers of the press releases are working for the U.S. bishops, whose oversight of religious institutes is indirect at most.

However, awareness of these habits should drive journalists of the Catholic and secular media to examine the source documents and to rely on these, not the press releases, for their stories. When patterns in sexual abuse and the millions of dollars in legal fees are not noted, the extent of the damage continues to be unrealized.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

‘Jesus People’ gives Christian music the ‘Spinal Tap’ treatment

The foibles and flaws of Evangelical Christian subculture are hard to miss in the art it produces. Its movies are often forgettable dramas marred by trite plots, two-dimensional characters and unearned moralism. Its contemporary music is often derivative in all the wrong ways, following rather than forging musical styles while writing lyrics which depict the Savior as an object of a high school crush.

Corrupting so many of these attempts at art-making is the spirit-killing willingness of aspiring Christian artists to substitute piety for talent and solid morals for long-practiced craft.

The Christian marketing industry amplifies this failure. Its promoters trumpet how the latest album release will lift one’s soul and how the latest movie will save hundreds of marriages, if not the nation itself. D-list celebrities and almost-famous pastors are sought for endorsements, while the bad art sold deadens its patrons to true beauty and perhaps even true religion.

As Hank Hill observed, these efforts do not make Christianity better, but rather make movies and music much, much worse.

“Jesus People,” the product of Hollywood Christians, aspires to exploit this parody-ripe phenomenon.

Available in several webisodes and an upcoming full-length movie, “Jesus People” follows the Evangelical habit of aping successful moviemaking.

But in this case, “Jesus People” apes the mockumentarian spirit pioneered by “This is Spinal Tap.”

The series’ initial webisodes follow the new Christian band “Cross my Heart” and its four members: the once disgraced Christian pop music star, the self-righteous young prig, the token black singer who conceals his “impure” past, and the novice Christian woman who has cracked open more beer bottles than Bibles.

The band is produced by a portly megachurch pastor reminiscent of a goateed Rick Warren. He has already entered the culture industry with his book “The Jesus Diet.”

Even for viewers like me who are outside the borders of Evangelical subculture, the real life targets of satire are recognizable enough: the shriveled first idea of a brainstorm session being treated as divine inspiration; the friends of the pastor being allowed to inflict their ramshackle production values on the untested band and the uncaring world; the twin goals of evangelization and mass marketing fusing in a dumbfounding chimera of good intentions and crud.

Some endearing brief subtleties also make “Jesus People” worthwhile, such as the pastor’s enthusiastic admiration for U2’s Bono, a sly reference to the clichéd “wheat field at harvest time” imagery of Christian music videos and a “famous Christian” author’s desperate poorly-concealed attempt to sell her book to the camera.

While the film displays a judicious cynicism, its actors ably convey that earnestness which makes for horrible art but also powers sincere contrition, prayer and charity.

The webisodes of “Jesus People” climax with this music video. As you watch it, know that it is preceded by an enjoyable backstory:

The dance pop tune is catchy, like some of Spinal Tap’s songs. The lyrical and visual satire, I think, effectively balance absurdity and realism.

Many Hollywood efforts at religious satire try to make Christians look ridiculous by ridiculing Christianity, or rather the filmmakers’ juvenile interpretation thereof.

This tired approach often directs scorn towards God Himself, driving away the religious audience while cultivating the superficial habits of sneering atheists.

These secular efforts often fail artistically precisely because they miss the human target, and thus the joke. Their comic effect, such as it is, lies in grass-fleshed man’s presumption to stand in judgment over the Almighty.

The strength of “Jesus People” is that it knows Christians are ridiculous and therefore revels in the phenomenon, believing that even laughable failures can be redeemed.

Watch the first webisode:

The series refines itself through its short run of perhaps 50 minutes. Its professional depiction of unprofessional art bodes well for the full-length movie.

The very novelty of a well-made Christian mockumentary likely covers a few of its flaws. The judgmental band member cannot escape comparisons to The Office’s Dwight Schrute. The music video’s style appears stuck in the early nineties, though that feature may be true to life. The Rapture may even be sacrosanct for those who believe in it, undercutting any claim that the movie’s satire is salutary and not scoffing.

Inevitable comparisons with “This Is Spinal Tap” also make “Jesus People” seem opportunistic. While Rob Reiner’s movie assailed drug-addled and obliviously egoistic rock superstars, this film targets the amateurs.

In the age of blogging and YouTube, amateurism is omnipresent and entirely excusable. As the webisodes progress, the filmmakers’ professional attack on unprofessional artists appears more and more unchivalrous, like an expert theater critic sniping at a high school musical production.

Though accusations of elitism are lazily thrown about, it is hard not to sense snobbery in elements of “Jesus People.”

Every artist starts out horrid. Lacking the lucre and pride of superstardom, “Cross my Heart” is just another megachurch band. A too-critical spirit of these aspirants may actually prevent great art from emerging.

Fortunately, it appears this concerns will be alleviated in the full length movie. It reportedly will flash forward two years into the band’s career after it has achieved stardom and expert ludicrousness.

In classic dramatic theory, the comedy is about the restoration of right order. Despite the flaws of its heroes and the deviousness of its villains, at its conclusion a comedy’s characters and audience react with surprised wonder, silently asking each other “How did that happen?”

Despite having no heroes or villains, “Jesus People” will leave its audience with similar smiling questions. The first puzzle is how Christian artistic endeavors could fail so epically with such great material. The second puzzle is how Christianity could possibly succeed despite the worst efforts of Christians.

A third question is how such a promising Christian satire like “Jesus People” could have taken so long to arrive. We may hope its debut marks the progress of Evangelical culture and American moviemaking to a happy place where prayer and satire kiss.

By way of Barb Nicolosi, we find that Christianity Today, always eager to flog the shortcomings of Evangelical culture, also reviews the film as The Christian Spinal Tap.

Besides YouTube, the series is available at Blip.TV. The web site of the full film, which includes a trailer, is at JesusPeopleFilm.com.

As a final comment, I doubt whether a similar satire could be done about U.S. Catholic culture. There is so much variety in American Catholicism that the common references necessary for humor are lacking.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Alt. conservatism for the front porch

The aftermath of the Bush Administration has exposed for embarrassment and grief the various problems of movement conservatism. Its substitution of fear and ideology for prudence, its facile sloganeering, and its herd-like antipathy towards self-criticism have left thousands of Americans and foreigners dead or in penurious exile.

In a different and so far lesser disaster, these failings helped bring President Obama to power.

On the national scene, both the political and pontificating efforts of conservatives have further empowered the people and forces inimical to much that they hold dear.

Those skeptical conservatives who remained aloof from Republican politics perhaps now have their chance to be heard. Anyone puzzled at the rout of Republicans should give them consideration.

These "alternative conservatives" now have a new group blog at Front Porch Republic.

Patrick Deneen, Daniel Larison, Jeremy Beer and Caleb Stegall join several other writers who are convinced that "scale, place, self-government, sustainability, limits, and variety are key terms with which any fruitful debate about our corporate future must contend."

The economic crisis, they say,
...threatens to worsen the political and economic centralization and atomization that have accompanied the century-long unholy marriage between consumer capitalism and the modern bureaucratic state. We live in a world characterized by a flattened culture and increasingly meaningless freedoms. Little regard is paid to the necessity for those overlapping local and regional groups, communities, and associations that provide a matrix for human flourishing. We’re in a bad way, and the spokesmen and spokeswomen of both our Left and our Right are, for the most part, seriously misguided in their attempts to provide diagnoses, let alone solutions.

The bi-partisan destructiveness wreaked by America's political and financial leadership would be less damaging, perhaps even impossible, were our communities not corroded by senseless individualism, consumption beyond our means, a prideful despite for natural limits, collective amnesia about our past, and a fading but potent and improvident optimism about our mock-heroic future.

Patrick Deneen helpfully summarizes front-porch republicanism:
Our States, not to mention our localities, are ever-less a kind of “porch,” that transition from the world of the home to the public realm of community and eventually State and nation. Instead, as wholly “private citizens” - or, to invoke the preferred term, “consumers” - accustomed to houses that are places of private retreat, we see only one public entity of significance - the national State - but find it difficult to see ourselves a part of it. We regard the State as a distant and mysterious entity, occupied either by our team or their team but in either event an organization so vast, complex and dizzying that we regard it as anything but the locus of our practice of shared self-governance. We are daily less a republic because we daily perceive less of what are common or public things - res publica. Without the literal spaces where we come to know what we have in common through speech, habit and memory, we regard politics as a competitive spectator sport and government as a distant imposition - but in any event, anything but self-rule.

Self-rule, as Deneen emphasizes, is a practice and not a theory. An exclusively intellectual approach will be useless in flushing out or reworking our cultural debris.

But after we have persistently followed our intellectual delusions to the brink of a minor catastrophe, these keen thinkers might just lead us back -- to the front porch.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Übermensch or Last Man?

"There are no facts, only interpretations."
   -Frederich Nietzsche, Notebooks

"There is no reality, only perception.

"Strategy: Identify the filters through which you view the world. Acknowledge your history without being controlled by it."
   -Dr. Phil McGraw, Life Law #6