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Saturday, December 31, 2005

Writing a religion story? Put Ted Haggard in it.

Oh, would you look at that: Ted Haggard must have some of the best PR people on the planet — or the New York Times doesn't know how to see "religion" unless a megachurch is involved. Friday's paper tells us that "a number of Christians are regularly attending different churches in the course of a week or a month, picking and choosing among programs and services, to satisfy social and spiritual needs." Is this news? Maybe: After all, Mrs Philocrites and I attend several different churches in the course of a month, too — but we're liberal Protestants, and therefore not part of what the Times sees as "Christianity."

The only study reported in the long profile — which turns out to be a mash note to the praise-song youth groups at Haggard's Colorado Springs megachurch — is this paragraph:

In a survey of 13- to 17-year-olds conducted from 2002 through 2003, the National Study of Youth and Religion found that 16 percent of respondents participated in more than one religious congregation. Four percent attend youth groups outside their congregations.

Now this is an important paragraph because the story the Times weaves around this nugget is all about evangelical kids who go to an evangelical church with their parents on Sunday morning and then head off to Ted Haggard's emerald city for some Jesus jams at night. But that's not really what the study described; it's just the spin that happens to be convenient for the National Association of Evangelicals — which Ted Haggard leads.

The study itself isn't news: The published report was issued three months ago, although I can't find any indication that the Times had mentioned it earlier. And the online press release for the published report, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, says:

Though widely practiced and positively valued by teens, faith is also de-prioritized and very poorly understood by them. Nonetheless, religion remains a significant force in shaping their lives.

More broadly, Soul Searching describes what appears to be a major transformation of faith in the U.S., away from the substance of historical religious traditions and toward a new and quite different faith the book describes as "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism."

Hmm: "Moralistic therapeutic deism" doesn't sound good for orthodoxy, although it represents a major opportunity for evangelism. But the story doesn't once mention the possibility that teens are looking for religious input outside their particular religious communities — or that this phenomenon isn't limited to evangelicals. Instead, we get quotes from Focus on the Family staff, clergy from several evangelical churches in Colorado Springs, and anecdotes about several popular kids. (Scenes from "Saved" race through my mind.) In fact, the only appearance mainline Protestantism makes in the entire story is implicitly in this dubious paragraph:

Many children in evangelical families also see the example their parents have set, leaving the denominations they grew up in to embrace evangelical Christianity as young adults.

This is conservative mythology masquerading as a trend. Exactly how many? According to whom? Did the parents Neela Banerjee interviewed really "leave" a denomination? Which ones? And when? And how involved had they been? As the Christian Century reported earlier this year, the much-repeated truism that evangelical Christianity has boomed because mainline Protestants have fled the "liberal" denominations just isn't true. Anecdotally, I bet some of these parents did go from United Methodist churches to Assemblies of God or something like that — but, anecdotally, ex-fundamentalists keep joining Unitarian Universalist and Episcopal and even Orthodox churches. Anecdotes do not constitute a trend. Many of these people are simply switching from one evangelical or fundamentalist church to another.

Meanwhile, according the Barna Group, an evangelical research group:

Despite the media frenzy surrounding the influence of evangelical Christians during the 2004 presidential election, the new study indicates that evangelicals remain just 7% of the adult population. That number has not changed since the Barna Group began measuring the size of the evangelical public in 1994.

In other words, the Times has hung a story that is really only a modest depiction of evangelical teen churchgoing on a peg about a study that shows that a growing number of kids is sampling a much broader range of religious ideas and practices. What a wasted opportunity.

P.S. For a very different take on the same study, see this Daily Tar Heel story about seekers on college campuses.

("Teenagers mix churches for faith that fits," Neela Banerjee, New York Times 12.30.05, reg req'd; "Inside America's most powerful megachurch," Jeff Sharlet, Harper's 5.05, repr. at The Revealer 5.13.05; "State of the church 2005," The Barna Group 4.11.05; "Depth of religious fervor uncertain," Emily Fisher, Daily Tar Heel 11.29.05)

Posted by Philocrites, December 31, 2005, at 10:57 AM | 5 comments

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Christmas loot report.

Choose Your ReligionWhat do you get a magazine editor for Christmas? Why, The Complete New Yorker on disc, of course! What a cool and time-consuming present. Thanks, Santa. Mrs P gave me Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy — three of my favorite movies. Her sister set me up with the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah CD, which is undeniably cool. Thanks for the loot!

And, because Christmas just isn't the same without a good bit of religious kitsch, thanks to my wife I'm now the proud owner of the Choose Your Religion Wheel O' Wisdom — from a line of "cordless search engines for life." The handy wheel describes and lists perks, drawbacks, accessories, afterlife promises, and potential new friends for 30 "world religions" (including Voodoo, consumerism, and snake handlers).

How is Unitarian Universalism presented to the savvy convert? The wheel describes the religion as "socially liberal, creedless, inclusive. Traces to Reformation. Unity of God (anti-trinity) & universality of salvation. Experience, conscience, & reason inform faith; ethical living is way to worship." Not bad. Accessories? "Flowers to exchange in God's love during services." Okay, but flower communion is really just once a year. Afterlife promises? "Human understanding of life & death is never final." How true. Potential new friends? 629,000 — reflecting the number of people who self-identified as UUs in a national survey a few years back, although only one-third of 'em go to church. Perks? "Accepting, compassionate. Can be ordained in time for friends' weddings. Supports gay/lesbian marriage." Whoa: You can't get yourself ordained a UU minister in a hurry; that's the Universal Life Church. But the best thing about the wheel is its list of drawbacks to Unitarian Universalism: "Nickname is UUs or UUism. Old marketing slogan: 'I was a Unitarian all along & never knew it.'" Yeah, being part of the "yooyoo" religion has always bugged me, too.

Posted by Philocrites, December 29, 2005, at 10:13 PM | 7 comments

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The future of theology in Unitarian Universalism.

If you missed it last week, be sure to dive into the conversation swirling around the "religion still seeking definition" thread. We're discussing the state of theological education, the possibilities for local theology, and all manner of juicy UU stuff.

Posted by Philocrites, December 28, 2005, at 10:14 AM | 0 comments

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The site redesign continues.

As I announced at the beginning of January, I've been redesigning the structure and stylesheets for this site. I've now finished the new individual entry pages and archive pages. You may need to refresh your browser once or twice, but after that, let me know if something doesn't look right. When reporting a problem, please let me know what operating system you're using (Windows XP, Mac OS 9, etc.) and what browser you're using. (If you are still trying to use Internet Explorer on a Mac, you simply must stop. Personally, I like Safari.) I'd especially like to know what your screen resolution is, since the key thing I've been aiming for is elastic scalable design.

Posted by Philocrites, December 27, 2005, at 10:57 AM | 1 comments

Monday, December 26, 2005

Happy Chrismahanukwanzakah - really!

Here's a story I've long wanted to read: a profile of a real family who blends the season's various holidays together for the simple reason that it reflects who they are. Meet the Balsoms, who celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa — this year, all at once:

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, December 26, 2005, at 09:05 AM | 6 comments

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Chestnuts roasting on an open thread.

Merry Christmas! Just because I may not write much this weekend doesn't mean that you may not want to share a Christmas Pageant snafu, mangled Christmas carol, shopping oddity, or variant spelling of Hanukkah. So consider this an open holiday thread: Santa's knee, just for you. What's amusing you this, um, holiday season?

Posted by Philocrites, December 24, 2005, at 07:54 AM | 2 comments

Thursday, December 22, 2005

A religion still seeking definition.

Scott Wells noticed that the Commission on Appraisal's report on Unitarian Universalist theological diversity is finally available as a free pdf. New readers of the report will also be interested in Rosemary Bray McNatt's review in the winter issue of UU World. Grateful for many of the Commission's observations, she is nevertheless disappointed with its

vague recommendation that the Association “mobilize a denomination-wide effort . . . to develop and articulate a deeper understanding of who Unitarian Universalists are as a religious people and what shared commitments the UU faith calls us to affirm as well as what challenges we face.” If not the Commission on Appraisal, which denominational body will take up this task?

That is a question for those of you with votes in the General Assembly. ("Do UUs have theological common ground?" Rosemary Bray McNatt, 11.1.05)

Posted by Philocrites, December 22, 2005, at 08:42 AM | 75 comments

Red Sox false messiah watch.

Now we know the answer to Red Sox Nation's faith-based query, "WWJDD?": He'll become a Yankee. (Red Sox theology watch: There's baptism in the opening graf in this Globe story.) Will his messianic hair survive the transition? Will he lose his powers like Samson? No matter what happens to Damon's locks, the Times predicts a lot of haircuts for his disillusioned followers.

Posted by Philocrites, December 22, 2005, at 08:02 AM | 4 comments

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

'Transient and Permanent' goes off the air.

Tonight is your last chance to read a very good and useful set of definitions of American liberal religion because Transient and Permanent, a fine blog by one of the few Unitarian Universalists currently doing doctoral work in religious history focusing on American liberal religion, is going off the air tomorrow. The reason? "I've become increasingly concerned about the consequences of blogging for junior scholars," he writes in his farewell post. (Don't worry: I saved a copy of the definitions post for my files.)

Posted by Philocrites, December 21, 2005, at 06:22 PM | 5 comments

Friday, December 16, 2005

The talented Mr Romney.

Who knew reforming Massachusetts government was so easy? Why, with a bright smile, a golly or two, and an occasional day in the office, a good-looking opportunist can do it in less than three years! Gov. Mitt Romney announced Wednesday that he won't need to run for reelection — "I've got the job done I set out to do" — and that he plans to become a Taoist. "[O]ther things may develop in the future," he said. "I don't know what will happen. The future is open."

That makes three elected Republican governors in a row who clearly wanted to be someone else. William Weld wanted to be ambassador to Mexico because he really, really hated New England winters. His lieutenant Paul Celucci managed to win an election, then resigned to become ambassador to Canada because they don't have a Big Dig. And now Romney wants to be president. I really wanted a governor.

Now because I'm gullible, I actually thought Romney might shake things up when he was first elected. (Unlike many of my relentlessly lefty friends, I wasn't especially upset when he beat Shannon O'Brien. I wasn't hopeful, but then O'Brien didn't give me much to hope for, either.) The Globe recalls that Romney ran for office "on a promise to reform a government dominated by Democratic patronage" — and, having grown up in Utah, another one-party state, I thought maybe, just maybe Romney would focus on reform. Instead he put on quite an act.

Incidentally, the Globe's Scott S. Greenberger debunks Romney's list of proud accomplishments. Good for the Globe.

("It's 1 Term for Romney; He Says the Future Is Open," Frank Phillips and Scott Helman, Boston Globe 12.15.05, reg req'd; "A Closer Look at Governor's Boasts," Scott S. Greenberger, Boston Globe 12.15.05, reg req'd)

Posted by Philocrites, December 16, 2005, at 07:33 AM | 0 comments

As parodies that meet and merge.

Dan Harper hopes to inspire a new generation of Unitarian Universalist hymn satirists. Post your mock lyrics to his new collection, "Zinging the Living Tradition".

Posted by Philocrites, December 16, 2005, at 07:18 AM | 3 comments

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

And a decree came from 25 Beacon Street.

We're already a month into the annual certification of congregations, where UUA member congregations report their membership.

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Thom Belote, December 14, 2005, at 09:18 AM | 9 comments

Is 'intelligent design' headed toward extinction?

A week ago, Laurie Goodstein wrote that the intelligent design publicity campaign has been going much better than the so-called science of intelligent design:

As a political cause, the idea has gained currency, and for good reason. The movement was intended to be a "big tent" that would attract everyone from biblical creationists who regard the Book of Genesis as literal truth to academics who believe that secular universities are hostile to faith. The slogan, "Teach the controversy," has simple appeal in a democracy.

Behind the headlines, however, intelligent design as a field of inquiry is failing to gain the traction its supporters had hoped for. It has gained little support among the academics who should have been its natural allies. And if the intelligent design proponents lose the case in Dover, there could be serious consequences for the movement's credibility.

On college campuses, the movement's theorists are academic pariahs, publicly denounced by their own colleagues. Design proponents have published few papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

The Templeton Foundation, a major supporter of projects seeking to reconcile science and religion, says that after providing a few grants for conferences and courses to debate intelligent design, they asked proponents to submit proposals for actual research.

"They never came in," said Charles L. Harper Jr., senior vice president at the Templeton Foundation, who said that while he was skeptical from the beginning, other foundation officials were initially intrigued and later grew disillusioned.

"From the point of view of rigor and intellectual seriousness, the intelligent design people don't come out very well in our world of scientific review," he said.

The Templeton Foundation has been drawn into the culture-war dimensions of the ID publicity campaign, however, leading Harper to sharply criticize a Wall Street Journal news story last month that suggested that Templeton supports intelligent design scholarship:

Any careful and factual analysis of actual events will find that the John Templeton Foundation has been in fact the chief sponsor of university courses, lectures and academic research which variously have argued against the anti-evolution “ID” position. It is scandalous for a distinguished paper to misinform the public in this way.

Hmm: Worth noting here is that the leading philanthropic foundation committed to promoting better intellectual relations between science and religion objects to intelligent design on scientific grounds — and on the grounds that it is helping to "fan into flame a politicized ethos on university campuses." Nonetheless, Harper adds that some ID-associated scholars have offered important critiques, especially of the culture of science:

Indeed, it should clearly be recognized that some perspectives that scholars associated with the ID movement have brought to scholarly attention involve matters of very considerable public importance. ID scholars have been prominent critics of the abuse of evolutionary biology today by prominent philosophical interpreters arguing for modern science to be considered as if it provided a clear coherent scientific foundation for philosophical atheism. (Which it most certainly is not: such grandstanding does science a grave disservice in the United States). They also have most unfashionably, but importantly, brought to attention the catastrophic abuse of evolutionary biology by Nazi intellectuals in the 1930’s and 1940’s in support of racist “master race” eugenics, leading clearly and directly to the justification of genocide against the Jews. Such debates are important. They should not be suppressed. And we at the John Templeton Foundation will hold to our no-blacklisting policy. We will not distort standard proper open and fair philanthropic practices in the direction of ideological policing.

Which is to say that when an ID-associated scholar applies for funding for a project that passes muster in the peer-review process, Templeton will and has supplied funding. But these grants have proven to be rare: "The Templeton Foundation has made several thousand grants to university researchers, the vast majority of whom have been critical of the anti-science aspect of ID’s critique of modern evolutionary biology."

Among the other signs of ID's academic failure in Goodstein's article is the strange odyssey of ID champion William A. Dembski, who was supposed to be leading the charge from a new science institute at the Baptist-affiliated Baylor University — but who has ended up after a tumultuous battle at a seminary instead:

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., created a Center for Science and Theology for William A. Dembski, a leading proponent of intelligent design, after he left Baylor, a Baptist university in Texas, amid protests by faculty members opposed to teaching it.

Intelligent design and Mr. Dembski, a philosopher and mathematician, should have been a good fit for Baylor, which says its mission is "advancing the frontiers of knowledge while cultivating a Christian world view." But Baylor, like many evangelical universities, has many scholars who see no contradiction in believing in God and evolution.

Derek Davis, director of the J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor, said: "I teach at the largest Baptist university in the world. I'm a religious person. And my basic perspective is intelligent design doesn't belong in science class."

Mr. Davis noted that the advocates of intelligent design claim they are not talking about God or religion. "But they are, and everybody knows they are," Mr. Davis said. "I just think we ought to quit playing games. It's a religious worldview that's being advanced."

Those four paragraphs don't even begin to scratch the surface concerning Dembski's controversial time at Baylor. For a compelling story about intra-Baptist academic politics at Baylor, read "Professing Faith" in the current issue of Mother Jones, which puts the tussle over Dembski in the context of the ongoing fundamentalist takeover of Baptist institutions in the south. Happily, Baylor seems to have resisted the push for now.

Nonetheless, as long as there's conservative money fueling the publicity campaign — and bogeymen like Richard Dawkins frightening the children — intelligent design will remain part of the culture war, even as it continues to fail as science.

("Intelligent Design Might Be Meeting Its Maker," Laurie Goodstein, New York Times 12.4.05, reg req'd; "Official Statement on the False and Misleading Information Published in the Wall Street Journal November 14," Charles L. Harper Jr, John Templeton Foundation; "Professing Faith," Karen Houppert, Mother Jones 12.1.05)

Posted by Philocrites, December 14, 2005, at 08:04 AM | 4 comments

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Reintroducing a guest blogger.

Ah, December, when thoughts naturally turn to denominational statistics!

Surely you all remember Thom Belote's stint as guest blogger this summer while Mrs Philocrites and I were traipsing across France. Some of you will recall that Thom also provided some informative blogging about Unitarian Universalist congregational membership figures about this time last year over at Coffee Hour. He's at it again — but this time he'll be covering the annual certification of UUA congregations right here at Philocrites. Welcome back, Thom!

Posted by Philocrites, December 13, 2005, at 09:12 PM | 0 comments

Will there be Second Annual UU Blog Awards?

Remember the 2004 Unitarian Universalist Blog Awards? Whew, that was a lot of work — I mean fun! I had so much fun I hope someone else jumps up to lead us in a round of mutual congratulation and backslapping, because I gotta tell ya, this has been a banner year for UU blogs.

All we need is someone to come up with a method to the madness, invite nominations, cook up a voting mechanism that doesn't let people stuff the ballot boxes, and congratulate the winners! Easy! (I wonder if UUpdater could somehow automate this directly off of his list of UU blogs?)

For background on the first annual awards, here's last year's announcement, the award categories we came up with, and all the voting (scattered through the January archives). And here are last year's winners. (Coffee Hour, the group blog where we hosted the voting last year, is on hiatus.)

So who's game?

Posted by Philocrites, December 13, 2005, at 08:16 AM | 4 comments

Monday, December 12, 2005

UU Service Committee founders 'righteous among the nations.'

Israel has named two of the founders of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee as "righteous among the nations" for their work rescuing Jews from the Holocaust. The Rev. Waitstill Sharp, a Unitarian minister, and Martha Sharp will be only the second and third Americans recognized by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance authority. Here's a quick round-up of news coverage:

There's more at the UUA and UUSC Web sites.

Posted by Philocrites, December 12, 2005, at 07:53 AM | 1 comments

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Felt-board Sunday school lessons in the news.

Sunday school for infants! Today's New York Times highlights the work of Episcopal curriculum developer Gretchen Wolff Pritchard in a story about the Church of the Advent's Sunday school class for children under 3. The Rev. Patrick Gray, one of the priests at the Anglo-Catholic church on Beacon Hill, started leading a class using Pritchard's Beulah Land felt-board stories as a way to reach out to new parents:

"When you have kids you start thinking about church again," he said. "I was thinking, What's going to make it easy to come to church? Why not have what they're used to? What they're used to is story time at the public library, where you sing a couple of songs, tell a story, sing some more and play with blocks."

A round of applause for male clergy diving right in to Sunday school!

What's amusing about the story — and the earlier story in the Boston Globe that seems to have inspired it — is that all the other adults, perhaps including the reporter, spend a lot of time wondering how the class directly impacts the children. Do they understand the Bible stories? Does any of it sink in? What do the experts think? Gray himself gets it: Church becomes part of the child's experience because it becomes part of the parents' experience. Most of the education taking place is of course directed to the parents, who are learning how to pray with their children and bring the Bible stories into their children's lives. And yet we must interview a professor of early childhood development about the cognitive abilities of toddlers.

Pritchard, whose work Mrs Philocrites greatly admires, has developed an extraordinary variety of Anglican materials for children with Beulah Enterprises. She tells the Times that she hadn't yet developed materials for children so young, but will soon.

Large (and perhaps mid-size) Unitarian Universalist congregations developing their own innovative curricula should take note: The Church of St Paul and St James in New Haven, Conn., is developing, producing, and selling high-quality curricula to other congregations. I don't know any religious education directors who have a lot of time on their hands to transform the inventive work they're doing locally into an outreach campaign to other congregations — but some visionary partnerships between ministers, educators, church members, and donors could set up a production and distribution channel to turn creative work into material other educators will jump at. In UU circles, this would probably require partnerships between a few congregations, but sooner or later we're going to have to find ways to set up these entrepreneurial partnerships. (All part of what Clyde Grubbs recently described as decentralized distribution networks.)

"Spirit Play," the UU adaptation of Jerome Berryman's "Godly Play" program, is one such curriculum. I'd love to learn about other programs UU educators are sharing with each other — I confess to knowing too little about what's current in UU religious education — so please hawk your wares (or promote your favorites) in the comments below!

Media angle: Boston Globe "Spiritual Life" columnist Rich Barlow profiled the Church of the Advent program on November 19. The Globe is owned by the New York Times Co. Granted, it's a nice little story — but surely there are innovative and fun Sunday school programs to profile in New York City. I won't complain too loudly, though: I was in Philadelphia when Barlow's column ran, and would have missed it if the Times hadn't, um, been inspired by it.

("Schooling the Youngest Ones in Faith," Rich Barlow, Boston Globe 11.19.05, reg req'd; "A Church Reaches Out to the Very Young," Katie Zezima, New York Times 12.10.05, reg req'd)

Posted by Philocrites, December 10, 2005, at 08:57 AM | 3 comments

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Poet laureate Ted Kooser is a Unitarian Universalist.

Check out Dan Cryer's UU World profile of U.S. poet laureate and 2005 Pulitzer prize-winner Ted Kooser, featured in this week's edition of Cryer has written great stuff for the magazine in the past: See "The Pages of Sin" and "Human Origins and Human Futures." (It's literature week here at Philocrites.)

Posted by Philocrites, December 6, 2005, at 08:33 AM | 0 comments

'The echo of a tune we have not heard.'

It's beginning to look a lot like Narnia.

Adam Gopnik offers a wonderful secular appreciation of C. S. Lewis's work in the New Yorker. He makes two provocative points: First, Lewis the literary scholar recognized that allegory had opened up the possibility for a new sort of imaginative literature during the late medieval period — "the free creation of the marvelous" — but Lewis the storyteller tended to write allegories rather than letting himself write myths. I must have snoozed through much of my sixteenth-century poetry class, because I missed this point and appreciate learning it now:

Until the time of Tasso and Ariosto, [Lewis] points out ["The Allegory of Love"], writers had two worlds available to them: the actual world of experience and the world of their religion. Only since the Renaissance have writers had a third world, of the marvellous, of free mythological invention, which is serious but in which the author does not really believe or make an article of faith.

"The Faerie Queen" suddenly makes (more) sense! Gopnik quotes Lewis about the novelty of myth:

The probable, the marvelous-taken-as-fact, the marvelous-known-to-fiction—such is the triple equipment of the post-Renaissance poet. Such were the three worlds which Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton were born to. . . . But this triple heritage is a late conquest. Go back to the beginnings of any literature and you will not find it. At the beginning the only marvels are the marvels which are taken for fact. . . . The old gods, when they ceased to be taken as gods, might so easily have been suppressed as devils. . . . Only their allegorical use, prepared by slow developments within paganism itself, saved them, as in a temporary tomb, for the day when they could wake again in the beauty of acknowledged myth and thus provide modern Europe with its "third world" of romantic imagining. . . . The gods must be, as it were, disinfected of belief; the last taint of the sacrifice, and of the urgent practical interest, the selfish prayer, must be washed away from them, before that other divinity can come to light in the imagination. For poetry to spread its wings fully, there must be, besides the believed religion, a marvelous that knows itself as myth.

As a kid — and a rather seriously religious kid at that — I enjoyed The Chronicles of Narnia, although I think I only read the full series through twice. The Lord of the Rings, however, along with the supplemental volumes of Tolkien's unfinished works that were published during my adolescence, did come to feel like a Bible from another world. (I quoted the Silmarillion alongside Genesis in a freshman essay at Brigham Young University, awkwardly aware that each text had about the same hold on my imagination.) Tolkien preferred myth to allegory — and pulled it off.

Gopnik's other strong claim is that the Narnia books are most successful when they are least allegorical, that Lewis's imaginative impulse was at odds with his allegorical interest in Christian apologetic. (I'm not sure this explains my response while reading them, though. I may have found the language old-fashioned, whereas Tolkien sounded truly archaic.) He says in particular that Aslan is an inadequate allegorical Christ-figure:

[A] central point of the Gospel story is that Jesus is not the lion of the faith but the lamb of God, while his other symbolic animal is, specifically, the lowly and bedraggled donkey. The moral force of the Christian story is that the lions are all on the other side. If we had, say, a donkey, a seemingly uninspiring animal from an obscure corner of Narnia, raised as an uncouth and low-caste beast of burden, rallying the mice and rats and weasels and vultures and all the other unclean animals, and then being killed by the lions in as humiliating a manner as possible—a donkey who reëaut;merges, to the shock even of his disciples and devotees, as the king of all creation—now, that would be a Christian allegory. A powerful lion, starting life at the top of the food chain, adored by all his subjects and filled with temporal power, killed by a despised evil witch for his power and then reborn to rule, is a Mithraic, not a Christian, myth.

All true — but Peter Steinfels, who responds to Gopnik's essay in his New York Times column this week, thinks Gopnik misses the basic religious issue that Lewis found in marvelous writing of all kinds. Steinfels ends his essay with a story about theater critic Kenneth Tynan, who chose a passage by Lewis for his own burial service:

The passage he chose, from a sermon Lewis delivered, warned that beauty was not ultimately in the books or music where it was thought to be found. "It was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing," Lewis said.

"For they are not the thing itself," he went on; "they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited."

This is where the serious religious question lies. It is not a question about Lewis's eccentricities nor about some evangelicals' weakness for preachiness or hero-worship. It is a question about reality.

In my own experience, the most difficult religious issue involves the fact that every religious authority attempts to claim ownership over this yearning, tries to tame it and bottle it for us, while every religious believer needs help keeping that yearning alive. It's probably impossible to be religious on one's own — impossible to create for ourselves a myth that we believe as true — but in our dependence on stories, institutions, and powerful interpreters of experience, we can mistake the vehicle of our longing for the "thing itself," to which we have no direct access. "For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited." Amen to that.

Finally, Alan Jacobs — the C. S. Lewis biographer from Wheaton College — laments in a Boston Globe Ideas essay that Lewis has become a posthumous "pawn in America's culture wars." Jacobs wants to show that the Narnia books are not simply Christian allegory: They reflect the full range of Lewis's scholarly interest and the depth of his personal suffering, no small thing for children's literature. There's a lot of good stuff in Jacobs's essay, but I'll point to two paragraphs about the history of science:

Most impressively, though, he begins [Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century] with an overview of the whole intellectual culture of the period, beginning with a bravura passage about astrology, science, and magic. If we moderns see astrology and magic as similar activities, the scholars of the 16th century knew better, he argued: Astrology teaches us that none of our circumstances are within our control, magic that all of them are. Many astrologers of the time were Calvinists; the magicians by contrast reveled in "dreams of power"—for them, magic was simply a technology.

Indeed, Lewis argued in one of his most striking passages, magic in the 16th century was virtually indistinguishable from science (then in its infancy). Sir Francis Bacon, that great father of the scientific method, was not a magician himself, but thought that the aspirations of magicians were "noble." Magicians and scientists alike looked around them and saw a world that was lamentably out of their control. Thus, "the serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one [magic] was sickly and died, the other [science] was strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse." And that impulse was power.

How does this scholarly insight show up in the Narnia books? Jacobs points to The Magician's Nephew. (Weird tidbit: Jacobs also mentions Michael Ward's answer to the question, Why are there seven books in the Narnia series? Because there were seven celestial bodies in the Middle Ages — and each volume, Ward says, has attributes of one of the celestial spheres.)

A final comment: I hate the "culture war" over Lewis. Unlike the dustup over Mel Gibson, I can't relate to this fight at all because I feel I have a personal stake on both sides. I'm eager to see the film, plan to share the books with my children, and think Lewis is fascinating and intellectually exciting — but have no desire to march in any Evangelical-Catholic alliance to roll back the liberal humanist hegemony. Yawn. What secular critics seem to miss is that writers like Lewis — who look like or get trotted out as apologists for Big Bad Jesus — also open an intellectual door within conservative Christian cultures to the broad expanse of humanistic scholarship. Narnia the Christian allegory also introduced me (zealous Mormon child) to mythology, the Middle Ages, and Lewis himself — who stands not only in the Christian intellectual world but in the humanistic one.

("Prisoner of Narnia," Adam Gopnik, New Yorker 11.21.05; "Religious Questions Emerge Ahead of Movie Based on Children's Tale," Peter Steinfels, New York Times 12.3.05, reg req'd; "The Professor, the Christian, and the Storyteller," Alan Jacobs, Boston Globe 12.4.05, reg req'd)

Posted by Philocrites, December 6, 2005, at 07:42 AM | 4 comments

Monday, December 5, 2005

The semiotics of Sunday school snacks.

Enrique revives a Victorian genre and ponders the secret language of Sunday school snacks.

Posted by Philocrites, December 5, 2005, at 07:22 AM | 0 comments

Sunday, December 4, 2005

Introducing a new front page.

Those of you who read Philocrites by RSS or entry-by-entry won't notice this change right away, but those of you who come to the front page will notice some significant changes. Several months ago I started redesigning the basic structure of this site as I learned about newer approaches to structural markup and cascading stylesheets. I think I've finished fiddling and want to see what you think.

The new three-column format brings new comments higher on the page, making it easier for you to keep up with other readers' responses. It also introduces a photograph of yours truly; thanks to Nancy Pierce for capturing this photo at the UUA's 2005 General Assembly and letting me use it here. The "Keeping Up" column also highlights articles I'm tracking in my Scrapbook, Miscellany, and Portfolio miniblogs. (Scrapbook quotes brief passages from articles I found interesting, but doesn't include commentary or comments. Miscellany is even simpler, and a tad less serious. Portfolio tracks my own published writing.) And, as you'll see, the new format introduces advertising to the front page and moves the Search bar all the way to the bottom. Close readers will notice that you can now sign up to advertise directly on this site through Google's AdSense program.

The new design should work better on non-browser readers, and should — if I've learned my lessons right — scale nicely in a range of browsers. If something doesn't look right, though, please leave a note telling me what operating system and browser you're using. I hope you like it!

Recommended reading: Bulletproof Web Design by Dan Cedarholm and "Fixed or Fluid Width? Elastic!" by Roger Johansson.

Posted by Philocrites, December 4, 2005, at 06:18 PM | 8 comments

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