Thursday, June 16, 2005

Jesus SMASH!

First of all, an admission: I actually thought last Sunday was Fathers' Day. In fact, as you know, Fathers' Day is this coming Sunday. Just something for you to keep in mind as you read anything else I write.

I've been intending for a long time to comment at length on Jeff Sharlet's Harpers Magazine piece about New Life Community Church in Colorado Springs. The moment has kind of passed. I did comment over at the High Hat Blog about my visit to a megachurch about five years ago. I could relate to Sharlet's arguments about consumerism and exurban migration. As to the millenialism and weird geopolitics -- I got nothin'.

Wait, here's a tangent. My last book read was God's Secretaries by Adam Nicolson, about the creation of the King James Bible. It was pretty good, and incidentally not a devotional book at all, but intellectual history that provides a window into Jacobean England. Anyway, one tantalizing bit of info there was that some of the scholars on the KJ translation committee wanted to exclude the Book of Revelations. They got voted down. Revelations is the source of all manner of trouble and nonsense. The Armageddon, the Rapture--all that stuff is in Revelations, and stands out like a sore thumb next to the Sermon on the Mount and all the rest of the New Testament. Jesus is like Bruce Banner turning into the Hulk in that book. I understand generally how Revelations got written: it was 100 AD and people thought Jesus was coming back the day after tomorrow to overthrow the Roman Empire. But why it has continued to be part of the Biblical canon, I don't really understand. I've never read Revelations, have never heard a sermon preached from it, which is not odd since liberal Protestants and all Catholics basically ignore Revelations, yet the religious right sometimes gives the impression that Revelations is ALL they read. How about somebody doing an edition of the Bible that leaves Revelations right the fuck out?

Here's one particular thing that struck me in the Sharlet article. In my job I hear and read a lot about the joys and struggles of ministers in their careers. I was reading something recently in which a preacher contrasted graduate school (seminary), where you get a fresh start every 4-5 months--new topic, new teacher, new group of peers--with a parish church, where the content is always the same, and the faces are always the same. Soon after reading this, I picked up the Sharlet article, and New Life guru Ted Haggard describes the small-group structure of his church: it's on a semester system, so if people dislike a class or a group of classmates, they naturally get a chance to jump ship after a few months. That's the consumerist approach megachurches take: lots of choices, lots of room for the theology and doctrine to be market-tested and tailored to what people like. Whereas traditional churches tend to operate on the unspoken assumption that you are a Methodist or whatever by virtue of family and civic ties, so your church is your church, and you have to take it as you find it.

The bad news is, these are bad assumptions nowadays--people WILL drive to the next town over, they WILL shop around, etc. The better news for these old-style churches is they have a chance to offer a realer, more familial type of community, which you only get when you are somewhat stuck with people. This preacher I was reading also talked about the emotional whiplash he felt as a young man early in his ministry, how tough it was to go from celebrating a birthday or baptism in the afternoon, then visiting a dying person in the evening. You think Ted Haggard ever does a funeral? Or comforts a dying person? Rarely, I bet. These Colorado Springs assholes, these postmodern gypsies, if they get sick or old they're going to move back home, or close to a family member who'll care for them.

There's a site called Butterflies and Wheels that I've dipped into now and then. Its stock in trade is being indignant over Intelligent Design, etc.: with religious fundamentalism interfering with science. They're smart folks over there--Brits, some of them, don't you know--and more conversant with philosophy and hard science than I am. Stuff I am somewhat conversant with--social science, religion, and critical theory--they're fairly hostile to. I sort of left the comments board of their blog with my tail between my legs. I felt I ended up making content-free arguments in favor of simple civility. Weak tea, not much fun for me. On the other hand, those folks congratulate themselves for going to a friend's funeral and refraining from heckling the eulogy. I'd call that strident. But again, they're smart, and I'll continue to browse there now and then.

Here at Dix Hill I've mentioned that in real life I get to hear some really interesting lectures and panel discussions on theology and medicine. I alluded to a couple of them at B&W and got sneered at, but I'm going to re-present them here. In one presentation, a guy was proposing a methodology for measuring an individual's religiosity. By way of background, this dude works in a program on spirituality and health, studying issues like whether people who profess religion, pray, etc., have better health outcomes. That prayer-and-healing stuff generally leaves me cold, but this guy rolled out what I thought was the best application of critical theory I have ever heard. Knowledge is socially constructed; religion and secularism alike are knowledge systems, held together by the trust their adherents place in them. Religion is best understood not as a checklist of beliefs but a worldview, a lens, a framework. The best measure of religiosity is not fidelity but fluency. The specific content of any worldview, religious or not, is less significant than whether one can articulate it coherently. (As I tried to tell the science/philosophy geeks, "Einstein wasn't a great scientist because of the number of theorems he had memorized.")

In another talk, a public health researcher compared two small Missouri towns that were similar in geography and demography. One town was marked by a stronger religious community: more vital congregations, and (significantly) warmer and more cooperative relations among different congregations. There were some positive public health indicators associated with the more robust religious climate. He did a social capital analysis suggesting that religious institutions create "bridging" social capital that enables resources to be shared and transferred effectively. Admittedly, this was a qualitative study, that argued correlation rather than causation, but it appealed to me as making a case for religion based on its effects. I have forgotten the name of Town A in the study, the high social capital town; sadly, however, Town B, marked by selfishness and distrust, was Hannibal, Mark Twain's hometown.

Anyway, that's This Week in Dix Hill religion.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Military Contractors

NPR this morning had two stories (near the bottom of the page) about bad blood between US Army/Marines personnel, on one hand, and American private security personnel on the other. Last month, a group of private troops strayed into the wrong place at the wrong time, and were detained by regular Marines. These men report being kneed in the back, kicked in the balls, and abused by their Marine captors in numerous other ways both physical and verbal. (In its official denial of the story, a Marine spokesman said these Americans received the same humane and respectful treatment as all detainees in US custody--which made me laugh out loud.)

Obviously, these two groups are supposed to be on the same side, but communication and coordination are poor between the uniformed military and private forces. And it's not hard to see why a Marine would be resentful of the situation where private security guards receive 5 times the pay for work similar to what he (the Marine) is doing: roughly equal in status (these contractors aren't just doing laundry and serving meals, they are doing "mission-critical" work in many cases), and if anything probably lower in personal risk (which is a relative statement--no American in Iraq is safe).

The main source for the NPR story is an ex-Marine who left his job as a firefighter to go to Iraq in the employ of Zapata Engineering. He's completely upfront about his reasons for taking the job--$$$$--and he's retained a lawyer in the wake of his run-in with the Marines. The US government has banned him from further employment in Iraq. The Marines are flatly denying the charges these detainees are making, and Zapata flatly denies the military's claim that the Zapata guys fired on a military position first. This really doesn't sound, all in all, like a simple misunderstanding by like-minded people in fundamentally friendly organizations.

Chris Hedges, writing about our troops in Iraq:

The young soldiers, trained well enough to be disciplined but encouraged to maintain their naive adolescent belief in invulnerability, have in wartime more power at their fingertips than they will ever have again. They catapult from being minimum wage employees at places like Burger King, facing a life of dead-end jobs with little hope of health insurance and adequate benefits, to being part of, in the words of the Marines, "the greatest fighting force on the face of the earth." The disparity between what they were and what they have become is breathtaking and intoxicating.

The disparity recurs on the other end, when the soldiers muster out and return home to a mundane job with low pay and dim prospects. This Zapata employee was a firefighter, but it must not have paid a middle-class income, because he jumped at the chance to go to Iraq as a mercenary. I know the Army and Marines and National Guard are having terrible trouble meeting their recruitment quotas of 18-year-olds, but I bet that the private security firms have a lot less trouble hiring. There's the money, obviously, plus I believe there are plenty of 35-year-old former soldiers who are itching to get back in the action. Making an unscientific judgment from the military vets I've known, it seems that military service in the all-volunteer era creates a class of folks whose only skills are tough-guy skills. The only jobs they're qualified for, and the only jobs that stimulate them the way active military duty did, are jobs as police officers or firefighters.

And this has repercussions, incidentally, for the profession of law enforcement. Some young men today are advised that military service is the ONLY appropriate preparation for a job as a police officer. Again, I'm going on media images and my limited experience, but it seems domestic US law enforcement is much more military-like than it used to be. Cops don't wear neckties and brogans or carry nightsticks. They wear Kevlar and combat boots and carry M-16s.

As Matthew Yglesias observed recently in a completely different context, the wholesale replacement of government employees with contractors, ostensibly to reduce government and control expenses, is a ruse pioneered by Republican administrations and validated, unfortunately, by the Democrats under Clinton. Not only is the government not saving money this way, but they (the Republican-controlled Executive Branch) are rewarding a GOP-friendly company, and ensuring that some of the tax dollars going to fight the war, will ultimately flow into GOP campaign coffers.

I'm talking myself into being an advocate for a national-service draft. Be all you can be? Learn computers? My ass. When I think about it, the notion of the military as an avenue of upward mobility, or a place for young people to obtain marketable skills, is a bit troubling. De-professionalize and, by all means, de-privatize the military. (Reason # 103194 why I will never hear the words "Senator Dix.")

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Fathers' Day

I'm racing the clock to get this post up while it still IS Fathers' Day--

My oldest daughter (code name Xaviera) put on a Caitlin Cary CD in the car the other morning. I like C.C., though I suppose she's corny. She has this wise, maternal singing persona, and in some songs she's actually giving advice to a lovelorn friend. "What Will You Do" has her commiserating with the co-dependent wife or girlfriend of a self-destructive tortured artist type of man. Of course you love him, but he's a trainwreck and you need to protect yourself, is the gist of the song. Cary is not exactly the voice of Grrl Power, but she's not a doormat, either, and in the end she seems to land at an eyes-open, road-tested, jaded-but-hopeful appreciation of men. Can't live with him, can't live without him. That seems true and satisfying to me.

There's a classmate of Xaviera's, call her Charlotte, who carpools with us some mornings. Charlotte is painfully shy--some days we can hardly get a word out of her, and she misses school every now and then with headaches or stomachaches that seem anxiety-related (even her mother thinks so). Her parents are divorced, and her father is not a big part of her life. I'm not always sure whether being with our family adds to her anxiety or not. We're pretty boisterous, especially on the days when I drive the kids. I'm less organized, so there is more yelling "hurry up" and general display of bad temper. My car is smaller so the kids are more cramped. I have a CD player so there's likely to be loud rock music. I might steer with my knees for a moment while I drink coffee and fumble for a CD.

One day my middle girl Yolanda rolled down the car window and stuck her arm out while we were riding. Charlotte was alarmed ("Never stick your arm out like that!") and I said, a little sheepishly, "That's right, honey, not so far out," but the truth is I let stuff like that slide, much more than my wife does. So Charlotte doesn't bother to show alarm any more.

A kid needs a Dad to bend Mom's rules and let them stick an arm out the window occasionally.

(Before anyone makes any outraged comments or e-mails, I would like to hear you marshall some evidence, even anecdotal, of anybody losing an arm due to hanging it out the car window.)

It's odd that I choose Charlotte as the case that argues the value of a father, a masculine influence in a child's life--there's another boy we know, younger kid, who is the type that craves male attention and who, every time he sees me, attaches himself to me like a barnacle. Charlotte may very well not even like me. Yet I'm just cocky and reckless enough to think I'm the kind of influence Charlotte needs. Put it this way: If my influence doesn't kill her, it will make her stronger.

This is my reflection on fatherhood this year. My wife and I had a big fight over Christmas because I allowed one of the children to do something unsafe. I won't specify what it was--no harm was done, but I did make a big error in judgment. Hopefully I learned a lesson, but that continues to be the dynamic in our family: She will err on the side of overprotectiveness, I will err on the side of recklessness.

Yet kids' lives need a dose of physicality and recklessness and loudness and devil-may-care attitude.

Here's to you, Dads. You're the guy who lets them stick their arm out the car window. You're the guy who let them climb onto the porch roof. You're the guy who says with a chuckle that french fries can technically be considered a vegetable.

You're the guy. Don't go changin'. Listen to your wife, of course, but don't go changin'.

Aw crap. Fathers' Day plus one.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Who Died and Made You Elvis?

Hello. Just wanted to drop by and say that this is a good post by Amanda at Pandagon. The love of good music is a perfectly good foundation for patriotism.

If you're ever feeling disillusioned about your identity as an American (or as a red-stater relative to the blue states), think of the music. Jazz, blues, country, and rock are maybe America's greatest lasting legacy.

I have a friend and mentor who is a sociologist, but with a sense of humor, and he has some favorite jokes about the uses and misuses of social science and statistics. (He likes to tell about the man who drowned in a lake whose average depth was six inches.) I came across a funny statement a couple of days ago: if current trends continue, by the year 2019 one-third of the earth's population will be comprised of Elvis impersonators. Think about it: in 1954 there were no Elvis impersonators. Today there are tens of thousands. Sociology in action.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Now Reading

American Stories by Calvin Trillin. A collection of his New Yorker writings from the 1980s. Out of print, I see; I got it at Nice Price Books, a used book and CD store.

If you don't know, Calvin Trillin does human-interest stories, in the best possible sense. He writes a lot about food, and about travel in the U.S., and he's quite interested in murder, but when he writes abut murder (a few of these pieces are about murder cases, and the title of another of his collections, Killings , says it all) he does so without an iota of luridness. No hardened criminals, and few entirely-innocent victims, just workaday Americans whose lives took an unfathomable catastrophic turn, and Trillin dispassionately dissects each case to see how family or neighbors managed to rub each other so very wrong. Sometimes we never learn the culprit's identity, just about the atmosphere and chain of events that makes murder thinkable.

I enjoy the heck out of Trillin and gobbled up this book like candy. He's not flashy, but he picks great subjects (or at least, the right subjects for him) and as he explains in an afterword to this collection, he gives a lot of thought to the beginning, middle, and end of each story. Most of his subjects are little-known, but he has revealing takes on some quirky celebrities: Ben & Jerry of ice cream fame; the magicians Penn & Teller. (No murder cases in these.)

There's always a central turning point, delivered very drily and offhandedly, when a fairly humdrum bourgeois life turns weird. Trillin often writes in the first person, so his humdrum midwest-Bourgeois persona adds to the effect. In one story, Trillin has an old friend, an ex-preacher and longtime newspaper editorial writer, who decided to return to his hometown in Kentucky, to open a small dinner theatre and farm a bit, and how curious it was when a federal grand jury indicted him for growing marijuana. By this time we know Calvin Trillin--family man, bit of a nerd--and the thought of his being friends with a drug supplier is incongruous to say the least, but it opens us up to wanting to learn how one becomes a middle-aged ex-Baptist-preacher eastern Kentucky pot farmer.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Safe, comfortable, totally interchangeable

Here is the latest in the New York Times's Class Matters series. It's about "relos," corporate ladder climbers who bounce from job to job, area code to area code, subdivision to subdivision, every two to four years, never really putting down roots anywhere in particular. I think Peter Kilborn captures this milieu so well, I'm reminded of Ruth Shalit or Stephen Glass--I mean, some of these quotes are almost too good to be true.

I have a friend who fits the relo stereotype--six moves in 15 years, by my count. I sincerely admire the guy: he's a planner, a goal-setter, the most focused and successful person I know, on his own as well as society's terms. But "rootless" is an apt word. At times he seems like a human resume'. Like Mr. Relo of the NYT piece, he experienced a corporate merger, and not only survived (which is more than a lot of workers can say) but thrived in the aftermath. My friend is more attuned to corporate cultures than geographic ones: Chicago, Houston, Baltimore are pretty much the same to him.

Raleigh-Cary is a sweet spot for relos. We have the magic combination of good jobs, good schools, and reasonable housing prices. The problem with relos, though, is they're not citizens. They don't really live here, they're just touching down briefly on their marvelous life journey. They're most concerned with low taxes and the value of their house--the rest of the community be damned. These people shouldn't get a vote. The bit in the NYT story where Ms. Relo lobbies against school redistricting? She knows she may be leaving in a year, yet she wants to hoard the best schools for her family and their kind. She should butt the hell out.