Thursday, July 20, 2017

How to Win Friends and Influence People (or Not)

The story of Dale Carnegie is a remarkable one, and while I have no idea how many friends he had, I do know that he has influenced millions of people. His book How to Win Friends and Influence People was on the Library of Congress’s 2012 list of 88 “Books that Shaped America.”
Who was Dale Carnegie?
James and Amanda (Harbison) Carnagey were a poor farm couple who lived near Maryville, Missouri, when their second son was born in November 1888. They named their new baby Dale.
Several years after the family moved to near Warrensburg, Mo., Dale rode horseback daily to take classes at the State Teachers College (now University of Central Missouri). There he excelled in public speaking.
Leaving college without graduating, Carnegie first tried to make a living as a salesman. He later went to New York City where he became a success by conducting public speaking classes.
In 1916, after he had acquired an office in Carnegie Hall, he changed the spelling of the family name to Carnegie, perhaps to achieve some acclamation by association to Andrew Carnegie, although he was not related to him.
His book How to Win Friends and Influence People was published in 1936. It became the #1 non-fiction bestselling book in 1937—and was #6 the following year.
Carnegie died in November 1955 and is buried in Belton, Missouri.
Reading How to Win Friends
Although I hadn’t previously even set foot on campus, I arrived at, and enrolled in, Southwest Baptist College (now University) in Bolivar, Mo., the first week of September 1955.
The first few days of matriculation and whatever else we had to do were quite boring; I didn’t know a single person there except for the guy I met when I picked him up in the neighboring county the day we drove south across Missouri to get to Bolivar.
Sometime during that summer, I had heard about Carnegie’s book, so on one of those days waiting for classes to start, I went over to the library with the intention of checking it out.
The librarian and some student helpers were working on the card catalog files, so I was unable to look up the book. So I asked one of the guys working there if he could help me find Carnegie’s book.
I still remember my embarrassment when he called out in a loud voice to the others working around him, “Hey, here’s a freshman who wants to check out the book How to Win Friends and Influence People!
Well, I don’t remember getting the book then or when I read it for the first time. But I have re-read some of it this month and have found Carnegie’s main principles to be good and useful. (For a brief summary, click here.) 
How to Lose Friends and Influence People (the Wrong Way)
In contrast to Carnegie, it seems that DJT is quite adept in knowing how to lose friends and influence people the wrong way. One wonders how long this can go on.
In a tweet on July 1, he referred to “crazy Joe Scarborough and dumb as a rock Mika.” That was only two days after being chastised by even Republican Senators for the tweet in which he criticized “low I.Q. Crazy Mika” and “Psycho Joe,” adding that he refused to allow her to come to Mar-a-Lago because “she was bleeding badly from a face-lift”(which was not true, it seems.)
The first “principle” in Carnegie’s book is, “Don’t criticize, condemn or complain.” Maybe DJT needs a dose of Dale to improve his daily tweets.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Survival of the Fattest?

To a greater or lesser degree, most of you know something about the traditional Japanese sport known in the Western world as sumo wrestling. It is sometimes jokingly said that sumo is the sport which features the survival of the fattest.
Introduction to Sumo
Our family of four arrived in Japan on September 1, 1966, and lived for the first two years in Tokyo. Sometime during our second week there, I went to Akihabara, the well-known shopping center for household electronic goods, and bought a small black and white television set.
When I got home, we turned the new TV on to NHK, Japan's national public broadcasting channel (similar to BBC in Great Britain). It was late afternoon and the September sumo tournament was being telecast.
Having never seen sumo before, we were surprised, and fascinated, by what we saw. In just a few days we learned more about sumo from our fellow language school students and have been sumo fans ever since.
The Basics of Sumo
The rules of sumo are quite simple. Two rikishi (sumo wrestlers) face off with each other in the middle of a ring that is about 15 feet in diameter. When the bout starts, each tries to push the other out of the ring or to throw him down in the ring.
Sumo is not at all like Western-style wrestling, and there are no weight divisions. Naturally, those who are heaviest have an advantage—thus the tag “survival of the fattest”—although skillful movement and technique can be used well by the smaller rikishi.
“Smaller,” though, is a relative term. There are few rikishi who weigh less than 300 pounds.
There are six tournaments a year, each lasting 15 days. The one with the best won/lost record wins the championship. The minimal goal of each rikishi is achieving kachikoshi, more wins than losses during the tourney, making promotion likely.
The American Rikishi
Shortly before we arrived in Japan, Jesse Kuhaulua, a young Hawaiian rikishi had become the first American in the top sumo division. We enjoyed rooting for him during our first years as sumo fans.
On July 19, 1972, we returned to Japan after our first year of furlough in the States. We soon were happily informed by some of our missionary colleagues that Jesse had, amazingly, won the championship in the tournament that ended on July 16.
Jesse competed under the sumo name Takamiyama, and his victory was met with considerable consternation in Japan. This was the first time a “foreigner” had won the championship in the traditional Japanese sport. But it would not be the last.
Following Takamiyama were Konishiki, Akebono, and Musashimaru. Those three ended up winning 3, 11, and 12 championships, respectively.
Konishiki holds the record for being the heaviest rikishi ever: at his peak he weighed over 630 pounds. Akebono was the tallest (at 6 feet 8 inches) and second heaviest (at over 550 pounds).
Konishiki (1991)
Even though I had seen them repeatedly on television, when I first met Konishiki and, later, Akebono, I was overwhelmed at the former’s massiveness and the latter’s height and size. 
The Mongolian Rikishi
In recent years, the sumo world in Japan has been dominated by wrestlers from Mongolia. Three of the current yokozuna (grand champions) are Mongolian, and Hakuhō, one of the three, has become one of the most successful rikishi of all times—even though he weighs a “mere” 340 pounds. 
Much to the relief of most Japanese, in January of this year Kisenosato, a Japanese rikishi, was promoted to yokozuna—for the first time since 1998. Weighing almost 390 pounds, it remains to be seen how long he will survive with the lighter, and more skillful, Mongolian yokozuna.
At the suggestion of my son (thanks, Keith!), I am adding this link to a two-minute YouTube video explaining sumo and showing some actual action in the ring.

Monday, July 10, 2017

What about Penal Substitutionary Atonement?

There will be decidedly different reactions to the main topic of this article. Some readers no doubt think that the Christian doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is of utmost importance. Others, however, think that such a doctrine is wrongheaded and should be opposed. So, which side is right?
The Emphasis on PSA
The emphasis on penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) has been prominent in Protestant theology for nearly 500 years now. That theory of the atonement, however, has come under more and more scrutiny in recent decades
Some Protestants even reject the idea of PSA. Wm. Paul Young, about whom I wrote in my June 25 blog article (see here), is just one such person.
Because of the growing opposition to the idea of PSA, last month the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution affirming “the truthfulness, efficacy, and beauty of the biblical doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement as the burning core of the Gospel message and the only hope of a fallen race.”
That strong emphasis on PSA probably expresses the position of the majority of conservative evangelical Christians.
But other Christians disagree.
Questioning PSA
In addition to Young’s contention that the core element of PSA might be thought of as a “lie” believed about God, there are contemporary theologians who seriously question the PSA on biblical and theological grounds.
Of many who might be cited, let me mention only two Mennonite theologians: J. Denny Weaver and Ted Grimsrud. Weaver (b. 1941) is now Professor Emeritus of Religion at Bluffington University. He is the author of two important books about the atonement: The Nonviolent Atonement (2nd ed., 2011) and, secondarily, The Nonviolent God (2013).
Grimsrud (b. 1954) served as a professor of theology at Eastern Mennonite University until his early retirement in 2016. He is the author of Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (2013).
Both of these theologians reject the traditional doctrine of PSA, emphasizing that violent retribution, such as by Jesus’ crucifixion, was not necessary in order for humans to be saved from God’s wrath. Rather, because of God’s unfathomable love and mercy God has always been able to forgive sin and to restore sinners who seek forgiveness.
An Alternative to PSA
In 1967 when I was still in Japanese language school, I read Interpreting the Atonement, a new book by Dr. Robert H. Culpepper, my missionary sempai (older colleague).
After reading the book, I wrote two typewritten pages (which I still have) of reflections and questions. The main question I raised was about the necessity of penal substitutionary atonement, although I didn’t use those exact words.
Bob, as I came to know him, wrote a good and helpful book, but even then I was drawn primarily to the subjective, rather than an objective, view of the atonement.
An objective view of the atonement means that something had to be done, in history, in order for God to be able to forgive sinful humans. Sin had to be punished. The “something” done was the crucifixion of Christ, who became the substitute for sinful humankind.
The subjective view posits the need for repentance but sees no objective, historical event as necessary for God to be able to forgive sinful humans. God is seen as all-merciful, all-loving, and always ready to forgive repentant persons.
According to this latter view, the prodigal son’s father can be seen as depicting the true nature of God. Restoration with a wayward child is dependent only on that child's repentance and returning home. No violent sacrifice is necessary.
Reflect deeply on this point as you look at the following detail of Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son.”  

Wednesday, July 5, 2017


Yesterday the United States of America celebrated its 241st birthday. This article, though, is about the motto of a country that will celebrate its 54th independence day later this year. That country is Kenya, the east African nation whose motto is Harambee.
The Meaning of Harambee
Harambee is a Swahili word that basically means “all pull together.” It is a term/concept emphasized by Jomo Kenyatta, who became the first president of the Republic of Kenya. Harambee! is the title of a book of his 1963-64 speeches.
Kenyatta (1891-1978) declared in one of his June 1963 speeches, “I therefore give you the call: HARAMBEE! Let us all work hard together for our country, Kenya.”
Wikipedia says that harambee is "a Kenyan tradition of community self-help events, e.g. fundraising or development activities.” That article goes on to say that Kenyatta “adopted Harambee as a concept of pulling the country together to build a new nation. He encouraged communities to work together to raise funds for all sorts of local projects.” 
(Kenyan Coat of Arms)
The Use of Harambee
In addition to being widely used in Kenya—such as “Harambee Stars” for the nickname of the national football (soccer) team and as “Harambee for Kenya” for the name of an organization founded in 1998 to help street children—the name/term is also used some in the U.S.
For example, in the 1980s the name of historic Franklin Park (named after Benjamin Franklin) in Boston was changed to Harambee Park, and Harambee is now the name of a section in the city of Milwaukee. Also, in St. Louis there is a Harambee Youth Training program (see here).
The first time I remember hearing the word harambee was in connection with Freedom School at Rainbow Mennonite Church (RMC). Every summer since 2007 RMC has hosted a six-week, full-day summer enrichment program for 100 children in grades K-8.
This year the name has been changed to Rainbow Summer Program, but the daily program still begins with “Harambee,” a time of “cheers and chants.” On June 11 there was a Harambee time as part of the Sunday morning worship service at RMC.
Last year the Freedom School participants were only 11% African-American, but the 10% who were Caucasian, the 73% who were Hispanic, and the others heartily participated in the daily Harambee activities.
Everyone pulling together is a good emphasis regardless of race or ethnicity.
Problems with Harambee
Since harambee was originally a Kenyan term and concept, I recently read a JL book by Jim Corrigan titled just Kenya (2005). On pages 30-31 there are two long paragraphs about harambee.
Corrigan writes that rather than the government providing much in the way of social services, Kenyans mainly “rely on their families and a longstanding tradition known as harambee.”
In spite of President Kenyatta’s emphasis on harambee, though, there is considerable criticism of it. According to Corrigan, “The critics argue . . . that precious financial resources could be spent more efficiently if they were overseen at a national level, rather than through hundreds of individual, uncoordinated projects.”
Pulling together in the spirit of harambee is certainly commendable on the local level. But trying to take care of all the social/educational needs of an entire nation by means of harambee seems quite problematic.
Surely the needs of Kenyans could be taken care of better by national programs implemented for all citizens rather than through local harambee activities that vary from place to place depending on the presence and choices of the wealthy.
Isn’t this also true for the U.S.? Why shouldn’t it be possible for the needs of people in all states and communities to profit more from nationwide programs—such as for healthcare—rather than varying from state to state?

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Joy of Turning 80

As hard as it is to believe, my dear wife June celebrates her 80th birthday today. In that connection I thought about writing an article titled “Life Begins at 80”—but that seems to be pushing it.
Why Is It a Joy to Turn 80?
June Tinsley Seat (6/28/17)
When I mentioned this title to June, she was not overly impressed—and she reminded me that I was not there yet—which is true: she is 411 days older than I. Still, as fast as time passes I’ll be celebrating my 80th before long.
Why is it a joy? she asked. Even though it is somewhat of a cliché, I replied, Well, it is a joy compared with the only possible alternative.
It is certainly true that some people dearest to June didn’t even come close to celebrating their 80th birthday. Her own father died at the age of 47. June’s idolized maternal grandmother died in 1926 at the very young age of 41.
While June had other close relatives who lived to 80 and well beyond—her mother lived to 93—it is a blessing for her to turn 80 when so many others did not make it to that age. 
Things that Make for Joy
There are several factors that make June’s turning 80 a special joy, both to her and to me. Let me list a few.
1) She is in good health. That is mainly because, I think, that through the decades she has observed good health habits, such as keeping her weight down and exercising regularly.
2) She has maintained a very good relationship with her children and grandchildren through the years—and there are a lot of years! In June’s case she has been a mother for more than 208½ years and a grandmother for more than 136½ years (figured by adding how long she has been a mother and grandmother for each of her four children and seven grandchildren.)
3) She has kept her commitments and has bloomed where she was planted. One commitment was her marriage vows to me—and I appreciate her putting up with me for more than 721 months now. And in spite of struggles of the language and the challenge of rearing children overseas and of being separated from them when they returned to the U.S. for college, she has made the most of her 38 years in Japan and then for the last 13 years back here in the States.
All the above means that she has basically lived a life without regrets, and for any of us that is of utmost importance.
“Live your life so that at the end of it you’ll have no regrets” is a piece of advice that is sometimes given to young people. Whether anyone said those words to June or not—and she certainly is not at the end yet—that, I believe, is the way she has lived in the more than 62 years I have known her.
That is a large part of the joy she has now in turning 80.
What about You?
A few of my regular blog readers have already turned 80. Most haven’t.
So, to all of you who are about my age and will soon celebrate your 80th birthday like June does today, and especially to all of you who are younger—especially much younger—I encourage you to take care of your health, your relationships, and your commitments.
Most importantly, live your life so that when (or if) you turn 80 you’ll have the joy of celebrating that milestone with few regrets.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Lies We Believe about God

Lies My Teacher Told Me (1995) by James W. Loewen is an interesting and important book. Following that lead, a few years ago I did some preliminary work on a book titled Lies My Preacher Told Me. It could have been a good book—but, alas, I didn’t get it written. Earlier this year, however, Wm. Paul Young has published a somewhat related book, Lies We Believe about God.
Young’s Theology
As most of you remember, Young is the author of the bestselling novel The Shack (2007), which I wrote about in a blog article posted on March 5. (There were more pageviews than usual on that post.)
Young also wrote the fantasy novel Eve (2015). (My May 5 article on that book got fewer pageviews than usual.)
This piece is about Young’s new book, which is not a novel but a theological reflection about God. In it, Young deals with 28 different “lies” that he thinks many people believe about God.
Young also wrote the Foreword for Richard Rohr’s new book The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation (2016). Among other things, Young graphically averred, 
Bad theology is like pornography—the imagination of a real relationship without the risk of one. It tends to be transactional and propositional rather than relational and mysterious. You don’t have to trust Person, or care for Person. It becomes an exercise in self-gratification that ultimately dehumanizes the self and the community of humanity in order to avoid the painful processes of humbling and trusting. Bad theology is not a victimless crime. It dehumanizes God and turns the wonder and the messy mystery of intimate relationship into a centerfold to be used and discarded.
Young thinks that many popular ideas about God are pornographic, in the way he just expressed. Those ideas express bad theology, for they are lies believed about God. So he sets out to state good/correct theological statements about God.
For the most part, I think Young did a commendable job. Naturally, there are some who disagree—and the more conservative/traditional a person is, the more they will likely disagree with Young’s theology.
Young’s Perceived Lies about God
In general, Young says that all ideas about God that depict God as in any way vengeful or vindictive are not true. All views about God that fail to embrace God’s grace, God’s unconditional love and acceptance of all people, are “lies” about God.
Further, all statements that exclude people from God’s embrace or locate them outside the reach of God’s forgiveness are also seen as lies.
“Every human being you meet, interact with, react and respond to, treat rudely or with kindness and mercy: every one is a child of God,” says Young (on p. 206).
Conservative Christians do not like Young’s emphases for two main reasons: they appear to be universalistic (everyone is forgiven/”saved”) and they deny the idea of the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ.
According to Young, God does not need to be appeased. God’s wrath does not need to be assuaged. God’s righteousness does not need to be “satisfied.”
Is “Penal Substitutionary Atonement” a Lie about God?
The annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention was held earlier this month. As always, there were several resolutions deliberated and passed at that meeting. One was titled “On the Necessity of Penal Substitutionary Atonement.”
In a news article about that resolution, Bob Allen of Baptist News Global mentioned Young’s criticism of that penal substitutionary theory of atonement. As noted above, Young thinks it is one of the lies believed about God.
Is he right?
Let’s think more about that important issue soon.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A Loving Relationship

As many of you know, June and I married 60 years ago, in May 1957. But another young couple who were very much in love at that time couldn’t be legally married in Virginia where they lived, for they were of different races. The law against miscegenation was finally struck down 45 years ago this month.
Meet Richard and Mildred
Richard Loving (1933-75) and Mildred Jeter (1939-2008) grew up in Center Point, a small village in Caroline County on the eastern side of Virginia.
Richard was white and Mildred was of mixed race: African-American and American Indian. In Center Point the three prevalent racial/ethnic groups socialized freely, very different from the county and the state as a whole.
Their story is told in one of 2016’s top movies, the historical drama film “Loving.” Ruth Negga, an Ethiopian-born Irish actress, won an Oscar nomination for her sparkling performance as Mildred. June and I greatly enjoyed watching the movie in April, soon after it came out on DVD.
Then, earlier this year Loving vs. Virginia, a “documentary novel” by Patricia Hruby Powell, was published, primarily for high school students. I found it to be a delightful read. Powell’s story starts in the fall of 1952 and ends in the summer of 1967. Here is a picture of Richard and Mildred in 1967:
Richard and Mildred’s Marriage
Since they grew up in the same community, Richard and Mildred knew each other earlier, but their romantic relationship seems to have started in October 1955, about the same time June and I started dating. But they had to face issues we didn’t. For example, a couple of months later when they drove to a nearby town to see a movie, they had to go up to the dirty balcony, for that was the only place where “coloreds” were allowed.
By September 1956, when June and I were engaged, Mildred realizes she was pregnant—but marriage was not an option for them in Virginia. In January 1957 their baby was born—and Lola Loving, Richard’s mother, was the midwife who delivered her own grandchild. 
The next year the couple finally went to Washington, D.C., to be legally married there on June 2, 1958. (Marriage between blacks and whites had long been legal in D.C.; two years after his first wife died, Frederick Douglass legally married a white woman there in 1884.)
Richard and Mildred’s Troubles
Five weeks after their marriage, Richard and Mildred were staying with her parents. At 3 a.m. the Caroline County sheriff broke into the bedroom where they were sleeping and arrested them. This was the beginning of jail time, trials, and their “exile” to D.C.
In the summer of 1963, the summer when MLK, Jr., publically orated about his dream, Mildred Loving also had a dream. She deeply desired for her marriage to be legally recognized in Virginia, for she was tired of living in the city and dreamed of going back home to Center Point.
So, Mildred boldly wrote Bobby Kennedy, who was then the U.S. Attorney General. Kennedy’s office recommended that she contact the ACLU—which she did. Two young lawyers, Bernard Cohen and Philip Hirschkop, took the Lovings’ case.
Even though they were still in their 20s, the lawyers took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously in favor of the Lovings on June 12, 1967.

From the mid-1950s until his tragic death in a car accident caused by a drunken driver, Richard and Mildred seem to have had a very loving relationship (pun intended). And they paved the way for other people in love to be able to marry legally in spite of racial differences.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Burning Bernie

Last week Sen. Bernie Sanders made some strong statements about Pres. Trump’s nominee for Deputy Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. Sanders has been severely criticized for those utterances, even by some who are not Republicans or conservative evangelicals.
Bernie’s Statements
Russell Vought, Trump’s nominee, appeared before the Senate Budget Committee on June 8. There he was subjected to stiff questioning by Sen. Sanders. At issue was what Vought had written last year in support of Wheaton College’s decision to fire Larycia Hawkins, a tenured professor.
As you may remember, Hawkins was terminated over the controversy sparked by her donning a hijab in a gesture of solidarity with Muslims in the U.S. She also declared that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.”
In defending Wheaton’s action, Vought wrote that Hawkins’s views were mistaken. “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology, they do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned,” he asserted.
In response to those remarks, Sanders declared that what Vought wrote was “hateful,” “Islamaphobic,” and “an insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world.”
He went on to say that Vought “is not someone who is what this country is supposed to be about.” Further, “This country since its inception has struggled, sometimes with great pain, to overcome discrimination of all forms, whether it is racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and Islamaphobia.”
He added, “Over the years we have made progress to becoming a less discriminatory and more tolerant society, and we must not go backwards.”  
Burning Bernie
As might be expected, Sen. Sanders was widely attacked from the religious right. Some called him bigoted against evangelical Christians.
I was surprised that even some moderate Christians were also quite critical of Bernie. For example, Amanda Tyler, the new Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), wrote critically of Sanders on June 9 (here).
Tyler averred that “Sanders’ line of questioning imposed a religious test, which is forbidden by Article VI of the Constitution.”
Michael Gerson wrote along the same lines in a June 12 op-ed piece in the Washington Post.
Agreeing with Bernie
As you might guess, there were also some who wrote in support of Sanders’ position. Here is the link to one such well-written piece, and I basically agree with it.
While I am a strong supporter of religious liberty and usually agree with the BJC, I think their (Tyler’s) criticism of Bernie missed the point.
What Vought said about Muslims, of course, he could also have said about Jews, or Buddhists—or about the large percentage of the population who do not profess faith in any religion. As a private citizen he has every right to hold to his religious convictions.
Is it not a problem, though, when people in public office openly state that everyone who has other, or no, religious beliefs is “condemned”? While personal beliefs can perhaps be intolerant, the stance of public officials must be for tolerance of people of all faiths. That, I think, was Bernie’s point.
Moreover, what Article VI of the Constitution says is that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” It doesn’t say that people can or should never be disqualified because of their religious beliefs.
Some people in the past held strong religious beliefs about the validity of slavery or of polygamy, and more recently some have held religious beliefs that condemn LGBT people. While such people have the freedom to hold such beliefs, should they be in public office?
Probably not. 

Saturday, June 10, 2017


Reinhold (“Reinie”) Niebuhr was born 125 years ago, on June 21, 1892. His picture was on the cover of the March 8, 1948, issue of Time magazine, their 25th anniversary issue. His last major book was published in 1952 and he died in 1971. But in just the last week he has been prominently mentioned in an article in The New Yorker (here), and the major subject in some religious publications (such as here and here).
I used to tell my Introduction to Theology students in Japan that Reinhold Niebuhr was the greatest theologian born in Missouri. (They knew that I was from Missouri.) That, I believe, is manifestly true still today.
Son of a German Evangelical Synod pastor, Reinie, as he was called by his friends, went to college and seminary in Missouri and Illinois and then earned B.D. and M.A. degrees at Yale Divinity School. But he became a pastor at an early age and never completed doctoral studies.
After thirteen formative years (1915-28) as pastor of the Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit, Niebuhr was elected to the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York. He taught Christian social ethics until his retirement in 1960.
Niebuhr lectured and preached widely and wrote profusely. He gained prominence in the theological world with the publishing of his Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics in 1932.
In 1939 Niebuhr delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. Those lectures were the basis of his most important book, two volumes published under the title The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941, 1943).
Reinie died three weeks before his 79th birthday (just about the same exact age that I am now). 
Although educated in liberal schools, Niebuhr became an outspoken critic of theological liberalism. (I referred to that criticism in my book The Limits of Liberalism; see especially pages 27-28). Thus, he became one of the most important proponents of what has usually been called neo-orthodox theology.
Niebuhr’s influence, however, extended far beyond the world of theology. With his distinctive emphasis on “Christian realism,” he created waves in the secular world as well.
Reinie was criticized from various sides. As his early biographer Jane Bingham wrote in Courage to Change (1961), “. . . if his ideas were too orthodox for the liberals, they were too liberal for the orthodox; and if too secular for the religious, they were too religious for the secular” (pp. 44-45).
But Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has stated quite accurately (in this 2005 article) that Niebuhr was “the most influential American theologian of the 20th century.” And his influence was and is particularly notable in the world of politics.
Through the years Niebuhr has been highly evaluated by many in that world, including President Carter and President Obama—and James Comey.
Two days ago (June 8) was widely designated as “Comey Day.” Former, and fired, FBI Director James Comey spent hours that day testifying before both open and closed sessions of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Recent background stories about Comey have reported that his senior graduating thesis at College of William and Mary (in 1982) contrasted Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell.
Niebuhr’s influence on Comey was/is also seen when a sleuth discovered that “Reinhold Niebuhr” was the name of Comey’s secret Twitter account.
One of Niebuhr’s central points may be particularly related to Comey’s statement about DJT being a liar. Niebuhr wrote much and convincingly about sin and emphasized, as one author succinctly stated (p. 89 in this book), “Dishonesty is sin’s final expression.”
This is a good time to remember Reinie and the relevant things he wrote.
NEW MOVIE/BOOK ABOUT NIEBUHR – In March of this year, “American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story,” a new documentary film was released on DVD. Jeremy L. Sabella’s book with the same name was also published in March. (June 10, 8:30 p.m. -- After posting this article early this morning, June and I were able to watch the documentary this evening, streamed from our local PBS channel. It was excellently done and I highly recommend it.)

Monday, June 5, 2017

Political Cartoons: Helpful or Harmful?

Political cartoons have had a long and venerable history in the U.S.—but are they helpful for spurring private thought and civil public debate, or are they divisive and promoters of increased polarization in society?

     I have long enjoyed political cartoons. During the nearly seven years we lived in Kentucky, June and I enjoyed a great many of Hugh Haynie’s cartoons that appeared regularly in Louisville’s daily newspaper.
   Haynie (1927-99) drew for The Courier-Journal from 1958 to1996. Here is one of his cartoons, showing LBJ’s opposition to the media:  
     After settling into our retirement home in Missouri in 2005, we have regularly enjoyed great cartoons by Lee Judge in the Kansas City Star. Here is one of his cartoons from 2014.  
     In recent years I have also regularly read the Washington Post online and have enjoyed the outstanding political cartoons of Tom Toles. Here is one of my favorites: 
     And here is a rather powerful cartoon that I saw just last week in the National Catholic Reporter; it is by Stuart Carlson, a cartoonist I don’t remember seeing before: 
     If a picture is worth a thousand words, as it is often said, a political cartoon (with just a few words) must be worth at least two thousand words—or more.

     Thomas Nast (1840-1902) was one of the first and most influential political cartoonists in the United States. Recently I have read some of two fascinating books about him: Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons (2013) by Fiona Deans Halloran and Thomas Nast: America’s Greatest Political Cartoonist (2014) by Jay G. Williams. 
      I first became aware of Nast years ago when working on a talk or article about Santa Claus. Beginning in the 1860s, Nast’s cartoons about Santa shaped the nation’s image of the “jolly old elf.” 
     Nast is also credited for being the first to use an elephant to portray the Republican Party, and he also popularized the donkey (or jackass) to symbolize the Democratic Party. 
     Through the years Nast’s cartoons appeared mostly in Harper’s Weekly, which in 1861 had a readership of 120,000 and remained above 100,000 throughout the war years. 
     It was during the Civil War that Nast’s cartoons were especially influential. On September 3, 1864, his cartoon “Compromise with the South” appeared in Harper’s Weekly
      As noted in, Nast’s message is clear: “If compromise with the Confederacy is pursued, then Union servicemen will have sacrificed their limbs and lives in vain, and black Americans will be returned to slavery.” 
     Many of Nast’s cartoons in later years were strongly against politicians he opposed. Many were so strong it some people even thought that the word nasty was derived from the name of the hard-hitting cartoonist. 
    Some of his most severe criticism targeted “Boss” Tweed of New York. Regarding Nast’s cartoons, Tweed reportedly said, “Stop them damned pictures. I don't care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures!” 

     Interesting as they may be, I wonder if political cartoons may often be harmful to civil public discourse. We tend to like those cartoons with which we agree and dislike those with which we disagree. Thus, I like most of Judge’s and Toles’s cartoons, but very much dislike most of those (few) I see by Glenn McCoy, such as: 
     So, are political cartoons generally helpful as a means of spurring deeper thought and civil public debate—or are they mainly harmful, promoting greater divisiveness and polarization? 
     What do you think?

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

What about the Benedict Option?

Have you heard of “the Benedict Option”? It has been emphasized for years by Rod Dreher, and his new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, was just published on March 14. On that very day, David Brooks wrote in the New York Times that Dreher’s work was “already the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.”

     Rod Dreher (b. 1967) is an interesting guy. He is a senior editor and prolific blogger at The American Conservative (TAC), a bi-monthly journal co-founded by Pat Buchanan. According to their website, Dreher is one of eight, all white men, on the TAC “team.”

Dreher was raised as a nominal Methodist, but he converted to Catholicism at age 26. In 2006 he converted again, this time to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. His views on Christianity are as conservative as his social and political views.

Although his only university degree is a BA in journalism (from LSU in his home state of Louisiana), Dreher seems to be well-read. His emphasis on the Benedict Option (BenOp) comes from Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s influential book After Virtue (1981).

To a large extent, Dreher seems to be a pessimist—or an alarmist. For example, he thinks the world now is “growing ever more hostile” toward true Christians (p. 2). “Progressives, he writes, “sneer at claims of anti-Christian discrimination or persecution.” But, he warns his readers, “Don’t you believe them” (p. 179). 
     Dreher’s main point is fairly simple: Christians who wish to maintain their faith (and that of their children) must separate from mainstream society and try to live in intentional communities—although not necessarily “in the hills.” This is not just for their own sake, but also for the future of the Christian faith.

Benedict of Nursia (480-547), for whom the BenOp is named, is known as the father of medieval monasticism, which, in turn, has been heralded as the “preserver of Western civilization.” If not completely in the same way, Dreher is calling Christians today to the same task: withdrawal from the dominant culture in order to help preserve traditional Christianity.

As a true conservative, in the primary sense of that term, Dreher sees the BenOp as a needed strategy for conserving or preserving the true faith, keeping it from not only from being swallowed up by secular society but also from being perverted by liberal “Christians.”

     I first became aware of the BenOp when I read the Winter 2017 issue of Plough, the quarterly publication of the Bruderhof. (See here for what I wrote about Plough elsewhere.) I was both attracted and repelled by what I read.

As a committed Anabaptist Christian, I agree with Ted Grimsrud, a notable Mennonite theologian, who wrote a long (29 pages!) four-part blog article about the BenOp: “I believe that Christians should always think in terms of living in countercultural communities and having a countercultural sensibility.

I also agree with Dreher’s strong rejection of the consumerism and hedonism rampant in Western society.

My main disagreement, though, is with regard to what he says about gay rights. Throughout much of the book (e.g., see pp. 179ff.) Dreher seems to assert that being Christian clearly means being anti-gay.

According to Dreher’s analysis, the present discrimination against or persecution of Christians—harsh treatment most likely to grow stronger in the future—is (or will be) primarily because of their refusal to countenance the full equality of gays/lesbians in society.

This aspect of the Benedict Option, however, which denies some people’s civil rights, is certainly neither good nor necessary.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

A Night at the Elms

The Elms Hotel and Spa in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, is about sixteen miles from where June and I live. Many times we have driven by the Elms but have never stayed there. That will soon change: we are about to spend a night at the Elms as so many others have over the past 130 years.
The presidential election of 1948 was long ago, but it is still one that is widely known. Upon Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, Vice President Harry Truman suddenly became the 33rd POTUS. He was relatively unknown when elected as V.P. and was quite unpopular during his first term.
Even though the incumbent, he was the definite underdog in 1948. It widely thought he would lose that election to Thomas Dewey, the flashy New York Governor.
According to David McCullough in his massive book Truman (1992), on the evening of the 1948 election, Truman and two of his aides “drove to Excelsior Springs, the little resort town across the Missouri [River] in Clay County, and checked into the Elms Hotel.”
This was “the same place Truman had escaped to sixteen years earlier, crushed by disappointment the night he learned he was not to be Tom Pendergast’s choice for governor.”
McCullough goes on to say,
The sprawling three-story stone-and-timber hotel was the latest of several that had occupied the site since mineral springs were discovered there in the 1880s. Its chief attractions were seclusion, peace, and quiet. Franklin Roosevelt, John D. Rockefeller, and Al Capone were all known to have escaped from public view at the Elms (p. 705).
It was while at the Elms that Truman learned he had won the election. The next day he posed for the iconic picture of him smiling broadly while holding the Chicago Tribune paper boldly declaring “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
In the 1870s and 1880s there was a boom of resorts built to make it possible for people to “take the waters,” drinking and bathing in mineral water that supposedly had healing powers. Such resorts were built all over Missouri as well as in many other states.
Loring Bullard’s book Healing Waters: Missouri’s Historic Mineral Springs and Spas was published in 2004. “By all standards,” Bullard writes, “Excelsior Springs must be considered the state’s premier mineral water resort.” He goes on to say that “it is the only mineral water site still operating as a resort” (p. 133). And that is because of the Elms Hotel and Spa.
Excelsior Springs, now a town of some 11,500 people, has long billed itself as “American’s Haven of Health.” It became a town in 1881, a year following the discovery of natural spring water that was thought to have healing qualities.
The first Elms Hotel opened for business in 1888. After being destroyed by fire five years later, the second Elms Hotel was opened in 1909—only to be destroyed by fire the very next year. The current Elms hotel was built of native stone and opened in 1912—and has undergone many renovations since then.   
For June and me, tomorrow (May 26) is our 60th sixtieth wedding anniversary. We are going to have a bigger celebration with our children and grandchildren in July. Just the two of us, though, are going to celebrate the actual date by spending a night at the Elms.
I don’t know how much we will “take the waters” at the Elms, but perhaps we will be able to reap some benefit there as we shoot for our 75th anniversary. (Is that too much for us to hope for, an anniversary celebration in 2032?)

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Honoring COs

Although largely unknown, May 15 each year is observed by some people/groups as International Conscientious Objectors Day (CO Day). So, this past Monday was a day honoring those who have resisted and those who continue to resist war.
The oldest consistent emphasis upon pacifism, non-violence, and non-participation in war is in the Anabaptist tradition, which started with the “Swiss Brethren” of Zurich, Switzerland, in 1525.
That tradition has been carried on mostly by the Mennonites, the followers of Menno Simons. He was a Dutch priest who was re-baptized and left the Catholic Church in 1536. Even a few years earlier Jakob Hutter became the leader of a smaller group that came to be known as the Hutterites.
In the late 1600s, Jakob Amman led a conservative breakaway from the main Anabaptist communities in Europe, and his followers came to be known as the Amish.
One primary commonality among these three groups was/is their pacifism and resistance to violence, based on their commitment to love of enemies as Jesus commanded. Through the years adherents in all three groups have known the story of Dirk Willems, who was imprisoned in the Netherlands for his Anabaptist beliefs.
During that winter, Willems was able to escape—but his absence was soon discovered and he was quickly chased by a guard. Willems ran across the frozen moat, but his heavier pursuer broke through the ice. Willems turned back and saved the man’s life—but then was re-captured. On May 16, 1569, he was burned at the stake. 

Even though there was a long history of pacifism among Anabaptist Christians, there was no provision for conscientious objectors during World War I. As a result, two Hutterites who were committed to absolute pacifism became martyrs in 1918. (If you don’t know their tragic story, or would like to review it, click here to see my 11/30/14 blog article about them.)
Since 1935, three church groups have been termed historic peace churches. Those three are the Mennonites (including the Amish), the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and Church of the Brethren. During World War II, and since, members of those churches have been able to register as conscientious objectors and to be exempted from direct involvement in wartime violence.
It has not been so easy for people who were not members of a historic peace church or who objected only to a specific war—such as the war in Vietnam. (For more about this matter, see here for Thinking Friend Tom Nowlin’s lengthy and informative comments on my May 10 blog article.)
Conscientious objectors (COs) have been active in countries other than the U.S. In fact, Peace Pledge Union (see here), a secular British group, and War Resisters International (click here) are leaders in the observance of International Conscientious Objectors Day.
This CO declaration appears on the latter’s website:
'War is a crime against humanity. I am therefore determined not to support any kind of war, and to strive for the removal of all causes of war'.
That is the sentiment behind the CO tradition—and it will continue to be emphasized this year.
On October 19-22, 2017, there will be a symposium on resistance and conscientious objection during WWI at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. The theme is “Remembering Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance and Civil Liberties in World War I Through Today.” (For more information, click here.)
My church (Rainbow Mennonite Church) is supporting that symposium and will be displaying in our fellowship hall some of the materials from the symposium for a few days following its completion.