Archive - August, 2005

Individual Credit and Public Policy

In the third part of a three-part series on
personal debt Associate Press, Yuri Kageyama compares American attitudes to
personal debt to Japanese.

The “American
dream” emphasizes
entrepreneurialism,
while the Japanese
equivalent stresses
stability and lifelong
employment with
a single company.
–The Associated
Press

The Japanese are so averse to credit they don’t use credit cards and they hoard cash, according to an article by Associated Press writer, Yuri Kageyama. Wrapping up a three-part series, Kageyama attributes Japanese attitudes to a 700-year-old culture based upon a cash economy.

Kageyama points out that several important factors produce this result. First, the culture has consistently supported individual saving. This reinforcement has created a cash economy so strong that people don’t even use checks.

A second factor is the emphasis on long-term stability. More than one person interviewed spoke of saving to buy things. This long-term view implies a sense of security that puts a great deal of trust in the future.

A third important factor is public policy. Japanese public policy favors big business and doesn’t provide tax breaks for personal loans for housing as U.S. policy. Kageyama writes that this has resulted in loan sharking among some in the society, a negative effect, obviously.

In summary, this series points to individual responsibility, cultural reinforcement and public policy contributing to greater indebtedness, as in the U.S., or personal saving, as in Japan. It raises for me a challenge to the church to assist people to get control of their finances through supportive relationships, financial training, counseling, Bible study and spiritual support. Helping people to find stability and balance in their personal lives is key to helping them gain control of their financial circumstances. This is especially important for the church because the wider culture promotes credit-buying. It’s too easy for people to get in over their heads and drown in credit card debt.

The AP series presents a balanced picture, but it also notes that the U.S. consumer, and the whole economy, is skating on a credit surfboard that could end in disaster. I conclude these posts with the thought with which I began. This is a spiritual problem. It is rooted in our understanding of ourselves as persons of worth because we are created by a loving God and our lives are meaningful regardless of our economic circumstances. The church was once a haven for the poor who were rejected by the world. Today, the church must be a haven for all persons, rich and poor alike, whose experience of the world is one of insecurity and a false promise of fulfillment through consumption. The church must be, as it has always been, the redemptive community.

In Katrina’s Aftermath

Watching the heroic rescues in the aftermath
of Katrina is awe-inspiring.

All else pales as the images of Katrina’s aftermath come to us. Human suffering contrasts with heroism. We are haunted by the unknown, and the known. I’m thinking of friends along the Gulf Coast whom we haven’t heard from yet. I was with them only days ago. The unknown.

We see people sitting on their rooves, praying to be rescued. We hear Jeanne Meserve’s voice crack on CNN as she speaks of people unreachable to rescuers calling for help in the darkness. We see housetops seemingly floating in the murky water but, in fact, they are whole neighborhoods under water. The known.

In disasters our humanity is laid bare. Faces reveal shock, grief, bewilderment, and joy in surviving. Every survivor has a story. They are heartbreaking and heartwarming.

Life is utterly disrupted, turned upside down. The rhythm of city, town and home, virtually torn asunder. Tragedy puts life in perspective. In the face of the power of nature, we realize how fragile life can be. And we also realize we cannot live in isolation. We need each other.

We are most fully human when we share burdens and provide life-saving help. We say catastrophes like this bring out the best in us, as if we understand we are created by God to show compassion, to care, to reach out to one another. In this, even now, we can take hope.

We see, and thank God for, those in public service who are trained to carry out life-saving tasks–police, fire, emergency medical technicians, nurses, doctors, pilots–a host of others who risk their own lives that others may live. They, and those who will volunteer and serve in unseen ways just because they care, become the embodiment of community in times like this.

For them, for those left homeless, wounded and bereft, we pray, and more. We search for God.

We speak of natural disasters as “an act of God,” but we get it wrong. Natural disasters are acts of nature, the laws of physics playing out in precise measure.

No, this is not an act of God. The acts of God are to be seen in the coming together, the selfless service and the hands of compassionate rescuers, volunteers and healers. Look no further than their eyes and you will see in their faces the reflection of God.

Political Talk Radio Fading?

An article by Chuck Raasch of Gannett News
Service today questions if political talk on radio is fading.

Thanks to Gregg Hartung of Presbyterian Media Mission for passing along notice of an article by Chuck Raasch and syndicated by Gannett News Service. It says talk radio, especially political talk, may be fading.

Rush Limbaugh’s audience is down 25% from last year, according to the Raasch article. With more options, fatigue with polarized political positions and a desire for information to make life better, the audience is apparently tuning out.

Talk radio may be returning to populism over partisanship, according to an editor of Talker magazine. There are, no doubt, many reasons for the apparent decline. But the intriguing point is that some in the audience are tiring of partisan politics and are jumping to other media.

Communicating and Games Playing

A recent communications flap recently led me
to try to understand how we mis-communicate, either intentionally or not.
Here’s what I learned.

I ran headlong into a tactic used by the religious right recently that caught me unaware. The subject was a simple invitation I sent to a group of religious communicators to attend a pre-screening of a new film, “Theologians Under Hitler.”

I was surprised to read an email thread attributing to me the intent to sponsor a forum that would provide “liberals and progressives” the occasion to beat up on conservatives by charging they want to establish a theocracy.

In fact, I had no such intent. This thought had never occurred to me. However, when I replied in this way the writer of the email, an individual from the evangelical right, wrote back that my intent was clear, no interpretation was needed and having called me manipulative, he now was calling me dishonest.

At first I was perplexed. Actually it made me angry. But I am more interested in understanding the process than remaining in this state, so I began to search for information to help me understand what was happening.

First, I reviewed my own language in the original note to see if I did, in fact, frame the event in an imbalanced way. I sought the opinions of others. After this self-critique, I don’t think the note leads to the conclusion this individual has drawn. Moreover, even if I erred, it was not intentional, so the claim that I set up these conditions intending to attack another group of Christians is unfair and inaccurate.

I happened upon an article on intelligent design that discusses a communications ploy that seems familiar. In it, Daniel C. Dinnett, a professor of philosophy at Tufts University writes, “the proponents of intelligent design use a ploy that works something like this. First you misuse or misdescribe some scientist’s work. Then you get an angry rebuttal. Then, instead of dealing forthrightly with the charges leveled, you cite the rebuttal as evidence that there is a “controversy” to teach. Note that the trick is content-free. You can use it on any topic.” (Show me the Science, Daniel C. Dinnett, August 28, 2005, The New York Times)

In talking with others who have experienced similar charges, it appears this tactic is used often, leaving the inexperienced victim standing quite amazed and baffled. Recently I spoke with a rabbi who found herself called a “self-loathing Jew” because she spoke for the rights of the Palestinian people.

The tactic diverts attention from the subject and focuses a personal attack on the individual. As Dinnett notes, It falsifies or mis-states content. In my experience, it mis-characterized my intent. When the individual responds defensively, the conversation is diverted away from substance and into personal back-and-forth that is winless for all concerned.

I don’t think this represents the mainstream of the U.S. population, I think it’s a practice of extremists. I also think it represents a clear danger to civic community and free speech.

Religion in the Air Force

Religious practices in the Air Force are
changing, apparently as a result of accusations of proselytizing in the
past.

Alan Cooperman reports in the Washington Post that religious practices are being curtailed in the Air Force and will likely be restricted in other services after a trial period.

The guidelines state that we must be able to stand together as Americans and as airmen (sic). Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, announcing the policy, noted that religious divisions are tearing many nations apart.

Interesting that religion is viewed as divisive rather than uniting. Given the charges of proselytizing at the Air Force Academy, it’s not difficult to see why.

Seeking Deeper Spiritual Connection

The search for deeper spiritual meaning is
neither new, nor a mere aberration of new age superficiality, according to a new
book by a Princeton professor.

The search for deeper spiritual meaning is neither new, nor a mere aberration of new age superficiality according to a new book, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality, by Dr. Leigh Schmidt, professor of religion at Princeton University.

The word “seeker” generates reaction today. Some contend religious seeking is part of the narcissism of the age, a search by flattered individuals that never ends. Others see it as another form of consumerism translated to religion. Still others decry that it is eclectic and, therefore, has no center; thus traditions and traditional language are never incorporated into the religious experience.

However, as viewed by Dr. Schmidt, religious seekers in early America tended toward an intellectual and communal search that is not so easily characterized. This is the heritage of Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, among many other New England intellectuals.

In a review in today’s Christian Science Monitor, writer Jane Lampman quotes Dr. Schmidt that the “Spiritual Left” goes “deep in the grain of American culture. It is here for the long haul.”

I sense a resurgence of interest in meaningful spiritual exploration and thought today. It’s being conducted by people who yearn for a deeper understanding of life as it is comprehended through religion. But many are skeptical of institutional religious organizations and traditional theological approaches. Still others have tried institutional religion and been burned.

Dr. Schmidt’s perspective that the search for spiritual truth has staying power and that it has found expression in greater depth and variety than is commonly recognized is a welcome contribution to our understanding of the seeker in this nation.

Sinking in Debt?

In the second of a three-part series on debt
in the U.S. the Associated Press’ Eileen Alt Powell offers an overview of the
growing problem of individual and governmental indebtedness.

With the
savings rate
hovering near
all-time
lows, most
consumers
don’t have
reserves, and
so they’re
vulnerable to
an economic
shock.
–The Associated
Press

In the second of a three-part series on debt in the U.S., the Associated Press’ Eileen Alt Powell offers an overview of the growing problem of individual and governmental indebtedness.

Overextended budgets create destructive dynamics for individuals and families. While this is a concern for individual responsibility, it should also be a concern in a larger context as well. I’ve pointed to the argument advance by Michael Bugeja about the targeting of messages that undermine our self-esteem and promise fulfillment that material goods cannot provide. Easy access to credit, the targeting of those inexperienced in using credit (as teens and college students) and the marketing of high interest credit to those with troubled financial histories adds to the problem.

Powell’s article covers the range of opinion about the debt burden. It’s not merely an alarmist presentation, but there is enough in it to cause a sober-minded person to be alarmed. Peter Moricci, a business professor at the University of Maryland, says it wouldn’t take much to topple some overextended budgets over the edge, a mere 2 percentage point increase in mortgage interest payments could do it. “Some people will lose their homes,” Morici says. “Many people will just be hurting.” (Debt Load Makes Americans Vulnerable,
By Eileen Alt Powell, ?The Associated Press, ?Monday, August 29, 2005
)

This is the crux of the matter for me. The consumer culture is grinding up some folks and leaving them hurting. That’s a matter for the church, not merely to treat the hurt left in the wake (which we must do), but also attempting to address the spiritual crisis that feeds the insecurity and yearning for fulfillment. And, let’s not forget, to address public policy issues that make for a just society, protecting those most vulnerable from exploitation.

Consumption, Credit and Christian Faith

David Walker, U.S. Comptroller General, says a
tidal wave of debt is crashing in on us and it holds disastrous potential. He
says it’s about ten years out but fast approaching.

…I should
not have
been honest
if I had not
told you that
three great
civilizations
had agreed
(or so it
seems at
first sight)
in condemning
the very
thing on
which we
have based
our whole
life.
–C.S. Lewis

Everyone is to work with his own hands, and what is more, everyone’s work is to produce something good: there will be no manufacture of silly luxuries and then of sillier advertisements to persuade us to buy them,” writes C.S.Lewis in Mere Christianity. (p. 84) Given the culture in which we in the U.S. live, this sounds downright un-American, if not even anti-capitalist, doesn’t it?

We’ve been discussing consumption here. According to Lewis, consumption is directly related to credit which is directly related to a basic operating principle of the U.S. economy, namely, the practice of lending money for a fee.

And both — consumption and credit — are directly related to Christian faith, according to the biblical writers and Christian leaders throughout history.
I was surprised by Lewis’ comments as I re-read his book Mere Christianity. Lewis writes that Aristotle and the ancient Greeks, Moses and the Israelites, and the great Christian teachers of the Middle Ages all agree that civilization should not be built on “usury,” the practice of lending money for a fee. (p.85)

However, I’m not writing this as an anti-American, anti-capitalist screed. I’m interested in going a different direction. How do people of faith live out of a consistent moral vision in obedience to a loving God, who calls us to deeper, more meaningful life? This isn’t about right-wing or left-wing political platforms.

Neither is it about economic theories. I’m not an economist and I’m not qualified to theorize upon the subject.

An epidemic
of American
indebtedness
runs from
home to
government
to global
marketplace.
–from the
Associated Press,
Dripping
With Debt”

As it happens, a two-part series by Robert Tanner of the Associated Press appears in this morning’s papers addressing the attitude of living beyond our means, both as individuals and as governments. David Walker, U.S. Comptroller General, says that our current indebtedness is unsustainable. Our I-want-it-now-no-matter-what-the-consequences attitude is a tidal wave that will wash over us with destructive force within a decade, according to Walker.

I was talking recently with a pastor who was starting a new church in a suburb in a southern city. She found that increasing attendance was relatively easy compared to increasing giving. When she called on families she found they were “house poor.” They had large, impressive homes with little or no furniture. Curtains and other furnishings were cobbled together. As she worked with them she found that most of the families in the congregation were deeply in debt, to the point of teetering on the edge of financial ruin.

The problem
gets bigger
every day,
and the
tidal wave
gets closer
every day.
–David Walker
U.S. Comptroller
General quoted
by AP

Before she could build a sustainable congregation she had to help them get control of their finances, so she began classes in money management. She estimates that it will take ten years for most of her congregants to get to a point of financial stability.

This is a spiritual crisis. The drive to consume results from our insecurities and fears. The consumer economy exacerbates and exploits these. Media marketing delivers the messages that massage these desires with the artificial balm of consumption.

I write this with some hesitancy because every time I’ve spoken of this in public settings I bring down a ringing criticism that says I’m being un-American and anti-capitalist and today that’s worse than disbelieving the Virgin Birth or the resurrection of Jesus to some people. It’s a form of secular heresy that some folks don’t take sitting down.

But I’m not advocating against here, I’m trying to wrestle with how we live in this present reality. How do we engage the culture and remain faithful people? I’m not even interested in condemning those of us caught up in consumption. I’m interested in a way through and a way out — a way through our insecurities and a way out of our overextended lifestyle of consumption.

At some point, but not today, we need to comment on how our over-consumption makes life worse for people in other parts of the world because we use up so much of the world’s resources, leaving them with the scraps, or less. But not today.

Today, it’s enough to ask, How do you answer these questions?

Consuming Lifestyle

What alternatives do we have to offer to
those caught up in consumer lifestyle? It’s not enough to be against, we’ve got
to also have a better way.

Roger, responding to my post Culture, Media and Individualism, asks what a pastor can do when we are individually caught up in the consumer culture, and he makes a good point.

It’s not enough to critique the culture without also offering alternatives. I’m re-reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis and happened on his chapter on Christian Morality as these blog exchanges occurred today. Lewis says that a mark of Christian social morality is giving. The focus is not on our wants or needs but on those of others. John Wesley was concerned about this and lived his life as a giver, not as a consumer.

I am afraid the
only safe rule
is to give more
than we can spare.

–C.S. Lewis

Lewis writes that in the New Testament we are told that everyone must work in order that we have something to give to those in need. Wesley’s famous comment that we should earn all we can, save all we can and give all we can (paraphrased) echoes this New Testament attitude toward why we work–to be in position to give.

In another claim similar to Wesley, Lewis says,”I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.”

Lewis says for the Christian this kind of “charity” is a mark of obedience and trust. He says “for many of us the great obstacle to charity lies not in our luxurious living or desire for more money, but in our fear–fear of insecurity.”

One of the insidious thrusts of consumer marketing is to foster and heighten this insecurity. It’s necessary to keep us consuming. But faith is an antidote to fear and insecurity. Thus, faith, in this context is counter to the culture.

It is said that when Wesley died he had planned his finances so that he left enough only to pay for his burial and pallbearers. All else, he gave away. I suspect this is another of the countercultural teachings of Christian faith that is hard for us to hear in our culture. The antidote to consumption is a closer relationship to the poor, to God, to others in the community of faith and to give until we have given sacrificially. To the culture this is madness. To the Christian, it’s discipleship.

Hubble IMAX

A new IMAX of Hubble images is now being
screened. A preview and a longer version appears on the Web.

A new IMAX movie of Hubble images is available for institutional IMAX theaters. A preview of the movie and a longer version appear in this link. It’s not the same on the small screen, of course, but it gives you a hint of the real thing.

I found the long form of the movie loaded slowly on my laptop. It requires patience. but as I really like Hubble images, seeing them in almost any form is worth the wait to me.

If you’re like me, enjoy.

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