Archive - April, 2009

Atheists Out of the Closet

Athiests are coming out of the closet. And in South Carolina, no less; a place noted for the strength of its religious and political values, strongly conservative and deeply held. That’s the gist of the NY Times piece on "emerging" athiests and secular humanists.

A Pew study on religious attitudes across the country provides context. Four in ten in the Pew survey say they abandoned the faith they were taught as children. In this fluid situation the largest group is people who disconnect from faith. Pew calls them unaffiliated. Roman Catholics lead the dropouts followed by the general category of "Protestants." The majority of those who move from their childhood faith do so before age 24 and are likely to change more than once. Religious churning.

A study like this provides a snapshot but it doesn’t get at the deeper emotional, psychological or spiritual issues that are at work. I wonder what people are turning away from, or giving up. Dogma? Belief in the transcendent? A sense of the sacred in life? The community in which they were nurtured?

And I wonder about what is being taught, and not sticking, in religious education. What is happening in our interior life that leads to this turn? More pertinent, how does secularization occur in the internal spiritual landscape that includes our rational thinking and emotions?

And how is that interior churning affected by the exterior, existential circumstances in which we live? As we become urbanized and disconnected from the natural order must we rediscover our place in the universe?  Does it signify the end of the Enlightenment and the dawning of a New Awareness, as some say? Is it the final stages of deconstruction or the ongoing work of empowered individualism that has been underway for the last several years in Western culture?

I am most interested in what leads us to define ourselves apart from the sacred, to devalue the transcendent and holy, and put ourselves in its place. And I wonder how faith becomes irrelevant to those who are nurtured in faith communities? Or, how faith communities fail in the nurturing?

And, finally, I ask if people are turning away from religious answers that no longer make sense, or are they discovering new questions for which old religious teachings don’t work? Is this an existential quest, and if it is, why is that not understood as the essence of faith, a search for meaning?

The Times article surmizes many causes, one of which is the embrace by the Bush Administration of the religious right. Thinking, caring people were put off by these extremists who made news and attempted to force their narrow values onto the rest of us. I suspect the damage done in this era will be long-lasting. But I also suspect that’s not the most significant issue. This churning is not merely reactive. Among those I know who have given up religion, it’s a thoughtful struggle to understand life in a more authentic and consistent way. It is reflective beyond merely rejecting right wing ideology.

I recall a thoroughly enjoyable conversation on a flight across the Atlantic with a Dutch pyschotherapist who made a point, in a kind way, to let me know he was not a religious believer. He is never the less a humanist and a remarkable person. He was returning from a volunteer mission to Peru that doubled as a vacation. The values he described and how they integrate into his life were impressive. I was in a better mood after our conversation than before.

I’m also intrigued by the desire for community that the Times article identifies. We need to be connected with people of like mind regardless of our religious sensibilities, it seems.

I take away from this religious churning and the emerging rejection of religion a challenge to listen and understand (in so far as that is possible). As we move into a new century and face unprecedented change, our humanity is being redefined. So too, is our relationship to the world and the whole of creation. The challenge to theology is to take us far beyond the bumper stickers and attention-drawing rhetoric and help us in the search for meaning and purpose. For me, that is a function of faith.

Photos From the Dust Bowl and Great Depression


Migrant Woman

Are we approaching a second Great Depression? The question is being asked more often. It’s an indication of pain and a projection of fear more than an accurate assessment. The question is still muted and quickly denied but it’s revealing that it’s surfaced.

Stories about the Great Depression and its effects on people are a particular interest of mine. Such is family memory and practices. The scars left by the Depression affect generations long separated from the direct experience.

Abandoned Farm

One of the greatest treasure troves of memory is the collection of images from the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information documentary photo project in the 1930s and into the early 40’s. I’ve put a handful of my favorite images from the Dust Bowl exodus here .

But it’s not a complete selection. The archive is rich and varied. It’s a hallmark of government-sponsored artistic support. In the midst of a global economic crisis, this collection serves as an example of the value of such an enterprise and it’s even more relevant. It should also be a stimulus for us to do likewise, to document our national life with the same depth and concern.

A PBS documentary produced last year told how the photographers collected the images and a Google search turns up a host of books and articles on the Dust Bowl many of which use images from the collection.

I’ve spent many hours rifling through the photos online and a few looking at hard copy files in Washington. The most efficient method is online. The most emotionally thrilling is holding hard copies of these iconic images.

The collection documents a range of ethnic groups and their life experiences and it’s rich with compelling images. I got interested many years ago researching the great migration of poor white agricultural families from the Plains states to California. So many from Oklahoma gave up their work on the land, or the land gave out on them, they made the move westward.

While the Dust Bowl was the commonly cited natural cause, the reality was much more complicated. Mechanized farming was also a significant factor in making the share cropping model obsolete. Tenant farmers were expendable when replaced by tractors. Small farms were also unsustainable.

The drought was the tipping point for those whose hold on economic security was already tenuous. Many rural families far from the affected counties were also thrown into the maelstrom. Steinbeck’s Joads were victims of the drought but they were also were part of a long established system that exploitated landless poor whites. The Grapes of Wrath points to the dislocation caused by mechanization as much as natural calamity.

Both of my grandfathers were forced off the land during this period. One was a sharecropper, the other a marginal farmer who also worked a team of horses in the Key West oilfield in central Oklahoma. The Works Progress Administration saved them economically, but the emotional adjustment of leaving the land was a wound that neither recovered from.

Both came to town and constructed sidewalks and paved roads in WPA jobs. They would point with pride to their work years later, but each reflected sadly on what they gave up when they “left the land.”

One grandfather would tear up when as a youth I would ask him to tell me about the old days. The other would become sullen and withdrawn. On those occasions when they would open up they both got most of their energy talking about their horses or other tidbits of life on the land.

It was a time when families broke apart. I had uncles who rode the rails to California and Washington state looking for work. If they came back, and some didn’t, they were different. The world had changed.

By the time I was old enough to think about what my elders had experienced and consider their stories, the Depression was more than twenty years past. Never the less, the wounds were fresh enough that I got loads of advice about working hard, getting an education and saving. I was admonished to conserve some things and hold onto others long past their useful life because “it might come in handy some day.” We saved baling wire, wood screws and bent nails like you wouldn’t believe.

And I’d like to say that my grandfathers were resilient and overcame. But I’m afraid it’s not that simple. The sadness of both in their latter years leaves me with a different feeling. They survived. But at the cost of a way of life. They fought the Depression and the Depression won.

Many of the images in the FSA/OWI collection capture this resilience and pathos. Here are a few of the books and articles I’ve found interesting:

A Paean to Forebearance (the Rough Draft), Christine Haughney. A New York Times article that offers the background of the writing of the novel Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a narrative overview of James Agee’s book and Walker Evans photos of sharecroppers in Alabama in the Great Depression.

Let Us Now Praise Walker Evans, a short documentary that depicts images from an exhibition of photographs by Walker Evans during his years at the Farm Security Administration.

The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan

Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, Donald Worster

A Boyhood in the Dust Bowl, 1926-1934, Robert Allen Rutland

Children of the Dust Bowl, Jerry Stanley

Red Dirt, Growing Up Okie, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Hard Times, Studs Turkel

Down & Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man, Edited by Robert S. McElvaine

The Great Depression, Robert S. McElvaine

American Photography and the American Dream, James Guimond

Hard Times in Sharp Focus Again, Meg Smith (An online introductory essay to the FSA/OSI photo collection, Library of Congress

John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath, an online anthology including photos of the Dust Bowl migration built around the classic novel.

For Better Health: More Schools or Hospitals?

To improve health would you build more schools or hospitals? Truth to tell, I’ve never thought of it as either/or. Most likely I would choose more hospitals. But I’d be wrong.

Christine Gorman at Global Health Report blog summarizes findings from health surveys that demonstrate "education, social support and early childhood development play a more important role in overall health in a country than the condition of its hospitals and other health services."

Advocates of community-based health programs know the value of social support, education and early intervention in maternal child health. But their concern is simply to get effective, rudimentary care to people lacking even basic services. Generally it’s not about building schools or hospitals.

Ultimately that’s not the choice anyway. It’s about measuring effective intervention. I’m taking Christine’s post in a different direction. It made me think about a couple of questions: What improves the quality of health? Could rudimentary but effective intervention be as valuable to improve community health as hospitals or clinics?

Stated differently, community involvement in health through good information, communication and support can produce positive results. My hunch is this research is confirming that grassroots connections in the community carry significant weight in both health education and practices.

And if this is true, it means community-based, participatory health programs can make a big contribution to good health, even when hospitals and health systems are lacking. That’s no excuse for neglecting national health care systems that are already deficient. But, it is a reason to make note of the potential benefit of less expensive and complex health interventions. And these are strengths of many non-profit and faith organizations’ health efforts.

They also point to the value of maternal child intervention. The Measles Project has been effective because it incorporates training, information, vaccinations and multiple additional inputs including providing mothers with bednets to prevent malaria. Vaccinations are community events where mothers receive instructions about using nets and identifying the disease’s symptoms.

Finally, the issue isn’t about choosing between schools or hospitals. Both are needed. But community-based efforts combined with on-going support are also valuable. With the right kind of support the capacity and resources of poor communities can be mobilized for better health.

More schools or hospitals? For better health the probable answer is both, and more.

My Earth Day Backyard Odyssey

Venus and Earth's Moon My Earth Day started breathlessly in the backyard with wet feet. I got up to the glorious juxtaposition of Venus with the waning crescent moon low in the east. These things excite me!

The birds were singing riotously in the gathering dawn. Two hoot owls were somewhere very close looking for prey and calling to each other. Wonderful!

I grabbed my camera and tripod and put on my Minnetonka moccasins and literally ran into the backyard to get a good view. It was still dark. The moon and planet were obscured by trees on the horizon. I ran around the yard. Then I noticed. My pants were sticking to my ankles. I’ve got water inside my Minnetonkas. I’m wet as sop. It’s cold out here. And there’s no good location to capture this glorious sight.

So I ran back to the deck, set up the tripod and realized in the darkness the camera is set on manual. I couldn’t see through the fog in my glasses to re-set it. So I rushed inside and made the changes.

Back outside. Re-attach the camera to the tripod and focus. Nothing happens. A message says the card is full. Why don’t I take care of these things at the end of a shoot instead of waiting until the start of the next one? No time for this rumination.

Back inside. Replace the card. Back outside. Re-focus. Grab a shot before the sunlight invades the scene. To borrow a line from a Waylon Jennings song, I don’t think Ansel Adams done it this-away, no I don’t think Ansel done it this-away.

Have wonderful, meaningful Earth Day!


The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it;
for he has founded it on the seas,
and established it on the rivers…
Psalm 24: 1,2

Bono’s Search for the Soul

Rock Singer and humanitarian activist Bono asks about the state of our souls in this time of great change.

In a Sunday op-ed he recounts Easter worship on an unnamed island and discusses the need for new beginnings. He writes affectingly about his search in scripture and religion to discern the state of his soul and shares ever so briefly his need to experience redemption at the death of his father. He raises questions about capitalism and globalization and affirms the value of the debt forgiveness policy known as Jubilee.

But what piqued my curiousity most is his closing comment. He recalls the benevolence of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, Jr., both of whom he assumes are agnostic, and Nelson Mandela who doesn’t describe himself as religious. Recognizing their contributions to social good, Bono says not all soul music comes from the church.

His comments are perfect illustrations of a post-modern, post-religious commentary. His narrative is ambiguous enough that it can be interpreted in many ways. It’s positive toward worship and religion. It reveals experiential understanding. But his closing remark can also be taken as a jibe at the church. I don’t think it is. I think it’s more theological than critical.

He’s correct that not all the music of the soul originates in the church. If the source of the music is the Creator, and the Creation is being renewed and healed with or without the church, then Bono’s line reflects solid theology. What those who are believers call God is bigger than the human containers we construct to describe God. God is not limited to our containers, no matter how fervently we promote them.

An important function of faith is apprehending where God is at work in the world, with or without us. I think that’s what Bono is saying. What do you think?

Producing Netbooks That Are “Just Good Enough”

Netbooks provide "good enough" computing.Oh really? And that’s good enough to market them?  In his Digital Domain column in the NY Times this morning, Randall Stross quotes an analyst who makes the case for netbooks in this way.

It confuses me. A great company like Hewlett Packard entering into a market niche and self-consciously diluting its brand with a product so cheap you wouldn’t mind if you lost it while traveling. Steve Jobs has said Apple won’t do it. Yet, it’s rumored Apple is working on a netbook. But there is a cottage industry in Apple rumors. It’s part of the mystique of the company.

That’s only one part of my confusion. The other is companies competing on a "just good enough" basis. It seems like a race to the bottom. An HP executive says they want to be present at a price point in a popular shift to netbooks. But surely stepping into this competition comes with a price. And I wonder if the price isn’t erosion of the brand, trust in the line of products across the board and a dilution of confidence. For what? To be present in a marketplace that is equivalent to the shelves of the "Nothing Over a Dollar Store."

No one is making a claim that netbooks are more than just good enough. That’s their selling point, along with price. Some bloggers have even said they will be given away as premiums when you buy a subscription to a digital service. That’s a real throwaway. Wasteful, unhealthy  for the environment and just good enough computing, all in one package. So, no one is being misled.

Maybe it’s my age. Maybe it’s my values. I don’t know. I just don’t get anyone or any product aspiring to be just good enough.

Ending Victimization, Claiming Empowerment

The Taliban have exploited class differences to gain control over the Swat Valley in Pakistan. The Dalit people, known as the "untouchables" in India’s caste-based social system, are throwing off oppressive discrimination to claim liberation.

These seemingly unrelated stories are woven together by a single subject, a web of victimization. How people deal with victimization can be liberating or oppressive.

Claiming victimization reinforces victimization. Even when it’s true, focusing on  being a victim sets a course for more victimization and in a divided and dangerous world it’s a recipe for violence and death.

Class differences in Pakistan are stark. Children of the privileged attend private schools that are well-maintained and staffed with qualified instructors. They have books and materials necessary for learning. Less affluent children, if they go to school, may go to rundown, overcrowded classrooms lacking books, supplies and taught by less qualified instructors. The madrases for young boys are well-documented. They are the only schooling some young men receive. Education is only one example of the disparities of class.

This isn’t unique to Pakistan, of course. Unequal educational opportunity exists across the world, even in the United States, so it’s not a knock against Pakistan. But the situation there illustrates how the Taliban shrewdly used victimization rooted in class to frame the social reality and exploit it for their own ends.

It’s a reminder that social injustice is a breeding ground for exploitation and civil unrest. Thus, it’s not merely an issue to be left at the doorstep of political systems, it’s about human development and, in a deeper sense, it’s about spiritual values.

And that leads to the second story, a report by Maurice Malanes on the Dalit Panchayat Movement. The Dalit people are known as the "untouchables" in India’s caste-based social system. The name itself evolved from Hindi and means oppressed or crushed, according to Malanes.

Dalit theology is seeking to reverse an oppressed psyche that reinforces an inferiority complex. For more than three thousand years the Dalits have been exploited including being pressed into unpaid, forced labor.

Dalit theology "concentrates all its energy on the tremendous potentials that lay hidden within the Dalit community and were never allowed to come up," according to Dr. Jyothi Raj.

The Dalits are claiming strength, not victimization. They are creating social and cultural change through theology. The Dalit movement is supported by an ecumenical base including the Christian Conference of Asia, the World Council of Churches and Lutheran World Federation.

At its core the Christian gospel addresses the sacredness of human personality. When Jesus told people that not a sparrow falls that God does not know (Matt:10:29), he was speaking about human dignity. This remark was about disenfranchisement and lack of recognition. Sparrows were as common in Jesus’ day as today, and they are unremarkable, brown, small birds. His point was clear to those who heard him.

In that social context these were words of empowerment. In related narratives Jesus asked his followers to serve others and give to the poor. What’s interesting is that Jesus combined teaching about self-awareness with a call to service which is the capacity to act on your own on behalf of others.

Victimization focuses on pathology, not strength, and lays responsibility for behavior on "the other." It detracts from the strengths and capacities of the victimized which is all a disadvantaged individual or group can change.

Self-determination and self-differentiation are the end results of self-awareness and self-assertion. To end victimization people must claim empowerment.

Mac Botnet Discovered

A Mac botnet has been discovered according to the New York Times. The malicious program infiltrated, took over and operated a network of Macs to cause denial of service to a website.

Writer Riva Richmond says Macs have not been used often by botnets but as Mac users increase the problems plaguing Microsoft systems are coming to Macs. Small market share in the past has made them less attractive to hackers who want to affect large numbers of machines. Apparently that is changing.

Global Food Shortage Increases Prices

The BBC has a two-day series on global food price increases. The shortage of food has driven up prices by 70% for wheat and rice in some regions. Robert Zoellick, President of the World Bank, has called for $500 million to alleviate hunger but the response has been slow and short of the request.

On a more hopeful note, however, the BBC also reports more food is appearing on the shelves in Zimbabwe, however, the country is heavily dependent on U.N. food aid. Eighty percent of the people rely on it and not everyone has access to U.S. dollars or South African rands which have replaced the Zimbabwean currency.

HP Netbook Redux

After using a netbook for a few weeks I’m tracking back to a post I wrote when I bought the HP mini. I’ve also used a Dell.

The first reaction to this machine is, "Oh, that’s cute!" And it is. Netbooks look like their larger cousins, full feature laptops. The HP was cosmetically more appealing than its competitors when it arrived.

This appearance may be a liability, however. It may lead to the expectation the machine will also do what a laptop does, and it can’t. It isn’t made to perform at that level. Disappointment follows.

Netbooks are made to access the Internet and read email. They will play video and audio files and display photos. They do these things barely adequately. To expect more is to court frustration.

I’ve carried the netbook with me on the road. Its light weight is a distinct advantage. Its performance is hardly better than a Blackberry for email, however. I actually prefer the Blackberry because it’s far less frustrating to use and does what I want with greater speed.

Typing on the netbook, even with its wider keyboard is a chore for me. My fingers don’t travel the compact space easily.Typing longer notes is a trial with too many errors. I revert to one-finger typing and I can accomplish thumb typing on the Blackberry with greater ease and accuracy.

The netbook can become overworked easily. Attempting to type a blog post, review it and make corrections can be too much. Downloading photos taxes the system. Deleting email in bulk can make you think it’s locked up. It wasn’t made for this, remember.

Controlling the scroll rate on the touchpad is hit or miss with me despite slowing it down in preferences. It easily scrolls past where I want to go. You can use the arrow keys but the touchpad is more convenient and intuitive. To do this I have to think about it. Intuitive is better .Otherwise it’s just cumbersome.

The HP will display a full screen by pressing f11. This eliminates the toolbar and gives a fuller view of a webpage. In addition, most browsers  allow you to hit control plus (still can’t figure out how to access the "plus" key) to zoom in.

I’ve concluded the netbook won’t replace my laptop on the road and that was my main reason for buying it. It does what it’s supposed to do. (Barely) It looks great. It’s wonderfully light weight. Yet with all this going for it, it doesn’t do what I need and what it does I can do with other appliances with less frustration. So it will stay home and probably collect dust unless someone else in the family takes a liking to it.

Never the less, I’ll bet these things sell by the millions because they’re so appealing. And I’ll bet many users will accept the compromises and love the frustrating little critters. Just not me.

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