Monthly Archives: September 2011

Goodbye Blue Monday—and the rest of Northfield, too

After spending most of our married life in central Minnesota, my wife and I arrived in Northfield just in time to vote in the 2008 election.  Election night was our initial visit to First United Church of Christ, the voting precinct for the Carleton side of town.  We would later be blessed with numerous friends at this UCC congregation.

Within a few months, we had settled on Bethel Lutheran as our new church home, and we have continued to appreciate the way Bethel “does church” … a vibrant youth ministry, heady and stirring preaching, and a multi-faceted music ministry that draws on superior professional and amateur talent.  Before long, I was invited to the men of Bethel weekly discussion group and then “volunteered” for the personnel committee.  I taught a Sunday adult forum class and addressed Bethel gatherings on other occasions.  Wednesday evening Bistro, a weekly congregational meal, helped us to meet new friends fast.

Northfield is a college town that boasts two of the finest liberal arts colleges in the Midwest.

Skinner Memorial ChapelCarleton’s founders were New England Yankees with roots in the Congregational Churches of the East, but Carleton is no longer affiliated with any church or denomination, and the gothic church building that sits sentinel at the entrance to the college green now hosts Islamic and Jewish gatherings, as well as Christian groups.  Last Passover eve, the Bethel men’s group was hosted by the rabbi from the Twin Cities who serves the Carleton Jewish community.

St Olaf is one of the leading ELCA colleges in the country, and many Lutheran pastors, church leaders, and theologians have ties to St. Olaf, especially those of Norwegian heritage.  The King and Queen of Norway will visit St. Olaf in mid-October.  Although I have no personal ties to St. Olaf, I was privileged to speak at Boe Chapel, to sign books thru the bookstore on homecoming weekend, and to gain the friendship of many present and former professors and staff.

Student center and Boe Chapel

Downtown Northfield is an eclectic mix of shops, eateries, museums, libraries, and a village square overlooking the historic Cannon River.  Summer concerts, art fairs, and a popcorn wagon grace the square, but the biggest annual downtown event is the “Defeat of Jesse James Days” held each September.  Yes, it was here where the infamous Jesse James gang met its match, and the shootout outside the old bank building is reenacted multiple times on this September weekend.  “Get your guns, boys, they’re robbin’ the bank” is the message printed on many T-shirts.

Tiny’s Hot Dogs recently closed, but you can still see the bumper stickers that read, “Eat at Tiny’s.  Save the World.”   Goodbye Blue Monday is one of several excellent coffeehouses downtown, and it is here that the local ELCA clergy from Northfield, Faribault, and environs gathers each Thursday morning for coffee and conversation.  Though I’m laity, I appreciated the invitation to join this heady group and to participate in church gossip, text study, and a great deal of laughter that often drew wondering glances from the students and town’s folk: who are these Lutherans and why are they having so much fun?

But now it’s time for the next chapter in our lives.  Next Thursday, the 29th of September, we will pull out from the driveway of our townhouse in a rented Penske truck loaded with our earthly belongings.  Arlington Heights in the Northwest Chicago suburbs will be our destination.

Guni, Awa, Greta, Karin, Lynn, ObieIt’s a family deal.  Our middle daughter, Greta, has been offered her dream job as the Caribbean Product Manager for Apple Vacations, but that requires relocation to Chicago.  The complication is that her husband, Guni, still has a year or more remaining on his PHD program at the University of Minnesota.  Guni encouraged Greta to accept the job offer and to ask Mom and Dad if we would relocate with her to temporarily provide support for her and our two year old granddaughter until he could join them.  So, we’ll all live together in a rented four-bedroom house in a three-generational family.

HalOur oldest daughter, Karin, a Yoga instructor and writer, has been establishing a Northfield following, but after a few days of indecision, she has also decided to join us in Chicago.  She was a counselor at a battered women’s shelter in Chicago early this decade, so she still has close friends in the Windy City.  Our youngest, Hal, will remain in the Brainerd, Minnesota area, but he has taken vacation next week to help us all move to Chicago.

So, Goodbye Blue Monday and the rest of Northfield.  Though we leave Northfield with many tears, we also eagerly anticipate the opportunity to be part of rearing our granddaughter and to share the adventure that awaits us in Chicago.

The ELCA and Ecumenical Partners

Bishop Hanson with Dr. SayeedThe 2011 ELCA Churchwide Assembly (CWA11) was hopeful, spirited, and frequently emotional.  I was often moved to tears, and I was not alone.  Assembly speakers routinely received standing ovations.

The ELCA believes in ecumenism, the expression of unity and cooperation with other religious bodies.  Wet eyes and and a long, loud ovation filled the assembly hall when Bishop Hanson embraced Dr. Sayyid Sayeed, the National Director of The Islamic Society of North America.  Similarly, the voting members rose to their feet to greet Bishop George Walker of The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AME Zion) when he addressed the Assembly.

Bishop Walker’s presence was both the culmination of five years of dialogue with the AME Zion Church, and also the prelude to scheduled meetings in Salisbury, North Carolina between leaders of the two denominations.  Bishop George Walker

Last Friday, the 16th of September, leaders of the two denominations celebrated what promises to be  an “unprecedented agreement between historically white and black churches” in a communion service at St. John’s Lutheran Church of Salisbury.

The mutuality expressed at the religious service and also at the discussions the following day are the result of a fortuitous geographical commonality.  Salisbury is home to AME Zion’s Hood Seminary, Livingstone College, and the ELCA’s North Carolina Synod Headquarters.  Rubbing elbows together in the same small city led to friendships which in turn led to the current discussions.Bishops Hanson and Walker depart the Covenant Service

Georene Jones, a St. John’s member and student in the theological studies program at Hood Theological Seminary, called Friday’s service an “absolute affirmation of what I believe.”

“It gives me great hope for the future of the church,” she said. “This is a culmination of my hopes and dreams.”

See reporter Nathan Hardin’s excellent report in the Salisbury Post.

A Wretched Man Movie?

About six weeks ago, I was contacted by a Hollywood screenwriter who expressed interest in adapting A Wretched Man, a novel of Paul the apostle into a screenplayFollowing discussions and negotiations, we have today reached agreement.  The screenwriter, who has been in the movie industry for nearly a decade, shares my vision and passion.  In his first email to me, the screenwriter commented:

I am fascinated by the story and believe that it could make a really intriguing film—something independent, honest, touching … a film that takes these Biblical giants and makes them accessible, human, and endearing.  What I like about your take on the story is that when Paul is wounded—it actually seemed to hurt.  I think a movie like that would speak to many.

Whether A Wretched Man reaches the silver screen or not remains a long shot.  After a screenplay is completed, the screenwriter must then persuade a producer or other monied interests to invest in a film, but I am convinced that the screenwriter has the appropriate experience, expertise, and contacts to give it a good shot.

Indulge me in a bit of fantasy.  For those of you who have read the book, what actor should play the role of Paulos?  Shall I, a la Hitchcock, play a cameo role?  Perhaps the character of Eli the sage?  Or Jubilees, the phantom seer?

A Wretched Man Movie?

About six weeks ago, I was contacted by a Hollywood screenwriter who expressed interest in adapting A Wretched Man, a novel of Paul the apostle into a screenplayFollowing discussions and negotiations, we have today reached agreement.  The screenwriter, who has been in the movie industry for nearly a decade, shares my vision and passion.  In his first email to me, the screenwriter commented:

I am fascinated by the story and believe that it could make a really intriguing film—something independent, honest, touching … a film that takes these Biblical giants and makes them accessible, human, and endearing.  What I like about your take on the story is that when Paul is wounded—it actually seemed to hurt.  I think a movie like that would speak to many.

Whether A Wretched Man reaches the silver screen or not remains a long shot.  After a screenplay is completed, the screenwriter must then persuade a producer or other monied interests to invest in a film, but I am convinced that the screenwriter has the appropriate experience, expertise, and contacts to give it a good shot.

Indulge me in a bit of fantasy.  For those of you who have read the book, what actor should play the role of Paulos?  Shall I, a la Hitchcock, play a cameo role?  Perhaps the character of Eli the sage?  Or Jubilees, the phantom seer?

Earliest Christian Manuscript Discovered

Arbel CavesAntiquities experts have released the contents of a Christian manuscript that may predate Paul’s letters and the gospels.  Discovered in one of the many caves of the Arbel cliffs overlooking the Sea of Galilee, the fragment appears to be an early version of a passage that later appeared in Mark and the Synoptic gospels.  Carbon dating places the document in the third or fourth decade of the first century near the time of the crucifixion.  Some suggest the fragment contains the actual words of Jesus of Nazareth.

Here is the translation from the Aramaic text:

Ancient manuscriptSome Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to marry a man or a woman to marry a woman?  He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.  But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has not made to lay together, let no one join in marriage.”

I apologize for my  falsehood.  Of course, no such text has been discovered or exists; yet, the actual passage on divorce, which has nothing to do with same-gender relationships, has been coopted by conservative defenders of “biblical marriage”, who latch onto the phrase “God made them male and female” and take it out of the context.  As the nation and our churches wrestle with marriage equality issues, this divorce text has become the “clobber passage” du jour.  My purely fictive version of Jesus’ teaching on divorce is no less perverse than the interpretation that twists this passage into authority against marriage equality.  I have merely written down in plain language what some infer from the text.

When you see it in black and white, it seems rather far-fetched, doesn’t it?  Is my fictive version equivalent to the actual version below?  Of course not, yet some would have you believe so.  Exegesis is the process of getting ‘out’ of the text what is truly there in the first place. The opposite of exegesis is eisogesis. This is the process of putting ‘into’ the text something that wasn’t intended by the author.

For reference sake, here is the actual text from Mark 10:2-9 (NRSV).

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Stimulus not austerity

Hey, I know, this is “a blog of progressive, religious themes.”  My last post was pure economics, and now I’m going to say the same thing again, only different.  There is religion here too, but it’s implicit–economic justice, care for the widow and the orphan, blessed are the poor, and more–but I’m not explicitly talking about that.  Our national and world economies are about to pushed over a cliff, and we need to shout that as loud as we can.

My last post featured Economist Robert Reich who called for President Obama to “go big”, and I also mentioned Nobel laureate Paul Krugman.  Today, it is Krugman’s turn to debunk austerity in favor of stimulus in a New York Times article entitled “Misguided Deficit Worries make Unemployment Worse”.  Krugman writes,

And by obsessing over a nonexistent threat, Washington has been making the real problem — mass unemployment, which is eating away at the foundations of our nation — much worse.

Although you’d never know it listening to the ranters, the past year has actually been a pretty good test of the theory that slashing government spending actually creates jobs.

The deficit obsession has blocked a much-needed second round of federal stimulus, and with stimulus spending, such as it was, fading out, we’re experiencing de facto fiscal austerity.

State and local governments, in particular, faced with the loss of federal aid, have been sharply cutting many programs, and have been laying off a lot of workers, mostly schoolteachers.

And somehow the private sector hasn’t responded to these layoffs by rejoicing at the sight of a shrinking government and embarking on a hiring spree.

OK, I know what the usual suspects will say — namely, that fears of regulation and higher taxes are holding businesses back. But this is just a right-wing fantasy.

Multiple surveys have shown that lack of demand — a lack that is being exacerbated by government cutbacks — is the overwhelming problem businesses face, with regulation and taxes barely even in the picture.

Are Reich and Krugman merely lonely voices crying in the wilderness?  Consider this from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD):

The pursuit of austerity measures and deficit cuts is pushing the world economy toward disaster in a misguided attempt to please global financial markets, the annual report of the United Nations economic think tank UNCTAD said on Tuesday.

The report, entitled “Post-crisis policy challenges in the world economy,” savaged U.S. and European economic policies and called for wage increases, stricter regulation of financial markets, including a return to a system of managed exchange rates, and a conscious break with market-led thinking.

“The message here is very pragmatic: we need to reverse our course quickly,” said UNCTAD Secretary General Supachai Panitchpakdi. [former head of the World Trade Organization]

And this from The Atlantic, in an article subtitled How a stubborn misreading of classical economists — combined with a hyper-partisan Republican Party — haunts the U.S. economy [emphasis added]:

The intellectual actions of these extreme free marketeers do not take place in a vacuum. They interact with a political structure comprised of lobbies and pseudo think-tanks to promote policies that, while wrapped in the cloak of promoting free markets, ultimately serve to redistribute growth to the top of the wealth scale. “Efficient market hypotheses” and “rational expectations”–the idea that absent government interference, market participants will make optimally efficient decisions–leads directly to supply-side tax cuts, deregulation of financial markets, the formation of financial bubbles, the acceptance of income stagnation, and disinvestment in public goods. And these measures, in turn, have delivered levels of income and wealth inequality not seen since the late 1920s, along with policy handcuffs that today have us arguing about how to reduce, rather than strengthen, regulations.

And here’s where I get around to religion.

brown-skinned socialist

Going big

In the fall of 1966, this small-town boy from central Minnesota arrived on the campus of Dartmouth College as a “pea-green freshman”.  I was the twenty-third string quarterback on the freshman football team.  Professor Jeffrey Hart spent each hour of freshman English lighting and re-relighting his pipe as he strolled in front of the class, eliciting discussion of Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Despite Hart’s political conservatism in an otherwise liberal environment(he was a close associate of Wm. F. Buckley), he was the perfect icon for my introduction to an Ivy League education.  To be sure, I was more than a little overwhelmed.

It was then that I first heard the name of Robert Reich.  Though small in stature, upperclassman Reich was the biggest man on campus.  If my memory serves, Reich was a leading commentator on WDCR, the college radio station, and founder of an unofficial experimental college.  Reich’s taped speech on the three slain civil rights workers in Mississippi was used by subsequent speech classes as the model, par excellence.  It was clear then that big things were in store for Robert Reich.

Robert Reich at DartmouthOf course, I am speaking of the man who would later serve in the Clinton cabinet and who is currently a frequent commentator on television and in print media.  Reich and Nobel-prize-winning Paul Krugman are the two leading economists who advocate for the positive and necessary role of the federal government to stimulate a stagnant economy.

Reich is currently Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy, University of California at Berkeley.  Today he posts an op-ed piece, which challenges President Obama to “Give ‘em hell” in his speech to Congress next week.  He hopes the President “goes big” and advocates:

rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, creating a new WPA and Civilian Conservation Corps, and lending money to cash-starved states and cities.

Republicans will oppose it, of course. They’ll say the stimulus didn’t work the first time (they’re wrong — it saved 3 million jobs but it was way too small given the drop in consumer spending as well as budget cuts by states and cities), and we can’t afford it (wrong again — the yield on 10-year Treasury bills is now 2 percent, meaning this is the best time to borrow. And if growth isn’t restored soon, the debt/GDP ratio will balloon beyond belief). But their real hope is to keep the economy anemic through Election Day 2012 so voters will send Obama home. [emphasis added]

The coming year that will culminate in the 2012 election will be fascinating and frightening.  For eighty years, America has functioned on the basis of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal—a controlled capitalist economy with social safety nets—that reversed the laissez-faire, “hands-off”, environment that preceded it.

Herbert_HooverBy all accounts, President Herbert Hoover was a brilliant man with an exemplary record of government service prior to the collapse of an unregulated stock market in the fall of ‘29, his first year as President.  As history tells us, Hoover’s laissez-faire ideology failed him and the country, and the economy continued to spiral downward into the Great Depression.  The election of FDR in ‘32 and his huge, landslide reelection in ‘36 spelled the end of laissez-faire, replaced by the interventionist fiscal policies of economist John Maynard Keynes who provided the intellectual warrant for New Deal macroeconomics.  The primary poster child of the New Deal was the Social Security Act,  which the current poll-leading Republican presidential candidate refers to as a “Ponzi Scheme”.

For eighty years, this has been the American way, even when the federal government was in the hands of the GOP.  Remember the “me-too” Republicans of the Eisenhower years, Nixon’s famous dictum, “I am now a Keynesian in economics”, and the willingness of the icon of conservative Republicanism, Ronald Reagan, to enact economic stimulus when needed.

Will all that change in 2012?  For failing to pay attention to history, will we be doomed to repeat it?  Will the Tea Party return America to the laissez-faire policies of Herbert Hoover?  When leading Republicans flub minor details of American history, it is laughable, but when they forget the “going big” lessons of American macroeconomics, it is downright scary.

For generations, pundits joked that Democrats continued to run against Herbert Hoover though he was long retired at the will of the electorate.  Perhaps it’s time to run against Hoover again.