Alibris Secondhand Books Standard

Monday, March 31, 2008

a little shameless self-promotion

Take a look at Taken for a Ride, the story of my adventures in trying to get a taxi in Homer, Alaska in the spring of 2002, published today at Assocated Content.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

both sides do it

In response to recent post a look at uncommon descent, commenter gleaner63 said:

A few months ago an interesting exchange took place on the Neil Cavuto Show (Fox News). The debate was between a Global Warming advocate and a skeptic. The advocate, a member of Greenpeace said (paraphrased); "...look, you *are not* a climatologist so no one should take what you say seriously...". Cavuto stepped in and asked the Greenpeace rep what his feild of study was; " training I am an economist...".

Aside: What I find puzzling about this is why Fox News presented a debate about climate science without inviting a climatologist. But I guess there's more than one way be "fair and balanced".

gleaner63 continues:

The point is both sides engage in this. When Dawkins or Sagan or Asimov condemn Christianity, a lot of non-believers take their opinions as gospel, although none of the aforementioned have any credentials in theology or anything closely related.

I don't like the phrase "both sides," with its implication that there can be only two possible positions to take. Still, gleaner63 raises an important point about atheists and theology.

I've written repeatedly about Dawkins' failure to grasp even the basics of Christian theology. It's not just a matter of having no credentials -- I'm no theologian myself -- but of willfully ignoring the contributions of those who do know somthing about the subject.

When Richard Dawkins speaks about religion while dismissing the insights of theologians, and when William Dembski speaks about evolution while dismissing the research of biologists, they are being willfully ignorant. And when Fox News presents climate change as merely a debate between environmentalists and skeptics, it's being willfully ignorant.

Sadly, willful ignorance is currently in fashion in the United States. We see it in politics, where most people get their information second hand, from sources that pre-spin it into sound bites. We see it in television news, where the sound bites are welcomed because the half hour news format does not allow time for in depth analysis of any topic.

Laypeople can become knowledgeable about almost any subject, but it takes some effort. You won't learn annything by watching Fox News or reading a popular book by a pontificating expert-in-another-field. Go directly to the people who know the most about the subject, and you'll get the best information.

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

the chick-fil-a church

A couple years ago, it made for a good joke. But how quickly life imitates satire! The North Point Community Church in Atlanta has replaced outreach with franchising. Franchisee Eddie Johnson of Cumberland Church in Nashville explains ten ways that Chick-Fil-A restaurants serve as a model for North Point and its affiliates.

Frankly, I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, this is similar to what the mainline denominations have always done. On the other hand, there are some disturbing differences.

In #2 of his ten parallels with Chick-Fil-A, Eddie Johnson says:

Our church model is not going to offer a gluttonous “buffet line” of ministry programs for every type of interest group, life stage or bible study we can possibly offer. Our mission is simple. It is to lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ. We seek to do it by creating helpful, engaging and irresistible environments that help people take that “next step” towards a small group.

Forget about ministry, just get people into small groups. Christianity lite. Who needs discipleship when you can play it safe with fellowship? (Of course, many of the mainline denominations have the same weakness.)

In point #6 Johnson speaks of the "innovative concepts" that he expects will fuel the future growth of his church.

One cool thing we did at Cumberland Church this past summer was to have a Sunday worship band TOTALLY on video. Yes, video. The worship set was previously recorded at a live service at North Point. ... While not everyone liked video worship, it gave us a "Purple Cow" for discussion and debate in the community about what is and isn't "worship".

Cumberland Church's web site explains that the church often uses videos from North Point for their sermons on Sundays. Last summer they tried using imported worship music too. And why not? If the sermon is being preached by someone from another city in anther state, who is completely disconnected from the worshipers of this congregation, why not disconnect the songleaders too? After all, it might spark a debate about what worship should be. And surely debate is what Sunday morning worship is all about.

What kind of Christianity is that?

8. Just like Chick-fil-a, I can be in business for myself, but not by myself. North Point now has 3 campuses and 14 Strategic Partnership churches.

This is one of the things the Chick-Fil-A church gets right, unlike many megachurches across the U.S. Still, this is no innovation. This concept has been a part of mainstream Christianity for two millennia. We can see it in Paul's letters to the young churches. We can see it in all the denominations.

Underlying all of this is the disturbing paradigm of church as consumer product, and nowhere is this philosophy stated more clearly than here:

5. Just like Chick-fil-a, we strive to know what matters to our customers.

This attitude is common among megachurches, but it seems to be seeping out into the mainline churches, as shrinking congregations turn to outside growth consultants or focus groups to help determine the church's future plans.

I'm not convinced this is healthy for Christianity.

It may be that Christianity is not in step with 21st century American culture. If this is indeed the case, the answer is not to add technological dazzle to Sunday morning to appear more hip. The answer is not to drop ministry in favor of getting people into small groups.

The answer, it seems to me, is to get back to what the church did right in the early days: To care for each other, to provide for neighbors' needs -- neighbors inside the church and outside. To take a stand against the excesses of the popular culture. To speak up for those who are down. To give until it hurts. To be willing to face ridicule, even ostracism. To fast and pray, to listen for the voice of God to help guide the church in its future plans.

On second thought, that all sounds too hard. I don't think I could do it. I'd rather sit at my computer and type snide comments.

But maybe, just maybe, God expects something better.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

foreign aid: does it hurt more than it helps?

Massive amounts of aid in the form of free food have been going to Ethiopia since famine was first reported in the Western press, and we were in Lalibela the day one of the monthly shipments arrived. People from all over the countryside came into town on their donkeys -- well, not into town, but near it. The poorer you are, the more food you get, and no one wanted to show off his possessions, so everyone parked his donkeys about three kilometers from town and walked the rest of the way. There were hundreds of donkeys around, waiting on the edge of town, and hundreds of people in the center of town, waiting for the food trucks to arrive. With their arrival, fifty-kilogram sacks of wheat stenciled with the name of the contributing country -- some from the United States, some from Germany on this occasion -- were distributed.

While this was going on, glorious, lush fields all around Lalibela lay fallow because nobody farmed them anymore. An entire generation of Ethiopians has grown up without learning how to farm. Instead, to put food on the table, they go to town every month, park the donkey, and collect grain. Some recipients, the day we were in Lalibela, carried their ration of wheat directly over to the town market and started selling it. And so, in addition to that generation that has never learned how to farm, there is a generation of farmers who have simply stopped farming because they can no longer sell the fruits of their labor -- there is no way to compete with free grain.

Jim Rogers, Adventure Capitalist

At the turn of the millennium, retired investor Jim Rogers took a trip around the world with his fiancee. What he saw, particularly in Africa, was distressing:

Throughout the continent there are huge markets where on can find bundle upon bundle of T-shirts spread out for sale, donated by places such as the YMCA of Cleveland and the First Baptist Church of Charlotte. These and clothing of all kinds are given as donations in the United States destined for the poor of Africa, but by the time they reach the continent, they are sold as a commercial product. Not only do they enrich the entrepreneurs involved in the traffic, they also put local tailors out of business. The tailors cannot compete, nor can the people who weave cloth, spin yarn, or grow cotton, the people whose costs the tailor incurs. In Africa you used to see tailors everywhere. You would see them by the side of the road with their sewing machines. Now you see them only rarely. How can any of them compete with a product that the entrepreneur gets virtually free?

Has well-intentioned foreign aid hurt the people it was meant to help? Is Africa worse off today than it was before the West began sending massive amounts of goods in their direction?

But it gets worse. Non-government organizations (NGOs) have raised billions of dollars to send representatives to Africa to make their expertise freely available to the locals. But this form of "aid" may be the worst:

The Bangladesh International Network (BIAN), while we were there, filed suit against UNICEF, WHO, the World Bank, the Islamic Development Bank, NGO Forum, and other groups that were responsible for funding the sinking of wells contaminated by arsenic and other poisons. ... As a local newspaper reported, "The short and long term effect of arsenic poisoning is lethal. Research has proved beyond doubt that the source of arsenic poisoning is the shallow tube wells from which ninety-seven percent of the rural population receives its drinking water. People are drinking poisonous water every day from shallow tube wells while policymakers and their implementing agencies continue to sink these. While World Bank's own figures claim 20 million people are currently at risk and 75 million are potentially at risk of arsenic poisoning from tube wells, donors continue funding to sink tube wells."

Rather than stop digging wells, international agencies were conducting the Third International Symposium on Reducing the Impact of Toxic Chemicals on Bengal Basin's Economies -- the third -- in the midst of what may be the largest mass poisoning in history.

If all this is true, is there anything we can do to fix the problem? Rogers has the outline of a solution:

Forgive all the debt. Right now. African countries, combined, owe some $350 billion plus in foreign debt, according to the International Monetary Fund. While no one really expects these countries to pay back that debt, they are still required to finance it, making annual payments on the loans. If we assume the interest on the loans to be 8 percent, it means that African countries must collectively pay $26 billion a year in interest. That does not include principal payments. If we assume principal payments to be another 2 to 3 percent, annual payments to finance the debt total over $30 billion. Once the debt is forgiven, Africa's leaders will have an additional $30 billion annually that can be put to productive use, plus no debt hanging over them. Call the $350 billion reparation for supposed past sins, if it makes you feel better.

This much has been suggested before, by charitable organizations and even some western governments.

However, part of the deal would be no more foreign aid.

The effects would undoubtedly be profound. Africa would be left to survive on its own. The people of Africa, no longer relying on handouts, would learn to fend for themselves. The Ethiopian teenagers I met who had never learned how to farm would have to take up the plow. The madmen fighting on the Horn of Africa would stop receiving arms from around the world. Nigerian leaders would no longer be able to walk into banks and walk out with sacks of U.S. dollars. Those who run Mozambique would no longer be able to solicit flood relief money with which to line their coffers. The IMF and World Bank would go bankrupt, and local NGOs would be forced out of business.

Would it work? I don't know how this last part could possibly be enforced. But enabling Africans to solve their own problems is the only way to solve them.

More than eight hundred years ago, Moses Maimonides wrote that the best type of charity was to help people become more self-sufficient. When will today's advanced societies learn this lesson?

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