Monday, December 31, 2018

The World in 2019

The Economist is a premier magazine which has been published continuously for 175 years now. Each year in December it publishes an issue about the coming year. (Interestingly, their very first issue was released in 1843 just three months before Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which was also published in London.) This article uses the same title as the new year issue of The Economist.
Happy New Year of the Wild Boar!
As in past years, I begin with reference to the Japanese (and Chinese) zodiac. Following the ancient 12-year cycle, this is the year of the inoshishi in Japan. In English this New Year in East Asia is often called the Year of the Pig, but there is a difference between a buta (a domestic pig) and an inoshishi (wild boar) so I prefer to call it the Year of the Wild Boar.  
In spite of largely negative connotations of “pig” in this country, those born in the Year of the Wild Boar, such as my grandson Carl who turns 12 in 2019, are said to be happy, easygoing, honest, trusting, and brave.
Politics in 2019
The biggest political question in 2019 is the fate of the U.S. President. There seems to be a strong possibility that he will be impeached. However, unless there are irrefutable “crimes and misdemeanors” documented by the Mueller report, he probably will not be removed from office by the Republican-majority Senate.
For quite some time I have thought it quite likely that DJT would resign sometime in 2019. But the credible comment has been made by several that his being in the White House is quite likely the only thing that will keep him from being sent to “the big house” (prison).
Regardless, 2019 promises to be another year of political turmoil. The Economist predicts that the year ahead “is going to be a destructive one in American politics.” That may well be their prediction for the new year most likely to come true.
The Economy in 2019
One of the repeated “predictions” The Economist mentions for 2019 is a financial recession, especially in the U.S.—but a U.S. recession would, of course, have a negative effect on most of the world’s countries.
The editor’s first point in his lead article titled “The World in 2019” is that the economic wind in America is changing and “by the end of the year it could be heading into a recession.” And his second point ends with him saying that “the good times for USA Inc won’t last.”
Sadly, I’m afraid that prediction may also come true.
And in Japan . . .
A new “era” will begin with the enthronement of a new emperor in 2019. I remember well January 8, 1989, when the current era (named Heisei, meaning “achieving peace”) began on the day after the death of Emperor Hirohito.
The year of 2019 by the “Western calendar” will be Heisei 31—and the last year of the current era. Emperor Akihito has announced his abdication of the Chrysanthemum Throne on April 30, and a new era, the name of which is not yet known publicly, will begin on May 1.
Personally . . .
I don’t have any plans for 2019 that involve being away from home, where I am content to be—sleeping in my own bed every night and taking 10-minute naps through the day as needed.
But among other things, I do plan to keep on reading at least a book a week, learning (a day when something new is not learned is a day wasted), thinking, and writing blog articles to share with you, my dear Thinking Friends.
Happy New Year to each of you!

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Can You Hear the Christmas Bells?

Five days ago I posted a blog article about Charles Dickens’s famous novella “A Christmas Carol.” This article is about a powerful Christmas poem Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote twenty years later, in 1863.
Longfellow (1807~82) was unquestionably one of the most famous American poets of the 19th century. When I was in elementary school, I read some of his poems—which I assume is true for many of you. I am thinking particularly of “The Village Blacksmith” (1842) and “Paul Revere’s Ride” (1860).
Although I probably didn’t first read it until later, one of my favorite Longfellow poems is “A Psalm of Life” (1839). If you haven’t read that powerful poem recently, I encourage you to take a couple of minutes to click here and read it.
For those of you who like good novels, I highly recommend Jennifer Chiaverini’s delightful Christmas Bells (2015), which in alternating chapters toggles between the historical story of Longfellow in the 1860s and a contemporary fictional story set in Boston and featuring a children’s choir practicing “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” 
As you perhaps know, in the summer of 1861 Longfellow's beloved wife Fanny died of burns after her dress caught on fire. Then at the end of November 1863, his oldest son, Charley, was seriously wounded as a Union soldier. Still grieving greatly over Fanny’s untimely death, Longfellow was greatly shaken by news of his beloved son’s life-threatening injury.
According to the novel, just before Christmas 1863 as he worried about Charley’s survival, Longfellow felt Fanny's inspirational presence and penned the words to "Christmas Bells."
Before my final comments, I am sharing the full text of that impressive poem. I certainly hope you will read these words, slowly and thoughtfully. Or if you would prefer to listen to them sung, here is the link to Karen Carpenter singing some of the verses.
I heard the bells on Christmas Day / Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet / The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come, / The belfries of all ChristendomHad rolled along / The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till ringing, singing on its way, / The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, / A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth / The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound / The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent / The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn / The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head; / “There is no peace on earth," I said;
“For hate is strong, / And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:/ “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, / The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
On Christmas Day in 1960, my sermon was titled “Was the Song Wrong?” (That was also the title of my first Christmas blog article, posted in Dec. 2009.)
The time of peace on earth, as sung by the angels and recorded in Luke 2:14, has certainly not come as yet, but those words remain as our hope for the future and our challenge for the present.
May each of us do what we can in the year ahead to bring peace on earth!

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Singing the Praises of “A Christmas Carol”

For 175 years now, Charles Dickens’s novella A Christmas Carol has delighted, and inspired, people throughout the English-speaking world. Six years ago, which was 200 years after Dickens’s birth in 1812, I posted a blog article titled “A Dickens of a Good Story” (see here) and I encourage you to read it (again) as well as this new article.  
“The Man Who Invented Christmas”
Les Standiford, an American author/novelist, has written a book titled The Man Who Invented Christmas (2008). It is about how A Christmas Carol rescued Dickens’s career and led to a reinvigorated celebration of Christmas in England and the U.S.
Last month I read Standiford’s delightful book, and then June and I enjoyed watching the 2017 movie by the same name, even though the movie is quite different from the book.
Dickens started writing his short Christmas novel on October 13, 1843, and it was published on December 19. Earlier that year, Dickens had gone up from London and spent some time in Manchester, observing the plight of the poor in that industrial city.
It was at that very time that Friedrich Engels was studying the lives of the factory employees in Manchester. In The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844), Engels described the heart of that city as a place of “filth, ruin, and uninhabitableness.”
First edition cover
Because of his own boyhood days as a child laborer with his father in a debtor’s prison, as well as from his visits to Manchester and the seedy sections of London, Dickens knew well about the problem of poverty—and the gap between the well-heeled (such as Scrooge) and the struggling poor (such as Bob Cratchit and his family).  
As is widely known, A Christmas Carol is about the redemption of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge as the three ghosts he encounters on Christmas Eve help transform him into a man of generosity and goodwill.
Dickens’s delightful story is credited with removing the lingering stigma of Christmas celebrations from 17th century Puritanism and making Christmas a time for family enjoyment and communal generosity.
Altering the Future
In Dickens’s story, Scrooge asks the third ghost, “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”
And then, understandingly, Scrooge declares, “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.”
When he awakens after the departure of the third ghost, the regenerated Scrooge proclaims that “the shadows of the things that would have been, may be dispelled. They will be. I know they will!” (p. 80).
And so it was in the story.
And so it can be for us, if we are as willing as Scrooge to change our ways—and here I am thinking more about society in general and not only individuals.
As is widely known, but also downplayed by certain political leaders, climate scientists have issued dire warnings about the “shadows of things that Will be” unless significant changes are made.
An October headline in The Guardian cries out, “We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN.”
These are shadows of things to come—but as Scrooge recognized, “if courses be departed from,” things will change.
Just as Tiny Tim didn’t have to die because Scrooge became a benefactor of the Cratchit family, the looming global warming catastrophe can be averted by the human family changing its current course.

As Tiny Tim exclaims, “God Bless Us, Every One!”—and may God help us, every one, to alter the environmental future by making necessary changes in the new year.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

A Critical Thinking Jewell

For more than 60 years now I have had an affectionate relationship with Jewell. No, this Jewell is not a woman; rather it is how William Jewell College (in Liberty, Mo.) is often referred to.
The Campus of Achievement
William Jewell College was founded in 1849 and named for the Columbia, Mo., medical doctor who was a major donor of the needed funds for building a college on top of a large hill in the small town of Liberty.
June and I graduated from Jewell 110 years after its founding, transferring there after graduating from junior college and getting married in May 1957. In time, all of our four children would also graduate from Jewell.
Through the years I had the opportunity of teaching some courses at Jewell when on missionary furlough from Japan and after retirement.
While the college motto was, and remains, Deo Fisus Labora (Trust in God and Work), Jewell was long touted as the Campus of Achievement, and for 75 years selected graduates have been awarded citations at Achievement Day ceremonies each year.
(I was the probably undeserving recipient of one of the Citation for Achievement awards in 1982.)
The Critical Thinking College
While William Jewell College will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Celebration of Achievement from Feb. 27 to March 1, 2019, a new registered trademark, “The Critical Thinking College,” is now regularly used. 
I have mixed feelings about Jewell’s new slogan. It’s not that I am against critical thinking. Far from it. But I am not sure it is distinctive enough. Colleges and universities all over the country seek to foster critical thinking, as they should.
But if Jewell can actually achieve nurturing a high percentage of her students to become critical thinkers, that would be an achievement of major importance.
What is Critical Thinking?
Recently I read Steven Schuster’s 2018 bookThe Critical Thinker. The first chapter of that helpful book is “What is Critical Thinking?” In response to this basic question, Schuster writes,
Critical thinking occurs when we ask ourselves (and others) questions like “How do you know that?” or “How did you reach that conclusion?” or “What evidence supports this theory?” or “Are there any other possible explanations or alternatives that haven’t been considered yet?”  
Critical thinkers rarely follow a gut feeling. [What does this say about DJT?] They use logic and reasoning to reach their conclusions, rather than letting themselves be guided by their emotions (p. 11).
Back when I was a student at Jewell, there was no use of the term “critical thinking.” But I am confident I learned much about thinking critically then, especially in the Philosophy of Religion class, about which I have written previously (see here).
Further, I am happy to say that my four children are, by and large, critical thinkers. That is not solely because they are Jewell graduates, but the education they got there surely helped them hone the important skills of critical thinking.
Wednesday evening, we attended a meeting at which Dr. Elizabeth MacLeod Walls, who has been the president of Jewell since 2016, spoke about the college as it is now and as she hopes it will become in the near future.
“The Critical Thinking College” has been a primary emphasis of Dr. MacLeod Walls, and that emphasis, among others, is being credited with the recovery of the college from several years of some decline.
The picture below is one I took of June with Dr. MacLeod Walls on Wednesday evening. We are happy to be supporters of Jewell, her president, and the emphasis on critical thinking as the college celebrates its 170th anniversary next year.   

Monday, December 10, 2018

Combatting “Leatherbound Terrorism”

As the author of a book titled Fed Up with Fundamentalism and of a soon-to-be-published book whose last chapter is about grace, I am happy to introduce readers of this blog to Chris Kratzer and his recently-published book Leatherbound Terrorism.
Who is Chris Kratzer?
On his website (see here), Chris Kratzer identifies himself as “a husband, father, pastor, author, and speaker.” He has been a pastor for 23 years, mostly serving “conservative Evangelical churches.”
Kratzer is now the pastor of The Grace Place (in Shelby, N.C.), which is billed as “a contemporary, progressive, affirming church.”
I have not met Chris personally, but I have carefully read his book, which was self-published in September. Its subtitle is Crucified by Conservative Evangelicalism, Resurrected By Jesus.
The book is quite personal. In the first chapter Chris talks about meeting Jesus for the first time when he was seven years old. By reading the book, one comes to know much about the author, from that time until the present.
I have become a Facebook friend with Chris—as have more than 3,200 others. In addition, I am a subscriber to his blog (see here).
What is Leatherbound Terrorism?
Kratzer graduated from seminary and became a Lutheran pastor, but after a few years he was lured into becoming a conservative Evangelical. That shift is described in Chapter Three, “Drinking The Poison.”  
Even though he had a long and deep association with Evangelicalism, Chris came to realize that that form of Christianity is poisonous and that the conservative use of what is claimed as an infallible Bible is nothing other than leatherbound (as used for expensive Bibles) terrorism.
The seventh chapter of Leatherbound Terrorism bears the same title as the book. There he asserts that “declaring the infallibility of the Bible and the exclusive, divine authority of one’s interpretation of it” often leads to “power, control, and privilege” (p. 87).
Reflecting on his acceptance of that stance, Kratzer confesses that he committed “countless acts of leatherbound terrorism, deserving of nothing less than the status of a vicious war criminal” (p. 90). Strong words!
Later he writes, “We [Evangelical] Christians have been drastically wrong . . . about racism, wrong about equality, wrong about violence and war, the list keeps growing” (p. 137). He also admits that he has been wrong in his evaluation of and treatment of LGBT people.
But it is not just the beliefs of Evangelicalism that Chris now thinks are wrong. It is also their common method of operation.
“My heart is saddened and filled with deep compassion,” Chris writes, “for those Christians and pastors who have been sucked into the black hole of a success-driven, corporate, narcissistic, elitist church culture overflowing within much of American Christianity” (p. 161).
The Antidote
The remedy or antidote for all of that toxic, terroristic Christianity he had encountered and embraced, Kratzer found, was the central message of grace.
He writes in the fourth chapter how he was liberated when he “encountered Grace—unconditional, irrevocable, unremovable, pure, undiluted Grace” (p. 55). And that is the main message of the rest of his book—and of his ministry ever since.
If I was “fed up with fundamentalism” when I wrote my book with that title, Kratzer's book clearly reveals that he had become sick to death of fundamentalism, which he calls conservative Evangelicalism.
And if as I have written in Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now  (see the last paragraph of this link), “for Christians—and for all the people of the world—God’s first and last word is grace,” Kratzer’s praise of grace is even stronger.
Grace is truly the last word and the best word for everyone.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Embracing Hopelessness???

Advent Decoration
Rainbow Mennonite Church
This past Sunday, Dec. 2, was the first Sunday of Advent in the liturgical calendar of the Christian Church. All around the world churchgoers were challenged to think deeply about the theme for that significant Sunday. That theme was hope
De La Torre’s Emphasis on Hopelessness
In recent blog articles, I have mentioned Miguel De La Torre’s 2017 book titled Embracing Hopelessness—most recently here on Nov. 25. This seems to be an appropriate time to consider—and to question—his main point.
De La Torre (b. 1958), professor at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver (Colo.), is an accomplished scholar, prolific author, and one recognized by his peers as a notable leader in the field of social ethics. He was elected President of the Society of Christian Ethics in 2012.
Early in his book on hopelessness Miguel starkly states his pivotal idea:
Hope, as a middle-class privilege, soothes the conscience of those complicit with oppressive structures, lulling them to do nothing except look forward to a salvific future where every wrong will be righted and every tear wiped away, while numbing themselves to the pain of those oppressed, lest that pain motivate them to take radical action. Hope is possible when privilege allows for a future (p. 5).
From that perspective, Miguel is quite critical of German theologian Jürgen Moltmann’s emphasis on the “theology of hope” as well as of the philosophy of progress as seen in Hegel’s dialectical idealism or Marx and Engels’s dialectical materialism.
“Hope, and the historical progress upon which it rests,” Miguel argues, “fosters a demobilizing conformity” (p. 64). By contrast, “The hopelessness I advocate,” Miguel writes, “is not disabling; rather, it is a methodology propelling the marginalized toward liberation praxis” (p. 139).
Thus, he avers, “It is not hope that propels people [such as the Central American asylum seekers] to the desert where more often than not death awaits; it is desperation. . . . Hopelessness is an act of courage to embrace reality and to act even when the odds are in favor of defeat” (p. 140).
What Can We Say?
De La Torre’s rhetoric, it seems to me, is quite extreme—and perhaps it was his intention to use such rhetoric in order to draw attention (and perhaps to sell books). Consequently, I have serious questions about many of his contentions.
His ideas, however, must be taken seriously.
For example, it seems to be quite clear that in the past, touting the hope of Heaven was used as a means to pacify people in the present who longed for a better life on earth. The primary example is, undoubtedly, the use of “pie in the sky” promises to enslaved people in the USAmerican South.
And if one believes that the arc of the moral universe is bending toward justice, as MLK and President Obama believed, perhaps that belief spawns a hope that stifles action. If things are going to get better anyway, maybe we don’t really need to do anything.
Does that kind of hope impede the struggle of or for those at the bottom of societal structures? Perhaps.
Still Embracing Hope
Nevertheless, I cannot embrace hopelessness.                                  
I agree with Miguel’s contention that hope should never be allowed to blunt social consciousness or countenance inaction in the face of injustice.
But more often than not, surely, hope spurs people to action in the face of despair, to active endeavors toward betterment instead of acquiescence in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.   
Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” Precisely!
Let’s remember those words as well as these from Romans 15:13.