Saturday, November 28, 2009

Obama, the New Rehoboam?

Then King Rehoboam took counsel with the old men, who had stood before Solomon his father while he was yet alive, saying, "How do you advise me to answer this people?" And they said to him, "If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever." But he abandoned the counsel that the old men gave him and took counsel with the young men who had grown up with him and stood before him. And he said to them, "What do you advise that we answer this people who have said to me, 'Lighten the yoke that your father put on us'? And the young men who had grown up with him said to him, "Thus shall you speak to this people who said to you, 'Your father made our yoke heavy, but you lighten it for us,' thus shall you say to them, 'My little finger is thicker than my father's thigh. And now, whereas my father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.'"
I KINGS 12:6-11
Peggy Noonan, in her usual Saturday Wall Street Journal column, has some things to say about what people are saying about the new president that brought this quote to mind. I'd call Noonan a moderate, although she did work for Ronald Reagan and was a speechwriter in the first Bush presidency. Nevertheless, she has a more even hand than many conservative pundits these days.

In her column she makes two points, or rather points to two moderate-to-Democratic sources of concern for the way the administration is carrying on. The first is domestic: she quotes journalist Elizabeth Drew:

...[w]hile the president was in Asia last week, "a critical mass of influential people who once held big hopes for his presidency began to wonder whether they had misjudged the man."... They once held "an unromantically high opinion of Obama,"...but now they are concluding that the president isn't "the person of integrity and even classiness they had thought."
MY thought on this is: "On what basis did they come to their initial conclusions?" which has been my question from the time Obama arose out of the obscurity of the Illinois state senate. It seems that supporters from the beginning have ascribed to the man whatever their own hopes and aspirations are. The movie BEING THERE is a comical but close approximation of what I think went on. If they are now coming to different conclusions, then it is not Obama that is to blame, but their own delusions of who this man is. Bottom line: we are still finding out.

Noonan then turns to another source, Leslie Gelb, writing in the Daily Beast. This centers on the Asian trip, and The Bow. Noonan, quoting Gelb:
...the president's Asia trip suggested "a disturbing amateurishness in managing America's power." The president's Afghanistan review has been "inexcusably clumsy," Mideast negotiations have been "fumbling." ...He added that rather than bowing to emperors--Mr. Obama "seems to do this stuff spontaneously and inexplicably"--he should begin to bow to "the voices of experience" in Washington.

When longtime political observers start calling for wise men, a president is in trouble.
Noonan's last comment is interesting, and is what made me think of the ancient king Rehoboam, the son of Solomon who took over the troubled kingdom at the death of his father. The fork in the road for the new king had to do with what advice he would abide by. History tells us that he took the wrong fork in the road, piling more financial woes on a people who had already been scoured by the cost of building Solomon's temple, and, according to the prophecy of Ahijah, ultimately losing 83% of his kingdom to the former servant Jeroboam. And here we have, perhaps, a parallel figure in Obama, replacing the "whips" of the past administrations with the "scorpions" of vastly expanded federal spending, the likes of which we may never get out from under.

Noonan, again quoting Drew:
She sco[u]red "the Chicago crowd" which she characterized as "a distressingly insular and small-minded West Wing team." The White House, Ms. Drew says, needs adult supervision--"an older, wiser head, someone with a bit more detachment."
A few weeks ago after church, I stood next to a man I didn't quite know except I knew he fervently opposed Obama. To my delight and surprise, what he said was, "I find myself praying for this president more than any president we've ever had."

As Noonan writes, "Mr Obama is in a hard place."
We might start, or having started, continue, praying for the man.

UPDATE : It seems Der Spiegel has gotten on the BashObama bandwagon as well.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Heroic Adventures In Oven Repair

The Critter

It's 3:59 in the afternoon, the day before Thanksgiving. My wife is upstairs, slaving away making pies, peeling potatoes, preparing all the fixin's for a Thanksgiving dinner she isn't going to enjoy because she has to work the next day.

I'm in the basement hiding.

Suddenly, out of the blue, comes the call:

"THE OVEN WON'T WORK! Can you come take a look at it?"

Deb and I stood before the gleaming but aging GE wonderoven, the second of our thirty-plus-year marriage, and thought about how to cook a turkey on a stick, over a fire in the firepit on the deck. The oven wouldn't turn on. I mean, what's THAT all about? I started to laugh. "Maybe Cindy next door will let us use her oven..."

Finally, the shock wore off and reality set in. I had to act--FAST! We were burning daylight. The Bartlett boys were coming to dinner tomorrow and they were not to be denied. The doggone BROILER worked, so why wouldn't that lower burner ignite when we pushed all the right buttons?? I suggested we try lighting it "by hand", a technical term my wife didn't like the sound of. That got her to dig out the oven operating instructions, which indicated in fairly strong terms that lighting the oven "by hand" was not recommended.

Ok. Get out the tools and start poking around. How do you take the door off an oven. I eyed the hinges and had a really bad vision: parts coming loose and sliding down inside the oven; having to remove side panels to reinstall; the works. Time enough to worry about the door later.

I managed to get the lower panel removed from the interior of the oven, turned on the oven light,and there before me was the critter pictured above, attached to the lower burner. I tried turning on the oven again, but the critter wouldn't heat up. I tried turning on the broiler, and the critter's brother, up there attached to the upper burner, lit up like a ceegar. So, thinking fast and furious, I concluded that maybe I had a burned out lower critter.

What to do? I called my appliance repair guys, hoping that I could buy my way out of this increasingly absurd situation. Of all the times for an oven to die. Egad. They were friendly--too friendly!--JOVIAL in fact. They just chuckled when I suggested that maybe they could, as a special favor to me, send out a techie guy. No, they're all home, preparing to enjoy the holiday. "Would Monday be ok?" They suggested I fix it myself. Somehow I knew that was the rabbit's hole I was going to dive down. I asked if they had the part. Yes, right here, and we close in twenty minutes. Just $76.95.

I didn't want to walk the dog anyway, which HAD BEEN the next item on my agenda. I drove up to get the part. By the time I got home Deb triumphantly declared she'd figured out how to remove the door. "Yeah, I know. Open it halfway and then lift. The parts guy told me all about it," I said.

The new critter came complete with handy instructions.

The first instruction read:
"Remove all parts necessary to provide access to defective igniter."
Sounds easy enough. Instructions, you gotta love them. And so began my odyssey into the layers-of-an-onion that is the nether regions of your modern oven. Good news? I needed just one tool to do the whole job, a quarter-inch bolt driver. So equipped, I began unscrewing this and unscrewing that, whipping out this chunk of sheet metal and that. Deb dutifully took them from me and opportunistically started washing them, as washerwomen are wont to do. And then scattering them around the kitchen in random order. What a team we are.

Five, six layers down, I finally unpuzzled my way to the floor. And there was my Precious, the little burned-out critter: my dead igniter: exposed for all the world to get at to remove the two obscure little screws that attached at an upward 45 degree angle rather than, more practically, downward where you could get at them without digging to China. It didn't matter: there were those two little white wires coming out of the back that had to be snipped, stripped, and rewired using the cute little ceramic wirenuts that came in the igniter kit. I snipped, dutifully. Then I read:
Instruction #5:
"Reattach the wires the same as the old igniter, using the ceramic wire connectors enclosed in kit."
Oops. Didn't quite notice which wire went where on the old igniter. Ah, doesn't matter, I'll just attach, and this....HERE. Good. Done. Daringly, without even reinstalling all of the scattered parts, I turned on the oven to see if the new critter worked. Nothing. I mean, nothing! Then, just as I was about to turn it off and do the ole switcheroo, bingo! Ceegar.
LIT ceegar! Damn. I'm good.

I started backing out of the cave feet first: attach the cigar to the mounting bracket, then the bottom most sheet, attached with two screws at the front underside, then the mounting brackets at the back, then the next two sheets, then the two funny weird ones in front, which fit sort of tightly and screwed into the sides, then reattach the front of the burner, then....a few extra screws here, hm....then finish it all up and get the hell out.

Some serious cat toy equipment was found on the floor at the bottom of the oven. No loose change. But five minutes after completion, we had lift-off!

I glanced at the Igniter Kit instruction sheet one more time, and happened to notice a
WARNING! "Electrical Shock Hazard. Disconnect power supply before servicing!"

The Happy Results

Victor Davis Hanson on Our New Superstitious Age

If Postmodernism was the taking away of rational thought without replacing it with anything, then the next, er, logical step would be the Age of Superstition.

Hanson argues that's what we've now entered. I've had an on-again, off-again conversation going with Ed Veith for ten years about how Postmodernism was a "transitional" stage, mostly reacting to modernism. We've noted how it had its good sides: rediscovery of things that were not "modern", and a balancing out of our over-reliance on "scientific thinking" and rationalism as a panacea for all mankind. But it still remained, to me, an unstable way of thinking, like a cleaned house awaiting what came next. Hanson still calls it postmodernism, but I think we've gone beyond that vacuum into the Hereafter. Here are snippets from Hanson's very political take on what's come next:

Barack Obama promised us not only transparency, but also a new respect for science. In soothing tones, he asserted that his administration was “restoring scientific integrity to government decision-making.”

In our new Enlightenment of Ivy League Guardians, we were to return to the rule of reason and logic. Obama would lead us away from the superstitious world of Bush’s evangelical Christianity, “intelligent design,” and Neanderthal moral opposition to human-embryo stem-cell research.

Instead, we are seeing an unprecedented distortion of science — indeed, an attack on the inductive method itself. Facts and reason are trumped by Chicago-style politics, politically correct dogma, and postmodern relativism.
He then goes on to count the many ways we are no longer being led to think logically about the world, including this:
Western inductive thinking used to teach us to look at facts and collate symptoms. (E.g., we have observed a number of killers evoking Islam, yelling out “Allahu Akbar!” at the moment of their murdering, or post facto, bragging unrepentantly of murdering Jews and infidels.)

Then one makes a diagnosis based on such empirical findings. (E.g., unlike the case with radical anti-abortionists or violent environmentalists, in the last eight years we have witnessed a series of unhinged Muslim males who have justified their violent actions through affinities with, or promotion of, radical Islam.)

All those data lead to a scientific conclusion and prognosis. (E.g., while only a small proportion of Muslims have committed violent attacks, over the past eight years there have been dozens of cases in which angry Muslim males have attacked Jewish centers or U.S. military personnel, and have shot or deliberately run over individual Americans. Therefore, there is a danger that a subset of young Muslims is disproportionately committing terrorist acts. Furthermore, the combination of disaffected Muslim males and ubiquitous jihadist propaganda, together with Western denial, will logically lead both to more formal plots and to more lone-wolf attacks.)

But not so fast: Remember, we are now in an age of superstition, not rationalism, in which utopian ends justify unscientific means.
The new Age of Superstition. Embrace it, live it, enjoy it. It may be with us for awhile.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

FEYNMAN On Scientific Honesty

This quote probably should apply to Business, Government, the Media, as well as its intended subject, Science. It comes from the Nobel Physicist's Caltech speech in 1974.

In light of the apparent rise of politics in science (It has always been there, but the damaging effects can hurt more people now), I offer you a quote from the author of What Do YOU Care What Other People Think? and other delightful books.

It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty – a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid–not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked – to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can – if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong – to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Spitting, your mother told you, is gross. She may have said uncouth, but probably not. She may have told you, if you had to spit, to spit outside.

Here's a little email interchange between me and an anonymous pastor friend, I'll call him, er, say, Jesse. I had some questions for him.

ME: I've been thinking about incarnational theology again.

JESSE: An excellent pasttime.

ME: I've been wondering if you have any insight into, or can point me to

someone with insight into Jesus' acts of spitting to cure the deaf

and the blind men in Mark?

I'm thinking about it in terms of baptism and the Lord's Supper: is this somehow connected: the desire of the Lord to connect the physical world with the spiritual in forgiveness and healing? I'm thinking also about the Fall, how creation itself is broken. When Jesus spit, was part of the message that he was healing, or

promising to heal, Creation?

JESSE: I haven't seen anything about healing creation, but the connection to the means of grace is something I've used before. Asking why He healed the senses through spit is like asking why He washes sins away and bestows spiritual life with water.

ME: Well, actually, most questions from the reformed have to do with that, so I am looking to connect as broadly as possible the incarnation and the work of the Incarnation. When people say, "Oh, baptism is just symbolic", with the implication that the sign points elsewhere and therefore we shouldn't put too much emphasis on the sign, then I think, "So we shouldn't put too much emphasis on the incarnation of Christ, should we?" That often stops 'em.

As to why, not sure I care. You are right: answer one part of it, we answer it all. "why did Jesus spit?" "Why did Jesus condescend to be born a man?" There HAS to be a connection.

The fact that there are other times he doesn't use matter in healing doesn't undermine these examples, I think. But it does confuse the issue just a bit. Was it Jesus' mood at the time? :)

JESSE: Actually, I don't have a satisfying answer, unless it's satisfying to know that He has redeemed our bodies as well as our souls for eternal life. Yet that still doesn't tell us "why." Why did Naaman have to dip seven times in the Jordan? When we have the answer to one of these questions, I think we'll have the answer to all of them. Part of the problem may be the disconnect that we assume between the physical and the spiritual. There are not two creations, but one. Easily overlooked physical events may have spiritual implications, consequences, or causes: a good reason to use the liturgy and pay attention to our posture and movements in worship.

Incarnational, indeed.


If anyone has anything to add to the discussion, jump right in. Why did Jesus spit?

Sunday, November 15, 2009


I just ran across an old journal I kept when I was a 19 year old kid traveling in Europe for the first time. About a week into the trip , while in Munich, West Germany, I visited the Dachau concentration camp museum. My notes:

January 7--Munich-Dachau:
A concentration camp, I have found, looks quite similar to an army barracks--that is--twenty-five years after being used...Dachau was the scene, from 1933 through 1945, of 31,591--or more--deaths: mainly Jews, Russians, or German resisters. I walked to the gate with a South African acquaintance, who was in the midst of a two-week whirlwind tour of Europe...
We first entered the museum, which resides in the main building at the head of an area that used to be barracks. In front of these stands the "roll-call" area, where prisoners used to be tortured--after anyone managed to escape--by being forced to stand at attention for one night and half a day.
The museum mainly consists of documents and pictures that have been blown up and posted within two or three large rooms, rooms that were used for storage. In a pinch, when there was a scarcity of room, these were torture chambers. The pictures digress from the original building of Dachau through the first prisoners in 1933, to 1938. They finally end in some photos of starving, bony men cheering as they are freed, and the aftermath when American soldiers find "the morgue" full of hundreds of dead bodies.
My friend and I walk down the rows of barracks, all gone now except for two or three; we walked where thousands of hungry, tired prisoners walked, or trudged, or crawled. At the end of the lane, to the left and through a gate, stands a statue of a hungry, dirty POW. Behind it is The Building. We walked in through an empty room to the Ovens. A sign hanging from a large wooden support read, "Prisoners were hung here." This was directly in front of the third of five ovens. There were open, showing what amounted to a great baker's oven, seven feet long and two feet wide. Walking through this room into the next, I felt something akin to depression as I tried to imagine the attitudes and consciousness of men accustomed to seeing others being tortured and hung. I couldn't imagine it.
We entered "The Showers" which were never used at Dachau (the showers at the Hartheim Castle, near Linz Austrian, were apparently "much better"). These are actually gas chambers, disguised so that prisoners wouldn't kick up a fuss while being taken there, etc. It is just an empty room with several holes in the ceiling, from which gas would have come.
And that was all. It didn't impress one, all clean and tidy, as being a dangerous unusual place. But the story behind it all makes one imagine that one sees machine guns and Nazis in the towers, and that one hears trudging footsteps, and a voice crying out in total, frustrated despair. I left quietly.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Obamacare, The House, and the Senate

From The Federalists Papers, article 73:

The oftener the measure is brought under examination, the greater the diversity in the situations of those who are to examine it, the less must be the danger of those errors which flow from want of due deliberation, or of those missteps which proceed from the contagion of some common passion or interest. It is far less probable, that culpable views of any kind should infect all the parts of the government at the same moment and in relation to the same object, than that they should by turns govern and mislead every one of them.
The populist, rash House has passed a travesty of a bill: emotional, power-hungry, the dream of any decent far leftist. Well, with the exception of federal funding for abortion for any female of any species. Things should not go so well in the Senate, where a "greater diversity" of situations and opinions should help bring some sanity to what is a crazy bad piece of legislation.

This is a great teaching moment in the history of the United States. Did the founders understand how treacherous simple democracies could be, and did they take steps to anticipate effective ways to stymie mob rule? The sedate, royal, sophisticated state of affairs in the Senate--all in comparison to the mob rule tendencies at the moment in the House--may be about to tell us something about the wisdom and greatness of the founder's vision.

As Abe Lincoln is known to have said: "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but..."

Friday, November 13, 2009

Attention CORMAC MCCARTHY fans

There is a really good interview with the author of THE ROAD in today's Wall Street Journal. A few snippets:

WSJ: Does [the] issue of length [of a movie] apply to books, too? Is a 1,000 page book somehow too much?

McCarthy: "For modern readers, yeah. People apparently only read mystery stories of any length. With mysteries, the longer the better and people will read any damn thing. But the indulgent, 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore and people need to get used to that. If you think you're gong to write something like 'The Brother's Karamazov' or 'Moby Dick', go ahead. Nobody will read it. I don't care how good it is, or how smart the readers are. Their intentions, their brains are different."

WSJ: How does that ticking clock affect your work? Does it make you want to write more shorter pieces, or to cap things with a large, all-encompassing work?

McCarthy: "I'm not interested in writing short stories. Anything that doesn't take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing."

WSJ: You grew up Irish Catholic.

McCarthy: "I did, a bit. It wasn't a big issue. We went to church on Sunday. I don't even remember religion ever even being discussed."

WSJ: Is the God that you grew up with in church every Sunday the same God that the man in "The Road" questions and curses?

McCarthy: "It may be. I have a great sympathy for the spiritual view of life, and I think that it's meaningful. But am I a spiritual person? I would like to be. Not that I am thinking about some afterlife that I want to go to, but just in terms of being a better person. I have friends at the [Sante Fe] Institute. They're just really bright guys who do really difficult work solving difficult problems, who say, 'It's really more important to be good than it is to be smart.' And I agree it is more important to be good that it is to be smart. That is all I can offer you."


Well. Those of us who already knew McCarthy's work knew not to go to him for spiritual advice. He seems above all very talented at posing all of the hard questions, unflinchingly, but leaves the answers to others. There are times in his novels when he probably should have stopped typing, gone have a cup of coffee, and looked out the window. But I think he is the best writer in America today. And posing the hard questions is an important vocation.

My son Jeremy gave me a copy of THE ROAD for Christmas last year. It's time I read it.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

"I was sick of it, too."

I got a nice note from my son Colin, living in deepest darkest Mexico.
But within reach of an internet connection, thankfully. One of his comments:

How are you all doing? Glad to see the blog continues. Got sick of seeing that stupid tray every time I clicked on the link.

Very cool tray btw, no joke.



Sunday, November 8, 2009

Heroin and Confession

The Friday night prison Bible study continues apace. There has been a complete turnover of men from a few months ago, when for perhaps six months only two showed up regularly. We now pretty regularly seat seven. Not a huge group, but perhaps a start toward interesting a few of the shyer, or harder-core inmates in maybe sitting down with us. I've finally given up on finding anyone to help out, so I've made a commitment to go every Friday night myself.

A large, black, sweet ex-con has been returned to prison, and is back in the Friday night group. "I did pretty well for about ten months, but then I just started selling those narcotics again, and here I am back again." I told my old friend I was glad to see him again, but not there. "You're hurting people by selling that stuff, you know that don't you?" Yeah, he knows. How hard it is to find a new way when you're black and poor and the old ways have worked, financially speaking, in the past.

Last Friday, we started a scriptural word study on forgiveness. I'm not sure that's the best way to go about it, but they asked to do thematic studies rather than just reading consecutively through books of the Bible, which we'd been doing for years.
I realized once we got started I needed to back up though, and talk about the doctrine of sin. We found ourselves puzzling our way through the latter parts of Romans 7, and it was helpful! Then, back into the OT to discover what it has to say about forgiveness. Interestingly, the overwhelming number of passages regarding "forgive others" are NT. In the old testament, the writers are begging God for forgiveness. As Daniel said in his prayer, "not because of our righteousness, but because of your mercy."

Anyway. One of the guys started talking: "When I was doing heroin, I tried to hide the fact from God. Heroin was all I wanted to do; it consumed my every thought. God didn't look all that attractive to me. I was hiding from God. At some point, I finally got around to telling God, in prayer, that what I really, really wanted was more junk, to get high. It seemed when I finally honestly just told him that, then He started to answer my prayers."

I thought that was marvelous. I kept coming back to this with the others at the Bible study: his honest confession removed the obstacles to the Holy Spirit: heaven opened and he found help; he was delivered from his bondage to this terrible drug.. And then, later, we ran across this about forgiveness:

"I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, "I will confess my transgressions to
the Lord,"
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.
Psalm 32:5

I had the man who had struggled with heroin addiction read this passage aloud, and bam. It really seemed to hit home. We then went on to talk about the relationship between confession and forgiveness, which I harp on all the time anyway. A few things are starting to gel, perhaps.

These guys keep running into one another. It is like a brotherhood of the jailed. Most have been serial offenders, and have been in Bible studies together in various institutions around the state. I have always suspected that for some of them, it is easier to be in than out. Three squares a day, a warm and safe bed, and they have friends in there. Many of them, at this level, are working on the outside during the day: menial jobs, assembly line jobs; one guy's job is to drive them to their workplaces and pick them up again.. And they run into familiar cons and ex-cons at their workplaces as well.

For others, time hangs heavy and they can't wait to be released. These are the ones with families awaiting their return.


Now I have found the ground wherein
Sure, my soul's anchor may remain--
The wounds of Jesus, for my sin,
Before the world's foundation slain;
Whose mercy shall unshaken stay
When heaven and earth are fled away.

Father, Thine everlasting love
Our scanty thought surpasses far,
Thy heart still melts with tenderness,
Thy arms of love still open are;
Returning sinners to receive
That mercy they may taste and live.

O Love, Thou bottomless abyss,
My sins are swallowed up in thee!
Covered is my unrighteousness,
Nor spot of guilt remains on me,
While Jesus blood, through earth and skies
Mercy, free, boundless mercy cries!

With faith I plunge me in this sea,
Here is my hope, my joy, my rest.
Hither, when hell assails, I flee,
I look into my Savior's breast.
Away, sad doubt and anxious fear!
Mercy is all that's written there.

Mercy is all that's written there.

J. A. Rothe, trans. by John Wesley.