Saturday, December 30, 2017

My Impossibly Optimistic Wish List For 2018

I loved so many things about my immediate surroundings in 2017: my family, friends, church, jobs, - and hey, no heart attack this year! - so in that sense I'm good with 2018 looking a lot like 2017, except the Buckeyes make it into the college football playoffs. However, I do have an Impossibly Optimistic Wish List For 2018 that involves the media, the President, political factions, we the people, and myself. Here they are, in no particular order.

Monday, December 18, 2017

The War (?) On Christmas

It's the time of year when we hear a lot about Jesus, Santa, holiday cheer, peace on earth, yuletide celebrations, free shipping for a limited time, and....war. War?

The sense that there is a war on Christmas is nothing new in the United States. The Puritans outlawed it for a time; Henry Ford was convinced a Jewish plot was overturning the Christian celebration; the John Birch Society thought the U.N. was the villain; current groups keep track of department stores that celebrate - or don't. The President himself has made the return of Christmas to the White House a significant issue in his campaign and his presidency.

Is there really a war? Should people be worried about Christmas being banned or otherwise taking a pummeling across culture? And what's a Christian to do in the midst of all this controversy? In this episode, I offer some (hopefully) helpful thoughts about the origins of Christmas, the history of the church's observance (or lack of it), the current state of the cultural clash, and some recommendations for Christians about how to honor what Christians believe to be the reason for season.

As always, I value interaction with you! You can listen to the Etcetera podcast on Soundcloud or on various apps (such as Podcast Addict or Stitcher Radio). Then, feel free to comment on this blog, the Etcetera blog, or on our Facebook page. Meanwhile, here are some recommended links that may be helpful in thinking carefully about this topic.

Monday, December 11, 2017

What Does It Mean To Be A Science Denier?

I've been hearing the phrase "science denier" tossed around quite a bit lately. Frankly, it's usually a rhetorical bludgeoning tool to dismiss someone who disagree with someone else about how to properly use the scientific method or how to rightly understand information and conclusions. It's almost never actually about someone "denying science" - unless they are postmoderns. 
In all these cases, it doesn't mean that both sides are right because they don't agree. I'm also not making the claim that both sides are using the scientific method with equal vigor. I am just noting that almost no one denies that the scientific method is good for studying the natural world. There are remarkably few actual "science deniers" in the scenarios I just mentioned. A better term might be "science challengers" or "establishment skeptics," since a scientific argument is occurring between two sides who at least claim to value science but strongly disagree about the robustness in which the method is being employed.

My point here is limited: "science denier" is almost always an inaccurate term, and I see it everywhere. It annoys me. It's a conversation stopper meant to poison the well in any discussion. In a world where real news is called fake news and words seem to increasingly lose their meaning, even small victories count.

* * * * *

(1) I think there is an argument to made that all statements about origins are unavoidably theological statements in that they will make a claim about the necessity or possibility of God in the process. Some start with or without God and then make claims about science; some start with science and then make claims about the existence and/or nature of God - or lack of it. Either way, the two topics become tightly intertwined. Let's not kid ourselves: both sides are trying to tell a story of everything that enables us to hold a belief (or non-belief) about God that meshes with what the scientific method reveals.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Moving Into The Neighborhood

When Christianity first started, the followers of Jesus lived in a world full of people in situations that were really at odds with Christ and his teaching.  What were they to do now that they were spiritually Christian while almost everybody around them was a culturally very Roman?
The early followers of Christ often took an approach to spreading the Good News of the gospel that was not only counter-cultural to the Roman and Greek way of life, but was countercultural to how the church today often handles the uneasy tension between the church and society. The early church wanted to reach their cities – they cared about them, after all -  but they lived in places where they were surrounded by a lot of really bad stuff. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Punisher

“All the things that I done, memories, they never hurt me. But the past, it's more than memories. It's the devil you sold your soul to. He's comin'. He's comin' to collect." —Frank Castle, The Punisher

Netflix’s The Punisher is one of the most violent TV shows I have seen. You can read review about the plot and the quality of the show elsewhere. I want to jump right in to a discussion that's been swirling around this show: the level of violence.

Plenty of reviews have suggested that the timing is bad considering the recent mass murders from which the United States is recovering. That's a valid question, but I think they are wrong -and I think this show might be more timely than ever precisely because it unveils the terrible nature of violence.

The Punisher features broken, hardened, nearly soulless men who have trafficked in the way of the gun. None of them are meant to garner our admiration. Even Frank, the punishing protagonist(?), leaves us scrambling if we want to justify who he has become and what he has done.

He has clearly separated people into two categories: ends and means (to use Kantian terms). Those he views as ends, valuable in and of themselves, he would give his life to save. That’s the part of Frank we really like – and why we want him on our side. I mean, the dude gets things done.

But then there's everyone else. Daredevil asked him once, “You never think for one second, "S***, I just killed a human being"? The Punisher responds, "That's being pretty generous." The people he kills aren’t people to him anymore. They are things, and they will likely give their life for him. There is a terribly uncomfortable episode where he tortures a man he is convinced is a criminal. The man is not. Frank does not seem to care once he finds this out. He does what he thinks needs to be done, and if he needs to treat you as a mere chemicals in a meat bag, he will.

That mindset is part of what tragically formed him into The Punisher and informs what he does now. Vanity Fair refers to Frank’s “compartmentalized view of the world”:
“It’s all right to kill bad people as long as you know that they’re bad. What the series neglects to examine, of course, is the fact that the Punisher is just as wicked as the villains he targets. Though he’s the victim of a corrupt system, he’s not working to take down that system, or even repair it; instead, he’s taking advantage of disorganization in order to wage a personal war on any individuals who threaten him.” 
The series might neglect to examine it, but maybe that's our job. Maybe the series need do no more than bring it into the light so we can see if for what it is. This is the nagging issue behind most of the superhero stories. They are vigilantes who share a common worldview in which they can do what they believe is justified outside the purview of the law. There is an interesting snippet of conversation from the Daredevil series that uncomfortably connects the dots in the MCU:

"You think, uh you think he's crazy?"
"Uh, the Punisher? No. I think he was inevitable."
"Inevitable? How so?"
"Maybe... maybe we created him. All of us. The moment that we let Daredevil, or the Devil of Hell's Kitchen, or whatever it is-"
"There's... there's no connection."
"Well, actually, I think it's a pretty straight line, Matt. Daredevil practiced vigilante justice in our backyard and we applauded him for it. I know that I did. And we never stopped to think that maybe... his actions could open the door for men like this. Men with guns. Men who think that the law belongs to them."

Frank is appalled when a terrorist claims that he and Frank are no different (“We both believe the system will fail to do what needs to be done, and we take matters into our own hands,” or something like that). They are different because the bomber targeted innocent people, right? But wait…Frank tortured an innocent guy just a couple episodes earlier because that guy’s life was just a means to Frank’s ends. Frank’s violence isn’t random, but that’s little comfort to those unjustly hurt by him. He is no terrorist to the general population, but there is very good reason for everyone to be a little nervous. A scene in Daredevil gave us a disturbing window into his way of thinking:
“"You know those, uh... those people? The ones I put down, the people I killed? I want you to know that I'd do it all again. This is a circus, all right? It's a charade, it's an act. It's bull**** about how crazy I am. I ain't crazy! I'm not crazy. Okay? I know what I did. I know who I am. And I do not need your help. I'm smack-dab in the middle of my right god**** mind, and any scumbag, any... any lowlife, any maggot piece of s*** that I put down, I did it... because I liked it! Hell, I loved it! I'm sitting here, I'm... I'm just itching. I'm itching to do it again. And you think... What, you think you're gonna send me to a nuthouse? Some doctor, they're gonna get me to stop from doing what I want to do? Well, that ain't happening! Not on my watch! You people, you call me the Punisher, ain't that right? The big bad Punisher. Well, here I am! You want it, you got it! I am the Punisher! I'm right here! You want it, I'll give it to you. And anybody who came here today to hear me whine, to hear me beg? Well, you can kiss my ass!"
I’ve seen a number of reviews saying this a bad time for a show with this level of violence. I don’t know. Perhaps what is portrayed could look appealing to someone whose heart has already been deeply calloused, but the average viewer will not see a glittering and appealing world of excitement and intrigue. They will see torture, blood, horrifying inhumanity, and a cycle of violence that escalates around and within those who engage in it. As a review at Variety noted: 
“But above all what “The Punisher” is cynical about is the use of force: This is a series where a man who was asked to senselessly kill by his government goes rogue and ends up hunting down members of that same government — because they made him kill people. The show is wary of guns, wary of blind patriotism, wary of unquestioned service; it sides only and always with veterans. (The affection that military veterans have for the character of the Punisher is a long-documented one. The character was originally a veteran of the Vietnam War when introduced in 1974; in the Netflix series, he’s a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.) Bernthal’s Frank Castle seems to have wrapped himself in these forces because he doesn’t trust anyone else to have the power to wield them — and at the same time, because he is so broken by his own tragedy, he is a protagonist who commits violence while understanding how that violence creates trauma. It makes for a charged, destabilizing dynamic…” 
The end of the show hints at a turn toward peace if Frank is willing to enter into a community of the broken and healing. I doubt it will last. The Punisher does not mete out his savage punishment from a place of health. The hell inside become the hell outside. Hurt people hurt people, isn’t that how the saying goes? And if they don’t get fixed, broken people will break people. And if you give them a gun, they will do so quite efficiently.

I’ve long advocated for honest violence: if you are going to show it, don’t make it cool. Make it real. If you do it right, we will know that violence is the last thing for which we should hope. Show us the toll it takes on everyone involved.  If viewed as more than mere entertainment, The Punisher forces us to face these things:
“The Punisher forces us to philosophically question our own personal relationships with power, abuse, sadism, and terror. The series, drenched in shadows and hazy grays, explores what happens when vigilantism goes unchecked. Fans who have been following Castle’s story from the second season of Daredevil know that he’s killing because his family was killed; The Punisher, through its excessive violence, wants to test whether there’s a limit. It wants to ponder what could happen if everyone who’s ever been wronged started acting like Castle.” 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Problem With Power

While the recent Harvey Weinstein scandal has highlighted the terrible problem of sexual
harassment and assault, it's also shone a spotlight on a broader topic: the misuse of power. In Part One of a short podcast series on this topic (see link below), Beth Milligan and I look at the recent sexual allegations in light of the broader dynamics of how power is given, gained, used and misused in American culture.
  • How is our culture fueling this? One can firmly believe in personal accountability while also recognizing the powerful influence of the environment in which we are raised. 
  • In what ways does this misuse of power, particularly in male/female interactions, manifest in more ordinary moments before it crosses the line and garners headlines? The Harvey Weinstein's of the world were not created in a moment; what does the process look like that enables or even encourages those in power to harass and assault?
  • Finally, what can be done about it? Where do we go from here? What kind of dynamics must we address in homes, schools, and social institutions?
The ubiquitous presence of the #metoo has made more clear than ever that we must make a concerted effort to learn what honor, respect, and dignity mean in a world that seems to have forgotten these things far too often. We will be dedicating more than one episode to this, so this is only the beginning of a conversation we hope can be instrumental in challenging the status quo and offering a hopeful solution.

You can find the podcast on Soundcloud here, and you can visit our Facebook page as well where we continue a discussion and occasionally post additional links to related stories. We welcome feedback on this website and on our Facebook page! Our intent is addressing these topics is not to suggest we have finished the discussion; our goal is to pursue truth, and that is best done in community - which in this case includes you!


Tinder And The Dawn Of The Dating Apocalypse
When Men Become Monsters
Why The Harvey Weinstein Allegations Could Change Our Culture
How Vulgarity Normalizes Predators
A Culture For Predators
The Minds Of Powerful Sexual Predators: How Power Corrupts
The Unsettling Truth Behind the #MeToo Movement
Why Power Corrupts
How Power Corrupts The Mind

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Is It Statistically Safer To Have An Abortion Rather Than Give Birth?

Planned Parenthood Black Community recently posted on Twitter: “If you are a black woman in America, it’s statistically safer to have an abortion than to carry a pregnancy to term or give birth #scarystats.“

According to commonly cited stats, all pregnant women are statistically safer having an abortion than giving birth, though the degree of safety falls on a sliding scale. The rate of maternal death in the United States is lowest for white women and highest for black women, with pregnant women of other races or ethnicities landing somewhere in the middle. 

I want to address this question: is it statistically safer for a pregnant woman in the United States to have an abortion than to carry a baby to term or give birth? 

It’s not statistically safer for the unborn baby, of course, who always dies in an abortion. One cannot address the broader moral issue of abortion without addressing the status of the unborn. But, for the sake of this post, I am only going to look at the initial claim involving the mothers. 

My interest in this is not to make an anti-abortion argument, though I am happy to do that and have done so elsewhere. My interest is in the facts swirling around a claim that has life-changing implications for pregnant women.

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Foreigner

If you are a Jackie Chan fan - and maybe even if you are not - you will like The Foreigner. It's a compelling story in the tradition of Taken. A father has lost his daughter, and he will do anything to bring the perpetrators to justice. From the shocking act of terrorism at the beginning to the end the audience knows is coming, the film keeps us engaged and (generally speaking) rooting for the right people for the right reasons.

There are several interesting elements to the story that deserve some serious thought. Pierce Brosnan's character (Liam Hennessy) is a morally compromised man trying to do the right thing for morally ambiguous reasons. He would be a great case study for an ethics class. Several affairs show what happens to individuals and situations when sex, which is meant to be an expression of love, becomes a weapon. As much as I am interested in pursuing those thoughts more deeply at some point, I am currently more interested in something that stood out to me in relation to Jackie Chan's character, Quan Minh.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

When Men Become Monsters

In an ideal ecosystem, everything has a particular role to play; there is a balance that is hopefully not disrupted by something that breaks the natural flow and harmony. In a broken ecosystem, something invasive is introduced that will brings harm. (I'm talking to you, zebra mussel.)

The Harvey Weinstein scandal is calling attention to a lot of important issues, so I want to be sure we don't overlook this one: we have a sexually broken moral ecosystem in the United States. While both men and women are are impacted, women are bearing the brunt in overwhelming numbers as morally monstrous men increasingly exert their power to use and abuse. How did we get here? What are the causes? What can we do to address it?

* * * * *

First, we have to address the terrible social cost of pornography. Is there really any question that it fuels all kinds of terrible fallout for women and men? It fundamentally damaging how people view others. It’s ruining sex for millions of people; it’s leading to a rise in human trafficking; it’s creating a culture in which we begin to think of pornographic norms as if they were actual norms. Read up on how people who work with kids are noticing wildly changing norms for young girls who are being pressured to perform like porn stars by equally young boys who are being raised on porn. And if you are wondering if there are studies that confirm the link, the answer is yes. 

Yet in the midst of this damage we laud moral monsters like Hugh Hefner - well, not everyone did - who have done all they could to convince us that our current sexual ecosystem is the best of all possible worlds: Boys will be boys, and women will be bunnies. When men say ‘hop,’ women should be happy to do so naked on the grounds of a castle that puts Neverland's scandalous rumors to shame. It’s all so very normal and good and healthy.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Plague Of Porn

As much as I like to explore both sides of an issue, the two sides of this issue are remarkably lopsided. Pornography is a moral and social plague that brings devastation to those who make it and those who use it. Here's the argument I will make, and which my links will support:
  • It dehumanizes, objectifies, and eventually destroys the actors and actresses who make it.
  • It turns those who make and produce it into callous users if not predators.
  • It ruins romantic relationship emotionally, sexually and relationally. 
  • It ruins normal relationships as users get used to the commodification of people.
  • It fuels “acting out” as many (not all) users find that simply viewing an activity is not enough.
  • It fuels a culture that normalizes sexually abusive behavior (see the recent headlines about a daunting list of predatory males - then ask women around you if they have had those kinds of experiences with men in their lives)
Full disclosure: I gave ten years of my life to pornography. Fortunately, this was before I had easy access to the internet, so I was spared the easy escalation of clicking on the next link. I didn't need that to fall into an addiction. Had you asked me at the time, I would have said it was no big deal (except for the shame and depression that followed my inability to stop). It wasn't until I found freedom - which is a story for another time, and involved what I consider to be God's miraculous and crushing intervention in my life - that I realized how much it had been impacting my view of women and sex, as well as my overall judgment of what gave people value, worth and dignity.

I rant about this not because I sit astride some moral high horse; I'm pleading with you as one who was broken by this, and as one who did not realize until later that cost that all those around me would pay for all the time I spent training myself to view the world through pornified lenses. As I moved from addition to freedom, I spent a lot of time reading up on how porn impacts the brain, how it impacts relationships, and how it devastates those who make it. I also spent a lot of time refilling my mind with truth (more on that in the links at the end).

It is not a victimless crime. Someone always pays a price. Don't take my word for it; read the links. There's a lot of them, but there's probably not enough that can be said about the seriousness of this issue.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Apocalyptic Fevers And Ships: Two Novels Of Life After The Collapse

I've always been a fan of apocalyptic fiction. Plagues, zombies, alien invasions, world wars, the end of the world, I love 'em all. It's not that I'm morbid (or so I will defend to the bitter end). It's more that I like seeing how people envision humanity's response when everything falls apart. Two recent library impulse reads, Fever by Deon Meyer and The Ship by Antonia Honeywell, gave me a golden opportunity to visit two visions of a world in collapse.

* * * * *

Fever has been getting some buzz about being the next great apocalyptic epic, and it's got some great blurbs from people who know something about that genre (such as Stephen King himself). Set in South Africa, mostly in the village of Vanderkloof in the Northern Cape, it picks up after a plague has wiped out the vast majority of the world. Infrastructure is down; desperation is creeping in. The story begins with a father and son's fight for survival before morphing into the chronicling of the rise of a city in the midst of a dangerous and lonely world.

It's hard to highlight the strength of this story, because it did everything well. The depth and development of the characters were compelling (it's a father/son story at heart, but there is much more at work). The rising tension and increasing stakes felt realistic. Fever even shows how its easy for bigger-than-life heroes to build the historical mythology of a culture. I could gush, but I have more dignity than that as of now. A couple things stood out to me that set this story apart.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The United States And Gun Violence: What's A Problem, What's Not, And What To Do About It

After the recent horrifying shooting in Las Vegas, the gun discussion has been hot, as it should be. I probably don’t need to note how inundated the United States is with guns. Our culture is saturated in a way that is outstanding – and I don't mean that in a good way – among other nations, particularly nations in the West. In terms of the raw numbers, the human toll is daunting.

A discussion of guns and violence cannot afford to minimize the personal and emotional impact of gun violence. Can we all agree on that? It's far too easy for pro-gun advocates to raise a defense that appears to minimize the fact that real families are mourning real death because a gun killed someone they loved. An argument for gun ownership can easily seem like a cold, legal argument that ignores tragedy.

On the other hand, the ongoing discussion must also include the facts surrounding gun sales and ownership. The anti-gun crowd too quickly lumps gun owners into a melting pot full of of rabid, violence-loving fools who will only give up their guns when they are pried from cold, dead fingers. This is not fair.  It's a gross misrepresentation of the vast majority of gun owners.

I would like to offer some facts about gun violence and ownership in the United States (with plenty of links!), and then make a recommendation on what we can do as a culture that aligns with what has been observed in other Western countries wrestling with what to do about this problem.

Two important caveats before we jump into this.

First, because I think the statistics defend lawful gun ownership more than is often assumed, I am afraid I will be dismissed as a gun lobby homer. I’m not. I do not own a gun and don’t have plans to own one. I am not a hunter or sport shooter. I like going to outdoor music festivals, and movie theaters, and restaurants, and church, and just walk walk down the street  – all places where gun violence has taken a tremendous toll. I hate the idea that violence is that close. If we could live in a world without guns, that would be fantastic.

Second, I believe there are practical things we can and ought to do in order to address gun violence. I’m convinced there is a two-pronged approach. First, we should enforce the laws we have and look at how to improve them. Second, we have to recognize the problem of human hearts. If all our hearts were good (and our brains free of mental illness), gun violence would be a non-issue. For that reason, we must have a national conversation about what is forming people who commit all kinds of violence. But we don’t live in a world full of pure hearts, and so we must engage in behavior modification more effectively than we are currently doing. I believe there are ways to do that, and I will address that at the end.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Helping Kids Navigate Message From Media: A Conversation With Dr. Meg Meeker

I had the privilege of being on Dr. Meg Meeker's "Parenting Great Kids" podcast recently to discuss teens and entertainment. From her bio page:
Dr. Meg writes with the know-how of a pediatrician and the big heart of a mother because she has spent the last 30 years practicing pediatric and adolescent medicine. Her work with countless families over the years served as the inspiration behind her best-selling books: Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters; Strong Mothers, Strong Sons; The Ten Habits of Happy Mothers and Boys Should Be Boys. 
Dr. Meg’s popularity as a speaker on key issues confronting American families has created a strong following across the nation and around the world. She has also spoken nationally on parenting issues, including personal appearances on numerous nationally syndicated radio and television programs including The Today Show, Today with Kathie-Lee and Hoda, Dateline with Katie Couric, The O’Reilly Factor, Fox and Friends, The Dave Ramsey Show, The Laura Ingraham Show, NPR, Oprah Radio, The World Over with Raymond Arroyo and more. 
She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, certified by The American Board of Pediatrics and serves on the Advisory Board of The Medical Institute.

In other words, she is the real expert here. If you are interested in our conversation on teens and entertainment, here's the link (The Parenting Great Kids Podcast (Episode #34). Dr. Meeker gives an introduction to the topic, and then we talk about, well, a lot of things. I hope you find it as engaging as I did!

For more information about Dr. Meeker and the resources she has to offer, I encourage you to access her website, read her books and her blog, and check out her many interviews. It will be well worth your time.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Omens, Disasters, Prophecy And American Pride

I have written elsewhere about other concerns I have about how the modern church handles the Bible in relation to prophecy.  In this post, I want to focus on a particular observation that has sunk in over the past week or so: Most of the discussion in the United States about eclipses, hurricanes, judgment and prophecy only makes sense if you live in the United States. 

The entire world didn't have a total solar eclipse last month, yet somehow because the U.S, got it, that was a signal of the end. In 2016, South/East Asia, North/West Australia, and the Pacific and Indian Ocean had a total eclipse. In 2015, it was Europe, North/West Asia, North/West Africa, East and North America, the Atlantic and the Arctic. Total eclipses happen a lot all over the world, but for some reason they don't count unless they blanket the United States. The rest of the world was having natural disasters in 2017 as well, including tropical storms and flooding (some of which devastated church communities) but apparently their experiences did not merit the same prophetic consideration as ours.

This, I think, ought to give us pause, and I will offer several reasons to explain why.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Harvey, Irma And Global Warming: The Facts From Experts Whose Opinions Matter More Than Mine Or Yours

After hurricanes Harvey and Irma, it was hard to miss the multitude of headlines demanding that we pay attention to global warming now. Those who refuse to see this connection are science deniers at best and possibly criminals at worst (some are suggesting politicians who deny or minimize global warming should be arrested). 

But there were other voices as well, voices cautioning that the correlation was not so clear. The more I read, the more I realized how many 'weasel words' permeated the coverage (might, could, likely, probably, many speculate, etc). Even worse, headlines and even conclusions within articles often did not align accurately with the actual facts in the article. 

I figured it was time for some research. I looked for national and international agencies, think tanks, meteorologists and climatologists. I did not try to avoid anything or confirm a particular bias. As far as I know, what I have to offer represents the mainstream or consensus scientific view. I know "consensus" is a dirty word in some circles, but if it's good enough to give force to the global warming argument, it should be good enough to give weight to this topic as well.

These quotes will address the number of hurricanes, their strength and duration as compared with existing data over the history of hurricane activity, and whether or not we should be drawing a connection between the power of the recent hurricanes and global warming. 

I think you will see that while there is minor disagreement, the general consensus is solid: global warming does not get credit for Harvey and Irma (except for perhaps a couple extra inches of rain). These are not climate change deniers saying this. Everyone I read affirms that the globe is warming, and that if trends continue we should eventually see significant impact, even if it might be a while. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The End Is Near - Again

“And there will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars: and on earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the seas and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them from fear and expectation of those things that are coming on the earth, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” (Luke 21:25-26)

"And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth." (Revelation 12:1-2)


These verses are suddenly front and center on social media. Why? For the passage in Luke, it's because the eclipse was on the 21st, Hurricane Harvey began on the 25th, and the flooding hit on the 26th (there's the numbers from the chapter and verses). There's more, however.  According to
"Harvey, a Category 4 hurricane, made landfall exactly 4 days after the Great American Eclipse and 4 weeks before the Feast of Trumpets, or, on the Jewish calendar, exactly 4 weeks before the Revelation 12 Sign featuring a woman with 12 stars on her head who symbolizes the 12 tribes of Israel.  The storm was the most powerful hurricane to make landfall in 12 years and brought with it 12-foot storm surges."
This isn't the first time Luke 21 has been referenced in relation to natural disasters. Charisma magazine wondered last year if Hurricane Matthew was perhaps the referent. It wasn't, apparently.

The verses in Revelation are being cited because on September 23, 2017, the sun will be in the constellation Virgo (the virgin), the moon will be near Virgo’s feet, Jupiter will be in Virgo, and Venus, Mars, and Mercury will be in the constellation Leo. There are nine stars from the constellation Leo; the other three are found in the conjunction in Leo of Venus, Mars, and Mercury. Some are claiming that this is a fulfillment of a sign in the Revelation 12 passage cited above.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Facts About DACA And DREAMers

"We will resolve the DACA issue with heart and compassion -- but through the lawful Democratic process -- while at the same time ensuring that any immigration reform we adopt provides enduring benefits for the American citizens we were elected to serve," he said. "We must also have heart and compassion for unemployed, struggling, and forgotten Americans." – President Donald Trump

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which was started by President Obama in 2012, lets young immigrants who came to the United States as children of illegal immigrants to a) apply for temporary protection from deportation, and b) obtain work permits, attend college, get a driver’s license, etc. There was a $495 fee attached to this, and it needed to be renewed every two years.

These immigrants became known as DREAMers after the DREAM Act, a failed piece of legislation meant to give these particular immigrants legal status in return for attending college or joining the military, and to eventually help them apply for citizenship. Though it kept popping up in Congress between 2001 and 2010, it never passed. 

So in 2012, President Obama used an executive order to issue DACA, which meant that these DREAMers who met certain criteria could apply for “deferred action” every two years. This was not a path to citizenship; "deferred action" meant that deportation proceedings would not be started against them. They would be “lawfully present” for those two years. This was only available for immigrants who met the following criteria:

  •  lived in the US since 2007
  • arrived before they were 16
  • were 30 or younger as of June 2012
  • were in high school, had a high school diploma (or a GED), or were discharged from the Coast Guard or US Armed Forces
  • had a mostly clean criminal record (not convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanor)
Unfortunately, most people under DACA have no path to become citizens, because "federal immigration and naturalization law contains a categorical bar that prevents, in most circumstances, a person from applying for permanent residency or citizenship if their most recent entry to the United States was 'uninspected'" - which is precisely what happened. "Permanent residency is the step necessary to become a citizen and since DACA recipients are not eligible to be permanent residents, they cannot become citizens."

In 2014, President Obama decided to expand DACA by a) loosening age restrictions and b) including parents in what was called Deferred Action For Parents Of Americans (DAPA). Suddenly, half of the illegal immigrants in the United States were covered. A lawsuit against both DAPA and the expansion of DACA was successful (the Supremes deadlocked, so the 5th Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision to block the action stood). This was not, however, a lawsuit brought on constitutional grounds. It was because of “Texas’s claim that it would incur costs” and because “the Obama administration did not go through the APA’s notice and comment process when creating them.”

When Planned Parenthood Fights For the Right To Live - and DREAM

“DACA has helped so many young DREAMers to go to Planned Parenthood abortion centers. We are resolved to fight back against this cruel and heartless decision — and I hope you are, too.

Here at Planned Parenthood, we firmly believe that every person has the right to live, work, and raise a family freely and without the threat of deportation or separation.

We believe in every person’s right to control their own destiny and their own body.

We stand with our allies who are leading this fight and will never stop fighting for this vision. Protecting immigrant families from inhumane attacks, assault, and deportations is critical to making that vision a reality.

- Cecile Richards, President, Planned Parenthood Federation Of America


Oh, my.

Planned Parenthood clearly does not believe every person has the right to live, work and raise a family. They are responsible for ending the life of unborn babies at the remarkable rate of 887 a day on average (that’s about 320,000 in 2015 in case you were wondering).  Oh, and “79% of their surgical abortion facilities are located within walking distance of African American or Hispanic/Latino neighborhoods.” So those DREAMers they are helping? They are helping them abort the next generation. Deportation is bad for business, a business that makes at least a third of its income (and perhaps as high as 50%) through inhumane attacks and assaults against unborn human beings (click on the link to see my defense of this definition of a fetus).

Oh, Cecile, you have such moral clarity for the born, and I’m with you on that. I, too, think DACA needs to be reinstituted by the legislative branch. It is a morally good law implemented poorly. Let’s use the just means this time to achieve the same just ends.

But please, please apply your thinking to those who have not had the privilege of being born. They are truly the marginalized, the discarded, the ones being deported not just from this country but from this life. They are the ones being separated from their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. Let them live so that they can truly control their own destinies.

I actually agree with your vision (with some clarifications about when deportation is appropriate): "We firmly believe that every person has the right to live, work, and raise a family freely and without the threat of deportation or separation. We believe in every person’s right to control their own destiny and their own body." Cool. Just…don't stop there. Walk it back. Every person's life begins not at birth, but at conception. The biology is incontrovertible. All they did after that moment was grow. 

Let them live.

Let the dream, too.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Wind River's Modern American Frontier

Wind River is the third film in a loosely connected trilogy linked to Taylor Sheridan. As a screenwriter in Hell Or High Water and Sicario, he set both in what Sheridan calls the "modern American frontier."  As a director, Sheridan uses the same setting in Wind River to take a stark look at the ways in which sin shatters the world in a 21st century Wild West.

I noted in my review of Hell or High Water that I was conscious while watching the film that it was a remarkably well made movie. I thought the same thing during Wind River. I didn't realize until later that Sheridan was responsible for both. I'm impressed that he got y attention with both. The dialogue and pacing, the brooding silence that suddenly explodes in violence, the way in which the landscape is just as much a character as the actors (the cinematographer also shot Beasts Of The Southern Wild)...  Wind River is just really well done in terms of cinematic art.*

During the opening credits, a voice intones, "There is a meadow in my perfect world." There is no idyllic meadow in this film.  Instead, there is the bitterly cold mountains of Wind River, the only American Indian reservation in Wyoming. As cold as that wind is, there is one just as bitter that moans through too many hearts as well. One character says, "You'd think people would realize this is sheep country." Hello, foreshadowing. Sheep country attracts wolves. There is more than one kind of sheep, and there are many kinds of wolves, and a howling, harrowing wind flows relentlessly through them all.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Is The Nordic Theory Of Everything Really As Great As It Sounds?

Several weeks ago I had the privilege to talk with Mella McCormick, a philosophy professor at Northwestern Michigan College, about a book called The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life, by Anu Partanen. Here’s Mella’s overview:

The book compares the Nordic approach to life with that of the United States, which interestingly enough is polar opposite in many ways; for example, the Nordic countries provide their citizens with free universal health-care, free higher education, paid maternity and paternity leave, to name a few things. 
Despite the United States' proposed claims to value principles such as liberty, freedom, independence, the U.S. has created a system that makes its citizens dependent on others: students are dependent on parents to help pay for higher education and thus become beholden to them (this could potentially influence where the student goes to school, what she studies, selected career path, etc.); employees are dependent on their employees for health benefits, thus potentially enslaving a person to a job that he does not like or finds unfulfilling but cannot afford to leave; due to the high cost of geriatric care, adult children are left with the task of caring for their elderly parents which could potentially corrupt the elderly-parent/adult-child relationship (i.e. elderly parents feel like a "burden" to their children, children feel overwhelmed by medical tasks they are not trained to perform).
Partanen argues that the social services that Nordic countries provide for their citizens is what allows them to lead more authentic, free, and liberating lives, not less, as the anti-socialist rhetoric that portrays Nordic countries as "welfare states" would have you believe.
According to "For Generous Parental Leave and Great Schools, Move to Finland" (New York Times Review), there are many facts to support this contention:
  • Finland’s child poverty rate is less than 5 percent, compared with 25 percent for American children. 
  • Smoothly functioning and comprehensive health insurance 
  • A full year of partially paid disability leave 
  • Nearly a full year of paid parental leave for each child and a smaller monthly benefit for an additional two years (should I or the father of my child choose to stay at home longer with our child) 
  • Affordable high-quality day care 
  • One of the world’s best K-12 education systems 
  • Free college and free graduate school.
“The core idea,” Partanen writes of the Nordic Theory Of Love, “is that authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal.” A Norwegian friend said it this way:

"The basic view on government in Norway is that you elect people whose responsibility it is to help create a society where people aren't necessarily 'dependent' on others or government but actually have a fair chance at creating a good life for themselves with the help of good government regulations and equal opportunities."

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

White Supremacism, Antifa, And The Ethics Of Protesting

It's no secret that tensions are rising in the United States. Hardly a week goes by without another march, another protest, another shouting match (or physical fight), another cry against injustice in some fashion. These clashes often seem to generate a lot more heat than light. Is it possible to navigate our way through these skirmishes in a way that productively leads us toward truth, justice, reconciliation and peace, or are we stuck with simply shouting and posturing until the loudest or strongest side wins?

In our most recent episode of Etctera, Beth and I discuss the recent controversy in Traverse City involving the replicas of Columbus's ships before addressing Charlottesville and other places where clashes over civil and human rights have been front and center in the news. We offer a starting conversation on a complex subject; hopefully, it can contribute in some fashion to a cultural move toward truth, justice, reconciliation and peace.

As always, you can listen to this podcast on Soundcloud; we also encourage you to become part of the conversation by posting thoughts on this page or on our Facebook page. Meanwhile, here are some links that will further your search for truth on this subject.    

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Reader's Digest's 12th Mind-Blowing Discovery Scientists Made This Year

The latest Reader’s Digest (September 2017) has the click-bait worthy “13 Mind-Blowing Discoveries Scientists Made This Year.” Though I must confess my mind remained relatively calm, the 12th one did catch my eye:

A tool to repair DNA in embryos. Chinese scientists devised a gene-editing tool that may eliminate certain disease-causing mutations in the DNA of human embryos. It is the first such technology to be used on viable human embryos and could one day help prevent babies from inheriting serious genetic diseases. But it has already raised ethical concerns about the potential to effectively design children – and alter the genetic heritage of humankind.”

I note the following:
  • This is the DNA of something living, not something that will potentially live.
  • The DNA being repaired in human embryos (unborn children) is the DNA of a human being. There has been a diagnosis of a serious genetic disease that is passed on from one human being to another. Not from a human being to a blob of tissue or to something that may or may not vaguely have personhood. It’s what human parents pass on to human babies. The distinctive embryo/baby language used in the article may be helpful in identifying the stage of life the baby is in, but there is no ontological difference between the child mentioned with both those terms.
  •  The repair done in utero will be a part of a 10-year-old’s history or a 70-year-old’s history. There is a unity to his or her life that begins before birth. What happens to this unborn baby happens to the person whom that baby was, is and will be. A 50-year-old who had this kind of treatment probably won’t say, “Before I was a baby (or a human or a person) I had this treatment…” They will likely say, “Before I was born...” Before I was born. 
  •  The DNA being repaired is not the mother’s or the father’s. Neither one is affected by this. It is the DNA of a unique, separate human being. This is not something done to the mother’s body; it’s done in the mother’s body to the baby’s body. 

There is a unity to human identity that begins at conception. The story of our life begins in the very first moments, and every stage adds chapters. Abortion does not stop a story from starting; it ends a life story that has already begun.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Big Pharma, The Triangle Of Death, and AI: Three Documentaries You Should See in 2017

This past week, Etcetera's podcasting crew had the opportunity to interview writers, producers and directors associated with three documentaries showing at the Traverse City Film Festival:
producer Andrew Grant and director/writer Anniken Hoel (Cause of Death: Unknown); director Zaradasht Hairan (Nowhere to Hide); and producer Greg Kohs (AlphaGo). You can listen to the podcast on Soundcloud; as always, we welcome your thoughts on our Facebook page and on this post!

To give you an idea of where the conversation ranged on these three films, here are some observations and questions that worked their way into our discussion with them, as well as some links with which to pursue each topic. I think you will find what our guests had to offer as fascinating and insightful as we did!

Monday, July 24, 2017

War For The Planet Of The Apes

War For The Planet Of The Apes has received widespread accolades, and rightly so. More importantly than the remarkable special effects, it tells a thoughtful story about war, morality, revenge, justice, goodness, and hope. And it once again features apes riding horses, which is hard to beat in terms of sheer entertainment value.

What stood out to me in this final (?) installment of the series was the remarkable biblical imagery. I said to my son after I watched it, "That was a story of Caesar, the Ape Moses, leading his people to the Promised Land." I went home and jumped online, and sure enough - that's what the director had in mind:
In Reeves’ mind, the character’s death was almost biblically preordained. “He was sort of this ape Moses, so for him not to be able to be in the Promised Land with them — I thought reaching this place could be tremendously emotional,” he said.
 Director Matt Reeves told EW:
“We watched Bridge on the River Kwai...We watched The Great Escape. We watched Biblical epics, because I really felt like this movie had to have a Biblical aspect to it. We watched Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments. We didn’t go, like, ‘Let’s take a little bit of this, a little bit of that.’ When you surround yourself with something that feels emotionally right, there are connections that make sense to you that somebody else might not see…[the films] informed the vibe we felt about this thing.”
The parallels to the biblical epic of Moses are unmistakable.

The Shape Of Reality: What Is Justice?

As noted in the opening post in this series, I believe Christianity offers compelling reasons to believe that truth is found most fully and consistently within the framework of a Christian worldview. The second post addressed the need for an objective foundation for morality. The language of morality only makes sense if we are significant moral agents who have an obligation to choose good and avoid evil, so the third post addressed the issue of whether or not we are really free.

The concepts of freedom and moral obligation brings with them the idea of justice. If right and wrong are objectively real, and we are people deserving of praise and culpability based on how our choices align with moral goodness, then part of the morally obligatory good would be to treat people justly. So, what is justice?

Thursday, July 13, 2017

SpiderMan: Homecoming

Spiderman: Homecoming, the latest movie in the Marvel Universe

franchise, is getting great reviews (93% at Rotten Tomatoes from critics, 92% from the audience). It’s not the best movie Marvel has done, but it’s solid. This version of Spider-Man is going to be an interesting addition to the Avengers: he’s lighthearted, somewhat naïve, and not yet jaded (matured?) by life; he’s also strong, fast, brilliant, and incredibly excited about fighting evil and injustice with his heroes. But, as this movie makes clear, he’s got some growing up to do.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Etcetera #3: What Comic Book Superheroes Tell Us About Ourselves

Thanks, Karl Meszaros, expert on "everything that could stop you from getting a date," for joining us for this podcast's discussion of comic book superheroes heroism, and the impact is has in both society and individuals. In this episode, we look at several different aspects of this cultural phenomenon:
  • the rise of the superhero genre
  • the changing nature of what is considered heroic (how did we get from Superman to Deadpool?)
  • the reflection of and impact on readers and viewers
  • the benefits and pitfalls that this type of storytelling has to offer
You can link to the podcast on Soundcloud here; you are also welcome to join a post-podcast discussion on our Facebook page. Meanwhile, here is a list of related articles that you may find helpful.

In an act of bald self-promotion, here are links to some of my reviews, which include occasional guests appearances by both Beth and Karl (whose perspective influenced probably all of these reviews):

Friday, July 7, 2017


“There are two freedoms - the false, where a man is free to do what he likes; the true, where he is free to do what he ought. “ Charles Kingsley

“Order without liberty and liberty without order are equally destructive.” Theodore Roosevelt

“Freedom, like any other virtue, does not exist in a vacuum. It must be worked and practiced to exist at all. And like any other virtue, it imposes upon those who would have it the unpleasant tasks of discipline and sacrifice. A materialistic people do not learn these tasks by reading posters or listening to pep talks, any more than you can learn to play the violin by the same methods.” Ralph Austin Bard, United States Assistant Secretary of the Navy,

“What is this liberty that must lie in the hearts of men and women?
It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not the freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check on their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few — as we have learned to our sorrow."  Learned Hand, in "The Spirit of Liberty"

“The basis of self-government and freedom requires the development of character and self-restraint and perseverance and the long view. And these are qualities which require many years of training and education.” John F. Kennedy

“The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.” Nelson Mandela, in Long Walk to Freedom

“Only free peoples can hold their purpose and their honor steady to a common end, and prefer the interests of mankind to any narrow interest of their own.Woodrow Wilson, address to Congress.

* * * * * * * * * *
Freedom in our culture often means the right to be and do as you please, how you please, when you please, where you please. It means doing your own thing, being your own boss, looking after number one first. The Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary says it means “exemption from necessity in choice and action.” It is the right to any choice so long as it is your own personal choice.

I’m not so sure this is the deepest, truest form of freedom. It’s probably better described as license. John Milton wrote in Tenure of Kings and Magistrates that “none can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license.” As is easy to see simply by surveying our world, license results far too often in an exploitative callousness that objectifies others and deadens one’s own conscious.

We can fill our brain on fake news sites; we can engage in addictive behavior; we can blow every paycheck rather than make long term plans; we can tweet whatever we want or troll any social media site; we can watch all kinds of pornography; we can use dating apps to go through people as if they were playthings; we can pollute; we can support entertainment that spoils the moral fabric of our culture; we can take all the toilet rolls in a portable toilet and throw them into the toilet (sorry...recent experience that really peeved me); we can gorge yourself with food or drink ourselves into a stupor.

We can do all that. But at what cost? Check out Chase Holfelder's rendition of "My Way." He captures the ambivalence well - it's supposed to be a song celebrating radical license, but  it's sung through tears, with some regrets, with an acknowledgment that at times he bit off more than he could chew. This version lingers: it's not the breezy, careless Sinatra version. It's a haunting reflection of one who is desperately - and uneasily - wondering if "my way" was the right way to live.