Secularist Faith and College Football

There’s an interesting story in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week. It reports on the football program at Clemson University, where the coaching staff is openly Christian. They have prayer meetings for students and baptize those who come to faith.

Apparently, this is controversial.

Anne Laurie Gaylor is co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. She asserts that “a culture of evangelizing on a football team has got to stop.” She adds that a state-funded institution is an inappropriate place for repeated religious messages.

This is ironic and hypocritical. It is ironic because the university exists for the purpose of influencing impressionable young men and women. Ms. Gaylor knows this. It’s what she does when she advocates for “freedom from religion,” and trains her powers of influence on young adults to persuade them to adopt a liberal, religiously pluralistic, and secular, perhaps even atheist, perspective. Her agenda is threatened by the presence of equally vocal religious believers on turf where she and other secularists have staked a claim and are used to getting their way.

Advocacy of a religious point of view or another is not equivalent to “pushing religion” on others, any more than Ms. Gaylor’s secularist advocacy amounts, in principle, to pushing her religion on others. I say “in principle” because her tactics are exclusivist. She has no tolerance for ideological competition. Her basic outlook on life is her own take on religious questions. It defines her religion. And her religious outlook is reflected in her advocacy. Her organization exists principally for advocacy for this religion.

A football program differs from a religious advocacy group like the Freedom from Religion Foundation. A football program prepares young men for leadership through discipline and sport. At Clemson, the leaders of this program happen to be Christians who, exercising their own freedom of conscience, are openly Christian and interested in the souls of their players. The Freedom from Religion Foundation is all about pushing a set of ideas on impressionable students. Their ideas are overtly secularist and anti-Christian. Apart from that, they have nothing to contribute. They do not even advocate for vigorous public discussion and comparison of Christian and non-Christian perspectives, including their own. They do not invite scrutiny of their agenda, nor do they submit their own worldview commitments to examination suited to university life. They are preachers and missionaries. They expect to exercise the freedom that they insist should not be allowed to others in the university world.

Ms. Gaylor herself probably was an impressionable young student at one time; she, too, probably was influenced by people she wished to please. It is likely that she fell under the spell of an ideology that she now seeks to promote, because she thinks that what she believes is true and that others should believe as she does. She has beliefs about what counts as religion, what it means to be free from religion, what it takes to be free from religion, and how freedom from religion can be fostered through her organization. And she expects others to believe this, too. It is peculiar that she expects religious believers like those on the coaching staff at Clemson to agree with her. She claims that what they believe is their own business. But they should not “evangelize.” They should, in other words, keep their faith to themselves, while she and her kin promote a secular agenda in the resulting vacuum. How convenient for her.

Secularists seek enforcement of the privatization of Christian belief. They do this publicly and generally without censure. But Christian belief is compromised when it is privatized. So the effect of Ms. Gaylor’s missionary enterprise would be the privatization of a faith that is essentially interpersonal and the social advancement of a cult of irreligion that she would not keep to herself.

For the article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, click


Missing Pages of the Bible

So today I was reading on the subject of Christianity’s Hebrew heritage and I wanted to consult a Scripture reference made in the book. I grabbed the most convenient copy of the Bible where I was in my office, the New Living Translation. I don’t remember the circumstances, but I obtained this Bible in May of 1997. In all the intervening years, I never opened this book. I literally had to blow the dust off it! So I turned to Luke 1:73.

It wasn’t there. Neither were any of the other verses between Mark 7:31 and Luke 9:7. Thirty-three pages are missing. The missing pages recount the most compressed version of the Passion of Jesus and the most extensive account of the birth of Jesus. These things matter.

I’m not worried about the orthodoxy of Tyndale House Publishers, who inscribed the front cover of this edition with the words “Easy to Understand, Relevant for Today.”

It made me mindful of the contemporary relevance of ALL of Scripture. And of the compelling evidence we have that extant manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments are reliable copies of the original autographs.

But it struck me as odd, as such things always do, that on the one occasion when I turn to this edition of the Bible, the passage I seek simply cannot be found. Time, now, to look up Matthew 7:7.

Happy 11.12.13

Today is: 11-12-13. Savor it. It won’t last long. And it won’t happen again!

A Thing of Beauty—for You, Me, and Roger Shattuck

In a book called Candor and Perversion, Roger Shattuck writes, “Forty years ago in a Paris bookstore near the Odéon, I happened upon a large, slim volume of intermingled writing and drawing. That book was the first object I acquired for purely aesthetic reasons.”

Shattuck goes on to lament the altogether passive response others had when, in his enthusiasm, he showed them his prized possession.

Often we find the beautiful in places where others see only a peculiar drabness. If they see anything at all. (Appreciation of the beautiful depends on close observation, an intentional noticing.) So it’s no surprise that Shattuck’s aesthetic tastes were not especially contagious.

When I came across this passage about ten years ago, and then again today in the commonplace surroundings of my living room, what struck me was Shattuck’s ability to recall “the first object [he] acquired for purely aesthetic reasons.” I thought to myself: What was the first object I acquired for purely aesthetic reasons? Is there a “first object”? That is, have I ever acquired anything for purely aesthetic reasons?

And then I wondered: Is it possible to appreciate something for purely aesthetic reasons, untainted by other reasons I might have? It must be, if Shattuck acquired just such a thing. So, If it is possible, how is it possible? And, Is it possible to appreciate an object for aesthetic reasons if it is also appreciated for other reasons?

It’s so easy to ask questions that are not so easy to answer. No wonder we ask but do not stick around for the answer. (Perhaps we inoculate ourselves against guilt about this with the relativist bromide that “there is no answer.” How can one be so confident of this if one hasn’t looked for an answer? Skepticism is such a convenient disguise for intellectual laziness and indifference.)

But I digress.

What I’d like to know is whether you can recall what object you first acquired for purely aesthetic reasons. If so, what was that object?

Building a Case for Architecture—Part 2 in a Series

My first entry in this series was about my experiences reading science fiction. Readers would naturally have expected a continuation of the series with more on SF. So what’s up with architecture?

Here’s what’s up. I got the idea to reflect on my past and present experiences, with thoughts tossed in about what I’d still like to read (or read again) and why. But I want to zero in on the best of my experiences in categories. These categories may be broad, or they may be very focused.

Image.Book Cover.Alain de Botton.Architecture of HappinessWith this in mind, feel free to read the following interview with myself:

Alias: How did you come by this lame idea?

Doug: To begin, I read a lot. Too much for other people’s good. Most of the books I’ve read I own, and the best ones are a valuable part of my library. Among my treasured books are books about books. One of these is a book called The Reader’s Companion: A Book Lover’s Guide to the Most Important Books in Every Field of Knowledge, as Chosen by the Experts. Now, I’m not expert about very many things, but books have been great companions for me for as long as I can remember.

Alias: What are some books you remember from your youth?

Doug: I may get to that in a separate contribution to this series. But the other day I was reminded of a whole series of books that I read cover-to-cover. I was riding on the Coaster—a train that runs from Oceanside to San Diego—with my extended family. There were about 25 of us. I got to chatting with one of my young nephews and I asked him what books he liked. He said he likes the Sugar Creek books. So bam! out of the blue comes this memory of all The Sugar Creek Gang books. I was reading those about 35 years ago! So my nephew and I have a lot in common. See what happens when you talk about books?

Alias: So this series is about books that have been important to you?

Doug: Important to me in a way that might be of interest to others who care about the things I care about. I’ve spent a lifetime asking people for book suggestions. I want to write about the choices I’ve made along the way, why they mattered then and whether they matter now, and reasons I might recommend them to others. It would be tough to list the most important books in my own field, and impossible for any other field. But I can list books of value, and that’s what matters. If I’m interested in a genre of literature new to me, like science fiction or epic poetry, I want to select from choice offerings. I poke around and ask people for suggestions. Then I jump in. I get a feel for things, and then I move on. Maybe I come back.

Alias: Why don’t you have a classy name for this series?

Doug: Good question. What would you suggest?

Alias: How about “Books of Value”?

Doug: I like it. Maybe my readers will have some great ideas, too. I can go back and change titles to earlier entries in the series to reflect the name of the series. But a series name should be catchy, and it should reveal something about what to expect.

Alias: This entry is called “Building a Case for Architecture”? Why is that if all we’re doing here is conducting an interview?

Doug: Well, we got a little off track. But architecture is an interest of mine. I mean, I’m interested in certain things about architecture—what buildings mean, why one building is beautiful and another isn’t, whether a particular building fits its surroundings or whether it’s poorly located. How long a building has been where it stands, and what the surrounding area was like when construction was completed. There’s no way that Christopher Wren could have imagine how the city of London would eventually gobble up the ornate churches he designed for the city. There are so many angles on architecture. I guess there was a pun in that.

Alias: What are some other interesting issues?

Doug: Whether the purpose of a building has changed over time. For example, this seems to be the case with so many churches in New England, all painted white and adorned with a simple steeple. What are they there for now? What happened there? That question, “What are they there for now?” sort of grabs me. These buildings have been “re-purposed,” as if that purpose they now serve is the purpose they were designed to serve. “They’re so cute. Perfect for a boutique shop, or a tea room.”

I’m interested in changes in architecture over time, and why some forms of ancient architecture have been borrowed many times since their invention. For example, do you know the architectural basis for this nation’s capitol building? Why was this chosen? Who made the decisions? What was this new adoption of classical architecture supposed to mean to a young nation?

Ot this . . . how does a building make you feel when you stand next to it, or when you’re inside? Is it better to view it from a distance? Is it even possible to view it from a distance, or is it too crowded by other buildings? When I see a photo of aerial view of New York City, what do I see? Buildings. I don’t see one building; I see many buildings. But I may not focus on any one of them. My attention may be on the whole that somehow is NYC. How is that possible? What does it say about NY? What does it say about me? Am I different than most people in the ways my attention is attracted when I see a skyline?

What’s more impressive, the Golden Gate Bridge as such or the terrific human accomplishment it represents? Does it really “represent” human achievement? Is it supposed to? Or try this one. How is the Golden Gate Bridge different in kind than the “carvings” of Mount Rushmore? What does Mount Rushmore “mean”? Are there any buildings that mean the same thing? Could there be? What is the limit to what a building can mean? And what may be a related question, what were the great monarchs or the papacy thinking when they commissioned the design and erection of certain buildings?

Many old buildings get bull-dozed, but others are preserved at great expense? What makes the difference? Who decides? Have there been any major regrets about decisions past? And how, exactly, is a building preserved? You can’t tuck them away in an art museum somewhere.

Alias: And there are books that explore such things?

Doug: Yes! My first suggestion is the book The Architecture of Happiness, by Alain de Botton. Start here. If you aren’t turned on about buildings after that, then move on. Read about crocodiles instead. If you’re hooked, then learn a little about types of architecture. For this I suggest the morsel Architecture: A Very Short Introduction, by Andrew Ballantyne. It’s not beautifully crafted, like de Botton’s, but it’s short and it’s educational. There are guidebooks for specific buildings or neighborhoods. There are books with sketches of buildings old and new. And don’t forget about biographies of great or celebrated architects: Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. And then are biographies, as it were, of buildings themselves, accounts of how they were designed and built, the purposes they served or serve, and so on. Think of the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the Taj Mahal.

Alias: Are there books on architecture that you hope to get to eventually?

Doug: Yes. Heavenly Mansions and Other Essays on Architecture, by John Summerson; Lewis Mumford’s From the Ground Up, another book of essays. These authors are good at their craft. They are wordsmiths, which makes reading about architecture (or anything, for that matter) more enjoyable. I like the essay style because you can dip into a work at your leisure and take something away in short order. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space looks interesting to me from this distance. But the style of French philosophy may not be to my liking. We’ll see.

Other Sources for Reading about Architecture (for non-architects):

Readers, do you have suggestions for non-architects reading to understand and appreciate architecture? Leave your suggestions for the rest of us in the comments box.

Robert Heinlein and the Novelty of Science Fiction—Part 1 in a Series

I have no special expertise in science fiction. I’ve read little of it. But what I’ve read I’ve selected carefully and most of it has been a joy to read. The league of SF enthusiasts is intense if not immense. Though the SF genre has attracted a hefty percentage of readers, this result has been hard-won. This is my impression from the sidelines, as it were.

My limited direct experiences with science fiction may be of interest to those fiction readers who have long wondered what all the fuss is about, and to those enthusiasts who care to know what a neophyte like myself might say about what he’s found worthwhile.

So here is the first installment in my recounting of those experiences . . .

Image.Book Cover.Job Comedy of Justice.Robert HeinleinI think the first author I read was Robert A. Heinlein. An excellent choice, I’m sure the experts would agree. (You may know him through some of the films inspired by his work.) The trouble is remembering which book came first—and whether there were others. I’m pretty sure it was Job: A Comedy of Justice. I like sustained, serious comedy, and I’ve always been drawn to the Old Testament book of Job. Putting the two together would be quite a feat. Those who subscribe to my webpages will likely find this novel a tempting entry point for reasons that resemble my own. (Others, who do judge a book by its cover, may be drawn first to his book Friday.)

As a philosopher, I can appreciate Heinlein’s talent as an observer of the human condition and what a future society might look like, if we continue on our present course, or if dramatic changes happen to us (notably through the development of technology). Heinlein had metaphysical and epistemological interests, as well, but his sensibilities were quite different than my own. This is no reason to pass over his ouvre. I’m an advocate for reading outside your comfort zone and conversing with diverse perspectives. It’s an aid to understanding your own worldview, and accepting it more responsibly. And fiction is among the best ways to access alternative perspectives on reality and human experience. Literate science fiction can do that for you. (I think, also, of Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Not SF, but imaginative and contemplative, a far distance from where I stand intellectually, but by a clever fellow-traveler—on a motorcycle, to boot!)

Heinlein lived to be 80 years old, but his output was comparatively meagre for one with so great a reputation and influence. It shows that quantity is no match for quality. His total cast of significant characters, on the other hand, is almost ridiculously extensive. And you know an author’s influence is substantial when there’s a thriving online society dedicated to his legacy.

So that’s how it all started for me, and for that, I suppose, I’m in debt to Heinlein. But deep as my appreciation goes, I will never be considered a “Heinleiner.”

Note: For an exposition of worldview analysis within literature, I recommend James Sire, the book among his many that had the greatest influence on me. When I read it in the late 1970s, the book was called How to Read Slowly: A Christian Guide to Reading with the Mind. It’s now been adjusted to How to Read Slowly: Reading for Comprehension, which doesn’t quite get at the essence of the book, I feel. It’s a book I wish I had written. But I couldn’t have done so when I was 18. Probably still couldn’t.

Judging Mystery Novels by Their Opening Lines

1st edition (Alfred A. Knopf)

1st edition (Alfred A. Knopf) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two days ago I invited readers to choose one of four mystery novels based on its first line alone. I also challenged readers to identify author and title for each of the opening sentences of the four books. Click here for details.

Here are the opening lines, with title, author and year of publication:

#1: “A blizzard raged on the glacier.” From Operation Napolean, by Arnaldur Indridason (St. Martin’s, 1999).

#2: “Three days before her death, my mother told me—these weren’t her last words, but they were pretty close—that my brother was still alive.” From God for Good, by Harlan Coben (2002).

#3: “God, I hate air travel.” Call No Man Father, by William X. Kienzle (1995).

#4: “When they ask me to become President of the United States I’m going to say, ‘Except for Washington DC.’” Spy Hook, by Len Deighton (1989).

I read these books in the following order:

  • Spy Hook
  • Gone for Good
  • Operation Napolean
  • Call No Man Father

Each has its virtues, but ranking them is easy for me. In descending order of preference, this is my ranking:

  1. Call No Man Father
  2. Operation Napolean
  3. Gone for Good
  4. Spy Hook

Next challenge: match book titles with the main characters in each.

  1. Will Klein
  2. Father Koesler
  3. Kristin
  4. Bernard Samson

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