Monday, July 30, 2007

He Sells Cellphones . . . and Sings Opera For the Queen of England

From the Wall Street Journal of July 27, 2007:

A snaggle-toothed Welsh cellphone salesman is poised to make a splash at some U.S. record retailers next week -- even though his CD of opera solos isn't officially supposed to come out until September. In June, Paul Potts became the ugly-duckling winner of the British TV competition "Britain's Got Talent" with his rendition of the Puccini aria "Nessun Dorma." The victory made the 36-year-old an instant celebrity in the U.K., where his CD, "One Chance," made its debut last week at the top of the British album chart. But footage of his performance has also ricocheted around the Internet -- one clip has been viewed more than eight million times on YouTube, exceeding any other YouTube video uploaded in the last month.

The result: Some U.S. fans appear willing to shell out about $17 for an imported version of Mr. Potts's CD that will be available next week, even though the TV show he appeared on has not aired in the U.S., and his delivery has won him scorn among some opera buffs. "One Chance" has climbed into the top 10 CDs on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble's U.S. Web sites based on presales -- higher on Amazon, a spokesman says, than musicians such as Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen achieved when their albums were available only as imports.

The show Paul Potts appeared on was Britain's Got Talent, an obvious cousin of American Idol. But I've never seen Simon Cowell be so positive the few times I've seen Idol as he is with Paul Potts. OK, maybe Potts isn't "world class." But he's got to be the best singing cellphone salesman you've ever heard.

Listen to him talk about himself in the interviews before and after each performance. Look at the audience reaction to his voice. Something about seeing this guy do well touches me deeply. I can't really explain it, but watch his first appearance here, and perhaps you'll get a sense of what I mean. There's something redemptive going on.


Sunday, July 29, 2007

Friday, July 27, 2007

Noted and Quoted: Making Life Count

"I've spent a lot of money on booze, birds, and fast cars - the rest I just squandered."

- George Best (1946-2005)

Thursday, July 26, 2007

If Voldemort Ran the World . . . It'd Probably Resemble Iran

What kind of a place is it where women get rounded up on the street for having too much hair peeking out from under their scarves? Where they get taken to jail because their jackets are too short? Where the police are forbidden to tell anyone their own names? (Hint: It's the same kind of place where the president denies that the Holocaust ever happened.)
Iran, like many Muslim countries, is being run on a false concept of human nature and human dignity. Voldemort would be right at home running such a society.

It all starts with one simple sentence, spoken almost in a whisper, but which has a thunderous effect.

A female police officer deployed in Tehran's latest moral crackdown tells a woman that her manto (overcoat) is too short and infringes Iranian Islamic dress rules.

"Azizam (my dear), good afternoon, if possible could we have a friendly chat, please allow us to have a small chat," the officer, a graduate of Tehran's police academy, tells the young woman.

"My dear there is a problem with your manto. Please do not wear this kind of manto. Please wear a longer manto from now on."

Some are just let go there, but others are escorted to waiting minibuses with dark black tinted window panes and labelled "Guidance Patrol."

A girl in a short white manto whose long hair was tumbling out the front of her headscarf is taken by the police to one of the minibuses on Vanak Square in central Tehran -- an unexpected and unhappy end to her shopping trip.

Another arrested woman is already inside the bus. She begins to cry. "I promise, I promise!"

And the minibus doors slam shut.

Tehran's police have said they are operating a three stage process in implementing the new wave of a crackdown on dress deemed to be unIslamic, which started with some intensity on Monday afternoon.

First, women are given a verbal warning on the street. If the problem is not resolved there, they are taken to the police station for "guidance" and to sign a vow not to repeat the offence. Should this be unsuccessful, their case is handed to the judiciary.

"Sure my manto is short, but there are many others whose clothes are more seductive than mine and they walking by without any punishment," one of the arrested girls in the minibus complained bitterly.

The arrested women will now go to a "centre for combating vice".

Their parents will be phoned and they will bring a longer coat and fuller headscarf for their daughters. If the young women sign the pledge they will then be released.

"We want our words to have an effect on people," a female Iranian police officer, who by law was not allowed to give her name, told AFP before being dispatched to take part in the crackdown.

"Our method is through guidance and via words. We do not face an instance that prompts us to be physical. We do not have any bats or sprays, in the toughest instances we may grab her hand and 'guide' her to the minibus," she said.

"I am doing this it as it is my duty and my job is supported by the religious teachings," another women clad in the black chador uniform of Tehran's female police added.

A girl confronted by the female police for having overly short trousers and transparent stockings apologizes.

"I am wearing stockings but, sorry, they are too light. Sorry I will change them, definitely I will change them. Now can I go?"

Not everything goes so smoothly.

One young passer-by rounds on the police for devoting such resources to moral crackdowns rather than other social problems as the minibus -- now filled with "badly veiled" women -- speeds away to the police station.

"Shame on you, look what you've done! The people's problem is not this, go fix your traffic situation, people are stuck in traffic for hours, go fix other real problems," she shrieks.

There was already considerable controversy inside Iran when the first stage of the "plan to increase security in society" was launched in April.

Many conservatives have applauded the drive, but moderates have publicly questioned whether Iran would be better off tackling poverty and crime rather than slack dressing.

Just before the new crackdown started, popular television host Farzad Hasani grilled Tehran's police chief Ahmad Reza Radan about the drive on his talk show, accusing the police of "not differentiating between people and thugs."

An old woman in a black chador in Vanak Qquare echoed the sentiment. "Our youth have no peace of mind. They are afraid to go out, they are afraid that if they go out they will be taken to the police. Aren't they saying that there is freedom?"


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Did You Hear the One About the Episcopal Priest Who Decided to be a Muslim, Too?

So, this Episcopal priest in Seattle walks into a mosque and says, "Hey, I want to be a Muslim, too..."

This joke-in-the-making is actually a true story. The Rev. Anne Holmes Redding decided to be both Muslim and Christian, "100% of each," according to her. The local bishop in Olympia, WA (near Seattle) said - really! - that it was fine and that it opened up exciting possibilities for interfaith dialogue. But the bishop of Rhode Island, where she was consecrated, saw it differently and suspended her for a year of study and reflection. Kind of reminds me of the parent who sends little Annie to her room to "Think about what you've done."

Rev. Redding's conversion was announced in the diocese's June newsletter. It's a rather approving article, as you'll see (p. 9).

The First Things blog has an excellent summary of the matter and the inescapable theological issues it raises. It's worth the read.

I'm glad to read that there's someone in the Episcopal church who's holding this woman accountable. Now, if they would just tackle the heretic Bishop John Shelby Spong. But we'll save him for a future post.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Jesus Goes to the Movies

The people responsible for Campus Crusade's Jesus Film claim that their movie has been seen or listened to by 6,223,295,000 people.

The CIA pegs world population at 6,602,224,175 (of which 4,795,026,261 are age 15 and over).

So does anyone besides me find Crusade's numbers incredible?

In·cred·i·ble (Function: adjective Etymology: Middle English, from Latin incredibilis, from in- + credibilis credible)

1 : too extraordinary and improbable to be believed


Sunday, July 22, 2007

Albums That Didn't Go Platinum (#7 in a Series)

"Would that be WD-40, or do you prefer olive oil?"

Friday, July 20, 2007

Art Worth Getting Excited About

Art appreciation quiz: Which figure is over 300 years old, and which was placed on the hillside within the last week or two? Which is likely to be there 300 years from now?

D'Oh! A painting of Homer Simpson next to the 17th century giant carved into the hillside at Cerne Abbas, Dorset, in the United Kingdom has angered Pagans who regard the giant as a spiritual icon. The Simpson painting, showing Homer in his y-front underwear wielding a donut, was cooked up by the publicity team for the new film "The Simpsons," which opens in European theaters next week. Created using water-soluble paint, its creators said it would dissolve with the next rain. "It's very disrespectful and not at all aesthetically pleasing," Ann Bryn-Evans of the Pagan Federation told London's Independent newspaper. "I'm amazed they got permission to do something so ridiculous. We were hoping for some dry weather, but I think I have changed my mind. We'll be doing some rain magic to bring the rain and wash it away."

You can read more about the Cerne Abbas Giant here.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

In Europe, God is (Not) Dead

So says the Wall Street Journal, July 14-15, 2007. Check it out, and as you do, notice, among other things, the benefit of the separation of church and state, and the value of competition (even in the church world):

Late last year, a Swedish hotel guest named Stefan Jansson grew upset when he found a Bible in his room. He fired off an email to the hotel chain, saying the presence of the Christian scriptures was “boring and stupefying.” This spring, the Scandic chain, Scandinavia’s biggest, ordered the New Testaments removed.

In a country where barely 3% of the population goes to church each week, the affair seemed just another step in Christian Europe’s long march toward secularism. Then something odd happened: A national furor erupted. A conservative bishop announced a boycott. A leftist radical who became a devout Christian and talk-show host denounced the biblical purge in newspaper columns and on television. A young evangelical Christian organized an electronic letter-writing campaign, asking Scandic: Why are you removing Bibles but not pay-porn on your TVs?

Scandic, which had started keeping its Bibles behind the front desk, put the New Testament back in guest rooms.

“Sweden is not as secular as we thought,” says Christer Sturmark, head of Sweden’s Humanist Association, a noisy assembly of nonbelievers to which the Bible-protesting hotel guest belongs.

After decades of secularization, religion in Europe has slowed its slide toward what had seemed inevitable oblivion. There are even nascent signs of a modest comeback. Most church pews are still empty. But belief in heaven, hell and concepts such as the soul has risen in parts of Europe, especially among the young, according to surveys. Religion, once a dead issue, now figures prominently in public discourse.

God’s tentative return to Europe has scholars and theologians debating a hot question: Why?

...Some scholars and Christian activists, however, are pushing a more controversial explanation: the laws of economics. As centuries-old churches long favored by the state lose their monopoly grip, Europe’s highly regulated market for religion is opening up to leaner, more-aggressive religious “firms.” The result, they say, is a supply-side stimulus to faith.

“Monopoly churches get lazy,” says Eva Hamberg, a professor at Lund University’s Centre for Theology and Religious Studies and co-author of academic articles that, based on Swedish data, suggest a correlation between an increase in religious competition and a rise in church-going. Europeans are deserting established churches, she says, “but this does not mean they are not religious.”

...Most scholars used to believe that modernization would extinguish religion in the long run. But that view always had trouble explaining why America, a nation in the vanguard of modernity, is so religious.

...Now even Europe, the heartland of secularization, is raising questions about whether God really is dead. The enemy of faith, say the supply-siders, is not modernity but state-regulated markets that shield big, established churches from competition. In America, where church and state stand apart, more than 50% of the population worships at least once a month. In Europe, where the state has often supported — but also controlled — the church with money and favors, the rate in many countries is 20% or less. “The state undermined the church from within,” says Stefan Sw√§rd, a leader of Sweden’s small but growing evangelical movement.

...Just a few blocks away, Passion Church, an eight-month-old evangelical outfit, fizzed with fervor. Nearly 100 young Swedes rocked to a high-decibel band: “It’s like adrenaline running through my blood,” they sang in English. “We’re talking about Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”

Passion, set up by Andreas Nielsen, a 32-year-old Swede who found God in Florida, gets no money from the state. It holds its service in a small, low-ceilinged hall rented from Stockholm’s Casino Theatre, a drama company. Church, says Mr. Nielson, should be “the most kick-ass place in the world.”

There's more where that came from. To read
the entire article, you can go here

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Reasons to Believe, or Reason vs. Belief?

My friend the Friendly Atheist has posted a (liberal) pastor's critique of presidential candidate John Edwards, who says that his opposition to gay marriage is "influenced" by his Southern Baptist background. The pastor says in response:

Sen. Edwards said his opposition to gay marriage has [been] influenced by his Southern Baptist background. Most Americans agree it was wrong and unconstitutional to use religion to justify slavery, segregation and denying women the right to vote. So why is it still acceptable to use religion to deny gay Americans their full and equal rights?

To which I ask the following questions. This is just off the top of my head, and doubtless there are still more (and better) questions that could be asked in response to this pastor's sloppy thinking:

  1. So are we saying that opposition to gay marriage is only OK if it's NOT motivated by religious reasons?
  2. Why should religion be excluded as a reason for having a political view? What makes it less valid than any other reason? Says who?
  3. If we're going to exlude religious conviction from the public square, then what if the reason given for a political position is 30% religious and 70% "secular" - is that OK? If not, then what if it's 5% religious and 95% secular? What if we disagree on how religiously motivated my position is? Then who gets to be umpire?
  4. What good is a religion that doesn't have any effect ("influence") on how I think about life issues?

And finally, if it was wrong for some to use religion to justify slavery, was it also wrong for Wilberforce to use "religion" as a reason to fight for its end?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Lewis On: Does Christianity Matter?

"Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, is of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important."

-- C.S. Lewis

Monday, July 16, 2007

You're Going Deaf

All you iPod wearers and show-goers out there will be deaf before you're 40. Maybe not actually deaf, but hearing impaired.

Somebody has now figured that out and is marketing hearing aids to 20/30-somethings. Interestingly, they never use the term "hearing aid" on their website or in their direct mail pieces. Instead, they say they sell "personal communication assistants." Takes the stigma out of wearing the same kind of device grandpa does.

What's more, this new device can be something to be proud of and maybe even show off, because it comes in 15 designer colors to fit your active lifestyle.

If you want to see what your friends will be wearing within the next decade, check out the Audeo. A clever example of niche marketing to a resistant but growing segment.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Who Says The Episcopal Church Doesn't Share the Gospel?

With the introduction of Episcopal flip-flops and dog collars, man and his (oops, I mean "humans and their") best friend can share the good news of whatever it is Episcopalians believe in these days.

Leaving no stone unturned, the denomination is assiduously seeking the "next big thing," as can be shown by this poll:

Kind of adds new meaning to that old saying, "Preach the Gospel. When necessary, use words." Once again, "necessary" has been successfully averted.

This is not a joke. You can go to Episcopal OnLine's One Stop Shop here for the full selection of merchandise. Go here if you want to spike the results of the poll (buy why would you, when all the choices are equally silly?).

Friday, July 13, 2007

Noted and Quoted: Can't Stamp Out Religion

Michael Novak, writing in the June/July 2007 edition of First Things (emphasis added):

Atheism is back—or so you might imagine from so many writers in recent months, one after another declaring a proud and militant rejection of God and all His works.

So, for instance, to his new book, God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens appends the insidious subtitle How Religion Poisons Everything. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins asserts that teaching children religion is “child abuse” and ought to be outlawed. In Breaking the Spell, Daniel C. Dennett, in the guise of studying religion objectively, dismisses religion. Sam Harris follows up his bestselling but dyspeptic The End of Faith with a slim but insulting Letter to a Christian Nation.

And yet, there’s an odd defensiveness about all these books—as though they were a sign not of victory but of desperation. Everywhere on earth except Western Europe, religion is surging. Each of the authors admits that most people, especially in America, do not agree with him. Each pictures himself as a man who spits against the wind. Each rehearses his arguments for atheism, mostly, it seems, to convince himself.

Certainly these authors are not convincing many others. According to a 2007 Princeton Survey poll for Newsweek, 91 percent of Americans believe in God. Only 3 percent say they are atheists. The whole group of nonbelievers—adding in persons who say they are of no religion and agnostics—account for 10 percent, at best, of all Americans. Worse for the new atheists, a full 87 percent of Americans identify with a specific religion: 82 percent Christian, 2 percent Jewish, and 1 percent each Muslim, Buddhist, and other.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Godless Georgia

Even though based on seven-year-old data, the above map is enlightening. Among other things, it tells me that the Bible Belt runs north and south through the middle of the country, not (as we commonly think) east and west through the southern/southeastern reaches.
The state where I now live, Georgia, is not as religious as it's reputed to be, though my home state of Oregon lives up to its billing as the least-churched part of the country.
All the Mormons make it pretty easy to figure out where Utah is. And notice that Southern California is more churchgoing than Northern - thanks to the Catholic Hispanics?
I'd love to see similar maps done separately just for Catholics, Jews, mainline Protestants, and Evangelicals. (Atheists would be good, too, Hemant, but until you start your own "churches," you're too hard to count.) - Update: there are some additional maps available here.
Anyone like to add any sage observations?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Apropos Truth

"If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction."

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) .

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Who Separated Church and State?

Hint: It wasn't the ACLU.

In a provocative but eminently sensible essay, Lee Harris says that one person pretty much singlehandedly made the separation.

Here's a brief excerpt:
Imagine going to a Roman citizen circa 33 AD and asking him to explain the dividing line between the Roman state and the Roman religion. He would scratch his head in puzzlement. For the Roman, the state was the church, and the church was the state: the same entity performed both civic functions and religious duties. But if you had gone to Galilee at about the same time, you might have encountered a man who taught another doctrine -- a revolutionary one.

You can read the entire article here, which will take you about 10 minutes. Although not a comprehensive treatment, it may change forever how you think about this subject.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Hire This Man

My friend Paul has a tutoring business in the Atlanta area. If you're anywhere nearby and want to learn French - or know somebody who does - check out his web site and get in touch with him. I've met several of his students, and they love him.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Albums That Didn't Go Platinum (#5 in a Series)

He loves you, but that jacket is destined for the pits of Hell.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Finally, Something of Interest in the Sports Section

An important dispatch from the Washington Post about the Washington Nationals baseball team:

Reliever Jesus Colome remained in a hospital yesterday with an infection on his right buttock, though GM Jim Bowden said he would get out today. The Nationals don't know when Colome, 4-0 with a 2.76 ERA in 40 appearances, will be able to pitch. "It's a serious situation," Bowden said. "We pray for his buttocks and his family."

Guess they're taking 1 Thessalonians 5.23 literally. If the prayer is answered, does that mean we can say that God saved his a**?

Friday, July 6, 2007

Free Song - No Fine Print

Go to this link sponsored by my church and you can download Laura Story's/Elvington's new song, "Immortal Invisible." (Laura is the author of "Indescribable," if that means anything to you.) No registration, no catch, no strings attached, and it's free - but it might only be available until Saturday night.

Immortal, yet you once died for me
to pay my debt, to set me free.
Invisible you will not always be,
'cause you're coming to reign as our King,
and the saints will fall down at your feet.

Augustine On: Your Need for God's Grace (and My Need, Too)

"Therefore, just as it is by your doing that men who were once drunkards are not so for ever, it is also by your doing that those who were never drunkards are not drunkards now." (Confessions, X.31)

If I'm stuck in a sin, I need God's grace to get out. And if I'm free of that particular sin, I need God's grace to stay out.

It seems to me that this leaves no room for self-righteousness, because the "saint" is as dependent upon the grace of God as the "sinner." The picture I have in my mind is of two starving people. If one of them finds food and gorges himself, will he then consider himself superior to the other simply because his stomach is full? He's full because he ate food, not because he is a superior person. The other is hungry because he needs food, not because he is inferior. Fullness comes from food, and obedience comes from God's enabling.

So whether we fall or stand, we need God's grace. And "if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall" (1 Cor. 10.12).

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Augustine On: True Brothers

The young adults group at my church is starting a 6-week series on authentic manhood. Too many grow up in our society with inadequate male role models; it's no wonder that we feel lost and act clueless when it comes to what a "real man" is. Add the modifier of "real Christian man," and it gets at once simpler and more complex.

So we're going to take 6 weeks, get all the 20-something men together on Tuesday nights, and talk about this. We'll spend part of each meeting watching an episode from the HBO series, "Band of Brothers," hear interpretive talks from older and younger men in the church (including yours truly), and discuss it all in smaller groups. Since we'll be meeting in a bar, we'll be able to drink beer, which we all know is a sign of authentic manhood.

I like what Augustine has to say about the band of brothers which God desires for us to have: "They are my true brothers, because whether they see good in me or evil, they love me still" (Confessions, X.3).

That's hardly a comprehensive description of brotherhood, but it's an awfully good start.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

This Blog is Rated NC-17

Is that good or bad?

Here's a site that will analyze the content on your blog or web site and tell you how it would be rated - if it were a movie - based on the language. It appears you will currently find on my blog: death (20x), abortion (19x), dead (13x), hell (10x), sex (9x), murder (7x), torture (5x), steal (4x), kill (3x), shoot (2x), and gay (1x). Not bad for a Christian blog . . . though if you could analyze my "Christian" mind the same way, I'd get a NC-1700 rating.

Oddly enough, my buddy at only gets a PG-13. What's wrong with this picture?

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Yes, I'm Famous

As I mentioned last week, Hemant Mehta added me to his Friendly Atheist blogroll. That was exciting enough. But now he's gone a step further and actually reproduced one of my posts on his site: check it out here. (Actually, I think he lifted a second one from my site, too, but without attribution. We'll overlook that.)
I didn't notice any paparazzi hanging around the house this morning, but I'm sure it's just a matter of time.
Now, if I could just get him to reference one of my serious posts. . .

Monday, July 2, 2007

What's the Use?

A while back, I heard from an old friend. The question he asks is simple but profound: why should we pray for people to make good decisions, stay out of sin, etc., if they're just going to do what they will do? Does it make any difference at all?

Here's how my friend explains the dilemma (edited for obvious reasons). If you have any thoughtful responses, they're more than welcome:

Does free will supercede prayer?

This question comes more from the gut than the head. It has been one I have been struggling with as I have seen “B” and two other close Christian friends involved in adultery. It just sometimes feels like "people do what they want to do".

You remember “A” and his wife. “A” ended up marrying that gal he moved in with. Six months after divorcing his wife, he marries her, but not before he moved her in, forced her kids to call her mommy and (rumor has it) got her pregnant. After months of agonizing over him in prayer, organizing prayer meetings with very mature believers, fasting and all the other spiritual requisites, the divorced wife repented but he didn't. I came away thinking, "I could have used that time to mow my lawn, read a book, clean the car, etc." At the end of the day our prayer didn't seem to make much of a difference in his decisions. From my perspective, we did all the right things the scriptures tell us to do to see prayer answered, and there seems to be no reason why God wouldn't answer this one. A no-brainer when it comes to His Will. Yet “A’s” actions seemed to be little hindered by our intercession. Now I have to believe that our prayer at least caused spiritual turmoil in his soul, but his will superceded our prayer.

And what about “B”? He probably had an army of people praying for him over the years. What he did wasn't a shot in the dark, a one night stand. It was a systematic, organized, pre-meditated, long term homosexual affair and cover-up. “B” was acquainted with every single verse in the Bible that deals with sexual sin. He crammed it down my throat as a young believer. And at the end of the day, "he did what he wanted to do". The Holy Spirit didn't intervene, nor did our prayer for his protection, his knowledge of right and wrong, his intimate familiarity with scripture, his church, his family, his training, his accountability group, his Christian books, his cassettes, Christian music, Focus on the Family publications.... He did what he wanted to do....

So why pray? My time is at a premium. I have cars to wash, lawn to mow, books to read. If my friends are going to commit their sins and the prayer of an army of saints isn't going to make a difference... You get my visceral question....

I have no doubt “A” and “B” heard His voice. I think part of “A” must feel tremendous guilt for having committed adultery and gotten someone pregnant. His bitterness and defiance are probably shielding his emotions. But did God stop at the entry door of self will and only call out? In the case of “B” and “A” it appears so. He didn't stop them from living in sin. At the end of the day he allowed their will to make the final decision.

I was being a bit facetious when I wrote about mowing my lawn, because I do feel I am closer to God through this struggle for “A’s” soul. It caused me to talk to Him more and to wrestle with theological issues. But after so much asking He seems to have said no to us, that he would allow “A” to go his own way...

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Albums That Didn't Go Platinum (#4 in a Series)

Despite the addition of harp, violin, and pipe organ.