keeping an eye on the tree and the forest

Dave's Exegesis is my eclectic site of exegesis on pretty much everything I can think of, whether biblical studies, theology, music, movies, culture, food, drink, sports, or the internet.

Thoughts about Christianity at Christmas


Below is a timely word about some recent sociological works on Christianity that have gained notoriety this year. American Grace (by Robert Putnam & David Campbell) and To Change the World (by James Davison Hunter) both take a look at the effects of Christianity on American culture, highlighting the good and the bad. These are both worth our time and effort to listen and glean from.

Also, Al Mohler recently interviewed Robert Putnam about “American Grace” for his Thinking Out Loud podcast:

Here is the link for the article below:

December 19, 2010

A Tough Season for Believers


Christmas is hard for everyone. But it’s particularly hard for people who actually believe in it.

In a sense, of course, there’s no better time to be a Christian than the first 25 days of December. But this is also the season when American Christians can feel most embattled. Their piety is overshadowed by materialist ticky-tack. Their great feast is compromised by Christmukkwanzaa multiculturalism. And the once-a-year churchgoers crowding the pews beside them are a reminder of how many Americans regard religion as just another form of midwinter entertainment, wedged in between “The Nutcracker” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”

These anxieties can be overdrawn, and they’re frequently turned to cynical purposes. (Think of the annual “war on Christmas” drumbeat, or last week’s complaints from Republican senators about the supposed “sacrilege” of keeping Congress in session through the holiday.) But they also reflect the peculiar and complicated status of Christian faith in American life. Depending on the angle you take, Christianity is either dominant or under siege, ubiquitous or marginal, the strongest religion in the country or a waning and increasingly archaic faith.

Happily, for those who need a last-minute gift for the anxious Christian in their life, the year just past featured two thick, impressive books that wrestle with exactly these complexities.

The first is “American Grace,” co-written by Harvard’s Robert Putnam (of “Bowling Alone” fame) and Notre Dame’s David Campbell, which examines the role that religion plays in binding up the nation’s social fabric. Over all, they argue, our society reaps enormous benefits from religious engagement, while suffering from few of the potential downsides. Widespread churchgoing seems to make Americans more altruistic and more engaged with their communities, more likely to volunteer and more inclined to give to secular and religious charities. Yet at the same time, thanks to Americans’ ever-increasing tolerance, we’ve been spared the kind of sectarian conflict that often accompanies religious zeal.

But for Christians, this sunny story has a dark side. Religious faith looks more socially beneficial to America than ever, but the institutional Christianity that’s historically generated most of those benefits seems to be gradually losing its appeal.

In the last 50 years, the Christian churches have undergone what “American Grace” describes as a shock and two aftershocks. The initial earthquake was the cultural revolution of the 1960s, which undercut religious authority as it did all authority, while dealing a particular blow to Christian sexual ethics. The first aftershock was the rise of religious conservatism, and particularly evangelical faith, as a backlash against the cultural revolution’s excesses. But now we’re living through the second aftershock, a backlash to that backlash — a revolt against the association between Christian faith and conservative politics, Putnam and Campbell argue, in which millions of Americans (younger Americans, especially) may be abandoning organized Christianity altogether.

Their argument is complemented by the University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter’s “To Change the World,” an often withering account of recent Christian attempts to influence American politics and society. Having popularized the term “culture war” two decades ago, Hunter now argues that the “war” footing has led American Christians into a cul-de-sac. It has encouraged both conservative and liberal believers to frame their mission primarily in terms of conflict, and to express themselves almost exclusively in the “language of loss, disappointment, anger, antipathy, resentment and desire for conquest.”

Thanks in part to this bunker mentality, American Christianity has become what Hunter calls a “weak culture” — one that mobilizes but doesn’t convert, alienates rather than seduces, and looks backward toward a lost past instead of forward to a vibrant future. In spite of their numerical strength and reserves of social capital, he argues, the Christian churches are mainly influential only in the “peripheral areas” of our common life. In the commanding heights of culture, Christianity punches way below its weight.

Putnam and Campbell are quantitative, liberal, and upbeat; Hunter is qualitative, conservative and conflicted. But both books come around to a similar argument: this month’s ubiquitous carols and crèches notwithstanding, believing Christians are no longer what they once were — an overwhelming majority in a self-consciously Christian nation. The question is whether they can become a creative and attractive minority in a different sort of culture, where they’re competing not only with rival faiths but with a host of pseudo-Christian spiritualities, and where the idea of a single religious truth seems increasingly passé.

Or to put it another way, Christians need to find a way to thrive in a society that looks less and less like any sort of Christendom — and more and more like the diverse and complicated Roman Empire where their religion had its beginning, 2,000 years ago this week.

Good Time with Sufjan


Kalila and I had the pleasure of seeing Sufjan (pronounced “Sufyan”) Stevens last night at the Orpheum. We both went into the evening very tired and mentally preoccupied. However, we found that the performance captured our attention and succeeded in bringing us to into a different world for a couple hours; a welcome distraction. The show was stimulating for all of the five senses, including the opportunity to sing and dance along at a few points. We felt surrounded by thin 20-something hipsters with skinny jeans and the latest smart phones, but we expected as much. We were glad to have fun.

Here are some reviews:

What Happened to Kalila?


My wife Kalila was in an accident on her way to class Tuesday (9/7) around 3:15 PM on 93 South (around exit 33 in Medford). She has some bumps, bruises, and what appears to be a slight fracture at the top of her spine, but nothing serious. She will have to wear a neck-brace for the next 2 weeks, and cannot drive in that time span. The car is totaled, but there seems to be no other vehicle affected. She vaguely remembers swerving out of the way of a cooking grill that seems to have fallen out someone’s vehicle. She remembers very little, although she did hit the center median and the car did roll 4 times. She is able to walk as normal, and can do most normal activities. Overall, we feel super-blessed as this could have turned out far worse. These 2 weeks will pose some planning challenges for us considering that not only will Kalila miss the rest of the week of work, but also school (this is the first week of the semester). Please pray for Kalila’s recovery and for logistics (planning, insurance, new car, etc). Many Thanks!!!

Right now Kalila is at home, and will head back to work on Monday if she is feeling up to it. She is sore and a little stiff, but she’s looking forward to the start of football season tonight. Psalm 145 has been her meditation.

Wreckage of Kalila’s Car from David Herring on Vimeo.

For pictures:

Beverly Homicide


Big downer in our community.  Below are the details.  Here is the link:

June 18, 2010

2 under arrest in Beverly homicide

Homeless-on-homeless crime suspected, DA’s office says

By Bruno Matarazzo Jr. Staff Writer

BEVERLY — Two homeless men will be arraigned today on murder charges following the death of another homeless man at a shuttered rooming house near the post office downtown.

The 52-year-old man died at Beverly Hospital around 6 p.m., the Essex County district attorney’s office said. The victim was found by police and EMTs, who performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Eric Roberts, 33, and Michael Bryson, 49, were arrested shortly after police received the report. They will be arraigned today in Salem District Court.

No word on a possible motive or what led police to the two men.

Police learned of the crime when a friend of the victim went to the police station at 5:40 p.m. to report a possible homicide at the closed rooming house at 45 Broadway, said Stephen O’Connell, spokesman for the district attorney’s office.

Neighbors said the rooming house, which has 16 units, closed within the past month.

Access to the former dwelling was blocked by police tape as state police investigators waited outside for a warrant in order to begin processing the evidence.

Earlier in the evening, police and investigators began their operations around a public park directly across the street from the post office. None would speak about the investigation or the incident that prompted it.

Questions about what happened in the area were on the minds of many people last night, especially commuters getting off the commuter rail.

Taxi driver Ollie Marley said people had been asking him for hours what happened.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” Marley would tell them.

Alexander Sharrett, 26, who lives near the crime scene, said he was walking home from work when he saw two men sitting on the bench that police investigators were so interested in last night.

Hours later when he came from the grocery store, the entire park was cordoned off with police tape.

“I didn’t think anything of it because I see the people sitting there all day,” Sharrett said.

Neighbors who knew the victim would always see him around the park area pushing a shopping carriage and collecting cans.

“He was harmless,” Sharrett said.