Scholars have long debated the relative importance of printed media, oral transmission and images in rallying popular support for the Reformation. Some have championed the central role of printing, a relatively new technology at the time. Opponents of this view emphasise the importance of preaching and other forms of oral transmission. More recently historians have highlighted the role of media as a means of social signalling and co-ordinating public opinion in the Reformation.
Now the internet offers a new perspective on this long-running debate, namely that the important factor was not the printing press itself (which had been around since the 1450s), but the wider system of media sharing along social networks—what is called “social media” today. Luther, like the Arab revolutionaries, grasped the dynamics of this new media environment very quickly, and saw how it could spread his message.
The history of science can be viewed as the recasting of phenomena that were once thought to be accidents as phenomena that can be understood in terms of fundamental causes and principles. One can add to the list of the fully explained: the hue of the sky, the orbits of planets, the angle of the wake of a boat moving through a lake, the six-sided patterns of snowflakes, the weight of a flying bustard, the temperature of boiling water, the size of raindrops, the circular shape of the sun. All these phenomena and many more, once thought to have been fixed at the beginning of time or to be the result of random events thereafter, have been explained as necessary consequences of the fundamental laws of nature—laws discovered by human beings.
This long and appealing trend may be coming to an end. Dramatic developments in cosmological findings and thought have led some of the world’s premier physicists to propose that our universe is only one of an enormous number of universes with wildly varying properties, and that some of the most basic features of our particular universe are indeed mere accidents—a random throw of the cosmic dice. In which case, there is no hope of ever explaining our universe’s features in terms of fundamental causes and principles.
It is perhaps impossible to say how far apart the different universes may be, or whether they exist simultaneously in time. Some may have stars and galaxies like ours. Some may not. Some may be finite in size. Some may be infinite. Physicists call the totality of universes the “multiverse.” Alan Guth, a pioneer in cosmological thought, says that “the multiple-universe idea severely limits our hopes to understand the world from fundamental principles.” And the philosophical ethos of science is torn from its roots.
At the time the poem was written, disturbance on the lawn on Christmas Eve would have been not magical, but threatening, likely caused by drunken youths roaming the neighborhood, demanding gifts from respectable householders.
This was an echo of older traditions, also subversive, which saw tenants and serfs demanding gifts and being given law-like powers in this “season of misrule.”
Some regiments of the British Army still maintain the practice of officers serving men in the mess on Christmas Day. Stephen Nissenbaum’s book “The Battle for Christmas” tells the story of this transformation of Christmas from an “unruly carnival season” to the quintessential, apolitical family holiday.
Christmas then, before being domesticated by the Victorians, was a profoundly political time.
Steve Holmes, a theologian at the University of St Andrews, argues that this political edge is entirely congruent with the biblical stories of the nativity.
In the end, what Pinker calls a “decline of violence” in modernity actually has been, in real body counts, a continual and extravagant increase in violence that has been outstripped by an even more exorbitant demographic explosion. Well, not to put too fine a point on it: So what? What on earth can he truly imagine that tells us about “progress” or “Enlightenment”—or about the past, the present, or the future? By all means, praise the modern world for what is good about it, but spare us the mythology.
And yet, oddly enough, I like Pinker’s book. On one level, perhaps, it is all terrific nonsense: historically superficial, philosophically platitudinous, occasionally threatening to degenerate into the dulcet bleating of a contented bourgeois. But there is also something exhilarating about this fideist who thinks he is a rationalist. Over the past few decades, so much of secularist discourse has been drearily clouded by irony, realist disenchantment, spiritual fatigue, self-lacerating sophistication: a postmodern sense of failure, an appetite for caustic cultural genealogies, a meek surrender of all “metanarrative” ambitions.
Pinker’s is an older, more buoyant, more hopeful commitment to the “Enlightenment”—and I would not wake him from his dogmatic slumber for all the tea in China. In his book, one encounters the ecstatic innocence of a faith unsullied by prudent doubt. For me, it reaffirms the human spirit’s lunatic and heroic capacity to believe a beautiful falsehood, not only in excess of the facts, but in resolute defiance of them.
The publication of Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sexpromised readers a “radical, refreshing, and long overdue reassessment of how we think and act about children’s and teens’ sexuality.” The book was published by University of Minnesota Press in 2003 (with a foreword by Joycelyn Elders, who had been the U.S. Surgeon General in the Clinton administration), after which the author, Judith Levine, posted an interview on the university’s website decrying the fact that “there are people pushing a conservative religious agenda that would deny minors access to sexual expression,” and adding that “we do have to protect children from real dangers … but that doesn’t mean protecting some fantasy of their sexual innocence.”
This redefinition of childhood innocence as “fantasy” is key to the defining down of the deviance of pedophilia that permeated college campuses and beyond. Drawing upon the language of postmodern theory, those working to redefine pedophilia are first redefining childhood by claiming that “childhood” is not a biological given. Rather, it is socially constructed—an historically produced social object. Such deconstruction has resulted from the efforts of a powerful advocacy community supported by university-affiliated scholars and a large number of writers, researchers, and publishers who were willing to question what most of us view as taboo behavior.
The effects of technology on religious belief, and of religious belief on technology, are great but insufficiently explored. Often religious communities have been the inventors, the popularizers, or the preservers of technologies. One important example, which Lewis Mumford called to our attention long ago in his Technics and Civilization (1934), is the intimate relationship between medieval monastic life and the invention of reliable clocks. It was the need to be faithful in keeping the horæ canonicæ, the canonical hours of prayer, that stimulated the creation of accurate timepieces. But of course, this invention spread to the rest of society, and over the centuries has come to shape our experience of time in ways that affect our religious lives as much as anything else.
It is scarcely possible to overstress the importance of this development; and yet perhaps even more important are the connections between religious life and technologies of knowledge, especially those pertaining to reading and writing. This point could be illustrated in any number of ways, but with particular force in tracing the long entanglement of Christianity and the distinctive form of the book called the codex. In this history one can discern many ways in which forms of religious life shape, and in turn are shaped by, their key technologies. And as technologies change, those forms of life change too, whether their participants wish to or not. These changes can have massive social consequences, some of which we will wish to consider at the end of this brief history. Christians are, as the Koran says, “People of the Book”; in which case we might want to ask what will become of Christianity if “the book” is radically transformed or abandoned altogether.
[T]he rich diversity and energy that has been the glory of American religious life was, by the early twentieth century, largely suppressed in American K–12 schooling, though it continued at the collegiate level. This was not primarily through the regulatory efforts of state governments—that would come later—but through an emerging consensus among a class of professional educational administrators, part of the Progressive movement, who sought to create what historian David Tyack has called “the one best system.”
Accompanying this development over the course of the later nineteenth century was a growing popular concern about what was seen as the divisive and even subversive effects of Roman Catholicism, associated with immigrants and with contemporary conflicts in Western Europe. The efforts of Catholics to provide their own schools, as was the norm in most of the countries from which the immigrants came, was seen as a refusal to allow their children to become absorbed into American life, and rejection of Catholic demands for public funding of those schools became a winning formula in many elections.
What needs to be done to fix the economy? Richard W. Fisher, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, recently gave a partial answer in a recent speech on the current economic condition:
Must one believe in the Virgin Birth to be a Christian? This is not a hard question to answer. It is conceivable that someone might come to Christ and trust Christ as Savior without yet learning that the Bible teaches that Jesus was born of a virgin. A new believer is not yet aware of the full structure of Christian truth. The real question is this: Can a Christian, once aware of the Bible’s teaching, reject the Virgin Birth? The answer must be no.
In the last, much briefer section of the book, you discuss whether there is a fundamental incompatibility between naturalism and the theory of evolution.
I think that’s an extremely interesting and important point, though to argue for it properly is quite complicated; it’s hard to do in a brief compass. The basic idea, which is far from being original, is that if you are a naturalist and think that we have come to be by evolutionary processes, then you will think that the main purpose of our cognitive processes, our mental faculties, is survival and reproductive fitness, not the production of true belief. Evolution doesn’t give a rip about whether your beliefs are true. It only cares whether or not your actions are adaptive, whether they contribute to your fitness. From the point of view of evolution together with naturalism, you wouldn’t expect that our faculties would be really adjusted to truth or aimed at truth. They would just be aimed at fitness.
But if this is true, if our minds are aimed at mere survival, not at truth, then it’s not probable that our minds should be reliable—that is, produce an appropriate preponderance of true over false beliefs; and if that is so, then one who believes both naturalism and evolution should reject the thought that our minds are reliable. But that’s a crippling position to be in. Nietzsche is among the people who have suggested this problem. Some contemporary philosophers—Thomas Nagel, for example—have voiced the same worry, and so did Darwin himself.
The Church has a moral obligation to the men and women who “occupy” Wall Street every day, says Jordan J. Ballor:
It is true of course that the Christian gospel has inherently social implications, and that in some cases direct political action and social activism are entailed, at least for individual Christians working out of their own convictions, if not always for the institutional church itself. It makes sense, then, that the consciences of some Christians are deeply pricked by the message emanating from the Occupy movement and have wholeheartedly thrown their lot in with the cause of the so-called “99 percent.” This is in part why religious activists like Jim Wallis and Shane Claiborne have positively engaged the Occupy movement.
But involvement in and support of the Occupy protests do not represent a normative way for Christians of all convictions to engage the world. We are not all called to identify ourselves with the rebelliousness of the perpetually outraged. In identifying the institutions of the church with these protest movements ecclesial leaders risk overlooking the most important occupiers: those Christians who occupy the pews every Sunday morning and pursue various occupations throughout the week.
“Evangelicals love to believe bad things about themselves,” says Kevin DeYoung. “And often what they believe about themselves is not true.”
Everyone seems to love stats about bad Christians. Non-Christians like to see that we really are fakes. Christians like to think the sky is falling.
The journalistic approach to such studies is troublesome in itself. When our first instinct is always to play up the “scandal” we not only contribute to the secular impression that Christians are all fakes, we also contribute to our own impression that the Christian life is bound to end in failure. We need to find better ways to motivate toward holiness than utter, shocking shame.
Just as important, we need to examine whether our alarming conclusions can hold up under close scrutiny. We need to ask: are these stats about bad Christians themselves bad stats?
Or to ask the question more clearly: what should we think about the claim that “Christians are having premarital sex and abortions as much (or more) than non-Christians”?
Barely half of all adults in the United States—a record low—are currently married, and the median age at first marriage has never been higher for brides (26.5 years) and grooms (28.7), according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data.
In 1960, 72% of all adults ages 18 and older were married; today just 51% are. If current trends continue, the share of adults who are currently married will drop to below half within a few years. Other adult living arrangements—including cohabitation, single-person households and single parenthood—have all grown more prevalent in recent decades.
The Pew Research analysis also finds that the number of new marriages in the U.S. declined by 5% between 2009 and 2010, a sharp one-year drop that may or may not be related to the sour economy.
One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2012 is to gain a deeper appreciation of church history. Like many evangelicals, I’ve been remiss in learning about the heroes of the faith, especially those that came after the apostles and the early church fathers.
As an aid to my focus, I’ll be using The Fellowship of St. James’ superb ecumenical calendar of the Christian year, Anno Domini.
This unique ecumenical calendar is thus an inspiring expression and daily reminder of the communion of the saints to which we all belong. It includes prophets, apostles, martyrs, missionaries, monks, children, married and unmarried, peasants and kings, preachers, bishops, and pastors, all members of the mystical Body of Christ, that great cloud of witnesses. In this way we can remember the saints every day, and be encouraged by their witness to Christ, the Lord of all.
If you’re a Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, this would make a great Christmas gift for the evangelicals on your list who can’t tell St. Theresa from St. Botolph.
Speaking of gifts, I’ll be posting gift recommendations over the next few weeks, so if you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments.
If appeals to God get ruled out, either by disbelief in his existence or reluctance to rely upon it, says Matthew O’Brien then it isn’t possible to demonstrate that there are moral absolutes.
If you are going to make a moral argument, whether in the seminar room or in the public square, people today expect you to avoid invoking God. Atheists and theists alike share this expectation, with atheists eager to show that their moral knowledge and action are uncompromised by disbelief in God’s existence, and theists eager to establish the rational credentials of their moral convictions and protect themselves against charges of fideism. This expectation is unwarranted, however, because God’s existence is directly relevant to moral knowledge and action: If appeals to God get ruled out, either by disbelief in His existence or reluctance to rely upon it, then it isn’t possible to demonstrate that there are moral absolutes.
So, how do you shift the Overton window? The answer is simple: You have to stand outside it and pull. Social change always begins with a few brave people who dare to advocate something previously unthinkable. And most of those first-generation advocates, to be perfectly honest, suffer scorn, ridicule and opprobrium, are often even targets of persecution and violence. But by their mere existence, by their willingness to stand fast on their principles and refusal to compromise, they stretch the boundaries of what the majority considers possible and redefine what counts as the “moderate” position.
With this metaphor in mind, we can more clearly see what the atheism debate is all about. The moderates and accommodationists giving us advice – what they’re really asking is to leave the Overton window where it is, for us to target only the people whom wider society already agrees are wrong. The New Atheists, meanwhile, have a different goal in mind: we believe that as long as religious faith is the accepted and unquestioned default, atheism will never be socially acceptable. By criticizing all faith, we want to shift the Overton window in our direction and make atheism more familiar, more accepted, and therefore more influential. In the long run, that will win us more converts and allies than a strategy of just being nice.