Wednesday, May 30, 2007

real faith

I have little doubt that I have the most beautiful daughter in all the world.

Today, my 7-year-old had a fight with Ishtar, her best friend and chief partner in crime at school. It was the sort of fight you would expect second-graders to have, over something as trivial as whether Evangeline would lend Ishtar her ruler, and it escalated into a day of muted hostility and deliberate ostracism.

Let those consider children to be models of innocence and purity, free of any blemish of sin, take note: Ishtar’s behavior was so upsetting that Evangeline couldn’t even bear to talk about it until bedtime.

As details of the fight gradually emerged, I asked Evangeline if she thought she might owe Ishtar an apology for anything she had done. I expected her to reject the notion immediately, or to argue that Ishtar’s behavior had been worse. To my surprise, she acknowledged immediately that she did owe her one.

She surprised me even more by telling me about other times she had upset Ishtar, by foiling an attempt to exact petty “revenge” on a boy who has made life difficult for them at school, partly to keep her best friend from getting in trouble. But then she added the kicker: “I keep remembering that Jesus said to love other people as yourself, and to bless people who curse you.”

I almost cried I was so impressed, and when she said, “That’s pretty much the only part of the Bible I can remember,” I said, “If you can remember that much, you’ve remembered enough.”

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

plagiarism

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but plagiarism is just outright theft.

Plagiarism the bane of writers everywhere. Few things are more aggravating than to spend hours working on a piece in an effort to get every word just right, every bit of the structure perfectly balanced, and the pacing down to exactly where you want it, only to see someone else steal it and pass it off as theirs.

I've been plagiarized repeatedly in my career as a writer. When I worked at The Princeton Packet, we regularly saw one of our competitors repackage and reprint our stories. Not word for word -- they weren't that unsubtle -- but very obviously derived from ours. Their stories would have the same structure, the same sources, the same essential information.

Another time I was plagiarized by a high school student. I found out when her father reposted a blog entry of mine and claimed that it was something his daughter had written. Ironically it was for an ethics paper.

I've had many thoughts over the years on the nature of plagiarism myself. The high school student's plagiarism is the most obvious sort, It's possible that she could have the same thoughts as me on an ethical situation, and even possible that she could express them similar. But there's no reasonable way to claim that she just happened to do it word for word identically to how I did, That's plagiarism, plain and simple.

It gets harder to detect, and I feel the subject gets murkier once we get into the realm of editing and rewriting. If a reader discovers this blog post and is moved inexpressibly to write about plagiarism, and writes her own essay on plagiarism and paraphrasing, would she be plagiarising me, or just being influenced by me?

That can be harder to determine. The other local newspaper that I would say plagiarized not only me but my co-workers and even our mutual competitors at The Times of Trenton, very obviously based their reporting on ours, not just the stories they selected but how they structured and reported them. The words were theirs, but not much else; and sometimes it was obvious that not all the words were theirs either.

The similarities were too close to be coincidence, and they never credited us for anything. Plagiarism? I would have failed students for that when I taught English writing, but I don't know how it would measure up legally. We never tried, although The Times did threaten that paper once, I heard.

Suppose I take someone else's writing and begin to edit and heavily rewrite it? I remove their personal anecdotes and replace my own, pick a better place to start the piece, and massage the writing until it reflects my voice, When I put it down, have I just plagiarized another person's work?

This is something that we did at WNC Newspapers a few times with editorials that addressed issues affecting more than one municipality. All local references had to change to reflect the community, and in my case at least, I wanted an editorial in my paper to be the best I could make it, which at times meant radically restructuring and rewriting them when I lifted them from other editors. (The editor I did this to the most found it amusing how different the editorial would be by the time I had finished.)

Since it was all work for hire and both editorials belonged to the published that wasn't an issue, but what happens when we do that with stories or essays where copyright laws inarguably do apply? At what point does it become an entirely different work, one where there is no need for a Fair use defense?

Personally, I think that there could be something to be said for such an approach to writing if it can be done well, especially on a medium like the Internet, where profit is not usually a motive. In Shakespeare's day, there was no such thing as plagiarism. He lifted material wholesale from Holinshed's "Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland," from Chaucer's "Troylus and Criseyde" and from just about everyone else who ever wrote before him -- I've read some of the source material, and there's no question that he plagiarised by contemporary standards -- and yet we consider him to be the finest writer of the English language.

Retooling extant stories and redoing familiar pieces of art builds up our language and our cultural heritage through the process of tying everything back into familiar stories. It enriches art by developing a visual language of symbols and memes. In a country where our national memory doesn't go back more than a few months and "Nick at Night" is considered a crash course in classic literature, don't we need more plagiarism rather than less?



Copyright © 2007 by David Learn. Used with permission.


camping

So I’m back after spending Memorial Day weekend at a campsite in Hickory Run, a state park in Pennsylvania. About four years ago, my older brother conceived and pushed the idea that we should use an annual camping trip as a low-pressure, weekendlong family reunion, bringing our parents, and our brothers, wives and children for the entire Memorial Day weekend. It’s grown now to include three of our Hutton cousins and their families as well.

 

It’s a great idea. I love that for the entire weekend, Evangeline and Rachel were able to spend their waking moments with their cousins Balder and Morrigan, getting to know their uncle and aunt better, and getting to know my cousins and their children as well. It’s even better to see the girls bonding not only with their cousins but also with two of their second cousins. How many children in America grow up with their second cousins as part of their families? I didn’t. I’m not even sure I know who my second cousins are; in fact, there are some first cousins I wouldn’t know if I tripped over them. But we grew up with our Hutton cousins, seeing them two or three times a year, so I like it that our children and their children are growing up as parts of one another’s lives, twined round and round each other like two vines that trellis one another.

 

It’s also an idea I’ve had enough of ― not the reunion, which I love ― but the camping. I’m sick of camping. How the heck did this become something people do for fun? I’m trying to picture the guys in marketing as they concocted this idea over a couple of beers and God only knows what else. (And you know it was men who did this, as the women are much too sensible.)

 

Somehow, some corporate moron named Bob, with an IQ lower than my pet dog’s, came up with the idea that people would like the idea of sleeping on the ground. Somehow Bob thought people would like sleeping under the trees inside canvas shelters so thin that you can feel every degree the temperature drops, made of a plastic so designed that every rain drop echoes as it strikes, reminding you, “Any moment, you’re going to get soaked and then you’re going to be really miserable.” Somehow ― somehow Bob concluded the people would enjoy waking up in the middle of the night with a backache so severe that they would be unable to move and fearful that they would never feel anything below the waist again. Somehow Bob pulled that off, and not only convinced a roomful of other Bobs that it would be a good idea to throw out twelve thousand years of human progress and civilization, they managed to convince enough of the American public at large that an industry was born, under the rubric of “getting back to nature.”

 

I could point out that there’s very little natural about driving for two hours to set up a propane grill and cook prepackaged food on an iron skillet, but instead let me say that I want nothing to do with getting back to nature. The very notion is insane. Nature bites, it stings, and it gives you diarrhea. Getting back to nature means dying before you turn forty, and clearly it means moving like a sack of broken rocks in the morning because you never get enough sleep.

 

I loved seeing family for Memorial Day weekend, but we’ve got to find a better way to manage reunions than going camping together.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

jerry falwell is dead

There's a lot I didn't care for in Jerry Falwell -- the self-righteousness, the moralizing, and the alarmism that built walls between the church and the rest of society -- but I have to say, he was no worse a man than I, and in many ways, he was someone I could learn from.

He doggedly pursued a vision that he believed was from God and unquestionably emerged as a powerfully influential person, for both good and ill.

He was a tremendous benefactor on the Baptist Haiti Mission in Kenscoff, and through its ministry benefitted thousands of children, farmers, artisans, laborers and others throughout Haiti.

Rest in peace.

Monday, May 21, 2007

bees

Most articles I've read indicate the likely culprit is a particular insecticide that is used pretty widely for crops, lawns and other areas. (What a shock, that. Spray crops with insecticide to kill nuisance insects, and wonder of wonders, it affects beneficial insects like honeybees too.) Commercial honeybees, the ones that get driven round and round to fertilize crops, are the ones being affected; anecdotally, the privately owned hives largely have been unaffected -- probably because if you're a honeybee hobbyist or a smalltime owner of a hive or two, you're not going to go spraying or taking the bees where people have been spraying.

France had similar problems, banned this particular insecticide, and they have seen a rebound in their honeybee populations.

Of course, insecticide might be only the chief (as opposed to sole) culprit, or one of several factors in the die-off. In any event, it makes sense to me for people to voluntarily scale back or eliminate their use of insecticides and find other ways to control pests. Organic solutions don't eradicate whole beneficial species, contaminate the ground, pollute waterways or accidentally poison children, and it's been shown that organically raised crops have a higher yield than chemically treated crops, even during drought years.

Seems a like a good approach for all of us.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

starbuck

Starbuck is a woman. Get over it, and deal.

There's no reason Starbuck shouldn't be a woman. the archetype of a woman making it in a man's world as a reckless and carefree buccaneer sort is just as valid as the diamond-in-the-rough of Han Solo. The new Starbuck and Boomer also correct the imbalance of sexes found in the original Battlestar Galactica, which had Athena as a viper pilot only for a short period before dropping her completely.

The only disappointment I had in the casting was the decision to make Colonel Tigh white instead of black. That was partly because now none of the main crew was black, but also because Colonel Tye was the first black man to arrive in the Americas.

miracles

I'm tired of hearing people talk about miracles that are mundane and ordinary. Unless it's something that defies all reason, like parting the Red Sea, it's not a miracle, it's just good luck.

biblically, miracles often require some measure of obedience: Naaman has to take seven baths in the Jordan River to be cured of leprosy, Moses has to throw a handful of dust into the air for gnats to appear; and so on -- but miracles properly speaking reflect a break with science as we know it, and are not a "little bit extra to put us over the top."

Real miracles are in short supply, as are clear and undeniable answers to prayer, and I don't fault anyone for disbelieving stories of them. I've heard unprovable stories of healings and such from the missions field (and a host of frauds from snakes like H*nn), but most often the term "miracle" is misused by Christians as a synonym for fortuitous coincidence.

As a wordsmith, I maintain that it cheapens the word "miracle" to use it for any incident where God may have put his thumb on the scale and tilted probability to favor one person or another, just as it cheapens the word "hero" to use it to describe someone just because he plays basketball well or thinks he's hot stuff for being a popular singer or rap artist. True heroes remain measures of character and not just of accomplishment, and true miracles beggar explanation.

Monday, May 14, 2007

war in heaven

Just out of curiosity: Can anyone give me the basis for the story about the war in heaven?

From what I've been able to tell, the story about Satan leading a third of the angels in rebellion in an attempt to supplant God makes a great Christian myth about hubris, but it is thoroughly extrabiblical. The notion of Satan being an adversary of God and not his underling doesn't even appear until some time after the Babylonian exile, when Jews came into contact with Zoroastrianism and its dualistic view of the world.

The actual passages describing the revolt appear to be taken grossly out of conquest. It wasn't until Jerome (I think) that Isaiah 14 was ever construed as referring to a fallen angel; prior to that, it generally was understood as referring to the actual king of Babylon. The passage incorporates elements of a well-known Babylonian myth about the morningstar Venus, and uses this myth to taunt the king of Babylon.

Similarly, when I read the passage about the "war in heaven" in the book of Revelation, I understand it refers to the spiritual events that took place at the Cross. I'm not aware of any sound reason for interpreting it as a pre-Creation event.

But of course, I may be wrong. I've read a lot, but I've never formally attended seminary, nor even Bible college.

And actually, now that I'm on a roll, there's the whole matter of all the angels that supposedly rebelled and fell at the same time. Again, it makes a terrific story, but there's nothing but tradition and supposition to identify the unclean spirits of the New Testament with fallen angels. Other interpretations I'm aware of claim that the unclean spirits were the souls of a pre-Adamic race of men (Gen. 1:2, "Now the earth became formless and void"), and that the term simply refers to a medical condition like epilepsy or a mental condition like schizophrenia.

For those who want to equate ha-Satan with the serpent and the Devil, though, there's still the interesting question of when Satan "fell from heaven like lightning" and why. Scripture places ha-Satan in the roll of a prosecutor or accuser, telling God that Job's piety isnt' all it's cracked up to be, and claiming that David relies more on the military might of Israel than on God's favor (or least that's how I'd interpret the parallel accounts of David's census in 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles).

So did Satan get overzealous in his accusations and become more adversarial, did he fall for some other reason, or did something else happen?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

just war

There's always a lot of discussion when our nation is at war, whether it is a just war or not.

Now there are Christians who feel there is nothing wrong with answering the government's call to take arms against another nation during a war. This is a matter of individual conscience, and I have to say that it is an area I cannot in good conscience ever agree to. I don't believe that any war can be considered just.

War is such a fundamental abrogation of what God intended for the human race, so contrary to how Christ desires to relate to one another, that I cannot see myself ever supporting a war. Evil must be stopped, and evil men must be stopped, but I'm unconvinced that war is the best way to do it.

Hitler invariably comes up in these discussion, with the question "What could you do to stop someone like him, that doesn't involve military force?" And my honest answer is, I don't know. I don't know what other response makes sense against something as mindlessly evil as the Third Reich.

And yet, I can't see a way for the Romanians to overthrow a totalitarian government with all the firepower, and yet they did, in 1990.

I can't see a way for blacks, shoved to the margin of American society in the 1950s, to step forward and make tremendous strides in securing their right to vote, in securing equal protection under the law for their civil rights, in ending a prevalent culture of racism and segregation, without resorting to violence,and yet they did.

I can't see a way for Mahatma Gandi to drive the British out of India without inspiring an armed uprising, and yet he did.

War is easier than peace. It allows the mighty to triumph and to get what they want, and it forces the lesser party to acquiesce, swallow their pride (and even their dignity), and admit the superior claim of the other party.

Earnestly seeking peace means putting another's needs first, putting yourself in the position of weakness, and risking real and serious loss. It requires trying to understand enemies, listening to their needs, and putting them ahead of yourself and your own interests. Isn't that what Christ calls us to do?

War may at times be "just" to the extent that bombing cities, killing civilians, and blowing up men and women because we disagree with the policies of their leaders can ever be said to be just, but I don't think we can ever claim that it is good or even best. David was barred from building the Temple because his hands were stained with the blood of war, and Jesus himself declared, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." I can't see war fitting into that equation.

War happens because Caesar too often is a small man who thinks his sword gives him the right to rattle his saber and compel us to do his bidding, even if it's something as odious as killing. I think as Christians, it's more our responsibility to see that everyone discovers the freedom that Christ brings, which includes the freedom to take back for ourselves the right to self-governance that Caesar keeps presuming to take from us.

Friday, May 11, 2007

'the secret message of jesus'

I highly recommend this book. Brian McLaren is one of the leaders in the "emerging church" movement, and the book was definitely groundbreaking in its interpretation and application of the Bible.

I don't know what the experience of others has been, but as an evangelical, I heard a lot of stuff that boiled the gospel down to "Believe in Jesus, and God will take away all your sins so that when you die, you can go to heaven and be with him forever; now go and tell everyone else about it too."

McLaren takes the Christus Victor understanding of the gospel, and argues that the Kingdom of God as seen by the prophets is not some distant, post-Armageddon experience, but a reality that arrived in the person of Jesus, and spreads from person to person as we choose to live in the reality of the Incarnation.

A quick example that set the first H-bomb off in my head: I've always been taught that Isaiah and Micah, when they saw a time when the nations would gather by the river, beat their swords into plowshares and study war no longer, were seeing a period after Christ had returned, established his kingdom on earth, and was ruling unopposed.

McLaren notes that when Jesus arrived, his message was not that the Kingdom of God was coming, but that it had arrived, in his person. If Isaiah and Micah, and the other prophets, saw a glorious kingdom off in the distance, Jesus was announcing that it could be found now, through faith, in him.

For me, it was a revolutionary thought. Back in college, I had called myself a pacifist mostly because I hated the idea of being called up to fight and risk getting killed if the government felt a need to draft Selective Service registrants. I eventually acknowledged that cowardice, rather than conviction, was driving my stand, and was willing to argue about whether a war was just or not. But if the Kingdom of God has arrived in the person of Christ, then the question of "just war" is no longer a valid one. War itself must be seen as a gross abrogation of the fundamental purposes that God created humanity for, and in direct conflict of the gospel, which seeks reconciliation between God and humanity, and between the different peoples of the earth.

Of course, it's always easier to make war than it is to zealously pursue peace, because war allows the stronger to impose their will upon the weaker, while peace requires becoming weaker and surrendering your will for the good of someone you might not even love. (This is not to say that a Christian cannot join the military and fight in the service of king and country; this is a matter of individual conscience.) As I was discussing with a friend, it's something you can see in how we view the different leaders we've had. FDR and Churchill are well regarded as wartime leaders, but the respect we have for them generally pales in comparison to the awe and reverence we have for Mahatma Gandhi and men like him who stood their ground with unbowed heads and unraised hands when much stronger forces came against them.

"The Secret Message of Jesus" is an excellent book. Bump it up to the top of your list.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

the third option

A good friend of mine in Texas is struggling to define his identity. Born male, he is transgendered and believes he would be happier as a female.

I watch this mess unfold, and honestly, I think we're going about this all the wrong way. Maybe it's not meant to be an either/or choice, a mutually exclusive pair of options. Maybe Sisyphus really did have to struggle and sweat and contend with that damn boulder for all eternity in order to receive the reprieve of the Elysian Fields that the gods had promised him, once he got it to the top of the hill; but maybe there was another option, some other way to get it up there, but he never stopped to consider it because he got it stuck in his head that the only way to get the damn thing to the top of the hill was to fight and struggle against its determination to stay at the bottom of the hill.

I'm not saying that transitioning into life as a woman is necessarily the right thing to do, because it is, I think, silly to believe that the inner gendered self is truer or more important than the outward physical self; if God created the one, then surely he created the other. And perhaps the evangelicals and the fundamentalists would be right to say that gender dysphoria is simply part of the sinful nature and you need to nail it to the Cross every day, along with every other question about sexual identity ... but maybe there's an asset to it that we haven't discovered because we've been taught to see it strictly as a right-or-wrong moral issue.

I don't know what I think, honestly. I have to say that Christ is someone who brings life and freedom from shame, while the Church often delights in putting people under the yoke of expectation. Christianist sharia is such a bitch to live under.

That's not a license to disregard our obligations or to revel in self-indulgence, but surely feeling dead all the time isn't what Christ intends for us, is it? I don't see the freedom and life that Christ brings in choosing to be miserable all our lives, any more than I see it in the choice to destroy our lives in the name of self-expression.

divest for darfur

"Your mutual fund is paying for the genocide in Darfur."
 
That was my wife's sole statement concerning an effort by SaveDarfur.org to get people with Fidelity mutual funds to urge the company to begin divesting. Divesting in companies that do business in nations with severe human rights abuses is a technique with a proven track record. It worked in ending Apartheid in South America, and hopefully it will work to stop the genocide in Sudan as well.
 
I'm calling Fidelity Friday morning and asking them to divest immediately. If you have a mutual fund with Fidelity, I urge you to do the same as well. Their number is (800) 532-5340.
 
At least 400,000 people have been killed in the last three years in Darfur in conditions that the Bush administration has classified as a genocide. If you want more information SaveDarfur.org has a post called "Background" that's worth checking out.

more on jonah

One of the common objections among evangelicals to viewing some parts of the Bible, such as Jonah, as unhistorical, is that such a view is the first step down a long and treacherous slippery slope.

Ken Hamm, a major name in creationist circles, asks "If the Creation and the Deluge stories aren't actual events, as described, then at what point does God start meaning what he says?" Another popular question about Jonah is, if you can't believe in Jonah, how can you believe in Jesus coming back from the dead? Especially when he referred to "the sign of Jonah" as the only evidence his generation would receive of his messiahship! (I'd argue that Jesus' allusion no more requires it to be an historical event than my using the phrase "tilting at windmills" indicates I believe Don Quixote was a real person.)

I believe it was Real Live Preacher who once noted that once people start invoking the slippery slope, they find it harder and harder to use any other sort of argument, until after a brisk slide down, the slippery slope is the only argument they know how to make.

How can I believe in the Resurrection but not in Jonah's misadventure with a marine animal? It's actually pretty easy. I believe the story of Jonah being swallowed by a great fish is a parable about God's love for all nations. I believe that the Resurrection is an actual historical event. (See? It's not hard at all.)

Partly it's recognition that the Bible is a multigenre work. It contains mythology, from Genesis 1-12; it contains folk stories and legends, from Genesis 13-50, the books of Judges and Ruth, and parts of Exodus; it contains history, from Samuel through Kings and Chronicles, plus Ezra, Nehemiah, and Acts; it contains poetry, such as the Psalms and the Song of Songs; it contains wisdom literature, in Proverbs, Koheleth, and Job; mysticism in the gospel of John; theology in most of the Pauline and lesser epistles; personal correspondence such as Philemon; lessons on Christian living, such as the book of James; apocalyptic writing in Daniel and Revelation; and so on. The synoptic gospels actually combine several of these types of writing.

The Bible isn't a history text, though it contains history; it isn't a math text, though it contains some math; and it isn't a science text, though it contains some science. (And some of it appallingly bad, like the way Jacob breeds Laban's flocks so that he can get all the best ones and leave Laban with the weak ones.) I think we do the Scriptures an unncecessary violence when we insist that there is only one way to understand it, and that its every word has to be treated as definitive in terms of science, history. Its only claim about itself is that it's God-breathed and meant for instruction, encouragement, reproof, and revelation.

Given the polyphany of voices in Scripture, I don't think it's unreasonable to regard Jonah as divinely inspired fiction. In what way does that diminish its meaning or message? Either way, its inclusion in the canon shows that God's love abounds even to our enemies, and that his desire is for a broken heart and contrite spirit, rather than to leave a smoldering ruin where a great city once stood.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

sourdough buns

We've been invited to a friend's house for a cookout to celebrate her 25th birthday. Since there's a huge crowd coming, and if it's not too tacky, I thought I could defray some of the burden on our host by providing some homemade hamburger buns. So I found a recipe that calls for sourdough, and thought I would give it a shot.
 
Just to be sporting, I'm going to use Coma, Rachel's pet sourdough starter. We last used her about a week ago, to make pancakes, and I figure it wouldn't hurt to put her to use again. It gives Rachel a sense of ownership in the project anyway, and it gives me an excuse to clean out Coma's container too. (Nothing was growing it except Coma, but I don't see a reason to take the risk.)
 
We need to use Coma more often. There was a lot of hooch in her container, though thankfully she didn't seem to be any worse the wear for it.
 
Coma hamburger buns

2 cups sourdough starter
1 cup water
½ cup sugar
¼ cup oil
1 egg
½ teaspoon salt
2½ cups all-purpose flour
2½ cups whole wheat flour

Mix starter with water, sugar, oil, egg and salt. Stir in 2½ cups of all-purpose flour. Once the flour has been stirred in thoroughly, add 2 cups of whole wheat flour and mix thoroughly. When the flour becomes too stiff to stir, knead the dough for 10 minutes on a lightly floured surface, gradually working in another ½ cup of whole wheat flour. Remember that flour amounts are approximate, and depend on the wetness of the starter. If the dough remains sticky, continue to add more all-purpose flour, in small amounts, until the dough is smooth.
 
Place the dough in a greased bowl, turning the dough over. Cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap and let sit about an hour. Once the dough has doubled in size, punch it down and then let it rest 15 minutes.

Divide dough into 20 pieces, roughly the size of a lemon, rolling each piece into a smooth ball. Flatten pieces to ¾ inch thick. Place pieces two inches apart on greased cookie sheets, and let them rise until they are almost the desired size.

Bake 15 to 20 minutes at 375 degrees.  Makes about 20 buns.

 
For hot dog buns, pinch off pieces the size of an egg.  Shape to the length of a hot dog, and roll to about ¾ inch thick. Place buns one inch apart on greased cookie sheets.  Makes about 24.

school funding

A letter I sent to my governor and state legislators. I wrote it tonight, based on a newspaper column I ghost-wrote for a friend, based on a speech she gave to our state officials at a public budget hearing. For the op-ed piece, I was trying to keep her voice. Here, it's mine.

Dear Gov. Culver:

I am writing to you as my governor to ask that you seek a more appropriate level of funding for the state's charter schools. A resident of Nova Bastille, I have a daughter who is attending second grade at Gary Barker Charter School, and as both a parent and a trustee of the school, I am deeply concerned about the current funding inequities, which seriously dampen the school's ability to perform its mission.

As I'm sure you're aware, the Iowa Charter School Program Act of 1996 stipulates that charter schools are supposed to receive 90 percent of the per-pupil spending of the sending school district. Unfortunately, that's not what is happening. In 2005-06, Gary Barker spent $6,102 for each student, compared to the $12,203 that Nova Bastille spends. That's not even close to 90 percent. It's barely 50 percent, even though three-quarters of the students at Gary Barker come from the city. Apparently the state funding regulations do not consider Gary Barker to be an Abbott district, even though most of our students come from one and we're located in one.

The state's proposed budget promises to increase funding for non-Abbott districts with large numbers of poor students. Since we're not eligible to receive Abbott aid, but half our students do qualify for free or reduced lunch, you would think that this aid is perfect for us. Instead we've been told we are ineligible, because the school is located in an Abbott district.

I get a headache just trying to figure that one out. How on earth can we be both Abbott and non-Abbott and yet neither one, all at the same time?

The whole point of the funding arrangement created by the Charter School Program Act is for funding to follow the child. Why isn't that happening? Why are my daughter and her classmates being denied the money for their education that would be spent on them if they attended Nova Bastille's other public schools? I don't get it. Either Gary Barker qualifies as an Abbott school because of its location and should receive Abbott aid, or it's not an Abbott school and it's entitled to the new at-risk aid because its student population meets the criteria.

My wife and I have lived in Nova Bastille since shortly before our first daughter was born, in 1999. In no small part because of Gary Barker and the tremendous education program it offers, we have stayed in our "starter home" for nearly eight years now, long enough to have a second daughter who is now finishing preschool and gearing up for kindergarten. We've built relationships with other families in the school, and we've grown deep roots in the city. We've discovered for ourselves the cultural treasures Nova Bastille has to offer, and we have become involved in other organizations working to make the city an even better place to live. We love our city, and we love our school.

I'm asking you to help guarantee that Gary Barker gets the funding it needs and its students deserve, so that it can continue to be an asset to the community. As the Legislature finishes its work on the 2008 state fiscal budget, please remember to give all the students in New Jersey's public school system the best chance at success. Remember to provide qualifying charter schools with either Abbott aid or the newly allocated "at-risk" aid.

Thank you for your time.

David Learn

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

'real' christianity and miracles

"Real Christianity" has nothing to do with whether Elijah miraculously provided enough oil for the widow at Zarephath to make it through the famine. "Real Christianity" has nothing do with whether the sun went backward 10 steps for Hezekiah. "Real Christianity" has nothing to do with whether God created the world in six days, flooded it in 40, and scattered everyone across the earth when they built the first skyscraper.

Being a real Christian does not require believing that God turned the Nile to actual blood and that the moon one day will turn to actual blood; nor does it mean believing that the author of Exodus was describing a periodic saturation of the Nile with red algae that would drive all the frogs out of the river, or that Revelation is describing a lunar eclipse.

All believers -- mainline, Catholic, evangelical, Coptic, fundamentalist, Orthodox, Pentecostal and other -- make up a bunch of junk, hang it on the Cross, and say "This is real Christianity. Believe it or go to hell." We're all guilty of that, because not one of us has understood. But thankfully, God isn't nearly as narrow as the people who follow him.

Paul gave the church its first creed -- "By this gospel, you are saved: that Christ died for your sins, according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, and on the third day he rose again." And James unequivocally spells out what true religion is: caring for the needy and the oppressed. Everything else is just straw, and maybe if we as a church stopped worrying about the straw, both church and society would be a lot healthier.

I gotta admit, I'm puzzled by the reaction some people have had to my comments of late, off-blog. The contention appears to be that my faith is diminished by being less literal than theirs, and that I require being rescued both from it and the very serious doubts I'm having about the faith in general. Isn't doubt good, because it motivates us to seek a more definitive Truth? I've always thought so.

It's best to remember that the Hebrew Bible comes from a Hebraic storytelling tradition that we lack the cultural context to properly understand in the West. Still, we can draw a parallel between that storytelling tradition and the one we have here in America, which includes stuff like George Washington either willfully engaging in deforestation or chopping down invasive species to safeguard America's native woodlands, depending on your political bent; it includes tales of Casey Jones and John Henry, Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan; and it includes other stories about people from a wide sampling of America's ethnic traditions.

In the long run, to us as a nation, it doesn't matter that George Washington never chopped down a cherry tree and then owned up to it, because it's more important to our culture to believe that Washington was a virtuous man who never told a lie. It also is unimportant that while Casey Jones was a real train engineer who died in a train wreck, John Henry probably didn't tunnel into a mountain faster than a steam drill and then die of a heart attack, because both Casey Jones and John Henry say something about our progress as an industrialized nation and the power of the human spirit.

And of course, while children might believe these stories, by adulthood, most of us come to accept that folklore has historical value even if the stories themselves aren't historical, because of the details they preserve about our nation's past, the nuggets they pass on about the conflicts and struggles of those bygone eras, and because of the richness they add to our language. If I say George Washington was a regular Paul Bunyan in that cherry tree episode, it doesn't mean I believe Bunyan ever walked the frozen lands of Minnesota.

As for the miracles, they have never been the point of faith. Would Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be any less the heroes of the faith if they had been consumed by the fire of Nebuchadnezzar's furnace? Would Daniel, had the lions eaten him?

Would Elijah's authority to confront Ahab have been any less if he hadn't brought a dead boy back to life, or if he took up a part time job to keep the widow from running out of flour?

Would Moses have been less a deliverer for Israel if he had helped them dig a well to get water instead of striking a rock?

Of course not. The goal of faith isn't (or shouldn't be) to see miracles, or even to see prayer "answered" (though we always pray with the expectation that it will be). The goal of faith is simply this: to know God better. He is the reward we seek, not the gifts he litters our way with.

Nor does viewing some or all of the biblical accounts as nonhistorical constitute believing that God is incapable of performing or unwilling to perform them. Anyway, our belief in miracles in any event is a prerequisite for them only when dealing with the Force and while learning at the feet of Master Yoda. Where God is concerned, it is willingness to to do what he asks of us that leads to miracles happening.

the resurrection

You know, it's the Resurrection more than anything else that keeps me from walking away.

It's not the apologetics, because a lot of apologetics involves either violence to the text, such as the rather involved, complicated, and beside-the-point efforts to justify scientifcally the Deluge and a six-day creation, instead of just letting the stories be what they are; or they involve trying to convince ourselves that square pegs are round.

It's not the experience, because the experience can go be interpreted at least two ways. Do we sense God's presence during worship, or does something about the music stimulate a part of our brains that we mistake for God's presence? Those who have gone to both have remarked that attending a Grateful Dead concert is like attending a Pentecostal worship service. Those who attend churches with loud worship, heavy on guitars and drums, feel excited in the presence of God -- just as they would at a secular rock concert, because the volume triggers an adrenaline rush and makes those who listen feel excited. And those who attend somber, serious-minded services with organ worship probably feel the same sort of sober response as concert-goers listening to Bach or Mendelsohn.

It's not the transformation, because I don't see much evidence of that. I've known absolutely saintly people of just about every religion, and even with no religion, and I've known some real jerks who claim to have been born again. In fact, Frederick Douglass in his autobiography noted that the cruelest slave owners were also the most devout. Really, the Christianist sharia can be just as cruel as the Islamist one -- just ask a gay friend how much compassion you get from the church crowd if you happen to be gay; think about the way Christians so lovingly rip to shreds spouses who file for divorce; consider the paranoid thinking that often comes from our evangelical leaders about the various agendas at work to destroy all that is decent in America, and the cavalier arrogance that marks the ways we discount as foolish those whom we disagree with; recall the ways we so carelessly classify one another as "real Christians," "cultural Christians," "counterfeit Christians" and "Christians who don't get it as well as I do" based on petty stuff like baptism, eschatology, doctrines of Scriptural inspiration, ethics and sexual morals, abortion, capital punishment, and so on; and keep in mind that many Christians see nothing wrong with imposing Christian morality or views as the law of the land if we can build a large enough lobby for it. And that doesn't even touch the Christians who shoot abortionists, bomb clinics, or tacitly support those who do. When you get down to it, I see very little difference between Christians and the rest of the world as far as spiritual renewal goes. Like Voltaire said -- at least I think it was Voltaire who said it -- I'd find it easier to believe in the Savior if I knew more people who had been saved by him.

But the person of Christ is someone I can't let go of, and the Resurrection is something I just can't shake.