26 February 2017

Family Christian Stores Bites the Dust

I had wondered here back in 2015 if the Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization of Family Christian Stores would do anything more than delay the inevitable. Well, it didn't. Go here to read a piece in Christianity Today about the shuttering of all of the remaining stores.

Even giving the reorganized Family Christian Stores a pass on paying much of its debt was not enough to permit this purveyor of Christian books and trinkets to stay afloat in the brave new world of retailing. Bigger players than Family Christian Stores are no longer able to operate in the world of internet shopping. (A word to the wise: according to Bloomberg you expect to see HH Gregg in a Chapter 11 next month.)

The Chapter 11 of Family Christian Stores was a treasure trove of legal arcana for a professor of bankruptcy law. (Go here, here, and here for some of my favorite inside-bankruptcy examples.) But even more important to the failure of this venerable chain of stores than the juggernaut of amazon.com are the buying habits of American Evangelicals. Mistaking self-help books for Christian theology and that buying knick-knacks is the same as Christian piety, Evangelicals have themselves to blame for the demise of what could have been an important resource for building the Evangelical mind and life.

Except there is no Evangelical mind or distinctly Evangelical form of life. Which is why I continue to believe the term "Evangelical" should be retired.

25 February 2017

Renew Conference 2017: First Installment

Every so often Westminster Reformed Presbyterian Church hosts what it calls a Renew Conference. You can read my concluding posts from the 2010 and 2012 conferences here and here. For 2017 Vincent Bacote of Wheaton College was the keynote speaker on the theme "The Sky Isn't Falling But the Door Is Opening."

Bacote's initial address on Friday evening was a brief history of American Evangelicalism beginning with the publication of "The Fundamentals" (1910-1915) and continuing to the present day. His comments on the pre-1970 era were a riff on George Marsden's "Fundamentalism and American Culture." His remarks on the recent Evangelical past were more interesting: Evangelicals' infatuation with Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, their subsequent "burnout", and their increasing levels of fear during the Obama administration. This pattern of reactive short term-ism demonstrate that Evangelicals are typically American, that is, they don't want to think too hard about really difficult matters of public policy and they want solutions to perceived problems now! In response to my question, however, Bacote isn't ready to ditch the label "Evangelical." You can go here to read why I think "Evangelical" is past its sell-by date.

In his Saturday morning address Bacote spoke to the topic of race in America. He had hinted at this aspect of American life the previous evening in his observation that self-identified Evangelicals are overwhelmingly White. In brief, while the concept of race is an eighteenth-century Enlightenment concept, it nonetheless operated and continues to operate with the force of reality. In other words, the social and economic effects of 200+ years of slavery followed by 70+ years of Jim Crow on Black Americans didn't disappear with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Even on a worldwide basis, Bacote observed, 500 years of political, military, and scientific successes of the northern European and American peoples has lead to the idolization of "Whiteness" exemplified in the use of skin-lightening creams and injections by the dark-skinned peoples of South Asia and even Africa. On the individual level, the response of Evangelicals should not be to opt-out of the hard work of the personal, patient, and uncomfortable process of getting to know people of other races.

Bacote in the third session cast the Evangelical response to the larger problem of race in America in terms of lament and hope. Lament acknowledges the brokenness of our world but, if left untended, leads to cynicism. The Christian eschatological hope means that the sentences of our laments end not with a period but with a comma. On the one hand, the Bible provides hope in a final resolution of the ills of life on the fallen earth. On the other, it doesn't give us a pass to sit on the bench in the meantime. Of course, exactly what we should do in the meantime is the challenging question, one that Evangelicals, with their lack of theological and historical depth of knowledge, find especially hard to answer.

Finally, you will have to wait until tomorrow to learn about Bacote's specific comments on the approaches of James Davison Hunter ("faithful presence") and Rod Dreher ("The Benedict Option") and some other miscellany.

If you can't wait, feel free to join Dr. Bacote in worship tomorrow at WRPC,

22 February 2017

The Night of the Living Dead Is Coming: America's Pension CrisES

If you didn't buy what I was selling about America's multiple pension crises herehere, and here, check out George Will here. A concluding teaser:
The problems of state and local pensions are cumulatively huge. The problems of Social Security and Medicare are each huge, but in 2016 neither candidate addressed them, and today's White House chief of staff vows that the administration will not "meddle" with either program. Demography, however, is destiny for entitlements, so arithmetic will do the meddling.

The combination of subterranean promises to politically favored groups, unrealistic assumptions about rates of return on investments, and the declining middle-class birthrate makes the question of a fiscal cliff not one of if but of when. For now, though, we can count on all our political elites to sweep the problem under the rug.

15 February 2017

"The King Never Smiles"


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For Christmas Jeremy gave me a book he had purchased on his way out of Thailand: "The King Never Smiles" by Paul Handley. Handley is a journalist, not a historian, but clearly spent lots of time working his way through the documents surrounding the reign of Bhumibol Adulyaej, the late king of Thailand.

King Bhumibol ascended the throne in 1946 and reigned until his death in 2016. Bhumibol's 70+ years on the throne is a record for modern royalty. While always something of an (always-changing) constitutional monarch, the perception of Bhumibol's status as a Buddhist (with a Hindu twist) dhammaraja gave him a standing exceeding even that of the post-WWII emperor of Japan. Coupled with the lack of a tradition of the rule of law or constitutionalism, Bhumibol effectively ruled through a series of weak civilian and powerful military governments.

In spite of a form of rule that was highly personal and opaque to most Thais, Bhumibol retained the respect of his people. Blame for mismanagement, corruption, natural disasters, ecological degradation, and crime were heaped on Thailand's ever-changing governments; the king managed--most of the time--to appear to remain above the fray. He was not, of course. Nudges and hints and mere public displays of dissatisfaction were usually enough to topple a civilian government in favor of another military junta.

Notwithstanding Handley's painstaking work to uncover what was really happening, and notwithstanding his incredulity that Thailand continued to move forward economically and culturally through the succeeding decades of Bhumibol's reign, he was forced to admit that the king's extraordinary Buddhist virtues played a role unimaginable from a Western perspective. That to his people Bhumibol conceivably was a bodhisattva covered a multitude of governance sins.

At least for a while. Although Bhumibol lived for another ten years after the book ended, Handley correctly observed that personal rule depends on the person and that the king would not live forever. With his death in 2016, Bhumibol's venial playboy son has ascended the throne. No one will think that Vajiralongkorn is a selfless dhammaraja. Without a semi-divine personage to unite Thailand, the current military dictatorship may collapse under the weight of its exceptional corruption.

"The King Never Smiles" is more than the peculiar story of a long-lived king of an unusual nation-state in Southeast Asia. It should also stand as a warning to paleo-conservatives who long for the restoration of a nation "rightly ordered" instead of the current war of competing subjective rights that characterizes late-Liberalism. (Go here, here, here, and here for my four-parter on the topic of "right order" vs. "rights.") An orderly society in an orderly nation can be as disordered as the contemporary rights-crazed West.

A strong constitutional order including the rule of law is vital to the flourishing of a people. Such an order is not necessarily inconsistent with a hierarchical society. Yet a people need more than a virtuous leader; they need a leader and a system of governance that trains them in virtue, one that puts virtue into practice in more ways than personal or familial piety. We can only hope that Thailand makes the transition.

11 February 2017

Time to Retire "Evangelical"

I'm using "evangelical" in the American sense. As I wrote here
By the turn of nineteenth century with the institutional rise of Unitarianism and then the Second Great Awakening, we see strands of American Christian spirituality that stand in marked contrast to the confessional standards that had informed their forebears. What Christian Smith describes a "moral, therapeutic deism" (see here and here) has more and more come to describe virtually the entirety of the American Evangelical experience of God.
Or here:
The willing co-optation of American evangelicals by the Republican Party is embarrassing at best and syncretistic at worst. From what I can see, the typical evangelical (at least those over 40) believes in American capitalism and property rights with every bit as much [now read: "more than"] fervor as he or she believes in the Trinity.
"Evangelicalism" in America is little more than a watered-down version of Protestant Christianity adapted to and subsisting in the market economy. But enough about me.

Go here to read an account in The Atlantic of the problems some Millennials have had keeping their jobs in the Evangelical subculture. In short, they complain, if you aren't on board with current Republican politics, and if you let your views be known, you're out of a job at places like Focus on the Family or you're no longer getting gigs at Evangelical churches.

Well, duh. Religion in service of social policy is what Evangelical has meant since the 1820s. (By way of an example, you can download my article The Missing Piece of the Puzzle: Perspectives on the Wage Priority in Bankruptcy here in which I briefly describe the Evangelical impetus for passage of the Bankruptcy Act of 1841).

In any event, do these folks think they would have had any fewer problems at Christian Prog-Left organization had they "come out" as Trumpistas? Focus and other conservative as well as progressive businesses ministries exist to promote a particular product vision. Why would anyone expect them to permit an employee to market a competing vision? And once a non-confessional "evangelical" exaltation of policy above all bleeds back into the churches, why should anyone be surprised that churches exercise the same sort of "discernment" with respect to who gets to "share the stage" or promote his or her books or music?

The shelf-life of the label "Evangelical" (and even "Christian," apart from a person or the Church) has passed.

But let me be clear: I believe that the involvement of Christians qua Christians in matters of social and political policy is fine and appropriate. My conclusions are only that:

(1) You cannot expect that a subset of Christians who are organizationally united around certain social and policy goals should, as an organization, encourage or even permit their employees to advocate other goals or to offend those whose financial support is needed to accomplish those goals.

(2) Those Christians who organize around social and political goals should drop the label "Christian" or "Evangelical." Leave those adjectives to the Church and avoid using them as marketing tools.

(3) Churches should stick to their core mission of ministering the grace of God via Word and Sacrament and out of the policy business.

01 February 2017

Female Foeticide: Nothing to Worry About (Says The Economist)

Most recently I've posted here and here about the phenomenon of female foeticide. Otherwise known as sex-selective abortion, female foeticide occurs when parents combine ultrasound technology with liberal access to abortion to weed out the unwanted girl child before birth. Female foeticide has caused the balance of female:male live births to plummet enormously in parts of the world including several states in India.

But now for the "good" news from The Economist--"The War on Baby Girls Dies Down." Even a cursory review of the information presented suggests little more than that the rate of of female foeticide is falling. In other words, in most of the countries mentioned, sex-selective abortion is still occurring albeit not at as disproportionate a rate as in the recent past. Better than the other direction to be sure but not quite good news.

Even as the rate of female:males births trends toward normal, one is left with a worrisome suspicion that the cause is as likely that the abortion rate of preborn males is increasing as it is that the abortion rate of females is decreasing. To no one's surprise, The Economist doesn't express interest in this question.

While the data from the various countries mentioned is not certain, and in most it is of only a short period of time, it is possible that a combination of public health education, statutes, and the law written on people's hearts is having an impact. Let us pray that's the case and that the number of "missing girls" (roughly 45 million) grows no larger.

30 January 2017

"La La Land:" Hollywood Inversion

I'm not the one to list all the allusions to the golden age of musicals found in La La Land. Suffice it to say that there were many. (If you're really interested go here for a list from Slate and here for a video compilation.) Its self-referential nature serving as an homage to Hollywood helps explain why Hollywood itself poured 14 Academy Award nominations on the film.

Aside from its wealth of allusion--and indeed by its ingenious its use of allusions--La La Land effectively inverts the traditional four-step plot of golden-age romantic comedies (boy and girl hate each other at first sight, they gradually fall in love, circumstances drive them apart, and either they happily reunite or sadly never see each other again). La La Land conventionally follows the first three steps but inverts the fourth. Instead of uniting in love or repining in sorrow ever after, we see "five years later" that Sebastian and Mia (Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone) have each pursued their individual dreams to individual successes. Rather than strengthening the other over the long haul, each has gone his and her way to grab the golden ring of life. To be sure, both experience a sense of regret in the "five years later" scene but regret is as much an homage as La La Land can muster. The golden age must submit to contemporary mores.

Everything about La La Land is enjoyable. The music and dancing, the dialogue and cinematography, and the acting and singing are all top-notch. Stone and Gosling are not great dancers or singers but they are good enough. The dialogue is crisp and moving and (re)framing of classic scenes and scenery is powerful. Its education in jazz was informative. All in all, an excellent movie that we greatly appreciated seeing.

29 January 2017

Hunger Games at Charlotte School of Law?

At least some faculty at the Charlotte School of Law believe the cutoff of federally subsidized school loans is having an impact on students more serious than scrambling for other resources to pay for tuition and books. Go here to read a brief piece posted by a Charlotte TV station: “I know that times are uncertain right now,” [Scott Sigman, director of the school’s clinical programs wrote,] “If you are low on funds and in need of food, please take what you need [from donated food in the student commons], keeping in mind that others may have needs as well."

There are, of course, even more serious problems for laid-off faculty. You can read a post at The Faculty Lounge here about their limited severance packages.

In both cases one might wonder if students and faculty failed to take seriously the warning signs of CSL's impending doom. To be fair to them, however, law school management was less than forthcoming and the Obama-administration Department of Education acted more precipitously than at any time in the past. Before CSL, the federal DOE had waited for an accrediting agency to act before pulling the plug on student loans.

All in all, an ugly sight.


26 January 2017

"The Madonnas of Leningrad"

Thanks to our book club I'm reading more novels at any time since I was a teen/young adult. The Madonna's of Leningrad was the most recent. Set in the present and during the Nazi siege of Leningrad, The Madonna's tells the story of the elderly Marina Buriakov, who now suffers from Alzheimer's Disease. As a teen in the pre-invasion days of 1941, Marina had served as a docent in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad. After spending months helping pack and dispatch some of the world's greatest works of art, Marina remains in the museum with her aunt and uncle as air raid warden and and all-around helper.

Image resultTo occupy her mind, Marina works her way through different parts of the museum each day to memorize every work of art. Author Dean's ability to describe some of the museum's missing masterpieces in non-technical language is superb. As the siege continues and Leningrad experiences the record-setting cold of a winter without heating, Marina spends time with one the museum's cleaners who had worked there since it was the czars' palace. Anya prays to the many missing Madonnas for deliverance in which the unbelieving Marina eventually joins. And building on the Madonna-theme, Marina find herself pregnant from her fiance who is serving in the Soviet army.

Meanwhile in the present, Dean describes Marina's Alzheimer's from both Marina's disjointed internal perspective as well as from the points of view of her family. Dean's contrast of a once-extraordinary memory with ever-deepening forgetfulness is effective and powerful. I found it especially moving having lost a father and a mother-in-law to this disease.

At 227 pages, The Madonnas of Leningrad is relatively short. It is easy to read and will cause its readers to think more deeply about the importance of memory to personhood and to reflect with greater empathy the reality of those whose memories are disappearing as well as their families. While I don't think that Dean's The Madonnas of Leningrad was quite as moving as Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, both novels were excellent and I can heartily recommend it.


20 January 2017

I Was Wrong (About Charlotte School of Law)

Update: Go here to read a post at the Faculty Lounge blog that reports CSL's side of the story of its impasse with the DOE. Of particular interest with respect to the law school's strategy: "Their current plan is to substantially cut costs and try to ride things out this semester, while appealing to the incoming Trump administration, which Infilaw expects to be more friendly to the for-profit education industry [sic]."

When the federal Department of Education first announced that it would no longer permit students at Charlotte School of Law to borrow federally subsidized student loans, I posted here that I expected the parties to smooth over matters for the spring semester. Turns out I was wrong. Go here to read the latest from the Charlotte Observer. First, the apparent good news:
In a statement sent to Charlotte School of Law’s students Wednesday, a top U.S. Department of Education official said his agency and the law school had reached an agreement in principle that would have freed up some of the federal loan money in time for the planned start of classes Monday. 
What happened? 
Instead, Charlotte School of Law “has since rejected what it had previously accepted and has informed the Department that it will not be accepting the conditions set.”
In other words, no federal loans for CSL students this spring.

What's worse?
With an agreement now off the table ... the Charlotte students also don’t qualify for the full and partial tuition refunds available to those who attend a closed school.

None of this should fill anyone with a sense of schadenfreude.There are, after all, real students and real teachers whose academic and professional futures seem likely to come to an abrupt and unpleasant end.

16 January 2017

"Jackie"

The backstory of the winding road to the production of Jackie is worth the read. Directed by Chilean Pablo Larrain, who had never done a biopic, filmed largely in Paris, and starring Natalie Portman instead of the originally cast Rachel Weisz, this film is a fascinating personal closeup of a significant moment in American history. More to the point, Jackie is an engaging and sometimes powerful film. Portman's hard work on the clipped, boarding school accent of Jacqueline Bouvier paid off. Whether recreating Jackie's CBS special on her refurbishing of the White House or chain smoking as she plays with "the reporter" (Billy Crudup playing Theodore White), Portman deserved an Oscar nomination as best actress.

Jackie is principally set during her interview with White with regular flashbacks to the fateful day in Dallas and the subsequent turbulent ones leading up to JFK's funeral. There are appropriately understated references to JFK's notable peccadillos. I learned a great deal about the planning of the funeral and especially Jackie's indomitable will that the funeral be an homage to the late president, filled with historical significance, and framed with her aesthetic eye.

The final point--Jackie's acute aesthetic judgment--provides a constant and subtle subtext for the film. Jackie was not merely stylish or simply a purchaser of haute couture. She was an understanding patron of the arts who set her own dying days in an aesthetic framework.

Jackie is not a great film but is a competent study of real but inconsistent human strength set in a period of American history that, because so much of it was televised, continues to cast a long shadow in American political life. We enjoyed it and recommend it.

13 January 2017

Hammers in the Air

A short time ago I posted here about the situation at Charlotte School of Law. The U.S. Department of Education cut access to federal student loans to those attending CLS. CLS seems to be trying to line up sources of private student loans but it remains to be seen it that will be enough to keep it in business.

Now you can go here to read a post by Paul Caron that lists more law schools (several owned by the same entity that operates CLS plus a few others) that are also at risk of DOE sanctions. (For a list of all schools and programs likewise at risk--and there are hundreds--go here.)

The DOE's test for these schools and program is an arcane "gainful employment" formula. Quoting Caron:
Programs fail the gainful employment standard if graduates’ annual loan payments are more than 12 percent of their total earnings, or if those payments exceed 30 percent of their discretionary income. [Programs are in the zone if graduates’ annual loan payments are 8-12 percent of their total earnings, or if those payments are 20-30 percent of their discretionary income.]
While least of all I want to see good taxpayer dollars thrown down the rat hole of substandard higher education, I am very concerned about the more extensive federal involvement in this sphere of life. One needn’t be a libertarian conspiracy theorist to wonder if federal tentacles will go ever deeper into higher education and continue to turn it into a particular form of social formation, i.e., service to the pervasive corporate-consumer state.

We see this already in the relentless shilling for classes in app development for grade-school children and STEM education for college students. Postmodern consumer capitalism, just as much as one fixated on sexual autonomy, exemplifies a society without ends, a purely secular age. (See some of my posts about the commodification of contemporary life here and here.) Such an age sees human beings as no more than ever-green consumers of ever more products, an age that may soon collapse under the weight of its inconsistencies.