Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Why cash remains sacred in American churches

leave a comment »

Professor of American Religious History, Vanderbilt University, writes in The Conversation:

On Tuesday, June 27, it will be 50 years since the first automated cash dispenser – which came to be known as an automated teller machine (ATM) – was inaugurated in London.

Just thinking about it brings a smile to my face. I belong to the generation who stood 45 minutes to an hour to deposit or cash checks in the pre-ATM era. I remember getting yelled at for taking my bicycle through the drive-up line at the National Bank of Detroit to avoid the much longer line inside. It did not take me very long to become an early adopter of the magical cards and 24-hour banking.

Later, in my work as a historian of American religion, I extensively studied the role money has played in religious life. In my book, “In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism,” I retold the American history of the nation’s largest religious stream in terms of the search for money to pay for religious ministries and the purposes for which churches spent the money they collected.

So, what impact did ATMs have on church life?

Giving to the church

Fundamentally, the legal separation of church and state in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the United States did more than simply assure freedom of religion – it privatized what until then in Europe had been a public good and provided funding under the auspices of the state. In the U.S., religious leaders and their ministries had to increasingly depend on voluntary donations and to appeal ever more strenuously for those gifts.

Over the 19th century, various church support schemes were tried and abandoned. What in Europe had been a discreet offering with alms boxes kept at the back of the church (alms for the poor) became a central ritual activity in America. In most American weekly church services, offering plates were passed around to finance all of church activities. As giving became very public, one of the features of the weekly offering was, of course, that all gathered could see who was giving, if not how much.

Once the age of plastic money arrived, all of this ritual and financial necessity in American churches was jeopardized. ATMs began appearing in churches, providing a way for people to come up with the ready cash to give to God and their church.

Nature of money

So, why did people need cash in the first place? To answer this question, it is important to first understand the nature of cash in context of religious life.

The German sociologist Georges Simmel famously noted that the essential, almost magical quality of money is that it is fungible – that is, it is exchangeable or replaceable. Individuals can use the same US$100 to buy drugs, feed a frugal family for a week, buy a designer scarf or give it to God in an offering plate.

Indeed, as we know only too well, money is a universal currency to purchase things of incommensurate worth. However, as sociologist Viviana Zelizer explains in her memorable book, “The Social Meaning of Money: Pin Money, Paychecks, Poor Relief, and Other Currencies,” not all money is the same – there are social and moral dimensions to money that are frankly surprising.

To illustrate, Zelizer narrates the striking example of Marty, a 1950s Philadelphia gang member who would donate to the church only the 25 cents that he got from his mother – not money from robberies. When asked, Marty provided a clear distinction between different sets of money. He said,

“Oh, no, that is bad money; that is not honest money.”

But the money he got from his mother was earned through hard work so “he could offer it to God.” Marty is the kind of person who, when asked, “Who would know? would reply, “God would.” The point is, not all dollars are equal – individuals have some strong ideas about clean and dirty money, or just appropriate and inappropriate money.

Here is where ATMs come into the story.

Donations in the age of ATMs

Automated teller machines started to make their first appearance in the lobbies of evangelical churches just over a dozen years ago. It was important for churches to have something to put into the collection plate, and it was important that it be cash that people actually possessed – not a promise to pay someday on their credit card accounts. Thus, the ATM allowed evangelicals who didn’t carry a checkbook or a wallet full of cash not to be embarrassed when the offering plates or baskets came around.

Marty Baker, pastor of the Stevens Creek Church in Augusta, Georgia, was widely credited as the first to install two ATMs in the church lobby in 2005. The first year the donations produced $100,000. They more than doubled by the next year to more than $200,000. He was so successful in increasing giving by making cash available (up 18 percent over pre-ATM machine levels) that he took it one step further, by introducing the “automatic tithing machine” that took cash out of the giver’s account and deposited it directly into the church’s coffers. This new ATM was beginning to virtualize the all-important collection. Some users responded by placing their receipts in the plate at the appropriate time in the service.

The tithe, of course, refers to the tenth of one’s income conservative Protestants are largely taught to pay to the church in gratitude for what God has done. It is a sacred obligation, and the cash money is a serious matter.

There are two interesting dimensions of this appearance of ATMs and churches to consider. One is the strong affinity between cash and conservative evangelicals. For many evangelicals debt is a form of bondage – a message conveyed through conservative radio financial guru Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University to tens of millions of his followers on AM radio each week in his call-in programs. Ramsey teaches how to “dump debt, budget, build wealth and give like never before!” The building of wealth is a corollary to eschewing debt and it makes Christians free, in Ramsey’s view to be godly.

The point is, money isn’t just a fungible means to various ends, it is sacred to these believers.

In cash we trust

The second dimension for consideration in the appearance of ATMs in the lobbies of evangelical churches is that they signaled something by their very presence: America was in fact becoming a cashless society. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 June 2017 at 5:06 pm

Saudi Arabia is destabilizing the world

leave a comment »

And Trump is selling them $100 billion worth of arms. The Saudis export terrorism-seeds in the form of Wahhabism, and it flowers in many countries. Here it’s taken root in Indonesia, as reported by Stephen Kinzer in the Boston Globe:

JUST A FEW months ago, the governor of Indonesia’s largest city, Jakarta, seemed headed for easy re-election despite the fact that he is a Christian in a mostly Muslim country. Suddenly everything went violently wrong. Using the pretext of an offhand remark the governor made about the Koran, masses of enraged Muslims took to the streets to denounce him. In short order he lost the election, was arrested, charged with blasphemy, and sentenced to two years in prison.

This episode is especially alarming because Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, has long been one of its most tolerant. Indonesian Islam, like most belief systems on that vast archipelago, is syncretic, gentle, and open-minded. The stunning fall of Jakarta’s governor reflects the opposite: intolerance, sectarian hatred, and contempt for democracy. Fundamentalism is surging in Indonesia. This did not happen naturally.

Saudi Arabia has been working for decades to pull Indonesia away from moderate Islam and toward the austere Wahhabi form that is state religion in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis’ campaign has been patient, multi-faceted, and lavishly financed. It mirrors others they have waged in Muslim countries across Asia and Africa.

Successive American presidents have assured us that Saudi Arabia is our friend and wishes us well. Yet we know that Osama bin Laden and most of his 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, and that, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in a diplomatic cable eight years ago, “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

Recent events in Indonesia shine a light on a Saudi project that is even more pernicious than financing terrorists. Saudi Arabia has used its wealth, much of which comes from the United States, to turn entire nations into hotbeds of radical Islam. By refusing to protest or even officially acknowledge this far-reaching project, we finance our own assassins — and global terror.

The center of Saudi Arabia’s campaign to convert Indonesians to Wahhabi Islam is a tuition-free university in Jakarta known by the acronym LIPIA. All instruction is in Arabic, given mainly by preachers from Saudi Arabia and nearby countries. Genders are kept apart; strict dress codes are enforced; and music, television, and “loud laughter” are forbidden. Students learn an ultra-conservative form of Islam that favors hand amputation for thieves, stoning for adulterers, and death for gays and blasphemers. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 June 2017 at 5:01 pm

China’s Astounding Religious Revival

leave a comment »

Very interesting book review by Roderick MacFarquhar in the NY Review of Books:

The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao
by Ian Johnson
Pantheon, 455 pp., $30.00

If there were just one Chinese in the world, he could be the lonely sage contemplating life and nature whom we come across on the misty mountains of Chinese scrolls. If there were two Chinese in the world, a man and a woman, lo, the family system is born. And if there were three Chinese, they would form a tight-knit, hierarchically organized bureaucracy.

But how many Chinese would there have to be to generate a religion? It could be just one—that Daoist sage in the mountains—but in reality it takes a village, according to Ian Johnson in his wonderful new book, The Souls of China. Chinese religion, Johnson writes, had little to do with adherence to a particular faith. Instead, it was primarily “part of belonging to your community. A village had its temples, its gods, and they were honored on certain holy days.” Or, traditionally, it could also take a workplace: “Almost every profession venerated a god…. The list is inexhaustible….” Chinese religion “was spread over every aspect of life like a fine membrane that held society together.”

At the outset of this account of China’s astounding religious revival since the end of the Mao era in the 1970s, Johnson explains the differences between Chinese religious traditions—Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism—and the “Abrahamic” faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: “Chinese religion had little theology, almost no clergy, and few fixed places of worship.” Confucianism was largely a moral code of what the upright person should aim to achieve by self-cultivation. In the Analects, Confucius famously advised: “Respect ghosts and spirits, but keep them at a distance.” For the Master, it was enough if he or one of his disciples could gain the ear of a Chinese ruler and sort out the problems of the visible world.

Daoists were freer spirits who refused to be bound by Confucian rules of propriety, and they had their own religious rituals. Only Buddhists used their faith, imported from India around the first century AD under the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), to build up a sizable monastic establishment with considerable political power, but it was reduced in size and influence in the later Tang (618–907). By then Buddhism had long been accepted as a Chinese religion.

Thereafter, for Chinese it was not really a matter of choosing: the three traditional “teachings” were a smorgasbord on offer to all and sundry in the community, and representatives of each would perform on demand, and for a price, their particular rituals on appropriate occasions such as funerals. According to Johnson, “for most of Chinese history, people believed in an amalgam of these faiths that is best described as ‘Chinese Religion.’”

Over the centuries, the Abrahamic faiths began to spread into China. Nestorian Christians arrived from Asia Minor in 635 after disputes over doctrine with both the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches. They flourished under the cosmopolitan Tang dynasty and again under Mongol rule but then effectively disappeared. Muslim traders also arrived under the Tang, but in far larger numbers under the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) when Islam was spreading throughout Central Asia. Jews settled in Kaifeng when it was the capital of the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127), and flourished for a while, but gradually the community seems to have faded. Under the Ming (1368–1644), considerable pressure was put on the adherents of non-Chinese religions to assimilate.

Of all those professing foreign faiths, it was the Jesuits who had the greatest impact in premodern China. Arriving in the late sixteenth century, Matteo Ricci emerged as their most prominent leader. He and his colleagues impressed the Confucian elite with their knowledge of science in general and astronomy in particular, for the emperor had to demonstrate to his people a satisfactory relationship with heaven.

The Jesuits flourished particularly after the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) supplanted the Ming. The emperor Kang Xi (r. 1661–1722) put the Jesuits in charge of the royal observatory, and even more significantly issued an edict permitting the practice of Christianity throughout the empire:

The Europeans are very quiet; they do not excite any disturbances in the provinces, they do no harm to anyone, they commit no crimes, and their doctrine has nothing in common with that of the false sects in the empire, nor has it any tendency to excite sedition…. We decide therefore that all temples dedicated to the Lord of heaven, in whatever place they may be found, ought to be preserved, and that it may be permitted to all who wish to worship this God to enter these temples, offer him incense, and perform the ceremonies practised according to ancient custom by the Christians. Therefore let no one henceforth offer them any opposition.

Unfortunately for the Jesuits they became embroiled in a decades-long dispute with the Dominican and Franciscan orders, which accused them of doctrinal sins for their permissiveness about Confucianism. Despite Kang Xi’s support, the pope backed the Jesuits’ critics in what became known as the “Rites controversy,” and in 1742, the church definitively declared Chinese rites incompatible with Christianity. In 1724, Kang Xi’s successor proscribed Christianity as heterodoxy: Christianity thereby lost its best chance of emulating Buddhism and becoming accepted as a Chinese religion.

Christian missionaries returned, however, if not under auspicious circumstances. John Fairbank, the great expert on nineteenth-century Western trade along the China coast, used to regale his Harvard students with tales of merchants selling opium from one side of their boat while missionaries were handing out Bibles on the other side. Missionaries were not welcomed at court any longer; their most prominent nineteenth-century “convert” was Hong Xiuquan, who proclaimed himself the younger brother of Jesus and led the midcentury Taiping rebellion, which lasted fourteen years, cost an estimated 20 million lives, and almost brought down the Qing empire.

Missionaries persisted, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 June 2017 at 4:28 pm

Posted in Books, Religion

Trump is evangelicals’ ‘dream president.’ Here’s why.

leave a comment »

Michael Gerson has a good column in the Washington Post:

Even in an era of marriage diversity, it remains the most unlikely match: President Trump and his loyal evangelical base. In the compulsively transgressive, foul-mouthed, loser-disdaining, mammon-worshiping billionaire, conservative Christians “have found their dream president,” according to Jerry Falwell Jr.

It is a miracle, of sorts.

In a recent analysis, the Pew Research Center found that more than three-fourths of white evangelical Christians approve of Trump’s job performance, most of them “strongly.” With these evangelicals comprising about a quarter of the electorate, their support is the life jacket preventing Trump from slipping into unrecoverable political depths.

The essence of Trump’s appeal to conservative Christians can be found in his otherwise anodyne commencement speech at Liberty University. “Being an outsider is fine,” Trump said. “Embrace the label.” And then he promised: “As long as I am your president, no one is ever going to stop you from practicing your faith.” Trump presented evangelicals as a group of besieged outsiders, in need of a defender.

This sense of grievance and cultural dispossession — the common ground between The Donald and the faithful — runs deep in evangelical Christian history. . .

Continue reading.

He concludes the column:

. . . In the Trump era, evangelicals have gotten a conservative Supreme Court justice for their pains — which is significant. And they have gotten a leader who shows contempt for those who hold them in contempt — which is emotionally satisfying.

The cost? Evangelicals have become loyal to a leader of shockingly low character. They have associated their faith with exclusion and bias. They have become another Washington interest group, striving for advantage rather than seeking the common good. And a movement that should be known for grace is now known for its seething resentments.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 May 2017 at 11:38 am

Who are the new jihadis?

leave a comment »

Olivier Roy writes in the Guardian:

There is something new about the jihadi terrorist violence of the past two decades. Both terrorism and jihad have existed for many years, and forms of “globalised” terror – in which highly symbolic locations or innocent civilians are targeted, with no regard for national borders – go back at least as far as the anarchist movement of the late 19th century. What is unprecedented is the way that terrorists now deliberately pursue their own deaths.

Over the past 20 years – from Khaled Kelkal, a leader of a plot to bomb Paris trains in 1995, to the Bataclan killers of 2015 – nearly every terrorist in France blew themselves up or got themselves killed by the police. Mohamed Merah, who killed a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, uttered a variant of a famous statement attributed to Osama bin Laden and routinely used by other jihadis: “We love death as you love life.” Now, the terrorist’s death is no longer just a possibility or an unfortunate consequence of his actions; it is a central part of his plan. The same fascination with death is found among the jihadis who join Islamic State. Suicide attacks are perceived as the ultimate goal of their engagement.

This systematic choice of death is a recent development. The perpetrators of terrorist attacks in France in the 1970s and 1980s, whether or not they had any connection with the Middle East, carefully planned their escapes. Muslim tradition, while it recognises the merits of the martyr who dies in combat, does not prize those who strike out in pursuit of their own deaths, because doing so interferes with God’s will. So, why, for the past 20 years, have terrorists regularly chosen to die? What does it say about contemporary Islamic radicalism? And what does it say about our societies today?

The latter question is all the more relevant as this attitude toward death is inextricably linked to the fact that contemporary jihadism, at least in the west – as well as in the Maghreb and in Turkey – is a youth movement that is not only constructed independently of parental religion and culture, but is also rooted in wider youth culture. This aspect of modern-day jihadism is fundamental.

Wherever such generational hatred occurs, it also takes the form of cultural iconoclasm. Not only are human beings destroyed, statues, places of worship and books are too. Memory is annihilated. “Wiping the slate clean,” is a goal common to Mao Zedong’s Red Guards, the Khmer Rouge and Isis fighters. As one British jihadi wrote in a recruitment guide for the organisation: “When we descend on the streets of London, Paris and Washington … not only will we spill your blood, but we will also demolish your statues, erase your history and, most painfully, convert your children who will then go on to champion our name and curse their forefathers.”

While all revolutions attract the energy and zeal of young people, most do not attempt to destroy what has gone before. The Bolshevik revolution decided to put the past into museums rather than reduce it to ruins, and the revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran has never considered blowing up Persepolis.

This self-destructive dimension has nothing to do with the politics of the Middle East. It is even counterproductive as a strategy. Though Isis proclaims its mission to restore the caliphate, its nihilism makes it impossible to reach a political solution, engage in any form of negotiation, or achieve any stable society within recognised borders.

The caliphate is a fantasy. It is the myth of an ideological entity constantly expanding its territory. Its strategic impossibility explains why those who identify with it, instead of devoting themselves to the interests of local Muslims, have chosen to enter a death pact. There is no political perspective, no bright future, not even a place to pray in peace. But while the concept of the caliphate is indeed part of the Muslim religious imagination, the same cannot be said for the pursuit of death.

Additionally, suicide terrorism is not even effective from a military standpoint. While some degree of rationality can be found in “simple” terrorism – in which a few determined individuals inflict considerable damage on a far more powerful enemy – it is entirely absent from suicide attacks. The fact that hardened militants are used only once is not rational. Terrorist attacks do not bring western societies to their knees – they only provoke a counter-reaction. And this kind of terrorism today claims more Muslim than western lives. . .

Continue reading.

The article is in effect describing the evolution of memes. Try reading it from that perspective.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 April 2017 at 3:30 pm

The practical side of Jesus’ ukase on wealth

leave a comment »

Tejvan Pettinge writes in Economics Help:

Diminishing marginal utility of income and wealth suggests that as income increases, individuals gain a correspondingly smaller increase in satisfaction and happiness.

Utility means satisfaction, usefulness, happiness gained. Utility could be measured by the amount you are willing to spend on a good.

Marginal utility of first £100

If you have zero income, and gain £100 a week. This £100 will improve your living standards significantly. With this £100 you will be able to pay for basic necessity of life – food, drink, shelter and heating. Without this basic £100 a week, life would be tough.

Marginal utility of income increasing from £500 to £600 (6th £100)

However, if you already gain £500 a week, an extra £100 has a proportionately smaller increase in utility. You  may be able to eat out at restaurants more often, but it doesn’t significantly affect your standard of living and happiness. At £500 a week, you can afford most things you need. But, still most people would be happy to gain an extra £100 to spend on luxuries like going out.

Marginal utility of income increasing from £10,000 to £10,100

If you are earning £10,000 a week – you would hardly notice an extra £100 a week. You may not even have time or ability to spend it; this extra income is liable to be just saved. Therefore, we say the marginal utility of an extra £100 at this income level is very limited.

Therefore as income increases, the extra marginal benefit to individuals declines.

Diminishing marginal utility of wealth

Income is the amount of money received per time period. Wealth is a stock concept (the amount of savings, property owned)

It is a very similar effect with wealth. If you have savings of £10,000 – this can be useful for giving you insurance in periods of unemployment or the need to buy large items, like a new cooker. If you own one car, it can be useful for getting to work. Also, owning a house is a form of wealth and it is important for giving you a place to live.

However, suppose your wealth increases. If you now own two cars, the extra benefit is much diminished compared to the first car. It might be useful to have two cars in case one breaks down, but you can only drive one at a time. If you have 7 or 8 cars like a collector, you may get some joy from having a collection, but the extra utility of that 8th car is significantly lower than the working person who has just one car to get to work.

Positional wealth

Some economists argue that wealthy people can use their wealth primarily to gain feelings of prestige and show their position in society. For example, the utility of a £100,000 car is not because you get anywhere quicker, but because it becomes a status symbol – a symbol to show other people your success. Therefore, the utility to society is very minimal. . ..

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 March 2017 at 4:24 pm

Is there now an afterlife? Turns out, the answer is yes, though digital

leave a comment »

Watch this amazing video, about 25 minutes. Several segments, sequential in nature, shot in different locations and with different people on different aspects of one’s digital afterlife. Some very odd questions arise: do you want your posthumous bot making jokes of the sort you would made but were not made by you—though in the natural mental shorthand people use, the joke was made by “you.” You and your digital ghost will be merged in people’s memories, like grafting a lemon branch onto an orange tree.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 March 2017 at 2:17 pm

%d bloggers like this: