Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Book Review: Comeback America: Turning the Country Around and Restoring Fiscal Responsibility (2009) by David M. Walker.

Alert the media!

David M. Walker claims he has solved the the country's deficit and debt crises in Comeback America: Turning the Country Around and Restoring Fiscal Responsibility.

His solution: cut spending and raise taxes.

How did this prescription possibly elude everyone else?

The answer is that it hasn't. What has been elusive is leadership. One party wants to cut taxes and the other wants to increase spending (and some want both). The result is a balance sheet that isn't. Walker lays out a parade of horribles regarding the resultant national debt and unfunded obligations. (E.g., pp. 5-25.) This is not a news flash.

Too, Walker offers some political proposals, such as term limits and other anti-incumbency measures, and constitutional amendments. (pp. 193-96.) However, unless those in power and those who put them in power get serious about this mess, nothing will change. Walker, who has been a Washington-insider for many years, most recently as CEO of the Government Accountability Office from 1998 to 2008, knows this as well as anyone. I admire his apparent optimism, but this book comes across as a simplistic antidote to a poison that has probably irreparably corroded the system.

Walker himself concedes: "All of this is easy to say, but it will be tough to accomplish." (p. 192.) "[E]asy to say", yes; but far more than "tough to accomplish."

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Book Review: Patience With God: Faith for Those Who Don't Like Religion (or Atheism) (2009) by Frank Schaeffer.

"Rigid purity is the ultimate denial of paradox. And that denial is the only blasphemy there is. It's the blasphemy committed against God by all fundamentalists with every false certainty they mouth about Him." --Frank Schaeffer, Patience With God (p. 194).

This quote reveals much about the book (as well as inverts the biblical definition of blasphemy). In sum, Schaeffer contends God is "ineffable". (149.) So he's against anyone asserting anything with certainty, including "evangelicals/fundamentalists" and the "new atheists" (which he lumps in as fundamentalists of a different stripe).

He prescribes a third way, "an apophatic view". (150.) He calls it "a humble thread that runs through many religions parallel to the deadly we-know-it-all thread of the theological hubris." (150.)

For one ardently arguing we cannot know virtually anything about God, and chastising both "evangelicals/fundamentalists" and the "new atheists" for their disdain of "the other" (among other things), Patience With God inconsistently advocates a particular view about God and often vitriolically attacks "the other". Rick Warren as well as Richard Dawkins each receive sharp barbs from the author (among others), although attacks are mostly about their commercialism.

In the end, despite promising "'something' to hold on to" (xxi), the converse is the result. Employing Schaeffer's amorphous prescription is akin to grasping air or "shoveling smoke" as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. famously observed (about lawyers' work).

Moreover, this book's an exercise of ignoring the evidence. Schaeffer simply doesn't deal with it in arriving at his conclusions. Rather, he relies more on his experiences, content to produce another memoir. (125.) In this regard, Schaeffer recycles stories about his childhood contained in 2007's Crazy for God and provides new ones. In doing so, Schaeffer seems to working out issues he had with his parents who "forgot" him as they pursued their ministries. Nevertheless, that experience of religion, albeit painful, doesn't prove or disprove its underlying tenets.

Accordingly, in the end, the book should be understood simply as one man's memorialization of his circuitous spiritual journey. It's not a polemic that undermines the sides Schaeffer attempts to debunk or discard.

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Book Review: In-N-Out Burger: A Behind-The-Counter Look at the Fast-Food Chain that Breaks All the Rules (2009) by Stacy Perman.

With packages replete with Bible verses and bags proclaiming it's "NOT A FRANCHISED COMPANY, PRIVATELY OWNED AND FAMILY OPERATED", one could say In-N-Out Burger is the anti-McDonald's.

Indeed, that's a recurring theme of Stacy Perman's recent book about the iconoclastic burger chain founded in Baldwin Park, California, and still run from Southern California, as she routinely contrasts the two chains.

Despite the company's traditional reticence, Perman uncovers the history of In-Out-Burger. It's a history of triumph and tragedy--especially with the founders' family, the Synders.

Harry and Esther Snyder opened their first burger stand in 1948. Harry innovated the two-way intercom for drive-through orders, according to Perman. He also was a stickler for quality, service and cleanliness. To maintain these high standards, Harry refused to cut corners--either with wages (paying above industry norms) or ingredients (insisting on using only the middle cuts of tomatoes for example).

They had two children, Guy and Rich. Esther then saw each of these men predecease her--the later two in their forties in the most tragic of circumstances: drugs and an airplane crash, respectively.

Of particular interest to lawyers, the story also intertwines with a number of lawsuits, the most recent being a fight for control of the company played out in middle of the last decade.

Credit Perman for selecting a topic ripe for the picking (sorry). I'm not aware of anyone else writing a book about In-N-Out, despite its obvious appeal. Especially since In-N-Out is not a public company, Perman had to dig to obtain the volume of information she marshaled here. She reports conducting over one hundred interviews and reviewing thousands of legal documents. (p. 289.) She deserves praise for this.

However, Perman--an admitted fan (292)--gets carried away at times praising the food. For example, her opening chapter chronicles the near paroxysm of ecstasy of those who eat there, as if there was some kind of narcotic in it--a theme to which she randomly returns. There's no such secret ingredient of course. After all, it's just a quality burger--with a gripping story wrapped around it.

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Book Review: The Case for God (2009) by Karen Armstrong.

"All history becomes subjective."

--Ralph Waldo Emerson

"History will be kind to me for I intend to write it."

--Sir Winston Churchill

In other words, the scriveners of history shape it. Karen Armstrong's sweeping The Case For God illustrates this point. Despite the title, the book is not an apologetic but rather a history text. It explores the history of religion from Part I's "The Unknown God" (30,000 BCE to 1,500 CE) through Part II's "The Modern God" (1,500 CE through the present).

Along the way, Armstrong covers a staggering array of religious history. While Armstrong generally does this reportage in an accurate fashion as far as it goes (with some exceptions), one senses that the book is selecting, arranging and presenting this history with a point in mind. The point isn't to prove God's existence as the title suggests, but rather to lead one to Armstrong's particular experience of God through a religion that is "a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart." (p. xiii.)

In The Case for God, Armstrong attacks the "fundamentalism" emanating from the three major monotheistic religions, but also its "parasitic" reaction: atheism, especially the "new atheism" strain of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Her critique of the "new atheists" is especially sharp: "[I]t is difficult to see how theologians could dialogue fruitfully with Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens, because their theology is so rudimentary."

Nevertheless, Armstrong insightfully writes that the atheist critique is useful to theists (and hence the Church). Armstrong observes: "An informed atheist critique shall be welcomed, because it can draw our attention to inadequate or idolatrous theological thinking." (323.) She continues: "An intelligent atheistic critique could help us to rinse our minds of the more facile theology that is impending our understanding of the divine." (327.)

Armstrong's book is not immune from critique itself. Armstrong bandies about the hackneyed labels, "fundamentalist" or "fundamentalism" without really defining what she is talking about. In fact, her label is so broad that it appears it would cover Roman Catholics who might be surprised to learn they are considered "fundamentalists". For example, Armstrong states: "Christian fundamentalists take a hard line on what they regard as moral and social decency. They campaign against the teaching of evolution in public schools, are fiercely patriotic and conduct a crusade against abortion." (294). This characterization might describe or pertain to a certain political orientation of some Christians, but it does not define what Christian fundamentalism is. Indeed, people who aren't strictly "Christian fundamentalists" could be accurately described in this passage, and conversely, people who might meet the definition of "Christian fundamentalism" (by assent to certain doctrinal fundamentals) that are not so politically inclined.

Despite some excesses, this book represents an admirable amount of research and a broad, quality history of how people have viewed God over myriad centuries. It's indubitably a feast for the mind, but also the heart.

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