Law Religion Culture Review

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

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Church and State (An Occasional Series).

I snapped this photo at the Long Beach Grand Prix this past weekend. In this single shot, you have an individual exercising his First Amendment rights with a sign reading, "BELIEVE ON THE LORD JESUS CHRIST AND THOU SHALT BE SAVED. ACTS 16:31", and police officers talking to him about it.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Book Review: The Happiness Project (2009) by Gretchen Rubin.

Surprisingly, Gretchen Rubin somewhat undermines her thesis that happiness is intentional.

At the outset, she writes: "According to current research, in the determination of a person's level of happiness, genetics accounts for about 50 percent; life circumstances, such as age, gender, ethnicity, marital status, income, health, occupation, and religious affiliation, account for about 10 to 20 percent; and the remainder is a product of how a person thinks and acts." (p. 6.)

In other words, if at least 50 percent (and likely much more) is governed by circumstances beyond one's control, isn't that a little depressing? (sorry)

But, if heredity isn't destiny, then most of Rubin's book uplifts. She breaks her project into twelve parts--one for each month. Not all monthly projects are created equal, however. For example, her chapter for April on "Parenthood" stands out. She offers some helpful tips, including trying to reverse the propensity of parents to speak negatively to their children. Rubin reports that "[s]tudies show that 85 of adult messages to children are negative--'no,' 'stop,' 'don't'--so it's worth trying to keep that to a minimum. Instead of saying, 'No, not until after lunch,' I try to say, 'Yes, as soon as we've finished lunch.'" (99.)

By contrast, her chapter for August to "Contemplate the Heavens" and "eternity" from an "reverent agnostic" (195) falls flat. While Rubin hints at aspects of "spirituality" that may increase happiness, she does not enjoy the depth of background to harvest the fruit presented by this bountiful topic.

Further, the two quoted passages above (6 and 99) illustrate an annoying tendency in the book to cite "current research" or "studies" without any footnote, endnote or citation for support. As a result, the reader has no idea how credible this research is. As a former Supreme Court clerk, who left the law to write, perhaps Rubin intentionally shunned writing like a lawyer in this respect.

As an interesting side note, her father-in-law Robert Rubin (former Treasury Secretary) makes several appearances in the book (and receives favorable treatment).

In sum, while Rubin might receive criticism for gimmickry (which she acknowledges), the book contains some useful food-for-thought as to what influences happiness, and how one can take intentional steps (thoughts and actions) to maximize it.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Praising the Good (An Occasional Series).

1. Flyleaf. From their most recent record, Memento Mori, is the bracing song, "Beautiful Bride". Playing through mainstream rock stations, its overt theology of the Church is arresting. For example, this excerpt of the lyrics (including chorus containing the phrase, "Body of Christ") removes any ambiguity and underscores Flyleaf's uncompromising audacity of message:

"[Unified] diversity
Functioning as one body
Every part encouraged by the other
No one independent of another
You're irreplaceable, indispensable
You're incredible, incredible

"Beautiful bride
Body of Christ
One flesh abiding
Strong and unifying
Fighting ends in forgiveness
Unite and fight all division
Beautiful bride"

(Songwriters: Bhattacharya, Sameer; Culpepper, James; Hartmann, Jared; Mosley, Lacey Nicole; Seals, Kirkpatrick via

This bridal/body imagery comes directly from the Second Testament. (See, e.g., Revelation 21:9 and Ephesians 5:22-33; Romans 12:5 and 1 Corinthians 12:12-27.)

2. Dr. Douglas Groothuis/The Constructive Curmudgeon. Intermittently, I have linked to Dr. Groothuis' site, The Constructive Curmudgeon (including on April 10, 2010), which can be found here: due especially to its original voice and profound thoughts. A Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary, Dr. Groothuis provides incisive, indicting social commentary, with musings about politics, intelligent design (and other apologetics issues), and music (especially jazz). Sometimes he posts original poetry. The site's tone can sometimes seem a little "cranky", but it wouldn't befit its "curmudgeon" label otherwise.


Monday, April 12, 2010

Got Mirror?

I guess one needs a mirror, rather than a map, to find the place.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Book Review: Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile (2008) by Rob Bell and Don Golden.

Philosophy professor Douglas Groothuis of Denver Seminary critiques tendencies of many modern books:

"Many books today seem afraid to rely on pure text. They seem to be embarrassed to be what they are: books, that is, orderly collections of words formed into sentences and paragraphs.Too many books are filled with one-sentence paragraphs (usually a sign of poor style and impatience), call-outs that repeat what is in smaller print elsewhere on the page (annoying), stand-alone call-outs with little connection to the flow of the text and which I find disorienting. (When do I read them? That is their context?) We also find lists, bullet points (the bane of orderly discourse, but the balm of PowerPoint), and font variations. These books are more like children's books of old." (The Constructive Curmudgeon, April 3, 2010:; emphasis supplied).

I wonder if Dr. Groothuis has read Rob Bell and Don Golden's Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile. As this book is loaded with one-sentence paragraphs and some colorful accoutrements, it might just ruin Dr. Groothuis' day for these reasons alone. (The authors also play games with the endnotes, as they add one [a Bible verse] to each chapter that nowhere appears in the text.) However, it would be hasty to reject it as childish for its stylistic indulgences. The book contains some thought-provoking material about the church today.

First, let me dismantle another potential stumbling block: the book's provocative title. The book does not argue that Christians need to be "saved" in the sense of obtaining reconciliation with God through justification. Rather, a clue unlocking the title's meaning is found in this one-sentence paragraph appearing late in the book: "Jesus wants to save our church from irrelevance." (p. 174.) Bell and Golden expound on their ideas about saving the church: "Jesus wants to save us from shrinking the gospel down to a transaction about the removal of sin and not about every single particle of creation being reconciled to its maker." (179.)

The book somewhat abruptly pivots from an exposition of biblical texts--largely the exodus narrative--into a call for the American church's political or social action. "[L]et's listen with fresh ears to the Bible. Because what's going on here is an ancient phenomenon known as empire [endnote omitted].

"America is an empire.

"And the Bible has a lot to say about empires.

"Most of the Bible is a history told by people living in lands occupied by conquering superpowers. It's a book written from the underside of power. It's an oppression narrative. The majority of the Bible was written by a minority people living under the rule and reign of massive, mighty empires, from the Egypt Empire to the Babylonian Empire to the Persian Empire to the Assyrian Empire to the Roman Empire.


"What we see in the Bible is that empires naturally accumulate wealth and resources." (121.)

Then, Bell and Golden explain the ways in which America is an empire that accumulates, which in turn leads to "consequences", including "burdens and curses". (122-23.) They call on the church to be mindful of this tendency towards accumulation, and simultaneously, to understand those who are trampled by empires who need liberation.

Notwithstanding the single-sentence paragraphs and colorful flourishes, Jesus Wants to Save Christians is challenging. It's challenging in its conclusions and its theology. In fact, I'm not sure its theology can withstand careful scrutiny in every respect, as it also occasionally indulges in excesses in its theological expositions.

So, here's an example of not judging a book by its text.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, April 09, 2010

Book Review: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich.

After describing a coworker's lament about wasting her employer's money by wasting time on the job, author Barbara Ehrenreich writes: "To me, this anger seems badly mis-aimed." (180.)

Pot, meet kettle.

Ehrenreich's book Nickel and Dimed is an extended exercise in misdirected anger.

Holding a Ph.D. in biology and enjoying a career as a writer of several books, Ehrenreich took jobs as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing home aide, and retail clerk to expose the dispiriting working conditions endured in these travails.

Surprisingly, Ehrenreich mixes in rants about customers or clients who have nothing to do with setting these employment conditions. In a particularly shocking example during her stint as a house cleaner for a company, Ehrenreich seethes:

"[I]n a huge, gorgeous country house with hand-painted walls, I encounter a shelf full of arrogant and, under the circumstances, personally insulting neoconservative encomiums to the status quo and consider using germ warfare against the (house) owners, the weapons for which are within my apron pockets. All I would have to do is take one of the E. coli-rich rags that's been used on the toilets and use it to 'clean' the kitchen counters--a plan that entertains me for an hour or more." (109.)

Why is Ehrenreich directing her anger to the customer (besides class envy)? After all, the house owner did nothing to set any of the working conditions about which Ehrenreich complains. I'm quite confident the home owner did not set her hourly wage, set her schedule, dictate breaks (or lack thereof), or anything else about Ehrenreich's working conditions. Moreover, without the home owner contracting with Ehrenreich's employer for her services, there would be no wages flowing to Ehrenreich whatsoever. So, again, it appears the rage is misdirected.

Ehrenreich does expose, however, some appalling aspects of employment in such positions of unequal bargaining power. She describes scenarios of checks being withheld, breaks ignored, hours shaved (i.e. uncompensated) and other indignities or injustices.

Nickel and Dimed has birthed other immersion journalism books, including 2010's Working in the Shadows by Gabriel Thompson and Scratch Beginnings by Adam Shepard (reviewed here on March 8, 2010, and October 29, 2008, respectively). Both books expressly noted their inspiration in Ehrenreich's book. Even without the express acknowledgement, it was evident that Thompson's book bears a strong resemblance to Ehrenreich's, as if they share the same DNA. Their political perspectives, especially strong advocacy for unions, are nearly identical. However, Thompson's book mostly lets the conditions speak for themselves, while Ehrenreich colors her narrative with screeds. In the end, these diatribes, often off-topic, detract from the stories that can stand on their own without these immaterial attempts at enhancement.

Labels: , ,

Monday, April 05, 2010

Not a Law Firm.

Mercifully, this photo I snapped is not of a law firm.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Book Review: What the Dog Saw (2009) by Malcolm Gladwell.

It's surprising only one chapter contains the word "myth".

The chapter, "The Talent Myth--Are Smart People Overrated?" exemplifies Malcolm Gladwell's overall approach to his essays in What the Dog Saw. Just about every other one begins with a myth that Gladwell sets out to debunk.

Unlike his other three monster best-sellers: The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers (each favorably reviewed here), this book constitutes a collection of essays previously published in The New Yorker magazine.

Thus, it appears his criterion was to select essays exhibiting this myth theme. One example particularly captured my interest as a trial lawyer. Gladwell claims that prosecutors got it "wrong" when they prosecuted Enron's former CEO Jeffrey Skilling by framing the issue as a one about "truth and lies"--a commonly held belief about the Enron scandal. (p. 155.) Gladwell argues that the truth was hiding in plain sight, what he terms "an open secret". Instead, he calls it a "peril[] of too much information". (151.)

This debunking pattern removes the element of surprise. By the time I reached Gladwell's discussion of pit bull's reputation for aggressiveness, I knew how he would conclude: don't blame the breed. And there it was. (416.)

By far, as a book, What the Dog Saw represents Gladwell's weakest effort of his four. I can't help but suspect that Gladwell or his publisher sought to capitalize on his runaway success as an book author. Or perhaps that's just a myth. Maybe he intended to publish such a book all along.

Labels: , ,