Friday, December 31, 2010

WikiLeaks: Who Cares?

Ask someone you know to tell you what they know about WikiLeaks.  They'll probably mention Julian Assange and his sensational rape allegations.  Maybe they'll mention his controversial stance on freedom of information and government corruption.  They might even say they support him...or, they might say they think he's a danger to the country and needs to be put in jail.  It's possible they might even note that Bill Hader does a hilarious skit about him.   

The unaddressed issue for most, though, is what exactly do the WikiLeaks documents reveal?  Who can actually tell you a specific example of some truth the intercepted cables have shown the public that can now be put to good use?  It's not that the specific information from the leaked cables (and, previously, leaked war documents) are not out there.  The New York Times, among other major newspapers, has been reporting on it for months.  You can do a simple internet search and find all kinds of articles and information about what the cables have revealed.  Yet, my guess is that the vast majority of Americans simply do not care, and could not tell you what is in the documents.  Meanwhile, they can give you details about the sensational allegations swirling around Assange.

If Assange really wanted to get Americans fired up in support of his cause, he should have hacked into the Kardashian's family files.  He could have revealed some juicy text messages sent by Kim about her sisters.  Or, he could find racy photos saved on Justin Bieber's computer, which would certainly have placed him with round-the-clock coverage on HLN.  The thing is, Assange's fight for free information is something most Americans support.  We prove it with every Tiger Woods, Brett Favre, Sandra Bullock scandal.  We seem to think we have a right to know what's in the text messages and voicemails and photos and videos sent and shared by people in the public eye.  When it comes to the government, most Americans would probably agree: we should know the details.  Especially if the details involve a sex scandal or scandalous cover-up of a campaign to kill dolphins.  But if it's only about politics in the middle east, or tensions between the U.S. and Russia, or political gamemanship over which strategy to use with North Korea, Americans (most of them) simply don't care.

Perhaps Assange could arrange a new reality show, "Real Housewives of London" where he can have various middle-aged plastic-bots that pass as women stage drama-filled arguments wherein they reveal the details found in the leaked cables.  Imagine a five-course dinner filled with emotional debates over whether or not Saudi Arabia really does believe Iran is a "snake" that deserves to have its "head cut off" or heated discussions about CIA drone attacks in Yemen.  Journalism and information that requires time and nuanced study to really understand is not sexy.  Fake reality shows featuring fame-mongering people with no discernible skills and talents IS.  Until Assange realizes this, his campaign will be discussed among intellectuals, and that's it.  There is no popular revolution coming, precisely because it won't be televised on Bravo or E!.

The time in which Americans cared about what our government is doing in the world has passed.  As long as we can turn on the TV and follow the drama of our favorite celebrities, we have no desire to know.  Just be sure to let us know if the WikiLeaks saga every involves animal cruelty or sex scandals.  In fact, I'm going to go set a google news alert right now... "Wikileaks...sex...puppies..."

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Church History Recommendations

Inspired by the list put up by The Resurgence, here is a list of my book recommendations for those interested in church history.

Bruce Shelley - Church History in Plain Language
-Most Protestants would hail this book as the most concise, readable introduction to Christian history out there...and I would agree.  As a one-volume work that clocks in at about 500 pages, there is obviously much detail that is left out.  However, this is a good starting place for one to begin to piece together the historical developments of Christianity from the time of Jesus until today.

Diarmaid MacCulloch - Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years
-MacCulloch is one of the preeminent Church historians around today.  With this work, MacCulloch presents a sweeping narrative and interpretation of Christian history in breathtaking detail.  A good synthesis of some of the best historical scholarship on a wide variety of historical topics, it should be noted that MacCulloch is not shy about offering controversial (to Christians of orthodox belief) interpretations of Christian history.

NT Wright - The New Testament and the People of God
-This is the first book in Wright's "Christian Origins and the Question of God" series.  The other two books that have been released so far (Jesus and the Victory of God and The Resurrection of the Son of God) are highly recommended as well, but it would be wise to start out here.  Wright provides invaluable analysis and critique of other key historians of early Christianity and 1st century Judaism, included Schweitzer, Bultmann, the Jesus Seminar collective (Borg, Crossan, etc), and E.P. Sanders.  He places Jesus and the first Christians firmly within their 1st century Jewish world.   

Wayne Meeks - The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul
-A classic look at the sociology of the Roman world into which Christianity first spread.

Robert Louis Wilken - The Christians as the Romans Saw Them
-Wilken takes the novel approach of looking at documents written in the first 200 years after the death of Jesus by those outside the Christian community.  He provides an illuminating understanding of how the Christians were perceived by those in mainstream Roman society.  Includes examination of documents written by Pliny, Celsus, Galen, Porphyry.

ed. Michael W. Holmes - Apostolic Fathers in English
-Provides easy to read translation, complete with commentary and introductions, of those Christian writings which were written directly after (and, in some cases, perhaps before) the books that make up the New Testament. 

ed. S.L. Greenslade - Early Latin Theology
-A selection of key writings from Terullian, Cyprian, Ambrose and Jerome that help chart the development of important doctrines in Latin Christianity.

J.N.D. Kelly - Early Christian Doctrines
-Kelly is well-regarded among other respected historians.  This book is considered a classic introduction to the historical development of Christian theology.

Eusebius (ed. Paul Maier) - The Church History 
-Any collection of books about church history must include Eusebius.  However, it would be wise to read Eusebius with great caution, as his "history" is quite obviously not a history written with the same scholarly integrity and analysis that defines solid historical work in today's academic world.  Thus, this edition with commentary and introduction by Paul Maier will likely be helpful to the uninitiated.

Phillip Jenkins - The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died
-A groundbreaking book that examines an overlooked part of the history of Christianity.  Jenkins discusses the spread of Christianity into areas that today are not predominately ChristianHe tries to broaden the focus of our understanding of historic Christianity from simply Catholic/Orthodox to include other ancient communities of Christians.  

R.A. Markus - Gregory the Great and his World  
-An insightful biography and introduction into the life and times of the influential pope at the turn of the 7th century. 

Peter Brown - The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000. 
-An authoritative examination of the history of Christianity as it transitioned from a tiny, sometimes-persecuted sect to the dominant social force of medieval Europe.   

Peter Kreeft - A Summa of the Summa
-You may be the type of person who wants to plow through the five volume, 3,000 page English translation of Thomas Aquinas "Summa Theologica."  But I doubt it.  Kreeft provides carefully selected key passages from the work of the preeminent Catholic theologian of the last 1,000 years, and also gives analysis and commentary to help the modern reader have a better understanding of Aquinas' thought and importance.

Diarmaid MacCulloch - The Reformation
-Considered by many to be the definitive history of the Reformation, MacCulloch's book covers the whole scope of the entirety of the Reformation.  For a broader, more complete understanding of everything that was going on during the Reformation, this book is essential. 

Carl Bangs - Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation 
-Within Bangs' biography of Arminius, he is able to paint the historical picture of how "Calvinism" came about, and how the seeds were planted for future theological disputes between Calvinists and Arminians.  Calvinists will be surprised to find that the historical figure of Arminius was actually more similar to a modern-day Calvinists than he is to a modern-day Arminian.  

Martin Marty - Martin Luther: A Life
-For those wanting an accessible, easily-readable yet historically sound biography of Martin Luther, this book is an excellent choice.

Mark Noll - The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys 
-A thoroughly researched and well-written look at the development of evangelicalism in the English-speaking world.  This book provides a beginning point for understanding Christianity within North America, but for those who want a more thorough history, Noll's A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada is recommended.

George Marsden - Fundamentalism and American Culture
-The classic study of the rise of fundamentalism in America, this book provides an authoritative look at early 20th century Christianity within the United States.


The following two books, although not works of "history" persay, do offer an introduction to the historical and theological traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy.
James Payton - Light from the Christian East: An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition 
-Written by a Protestant for a Protestant audience, the book provides historical and theological insight into a better understanding of the Orthodox Church.
Timothy Ware - The Orthodox Church
-While the previous book is written by a Protestant, this is a book written by an Orthodox leader with the goal of explaining the Orthodox tradition to those on the outside.




Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future

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--> --> In a short, straightforward book, Reich makes the case that the typical argument for why the “Great Recession” happened (namely, too much credit-fueled consumption, not enough saving) is actually a symptom of a deeper problem, and not the problem itself. 

 The deeper problem, according to Reich, is that wealth in the United States has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of the richest, and the middle class has been unable to keep up.  Among the statistics Reich uses to support his claim:
“In the late 1970s, the richest 1 percent of the country took in less than 9 percent of the nation’s total income. After that, income concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. By 2007, the richest 1 percent took in 23.5 percent of total national income. It is no mere coincidence that the last time income was this concentrated was in 1928.”

Contrary to other economists, Reich believes that “The central challenge is not to rebalance the global economy so that Americans save more and borrow less from the rest of the world. It is to rebalance the American economy so that its benefits are shared more widely in America, as they were decades ago.”

 It is at this point that Glenn Beck and the various Fox News crazies would make the cry of “socialism.”  Reich is certainly no advocate of a government takeover of the economy, though.  He firmly believes in competition and in capitalism.  However, as should be apparent by now to more than just Reich, capitalism left on its own leads to crippling inequality.  With no control or regulation, the rising tide ends up drowning those at the bottom, and, Reich would argue, eventually even those in the middle.

Reich argues that if the middle class in the U.S. can have increased purchasing power, and reach a level of prosperity that it had during the “Great Prosperity” between 1945 and the 1970s, it would actually help out everyone in the economy, including those at the very top.  As Reich points out, the claim that taxing the richest at a higher rate causes them to “lose the incentive” to work harder and leads to an economic slowdown is simply bunk:

“During the almost three decades spanning 1951 to 1980, when the top rate was between 70 percent and 92 percent, average annual growth in the American economy was 3.7 percent. Between 1983 and the start of the Great Recession, when the top rate ranged between 35 percent and 39 percent, average growth was 3 percent.”

Reich himself realizes that the serious reforms needed to the economic system will be difficult to achieve.  Much of this is due to the fact that Wall Street is continuously increasing its influence in Washington.  Only a serious crisis or concerted and determined popular reform effort will be able to overcome the grip of hedge fund managers and big banks.  Reich laments the fact that President Obama did not seek more serious reform measures in his stimulus package, and instead simply applied a temporary salve to the U.S. economy that will not eliminate future problems arising from the growing inequality in wealth.

Reading Reich describe some of the blatant corruption and incendiary behavior on Wall Street can be downright heart-wrenching.  One example:

"In the years leading up to the Crash of 2008, Wall Street made large and risky bets with other  people’s money. Goldman Sachs, among others, created bundles of mortgage debt and persuaded investors to buy them, hawking them as good investments. Goldman even lobbied credit-rating agencies to give the mortgage bundles high ratings as solid bets. Yet Goldman simultaneously, and quietly, bet against them—“shorting” them, in the parlance of Wall Street.  When the bottom fell out of the mortgage market, Goldman made a huge profit. Through it all, government regulators slept."

Reich warns that the anger that American people feel when reading and hearing about this “rigged game” could potentially lead to a reactionary political movement that would try to destroy the influence of big banks at the expense of the U.S. economy as a whole.  Before things reach that point, reforms need to be made, and the most important way to fix the problem is to increase the purchasing power of the middle class.

If nothing else, Reich’s book provides a spark for future discussion.  He makes a compelling case, although, no doubt, a controversial one.  For those seeking to make sense of the U.S. economy and looking for answers to the recent economic crisis, Reich’s book is an essential read.