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A Noah State of Mind

AS THIS IS written, the big, fat Hollywood blockbuster Noah is opening amid condemnation from some Muslims and evangelical Christians and praise from most film critics.

Today, any product that touches the Bible is bound to be perceived as another entry in the culture wars. But that doesn’t seem to be what the producers and filmmakers had in mind with Noah. After all, it’s time-tested public domain material that presents great opportunities for computer-generated imagery (CGI) special effects. Paramount, the studio that put up the $125 million production cost, mostly wanted to peel off a slice of the Christian audience that flocked to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and the History Channel’s Bible series.

But Noah was a culture war surrogate long before Russell Crowe donned his biblical robes. That’s because the creationist organization Answers in Genesis (AiG), which runs an anti-evolution Creation Museum in northern Kentucky, has for the past few years been trying to raise money to build a theme park anchored by a Bible-sized replica of Noah’s Ark. The Creation Museum is famous for such attractions as exhibits that depict humans and dinosaurs as neighbors. You may have heard it described as the museum for people who think The Flintstones was reality TV.

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Beauty in Battered Places

Denise Giardina

“THE CHURCH radicalized me,” celebrated author and ordained Episcopal deacon Denise Giardina once said, describing how she sees herself as both social activist and servant minister. “The phrase in the prayer book is ‘Interpret the world to the church and the church to the world.’ It’s a totally different way to advocate, with a spiritual point of view.”

This philosophy has shown up in her bestselling novels, published over her long career, such as Storming Heaven (1987) and The Unquiet Earth (1992), which chronicle the history and social impacts of coal mining in Giardina’s native Appalachia; Saints and Villains (1999), which tells the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s resistance against Hitler and the Nazis; and, most recently, Emily’s Ghost (2010), a reimagining of Emily Brontë’s story and how her life was changed by her encounter with an ardent member of the clergy.

Shortly before her recent retirement from teaching creative writing at a West Virginia college, Giardina talked with Jason Howard, author of A Few Honest Words and coauthor of Something’s Rising, about her literary career, social justice activism, and her time in the late 1970s in Washington, D.C., as a member of Sojourners community (the intentional Christian community that founded Sojourners magazine and other ministries).

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The Earth is the Lord's (and just look what we're doing with it)

WONDERFULLY, WE FIND ourselves very much alive in “a large and beautiful house,” as Cicero called it in his day. We know it was built not only for “the sake of mice and weasels,” or “immortal gods,” but for the entire array of life on Earth.

As we behold the remarkably habitable abode we call Earth, we are left to wonder: What is this grand house in which we live, move, and have our being? What makes it such a habitable abode?

The answer is written elegantly before our eyes in creation itself. And when we join this with reading God’s word, we find the foundation of the answer: “The [geophysical] earth (ge) is the Lord’s and its fullness, the [biosphere] (oikoumene) and everything that lives in it,” as it says in the Septuagint translation of Psalm 24:1.

We discover as grateful dwellers in this most habitable abode that we also are its housekeepers. If we mess it up, it will teach us something about proper housekeeping. And from scripture we learn that we are its Earth-keepers, commissioned, as the Anglican Communion puts it, “to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.”

In the beautiful architecture of Earth, we find the foundations of life in the geophysical earth as well as keystone species in its biosphere. In the architecture of our houses and churches, we find structures of our own crafting, such as foundations, cornerstones, columns, arches, domes, and keystones.

Significantly, one of these architectural features appears in the name “Keystone XL,” the proposed tar sands oil pipeline. Architecturally, a keystone locks together two legs of an arch. If completed, Keystone XL would do much the same.

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Degrees Without Jobs

RECENT YEARS HAVE witnessed a deluge of headlines such as “Jobs Become More Elusive for Recent College Grads” from Reuters and “For Recent College Grads, Recessions Equal Underemployment” from Inside Higher Ed—headlines that make even the most hearty college students experience heart palpitations. According to a 2014 analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, “the underemployment rate for 22-year-olds is about 56 percent, indicating that more than half of the people just graduating end up working in jobs that do not require a degree,” jobs for which they are overqualified.

To put this into perspective: I am a 22-year-old senior at a private Christian university. Of my close friends who graduated in the last year or two, the only ones who were able to find jobs in their fields were education and nursing majors.

Don’t get me wrong, I love liberal arts and feel grateful for the critical thinking skills, study-abroad opportunities, and philosophical discussions that attending a liberal arts school has afforded me. But learning in the same analysis that “only 40-to-45 percent of recent college graduates majoring in communications, liberal arts, business, and social sciences were working in jobs that required a degree” is troubling at best.

 In addition, seven out of 10 college seniors are graduating with an average of $29,400 in debt due to rising tuition costs for an undergraduate education. The National Center for Labor Statistics found that in the past decade, the cost of “tuition, room, and board at public institutions rose 42 percent after adjustment for inflation.” The situation was a bit (though not much) better at colleges in the private not-for-profit group, like my own, where the average price rise was 31 percent.

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Moneyed Speech

IN ITS SEEMINGLY endless quest to attack the few remaining pillars of our campaign finance laws, the Supreme Court issued a brazen ruling in McCutcheon vs. FEC, striking down the aggregate contribution limits that capped the overall amount individuals could give to candidates and political parties each election cycle. As it was with Citizens United—the 2010 decision that said corporations and unions could spend unlimited amounts—the court’s April ruling was striking not only in its naiveté about the effect of money in politics, but in its naiveté about the nature of the American experiment itself.

Whereas Citizens United focused on the nature of corporate spending in elections, this decision cuts straight to the chase. Should wealthy people have a greater ability to fund political parties and candidates—and benefit from the greater access and influence that awards them? The court sent a clear message about where it stands: Yes, they should. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, even cloaked the decision in pious language, stating, “if the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests, and Nazi parades ... it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.”

Traditionally the court has asserted that the government has an interest in preventing corruption and the appearance of corruption, the latter in order to sustain public faith in the democratic process. However, the McCutcheon decision defines “corruption” so narrowly that the original statute is essentially useless. The government can no longer prevent the appearance of corruption, and it would have a difficult time proving “quid-pro-quo corruption” occurred in the first place

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All in the Family

FROM EGG FREEZING to genome analysis, desirous parents with sufficient funds these days have many choices for starting a family. But what about children born to parents who can’t care for them—at least not at the present time? With 400,000 children in foster systems across the United States and a quarter of them awaiting adoption, it is a pressing question.

Some evangelicals increasingly are taking their cue from a particular biblical passage in the first chapter of James, verse 27: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God ... is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress ...”

From this verse has come the “127 movement,” dedicated to supporting prospective foster families within a church community. Project 1.27 in Colorado was the first group founded under this banner back in 2004. Its goal was to provide the state-mandated orientation and training, from a Christian perspective, to potential foster parents. If a family ended up fostering or later adopting a child, then the movement’s members would serve as a support network.

“We had 875 legally free kids waiting to be adopted in Colorado and twice that many churches,” recalled Project 1.27 director Shelly Radic. “We thought, ‘Wow, that’s just not right,’ so we began to build relationships with county social services and child services at the state level, and then connect with churches and private agencies to set up training.”

Since foster systems are run by individual states, so too are these faith-based support movements.

“We do recruiting, orientations, and training. We’re not a placement agency,” explained Radic. “We follow state guidelines, invite people to come who might be interested in foster care and adoption, tell them about the trauma and the hard things the children may have experienced, help families see what their process would look like, and talk about building a support team as a high priority.”

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10 Personal Decisions for the Common Good

WE LIVE IN an age in which we are encouraged to make decisions that further our personal benefit. This attitude is so pervasive that it extends even to our spiritual lives.

There is a danger in making our faith so personal and inward, so focused on the first commandment to love God with all our hearts, minds, and strength, that we forget to keep the second commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Though our culture would tell us to look out for number one, Christ’s upside-down kingdom offers a different and subversive message: Lose your life and you’ll find it. The church was designed to display the “manifold wisdom of God” by creating a community full of people who, like Jesus, put others before themselves and seek the common good. Christian community is intended to be a living witness, to demonstrate and to anticipate the future of the world that has arrived in the person of Jesus Christ.

In other words, it’s impossible to keep the second commandment without loving God with everything we have, but it’s also impossible to keep the first without loving our neighbors as ourselves.

A thriving common good and the quality of our life together are deeply affected by the personal decisions we all make. The commons—those places we come together as neighbors and citizens to share public space—will never be better than the quality of our own lives and households.

But what does that look like on a practical level? How can the choices we make as individuals reinforce the common good and promote human flourishing? As I’ve asked myself these questions, I’ve come up with 10 personal decisions we can make to further the common good.

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The Supreme Court's Assault on Democracy

y3s0rn0 and Stephanie Frey/Shutterstock.com

y3s0rn0 and Stephanie Frey/Shutterstock.com

It started when the United States Supreme Court determined that corporations were people and, as such, had similar rights and protections as us oxygen-breathing types. And now, in another recent decision, the court has decided that people (individual human beings or corporations) have the right to donate to an unlimited number of political candidates — therefore removing the aggregate cap on total donation amounts — as such gifts should be protected as an exercising of free speech, as defined in the constitution.

So much for representative democracy.

It’s my understanding that the founders of our nation and the framers of our constitution held the notion of representative democracy fairly sacred.

Supreme Court Doubles Down on Money as Speech

Pillars of the Supreme Court, Brandon Bourdages / Shutterstock.com

Pillars of the Supreme Court, Brandon Bourdages / Shutterstock.com

Yesterday, the Supreme Court struck down a law that limited the amount of money that an individual can contribute to political campaigns in a two-year election cycle, while upholding the limit that an individual can give to a single campaign in the same period. Previously, the law limited total individual contributions to all political campaigns to $48,600, while capping individual donations to a single campaign at $2,600.

The bottom line of yesterday's McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling is that there will be more money in politics, as the Court doubles down on the controversial 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling that allowed unlimited, anonymous expenditures by outside groups on election activities. Those with resources can now contribute up to $2,600 in all 435 congressional districts, more than 30 Senate races, and the presidential election, while at the same time giving millions more to Super PACs in support of these candidates.

The ruling will give more influence to corporate and labor lobbyists whose groups contribute to political campaigns. It is still illegal to give a donation that explicitly requests a legislative action in return for the contribution. But while politicians spend hours every week making phone calls soliciting contributions, they aren’t likely to forget who is funding their political future. When they hang up the phone and meet a lobbyist in their office whose group is funding their campaign, there is an unspoken understanding that the politician will be more open to the idea that lobbyist is presenting.

5 Ways Money Quietly Poisons Our Faith

Cross on top of $100 bills, StockThings / Shutterstock.com

Cross on top of $100 bills, StockThings / Shutterstock.com

It’s sometimes cliché for Christians to warn about the dangers of idolizing wealth and money, but the negative impact it can have on our faith is more subtle than we often realize. Here are a few ways it covertly manipulates our spirituality:

1. We Use It To Measure Our Faith (and the Faith of Others):

In a culture obsessed with wealth, success, fame, and comfort, Christians often use wealth as a way to estimate their own spirituality. We assume God’s blessings translate into material possessions and riches, and we profusely thank God for jobs, promotions, paychecks, and brand new toys, but then cry out in panic when these same things disappear.

Commonly referred to as “the prosperity gospel,” individuals — and churches — are susceptible to the misguided belief that financial strength equates to spiritual maturity — it doesn’t.

Most would say they don’t believe in the prosperity gospel, yet there are still some worrisome signs within mainstream Christianity. For example, mission trips often go to third-world countries to do practical service projects and work, but the assumption is also that these places are also spiritually desolate — but why do we think that?

We assume that poverty stricken areas are less Christian than wealthy areas — they aren’t. Why do Bible colleges have inner-city ministry degree but not suburban-ministry degrees? Why don’t we send missionaries to Scandinavia and other ritzy European countries — some of the most secular places in the entire world — but continually focus on poor regions? Maybe it’s because we subconsciously continue to associate money with spirituality.

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