Thank God Heaven Is Not Like America

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The Statue of Liberty welcomes immigrants to New York City and the United States.

Right now, you are probably attempting to guess just how I am going to favorably compare Heaven to America.  Which aspect of American society am I going to say is too sinful, too unfair, or too degraded to measure up?  Or could I perhaps be going a more ironic route, venting my frustration about the current trends of reality television, blood-constricting pants, or “twerking” that I happen to believe will not be present in the great beyond?

Well, let me first say that this is not a plea for my life to be free of Miley Cyrus: a Google Chrome extension has already been created that will go a long way toward achieving that goal.  Neither am I going to be complaining about the uptick in gay marriages, the inability of any of our politicians to get along with the other children in the sandbox, or the state of the roads in Michigan (which are paved with anything but gold).  No, what I intend to talk about is immigration. Continue reading

Gluttons for Punishment?

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An illustration by Albrecht Dürer depicting gluttony, circa 1498

What comes to mind when you hear the word “gluttony”?  My immediate mental image is of a rotund man sitting at a banquet table, turkey leg in one hand and wine goblet in the other, stuffing his face past the point of normal endurance.  My imagination then expands to the Independence Day hot dog eating contest at Nathan’s on Coney Island, sumo wrestlers gorging themselves on trays full of sushi, and frat boys trying to best each other in a drinking contest.  Perhaps I even see a cruise ship drifting through the Caribbean, its eager occupants devouring food and drink 24/7.

These scenarios range from silly to serious, and all of them have to do with the rapid devouring (I use this same word again because no verb in English seems to capture the meaning of gluttony as well as “devour”) of some kind of food or beverage, all of which usually leads to or is a part of bad behavior. But in our culture, such consumption is not considered to be especially bad.  Continue reading

The Inevitability of Religion

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This map shows the relative importance of religion in different countries based on polling data by Gallup. Darker red colors indicate greater importance. Most of the less religious countries are located in or somehow connected to Western Europe. (Several others are former USSR states.) Image courtesy of Wikipedia user Sbw01f.

Author’s Note: The following is a brief essay written back in 2011 which is only now being made public.  It is one of a series of such essays that I have produced examining the causes and results of spiritual belief.  It is not meant to be a full-length research paper, but rather an initial overview leading to more in-depth work in the future: please keep this in mind when reading it.

Is the secularization of the world inevitable?  Not so long ago, any number of scholars would have been ready to answer “yes” to that proposition.  Unfortunately for them, time is a funny thing: it does not always play out as one would expect.  The world today seems to be just as religious and perhaps more so than it ever has been.  Rather than taking a back seat, the realm of the spiritual is at the center of our great political and sociological debates.  Why is this, and does it represent an inevitable urge of humanity or merely the last death throes of a world unwilling to embrace change? Continue reading

The CIA Fesses Up…60 Years too Late

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President Truman and Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh in happier times

Did you hear the big news?

No, not that Bradley Manning wants to undergo hormone therapy and prefers for us to refer to him/her as Chelsea Manning.  That’s a somewhat shocking and yet oddly predictable end to what has been a media circus of a military case.

No, not that Ben Affleck is set to play Batman in the next Superman movie.  Apparently, the two superheroes are going to face off against one another, which strikes me as odd for two reasons: 1) I thought they were both supposed to be good guys, and 2) We all know that Superman would win in an actual fight.  However, it makes sense that they couldn’t bring back Christian Bale because then they would have to admit to casting two British guys as America’s two greatest comic book icons. (Well, them and Aquaman…)

The big news that I am actually referring to is the CIA’s admission that it was behind a coup in 1953 that unseated the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh.  New details in a CIA document declassified under the Freedom of Information Act provide proof that the CIA helped to organize and carry out the operation through a combination of propaganda, bribery of Mossadegh’s supporters, inducing the population to riot, colluding with Iran’s security forces, and pressuring the Shah to dump the prime minister. Continue reading

Niebuhr on the Road

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The hills of Pennsylvania on the road yesterday.

It used to be that when I would go on a long road trip, I would spend most of my time listening to music, first on my portable CD player and then on my iPod.  Once I had a laptop, I could also watch movies, which seemed more than anything to provide a pleasant distraction from the hours of cornfields zipping by my window.  Eventually, I started using my laptop to write while on the road, which was probably a slightly more productive use of my time.  However, this summer I have gone decidedly old school: I spend a good portion of my hours in the car…reading books.

I know, no one reads books anymore.  Why else is every bookstore but Barnes & Noble now closed?  If people do read books, they read them on their tablet, phone, or Kindle.  Only in extreme circumstances will they resort to real paper and ink (not “E Ink”).  For every person not reading a book, there are two or three people not reading a newspaper.  I recently observed that soon our libraries will be nothing more than a place where people go to sit down and read something electronically.  After all, it’s better for the environment. Continue reading

Richard III: Shakespearean Hit Job?

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First page of the first edition of William Shakespeare’s play “Richard III”

England’s King Richard III has been experiencing a bit of  renaissance lately after his remains were discovered underneath a carpark (a.k.a. parking lot) in Leicester, UK last year.  Of particular interest has been the debate over whether or not Shakespeare’s portrayal of the late king in his famous play Richard III is historically accurate.  Scholars had suspected for some time that the villainous, deformed version of Richard that appears in the Bard’s script could have been a clever form of Tudor-era propaganda – the Tudors being the English royal dynasty that unseated Richard III and would have been keen to emphasize his illegitimacy as king.

The discovery of Richard III’s skeleton has now proved that at least two details in Shakespeare’s play were incorrect: the king did not have a withered hand, and while he did suffer from scoliosis (side-to-side curvature of the spine), descriptions of a hideous hunchback were exaggerated.  As for the many crimes that Shakespeare alleges – murdering his two nephews and a brother while manipulating his way to the throne – the Richard III Society offers a spirited defense for him.

In addition, a mock trial at Indiana University’s law school  in 1996, presided over by former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Rehnquist and other legal experts, found Richard III not guilty of murdering the two princes.  Taking all of this into consideration, and remembering that the play was written more than a century after Richard’s death, it seems quite likely that at least part of Shakespeare’s tale was invention. Continue reading

Let’s Party Like It’s 1588!

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Photo uploaded to Wikipedia by Prioryman, attributed to “Steve”

History has seen its share of monumental rocks.  There was the stone that killed Goliath, the Hope Diamond, the star of films such as Fast and Furious 6, and the renaming of Simon as “Peter”, a.k.a. the rock on which Christ’s church would be built.  But only one rock is currently causing a diplomatic crisis….Well, actually  the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem could be a second, but just forget about that for now.  The rock of which I speak is the Rock of Gibraltar.

Ah, Gibraltar: It only has 2.6 square miles of real estate (that picture above is of the whole thing, plus part of Spain), but a very strategically located 2.6 square miles.  The small peninsula sticks out into the narrow channel connecting the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, making it a perfect location for anyone engaged in either international trade or international warfare.  If it didn’t already exist, the guys who made those palm islands in Dubai would have been forced to create it. Continue reading

Rep. Tom Cole’s Civil War Analogy

With the House Republicans having voted dozens of times to repeal Obamacare (a.k.a. The Affordable Care Act), only to have each of those proposals die upon arrival in the Senate, Republicans such as Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), Sen. Marco Rubio (Florida), and Sen. Mike Lee (Utah) are making a new push to simply defund the program, thus killing it in every sense that matters.

There is some reason to believe that Republicans might have more luck with this approach, since they are clearly more successful at preventing something from passing than ensuring that it gets passed.  However, one Republican isn’t so sure that this strategy can achieve the desired result. Continue reading

Ironic Prophets

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Tourists inspecting the interior of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Sometimes the wrong person says the right thing – and humanity is better for it.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  These words are familiar to most Americans, despite the fact that they may fail to remember whether they come from a) the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, b) the Bill of Rights, or c) the Declaration of Independence. (If you guessed “c”, you’re right.) Whenever an American feels their rights are being violated, they’re likely to make some mention of this universal claim to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, the holy trilogy that tends to define our sense of individual dignity.

Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, was a true believer in the philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment.  Historians debate the primary inspirations for Jefferson’s text, but one person commonly mentioned is the English writer John Locke.  In his classic work, Two Treatises of Government, Locke argued that government exists to protect the individual’s “life, liberty and estate”, or more generally “property”.

Similar language also existed in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, authored by George Mason, which was adopted a few weeks before the Declaration of Independence and seems to draw heavily on Locke’s themes.  It spoke of a person’s “inherent right”, which it specified as “the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety”.  It seems likely that one or both of these documents influenced Jefferson, though we may never know for sure why he chose not to emphasize “property” or “estate”, opting instead for the “pursuit of happiness”. Continue reading

Jay-Z vs. British History

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An article by Bloomberg caught my eye this morning which compares Jay-Z’s new album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, to the original Magna Carta.  For those who need a quick brush up on their history, the Magna Carta (Latin for “Great Charter”) was a thirteenth century document outlining the rights of the English barons in relation to their king.  It is seen by many as a precursor for the kind of personal rights citizens enjoy today, though in reality the pledges contained in the Magna Carta were at times flouted by power hungry English kings.  Jay-Z’s new album, on the other hand, is more grandstanding than history lesson.  Check out the article here.