Why Joe Paterno’s Death Makes Us Feel Bad

Joe Paterno’s death at 85 would not be nearly so sad to us—after all, 85 is not young—if it weren’t for the fact that he was fired just two months ago in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky fiasco. I think it’s fair to admit that not a few of us wonder and fear that—amidst collective anger at Sandusky—Paterno deserved better than to be a fall guy whose last months were spent watching a career’s worth of good deeds get trampled on by a scandal he didn’t create. Legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant was likewise dead within weeks of his retirement, but this feels different. It feels incomplete, wrong.

I can only imagine how blindsided Paterno must have felt to be caught up in this saga in late 2011, nine years after his assistant coach informed him about what he saw in the locker room. To be sure, Paterno regrets how he handled what he heard. But a pair of statements he made during his last interview, just days ago, continues to haunt me. When describing his assistant’s revelation of Sandusky’s actions, Paterno said, “You know, he (the assistant) didn’t want to get specific.” I understand that, having interviewed many dozens of people about their own sexual behavior. People prefer to speak in vague generalities about sexual matters, and will tend to do so unless asked to get specific. But what Paterno said next was even more telling: “And to be frank with you I don’t know that it would have done any good (if his assistant had been specific), because I never heard of, of, rape and a man.” With this jumbled assertion, [Read more...]

Why Even Go to Church?

By Richard Flory

Yesterday, Jeremy Rhodes wrote about a new survey from Barna Group that shows that almost 50% of regularly attending American churchgoers say that their lives haven’t changed in any way as a result of their churchgoing habits. In the interest of full disclosure, David Kinnaman, President of Barna, is a former student of mine, and while I am proud of what he has done (and he’s taking Barna in good, new directions), I can’t take any credit for his success. Now back to the issue: church attendance doesn’t do much for half of those who go to church regularly. Without challenging Jeremy’s perspective—which I don’t disagree with at all other than I have absolutely no love for anything Disney—here is perhaps another way to think about the survey and what it might mean for churchgoing Americans.

Now, if I’m a pastor and I read the results of this survey (which I’m not, although I did grow up a pastor’s kid, a fact that probably goes a long way toward explaining why I’m a sociologist interested in religion), I’m thinking that these results suggest that about one-half of my congregation either doesn’t listen to the sermons, or maybe doesn’t understand the key points, or worse, that they find what I have to say completely irrelevant to their lives. Indeed, fully 60% said that they could not recall an important new religious insight from the last time they attended church, and 50% couldn’t remember any insight from the previous week’s service. That has to hurt the pastoral ego.

At the same time (and obviously), [Read more...]

The Church Has No Effect on Your Life?

By Jeremy Rhodes

A recent poll conducted by the Barna Group reveals that 46% of church-going Americans claim their lives have not changed at all due to their time spent in the pews. This seems like quite a large number. Certainly, one immediate reaction to this news is to think about the church’s effectiveness (or apparent ineffectiveness, in this case) when it comes to its goals of transforming lives through spiritual instruction and opportunities for service. No doubt, much could be written (and has) about the failings of the church as it attempts to be a relevant force in the day-to-day lives of its congregants. I distinctly remember reading a report 10 years ago about an urgent spike in church attendance right after the events of 9/11, which was followed by an almost-immediate return to prior levels. One writer pointed out, “After 9/11, Americans turned to the church in droves, only to be reminded why they weren’t attending in the first place.”

As a sociologist, however, I think the claims by these 46% are pretty dubious. One quintessential claim of sociology is that the socialization we receive is not only powerful and consuming, but is also subtle, often leaving us unaware of the forces that have shaped us. Of course, the fact that these 46% believe their church to have no impact on their lives is certainly an interesting fact, and tells us something important about their relationship with their church (and is likely correlated with their frequency of church attendance). But I would say that it is their belief that is the interesting finding here, not a reality that church actually has no effect on people. Does this reflect a special inability of religious organizations to affect change in the lives of believers, or is it merely another example of the difficulty we have noticing and acknowledging the social forces that shape us?

I see this difficulty every semester in my Introductory Sociology classes. When we begin discussing socialization, [Read more...]

Faith as Small as a Peanut: What One Black Christian Scientist Taught Me About My Work

At the school where I teach and research we just finished our second week of the semester, and this past Monday we (as a nation) remembered Martin Luther King Jr. and the vision that he and the Civil Rights Movement leaders imparted to the rest of the nation. When confronted with great figures whose lives end prematurely, especially at the beginning of a new semester sets my mind to the question of calling: why do we do what we do?

This question is particularly salient as I am teaching a new grad seminar on how to write in the social sciences. As I prepped for the course over the winter break it was clear to me that calling has to be at the root of what we researchers do, and maybe a little bit of madness or possibly ineptitude at most other kinds of work. But really, as I enter into conversations with the new graduate students about why research is so important not only for society but also for their careers, the obstacles to accomplishing good research in the ever-changing rules of higher education seriously lead me to ask reflectively: why would you do this? [Read more...]

A Problem with Today’s Widespread Celebrity Culture

A defining feature of life today is we have a lot of celebrities. We live in a world of information, and much of that information is about specific people. We have celebrities in just about every area of life ranging from broad areas, such as entertainment, sports, and government to more obscure tasks such as noodling catfish (i.e., is catching them by hand) and baking cakes.

Think about it. How many people do you know a lot about via the media even though you’ve never met them? Quite a few, I’d wager. And if you want to learn about someone, it’s usually pretty easy on-line.

There’s nothing wrong with this, per se, but it can cause a problem in how we evaluate our own lives. Celebrities are often known for doing something really well, and we naturally gravitate toward those celebrities who are experts in areas that we’re interested in ourselves. As I blogged about last week, we understand ourselves, in part, through processes of self-comparison.

The problem arises when [Read more...]


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