The so-called Good Samaritan


As Christmas approaches every year and the traditional holiday stories enter the rotations of local television stations, you can be sure that someone, somewhere is going to mount a defense of Ebenezer Scrooge — pre-conversion, of course.

The honor this year falls most prominently to economist Steven Landsburg. Writing in Slate, Landsburg argues the charges brought against Scrooge for being “ungenerous” are but a “bum rap.”

He describes Scroge’s miserly behavior, even toward himself, and asks, “What could be more generous than keeping your lamps unlit and your plate unfilled, leaving more fuel for others to burn and more food for others to eat? Who is a more benevolent neighbor than the man who employs no servants, freeing them to wait on someone else?”


The next sentence admits that “it might be slightly more complicated than that.” For instance, it’s possible that “when Scrooge demands less coal for his fire, less coal ends up being mined.” But, you see, “that’s fine, too. Instead of digging coal for Scrooge, some would-be miner is now free to perform some other service for himself or someone else.”

Landsburg explains:

In this whole world, there is nobody more generous than the miser — the man who could deplete the world’s resources but chooses not to. The only difference between miserliness and philanthropy is that the philanthropist serves a favored few while the miser spreads his largess far and wide.

If you build a house and refuse to buy a house, the rest of the world is one house richer. If you earn a dollar and refuse to spend a dollar, the rest of the world is one dollar richer –because you produced a dollar’s worth of goods and didn’t consume them.

It continues in this vein for a bit. By buying goods or services or using your largess on charity, you are concentrating the benefits. [On people who need them!--ed. Since when did my editor get a social conscience?] But put your money in a bank, or bury it in the ground and you can help lower interest rates or limit the money supply, thus bidding up the value of dollars that people spend.

Landsburg decides that the “primary moral of A Christmas Carol is that there should be no limit on IRA contributions… It’s taxes, not misers, that need reforming.”

On a related note, the Ayn Rand Institute urges us to put capitalism back in Christmas.

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One Flew over the cuckoo's nest

Blogger (friend, colleague, etc.) Radley Balko has responded to news that philosopher Antony Flew has had a come-to-Prime Mover moment thus:

Antony Flew

. . . would like you to know that contrary to web rumors, he still hates the Baby Jesus.

Posted by Radley Balko on December 11, 2004

The piece he links to is a statement by Flew that some of his writing on the subject of proof and belief had been misconstrued by giddy believers.

The title of the article, "Sorry to disappoint, but I’m still an atheist!," fairly accurately summarizes the text that follows. Flew writes, "I still believe that it is impossible either to verify or to falsify — to show to be false — what David Hume in his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion happily described as ‘the religious hypothesis.’"

Further, Flew opines that "the eschatological teachings of Christianity and Islam" make him wish he could "demonstrate their falsity."

Having reasserted his atheist bona fides and inveighed against Osama bin Laden and the Left Behind series, Flew then proceeds to make an interesting — indeed, fascinating — concession:

We negative atheists are bound to see the Big Bang cosmology as requiring a physical explanation; and that one which, in the nature of the case, may nevertheless be forever inaccessible to human beings. But believers may, equally reasonably, welcome the Big Bang cosmology as tending to confirm their prior belief that "in the beginning" the Universe was created by God.

. . . I recognize that developments in physics coming on the last twenty or thirty years can reasonably be seen as in some degree confirmatory of a previously faith-based belief in god, even though they still provide no sufficient reason for unbelievers to change their minds.

Three things are worth pointing out about this statement:

1) This is a remarkably conciliatory response to religious believers by one of the world’s most famous atheists.

2) It sounds very much like Flew is wrestling with an idea, trying to reassert his atheism against evidence that bolsters the case of his old sparring partners.

3) It was written in 2001.

That’s right, take a look at the table of contents of the Antony Flew page at To rebut news reports in 2004 that Flew has changed his mind about the existence of God, Balko has linked to an article from before Republicans took back the Senate.

According to the AP, Flew now calls himself a deist and definitely does believe in some sort of Prime Mover. Flew doesn’t believe in the Christian God but he doesn’t insist on the aloofness that many famous deists ascribe to the Almighty. He now admits that God "could be a person in the sense of a being that has intelligence and a purpose, I suppose."

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It's time to seek communion at the mall

Mall_of_america_forth_floor_viewA few years ago, the theologians at the prestigious Young & Rubicam advertising agency circulated, in house, an interesting little document about the sacraments of buying and selling.

The big idea was that many of our culture’s best-known brand names have, in effect, become substitute religions.
These "belief brands" provide meaning for millions of believers who gradually become what they consume while taking communion, so to speak, at the mall.

Here’s a quote from a column I did at that time:

"The brands that are succeeding are those with strong beliefs and original ideas," said an agency report. "They are also the ones that have the passion and energy to change the world, and to convert people to their way of thinking though outstanding communications."

When true believers think of Apple, Calvin Klein, Gatorade, Volvo, MTV, Starbucks, Nike and Virgin, they don’t just think of products. These uncompromising "belief brands" help establish a sense of identity, according to Young & Rubicam. They are icons that define lives.

I bring this up for a simple reason. The cultural steamroller called "The Holidays" — formerly known as "Christmas" — is here in all of its Advent- and Hanukkah-crushing glory. This will lead to a few brave pastors and rabbis preaching sermons on commercialism and selfishness. My Scripps Howard column this week even offers advice for those who want to dare to deal with (cue: drum roll) Santa Claus.

This is a major subject, in part because one does not have to be a neo-Marxist Scrooge to see that the spirituality of the Advent-Nativity Lent season does not blend well with the post-Thanksgiving cultural free for all. Yet it is rare to see actual news stories on this topic. The Denver Post ran one recently — called "Shopping Nation" — and I’ve been watching ever since to see if anyone chased it. Not yet.

Reporter Douglas Brown notes that consumption has clearly become a "sacred and communal act" and a form of addiction. Here’s a sample:

Compulsive buying has escalated dramatically during the past 10 years, says April Lane Benson, a psychologist in New York and the editor of "I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self." … The spread of electronic commerce and television shopping networks, she says, is in part behind the growth of shopping addictions. Shopping also has seamlessly insinuated itself into the fabric of the country. Most people do not
realize how central shopping is to their lives.

"Malls are our new sacred spaces," Benson says. "They are substitutes for town halls, town centers. They’re kind of like churches; instead, the deity worshiped is the almighty dollar. People spend more time shopping than anything but working and sleeping."

The God talk doesn’t end there:

Vincent Miller, a theology professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and the author of "Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture," says the triumph of consumer culture has changed how people relate to religion. In consumer culture, he says, "we expect religion to give us its secrets right away. We expect ourselves to be able to decide immediately whether it’s right for us or not. … We don’t get the connections between the beliefs and the practices that give you the transformation.

Let’s face it. This is a sacramental system. See this image. Purchase the product. Consume it and become the image.

Has anyone else out there seen a good 2004 news story on this phenomenon? Now, I’m talking news — not a commentary column. Meanwhile, the Boca Raton News has done a nice little feature on what some South Florida churches are doing during this stressed-out season.

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No laff riots, please, we're British

Atkinson_posterIf you’re a member of the House of Commons and the comedian known for his roles in Mr. Bean and Blackadder opposes you — not once but twice — it’s probably a good time to rethink your proposal.

Rowan Atkinson has clown-stepped forward to defend the undeniable right of comedians to offend any people, including religious believers. Atkinson is opposing those parts of MP David Blunkett’s Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill — which itself sounds like something from a Monty Python sketch — that would outlaw an incitement to religious hatred.

As Sarah Left and Tom Happold report in The Guardian, “The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and anti-racism campaigners have long argued that the law is a necessary protection against extremists who incite violence against Muslims.”

Toby Helm of the Telegraph offers this helpful summary of Atkinson’s argument before a House of Commons committee:

“To criticise a person for their race is manifestly irrational and ridiculous but to criticise their religion — that is a right. That is a freedom,” he said.

“The freedom to criticise ideas — any ideas[,] even if they are sincerely held beliefs — is one of the fundamental freedoms of society.

“And the law which attempts to say you can criticise or ridicule ideas as long as they are not religious ideas is a very peculiar law indeed.

“It all points to the promotion of the idea that there should be a right not to be offended. But in my view the right to offend is far more important than any right not to be offended.

In this Guardian report by Sarah Hall and Tania Branigan, an MCB spokesman offers my favorite rhetorical flourish:

Sadiq Khan, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, said the bill closed a loophole which meant those who incite hatred against Christians and Muslims could not be prosecuted. “The law will not mean that comedians like Rowan Atkinson cannot take the piss out of religion,” he added.

Sometimes I wish the original version of English prevailed in North America.

As the author of a Christianity Today editorial opposing a religion-based hate-speech law in Illinois, I tend to side more with Atkinson on this.

Indeed, I agree with Andrew Sullivan’s long-held argument that laws limiting speech are not the best way to combat the toxin of hate.

Pop culture note: In an editorial opposing Blunkett’s proposal, the Telegraph refers to a skit in which Atkinson plays the devil sorting newly arrived citizens of hell. Sketches often do not translate well into print, but here’s a text for that skit (see “A Warm Welcome”) and others. As the Complete Guide to Rowan Atkinson mentions, the skit also is available on Rowan Atkinson Live! (1991).

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Better jaw-jaw than bomb-bomb?

Indonesian_muslimsThe Australian media have been very interested in an interfaith summit that was hosted in Indonesia for the last two days (stories here, here, and here — a few links cribbed from the CT Weblog).

Normally such confabs are snooze fests that produce resolutions which read as if they were written by committee — because they were. But a lot of ink and bytes have been spilled over this particular summit because the Indonesian and Australian governments cosponsored the event. About 100 religious leaders from 14 different countries were invited to participate in the deliberations. Only one country, Malaysia, refused to send delegates.

The question on the table was: Can religion be used as a force to fight terrorism by condemning it and steering the faithful toward a nonviolent course of action? Indonesia’s new ruler, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, called for religion to be a force for peace. And the conference of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Catholics and others who attended seem to have agreed with this sentiment.

Australia’s interest springs from the Bali tragedy. A bomb set by Islamic radicals ripped through a popular Indonesian night club in October 2002, killing nearly 100 Australians on holiday there. As I have written, this shifted the politics of the whole nation. Aussies are looking for ways to cut down on terrorism, and have now tried to enlist various faiths in the struggle.

An editorial in the Australian sounded hopeful notes that the conference might “seed the kind of moderation and understanding that denies extremists their oxygen,” and “further the message the fundamentalists don’t want anyone to hear — that the great religions of the world are natural allies, not enemies.”

The can’t-we-all-get-along-ism is great sentiment, but it may be too rosy an analysis. At the end of the editorial, the paper defends the decision of the organizers to invite Australian Cardinal George Pell, “a mainstream conservative Christian leader,” but to leave off Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali, who reportedly described September 11 as “God’s work.”

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Highlighter envy

For those who don’t have much to do in the next week, you might want to take a look at the post-Thanksgiving Christianity Today Online weblog on religion, culture, government, theology and public manners (I am sure I am forgetting something major). Amy Welborn had a nice headline for this: “370! Links!” Just for kicks (and because of massive intimidation) I slapped this baby into a Word file and the basic text of this one blog collection is just a smidgen below 14,000 words. Ted Olsen and Co. have even added a much-needed innovation — yellow highlighter pen-like splashes to point out the really essential stories. It’s the blog within a blog within the blog. It’s kind of an evangelical Zen thing.

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Emergent synagogues, timid networks and …

Southbeach7_1Another day, another airport and another newspaper. In this case, I had some time to kill with the Miami Herald in the tiny airport in Key West. There were at least three items in this one issue of the newspaper that could merit GetReligion attention, in my opinion. So I will combine them into one post, starting with the best.

* It is so, so, so hard to have good stories about the standard holidays, but reporter Alexandra Alter pulled it off with a feature for the opening night of Hanukkah. The headline was a snooze: "Synagogue Faithful Pick a Way to Pray." But the story offered an insightful journey into what David "Bobos In Paradise" Brooks has called "flexidoxy" — an attempt to blend religious experience with the radical individualism of the American marketplace. Here’s the opening of the story:

As 150 congregants gathered for prayer on a recent Friday evening in the sanctuary of Temple Beth Am, Rabbi Terry Bookman settled onto a yoga mat in another room. Angling his head toward the two votive candles, he moved gracefully from the downward facing dog position to the child’s pose.

Clad in loose white pants and a long Indian shirt, Bookman wasn’t ditching Shabbat service for yoga class. He was leading an alternative service, one of five happening simultaneously at Beth Am’s Pinecrest campus.

The dizzying array of activity is part of Synaplex, the Jewish version of the multiplex theater — where congregants can sing, stretch, pray, create art or just sit in silence. Developed by a Minneapolis-based organization to rejuvenate synagogue life, Synaplex was inspired in part by megachurches that tailor worship services to suit congregants of different ages.

Bingo. No, they didn’t offer bingo. I mean Alter has hit the nail on the head. You just knew that, at some point, religious groups in the middle and the left of the American marketplace were going to start trying to follow the lead of the birds-of-a-feather evangelical Protestant franchises. What better time of year to run a few ads and fish for seekers?

What’s next, an "emergent" synagogue movement, where hip meets ancient and everyone gets to make up his or her own tradition? You bet. Read the whole story. The details all fit. Oprah goes Shabbat.

* Over on the editorial page, Eileen McNamara took a stab at the ongoing debate about that UCC vs. the Normal Churches advertisement (click here for the LeBlanc-ian take on this). Once again, we have the same doctrinaire take on the controversy — arguing that Bush-friendly forces in the shadows had zapped the ads because of the gay-rights thrust.

The latest act of fealty to the conservatism now in vogue in Washington is the refusal of CBS and NBC to run an ad from a mainstream Christian denomination on the grounds that its message could generate controversy and be perceived as “advocacy advertising.” (ABC does not accept any religious advertising.) The networks say that they refuse such ads as a matter of policy, although they certainly showed no reluctance to run advocacy political ads this fall that were both inflammatory and false.

The radical notion promoted by the 30-second commercial from the United Church of Christ is inclusiveness, an idea deemed controversial because it encompasses gay people, the pariahs of the conservative-values crowd in the ascendancy this post-election season. Never mind that the disputed ad could not be more innocuous.

Here at GetReligion, we want to see the ads in prime time immediately. We are pro-free speech on these things. Run these ads in tandem with spots by Exodus International and other religious groups that cause nightmares for cautious media executives.

However, the gay angle misses the point. McNamara is right that there is nothing blatant in the ad’s imagery that pushes homosexuality. It is very low-key. What the ads do proclaim is that the UCC is not racist, which clearly says that other churches are racist. She is right that the networks are too timid. But she misses the point. The hottest button in the ad was race, not sexual orientation.

* And finally, I mention another story simply because I was morally outraged by it. The Tropical Life section of the paper had, on its cover, what has to be the DEFINITIVE South Florida-South Beach trend story. You could say there was a ghost in it, since the story totally avoids asking any moral questions about an issue that raises all kinds of moral questions. You could say the same thing about feminist questions, by the way.

What is the issue? Should parents give their teen-aged daughters breast implants as high-school graduation gifts? Yes, the story has lots of art and people quoted on the record. Check it out. Where is Focus on the Family or Ms. magazine? Am I out of line on this one?

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Brainstorming for Newsweek

Rob Moll of Christianity Today Online’s Weblog has pointed out the imbalance of Newsweek‘s cover story on the Nativity, and GetReligion has previously identified Jon Meacham’s frequent practice of warning against the dangers of “certainty” and “literalism” in stories involving historic Christian dogma.

I’ll comment on this week’s issue of Newsweek from a different angle, then: The headline and deck (“The Birth of Jesus: From Mary to the manger, how the Gospels mix faith and history to tell the Christmas story and make the case for Christ”) feel a tad anemic for a story that assumes the virgin birth probably is just another quaint myth, then quotes mostly those academicians who reinforce the assumption.

Here are some other story ideas, accompanied by punchier headlines and decks, on which Newsweek may wish to find the via media between historic Christianity and disbelief:

Deck the Halls, Already: For thinking Christians, fourth-quarter consumerism isn’t the problem. It’s where to find the best bargains and hip stocking-stuffers. [Note to sales reps: This could make for a great Special Advertising Section tie-in.]
Sidebar: Christmas or Chrismahanukwanzakah?: Culturally aware believers are torn. [Thanks to reader Bruce Geerdes for the link.]

Other Mansions, Other Voices: No thinking Christian believes the Three Wise Men found their way to the infant Christ. Newsweek decodes this legend’s actual message that all paths — including astrology! — lead to God.

Ashes to Ashes: How the institutional church, with the help of Opus Dei, hoodwinked its members into 40 days of self-denial and asceticism.

He Lives in Our Memories: The Jesus Seminar has settled the myth of bodily resurrection. But that’s no reason to deprive our irony-loving children of chocolate bunnies and Marshmallow Peeps.

Substance Abuse and Denial in the Early Church: The crowd had it right — the first Christians were drunk at nine in the morning. An exclusive Newsweek investigative report.

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