Pope Francis and Two-Way Ignorance

Pope Francis isn’t much of a fan of things American these days, but his visit to this country was a revelation:

Prior to his election Francis had never set foot in the United States, making him the only pope in the last eighty years other than St. John XXIII who had never been to America before taking office…People close to Francis also say his U.S. trip last year helped him to better distinguish between ordinary Americans and “the system.”

But when another world leader discovered something, the evaluation was different:

Latin Americans also tend to have long memories, and many still recall moments such as Ronald Reagan’s famous reaction upon returning from a 1982 trip to the region: “You’d be surprised … they’re all individual countries.” The fact that national differences could strike a U.S. president as a revelation still rings in Latin American ears as proof of our capacity for condescension.

What I think we’re looking at is two-way ignorance.  There’s a lot that people in the U.S. need to learn about Latin America, but the converse is also true, as we see with His Holiness.

The relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the U.S. has always been a complicated one, from stuff like this to this.   And the rise of obsessively sex-driven liberalism will only make it worse.

What a Difference a Century Makes

While going through some things, ran across this:

973-Old-StyleThe drawing is interesting to technology history buffs, but look at the note in the upper right hand corner:

Superseded by new tracing 8/18/15

Just last year?  No, just last century…

Note: referring to drawings as “tracings” is very old school, but I can remember that terminology being used in the 1970’s.  Drawings like this were usually done on linen with India ink; some of them are real works of art.

Hard Currency, Soft Currency and Venezuela

@jeffspross at @theweek thinks he’s figured out Venezuela’s problem:

But as Mark Weisbrot — the co-director of the Center for Economic Policy Research, who has written extensively on Venezuela and Latin America — explained to The Week, the main reason for Venezuela’s troubles is likely a lot more technocratic, and a lot more banal: Namely, their currency exchange system is a mess.

He’s on to something, but it isn’t a clean “either-or” situation.

Venezuela has a currency with an official rate and a black market rate, and the two are in serious divergence.  It’s little wonder it cannot import much of anything under these conditions.

Old Soviet hands will recognise this as a “soft currency” situation.  Because of the government’s policies regarding the bolívar, it has become a “soft currency” as opposed to a “hard currency” (the dollar or even the euro with its present woes.)  Venezuelans can “stockpile” (to use Spross’ delightful term) dollars and buy things, but the system in general doesn’t work.  (Having hard currency in hand was a big deal for foreigners in the last days of the Soviet Union; the need for hard currency was the genesis of the Soviet/Russian sale of nuclear technology to Iran.)

Spross tells us that one of the faulty theories behind Venezuela’s problems is that it’s run by socialists.  But soft currencies are hallmarks of socialist regimes.  One of the goals of Marxism was to make money simply a medium of exchange based on the value of what was being bought and not the currency itself being a commodity.  But that didn’t work out in the Soviet Union (the Chinese have progressively hardened the renminbi) and it’s not working out for Venezuela.

Floating the bolívar is not popular because, as Spross points out, “moving to a unified floating exchange system is unpopular with the Venezuelan public, precisely because it would involve a one-time but very big drop in the official value of the bolívar against the dollar.”  When the USSR broke up, the Russians ended up doing just that, with results that were often painful and sometimes hilarious.  But there aren’t many other ways out for Venezuela, especially when the alternative to expensive stuff is none at all.

It’s interesting that the Venezuelans push back against a massive currency devaluation to set things straight when the Greeks pine for it while the Germans block the way.

The Aggie Who Knew How to Get Ahead With a Professor

First: congratulations are in order to my Texas A&M classmate Ray Rothrock, who won this year a Distinguished Alumnus Award from the Association of Former Students.  He majored in a good but highly unpopular subject–nuclear engineering–and then turned around and did very well.

Although I didn’t name him at the time, it’s now or never: he was the one who came up with the method to curry favour with my differential equations teacher, which I documented last year in my piece Sometimes it Pays to Give Your Professor a Little Attention.

Another one of those life skills…

Those Vanishing Episcopal Parishes

Every so often I begin a reading of the Bible through.  I try to vary the translation I use, so I’ve read translations such as the Vulgate, Louis Segond, Reina-Valera, New American Bible, Douay-Rheims, CCD and of course the Positive Infinity New Testament.  This time I had a copy of the original TEV New Testament from the American Bible Society, first published in 1966.  I liked it so well I went to the used book store to get the whole Bible, and for my Roman Catholic and Orthodox visitors, I mean the whole one: it includes the deuterocanonical and apocryphal books.  (It also has the Roman Catholic imprimatur; I’ll bet they’ll think twice before pulling that like they did on Christ Among Us.)

In any case, the previous owner of the book was a woman who lived in northern New Jersey.  In the Bible was a postcard with her parish’s Holy Week schedule, probably dating from the 1980’s.  A little research revealed that her Episcopal parish was no more; a pretty church, the congregation had folded earlier in this decade and the building was now being used by an independent black church.

Northern New Jersey was, of course, the stomping grounds of John Shelby Spong, its bishop for many years.  Spong inspired one of the earliest “posts” of this website, When Church Becomes Pointless, nearly twenty years ago.  The following from that piece bears repeating:

So let’s take this a step further; suppose you are sitting in an Episcopal pew listening to John Shelby Spong go on about why the basic truths of Christianity have no basis in reality and that those who teach them are a bunch of morons.  Suppose that you finally realize that you think that Spong is right; that all that you’ve said when you’re repeated the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed is false and that the life you have is all you’re expected to get.  What should you do?   You should first realize that life is short and that, if you’re going to live you’d better hurry.  So the sensible thing for you to do is to get up, gather your family, walk out of the church, get into your Lexus or Mercedes, and head to Atlantic City or Las Vegas or South Florida or wherever you need to go to live it up while you still can.

Evidently many in northern New Jersey took that to heart; the Episcopal Church there has bled parishes ever since.  Most of those remaining were those who ultimately left via the coffin.  TEC’s demographics are consistently elderly, largely made up of those who stick around because they’ve always done it that way.  The younger people who really thought he was wrong about Christianity either fled to Evangelical or Charismatic churches, swam the Tiber or the Bosporus, or were the impetus behind the ACNA.

Part of Spong’s problem was that he was a Southerner in a Northern place.  He thought that people would always go to church somewhere, no matter how stupid things got.  This is a common mistake among our ministers.  It simply doesn’t work that way in the Northeast.

Beyond that Spong was an old style radical; he thought that, if we completely changed what Christianity stood for, it would be more acceptable to the modern and post-modern world.  That hasn’t worked out either.  Today’s liberal, imbued with post-modernism, practices a form of deception (and self-deception) that rivals anything Islam can be accused of.  They use words that mean one thing to others but something entirely different to themselves.

An example of this is the controversy over the “bathroom bills” and the Federal government’s attempt to shove “transgender rights” down everyone’s throat in the matter.  Does anyone really believe that “rights” are what’s at stake here?  What they’re really trying to do is to break down people’s modesty; the whole idea of people not exposing themselves to each other–and refraining from sexual activity–is abhorrent to them.  The only solution that will make them happy is the complete integration of bathrooms and locker rooms.

The results of the likes of Spong in the TEC are a harbinger of what’s to come for the Global North, which is why it’s important to study these things.  I’ll close with a comment I made to another post about Spong in 2009:

And that leads to the second level. Spong, I think, has the idea that the liberal West will triumph over many of his “traditionalist” enemies, in and out of the church. But a civilisation (?) with the demographic and financial woes ours has is waiting for its own Valhalla to ignite. To take one issue: most of the world doesn’t have the affinity for the LGBT community that Spong exhibits (and did so at length for the Times piece) and his expectations that the rest of the world will follow his idea to victory are sorely misplaced.

When Spong squared off with the Africans at 1998 Lambeth, he was facing the future. But I think he instinctively discounted that future because it wasn’t white. But nonwhite is the future.

The survival of traditional or any other kind of authentic Christianity will be principally resident in non-Western people.

And that can be extended to humanity in general.

“What you think is the right road, may lead to death.” (Proverbs 14:12 TEV)

Jesus Christ, the Way Up

From The World of Mathematics, this quotation from the British mathematician Augustus de Morgan:

I commend my future with hope and confidence to Almighty God; to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, whom I believe in my heart to be the Son of God but whom I have not confessed with my lips, because in my time such confession has always been the way up in the world.

Jesus Christ is still the “way up” in eternity.  But de Morgan’s problem of confessing Christianity as a way of worldly advancement has pretty much been solved both here and in the UK.  The sooner we come to grips with what that means, the better.

If You Can’t Do the Math, You Can’t Do the Science

And the math is problematic these days:

The average performance of the nation’s high school seniors dropped in math from 2013 to 2015, but held steady in reading, according to results of a biennial test released Wednesday…

“This trend of stagnating scores is worrisome,” said Terry Mazany, the chairman of the governing board for the test. Mr. Mazany is also a former public schools superintendent in California, Michigan and Illinois and is now the president of the Chicago Community Trust, a large foundation.

I always find it amazing how hard it is to convince some people that proficiency in math is a necessary prerequisite for success in science, engineering and technology.  But maybe I shouldn’t; the hippie dreamers who run the show these days first came up in an era when science and engineering were in the doghouse, a doghouse of their own making.  Personally I think the recent interest in STEM is a seriously delayed “waking up and smelling the coffee” moment; the computer and its variants have forced on them the reality that we live in a technological society.  They’re probably also thinking about the uphill battle they’ve had with evolution and global warming, but that connection is more complicated than they realise.

One of the really frustrating things about American primary and secondary education is not just that the results aren’t up to par; a system which spends as much per pupil on education should have more to show that it does.  But, when you pack your bureaucracy with administrators the way we do in this country, the money spent per pupil doesn’t really get to the pupils…

Donald Trump and the Entourage Problem

Now that we pretty much know who the Republican nominee will be (barring some last-minute machinations) it’s obvious that many “Regular Republicans” have gotten out the brown pants, as they have developed instant irregularity.  We have the “Never Trump” people saying they’ll stay home or even vote for That Woman From the North Side.

But why?  Some say that the Republic is in danger if we elect Donald Trump to the White House.  Others say that principled conservatism is out the window because we’re nominating him.  Personally, I think there’s a more prosaic–and opportunistic–explanation for the angst, but a little background is in order.

When we go to the polls in November, from a legal standpoint we will be choosing electors for the Electoral College to vote on two people: one for President and one for Vice-President.  People think that, at a national level, those are the only two positions open.

But that’s not really true.  The reality is that, when we choose a President, we also choose an entourage of people who will staff the various positions in the government. Both parties have built up such an entourage.  When one party’s nominee is elected, the entourage goes into place in the government.  When out of power, they move to lobbying law firms, consultants and think tanks, waiting to go back into place.  There’s usually some Members of Congress thrown in for comic relief.

This is why, for example, when Barack Obama went into office, so many Clintonistas (like Rahm Emanuel) reappeared after an eight year hiatus.  At the top of the entourage is the Vice President, who is generally selected from the “regulars.”  This is also why Joe Biden, who can be a real liability when he puts his mind to it, was the “transformative” Obama’s VP.  Before him was George W. Bush’s éminence grise, Dick Cheney.

The greatest fear that the Regular Republicans have is that, with a President Trump, the usual entourage will not get back into power, or at least not in the strength they think it should.  Thus many people who have waited for the Occupant to vacate 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue so they could have their position back are afraid that they’ll be left out stay in “the wilderness.”  (The Democrats have the same fear about Bernie Sanders but, as I mentioned earlier, they took more effective steps to keep him from getting nominated.)

This is careerist angst, pure and simple.  It will drive people to do very extreme things.  Republicans will remember that President James Garfield was assassinated in 1881 by a frustrated office seeker; that deed led to the beginnings of civil service.  The fact remains that there are still many positions which are political in nature, and the expansion of government has only expanded these positions.

I strongly suspect that much of the blubbering coming from within the Republican Party about Donald Trump stems from fear, fear that he will bring in a new group of people and disempower the old.   But I don’t think that our Founding Fathers–whose idea conservatives claim to follow–saw government as a core career for most of those who lead it, but as a part of a greater cursus honorum which included success in the civic sector.  Unfortunately we are far from that ideal; the rank careerism that drives most of our people is the greatest enemy that “principled” conservatism has, and thus it died long before Trump came on the scene.

I do not believe that Donald Trump, for all of his faults (and they are many) is the end of the Republic, any more that he was the end of Palm Beach when he opened a club for Jew and Gentile together.  For those whose careers hang on the next appointment, he is an existential threat.  But they need to get over it.  Americans generally only succeed when the rules are written their way, but in this case a little adaptability will go a long way.

Blow it Up? Let it Collapse!

As the sun sets on yet another semester in civil engineering here at UTC, thoughts turn to what we’re really supposed to be doing.  A large part of civil engineering is engaged in the building, maintenance and upgrade of our physical infrastructure, which includes roads, railroads, airports, water and sewer systems, to some extent electricity systems, and others.

One of my colleagues is a concrete specialist.  Concrete is nasty stuff; for this reason the asphalt and soils labs have cast concrete experimentation into outer darkness.  But one of his specialties is blast-proof concrete, something that, say, the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City could have used twenty years ago.  That brings him into national security interests.  Recently he attended a meeting of the Society of American Military Engineers, where he gave a presentation on our vulnerable infrastructure.

Our infrastructure is vulnerable in two respects.  The first is that we have tens of thousands of road and railroad bridges in the U.S., to say nothing of the electrical lines, reservoirs and other major structures.  Many of these are in remote locations and are difficult to patrol.  We usually think of terrorist strikes in urban areas, but just think of the remote interstate bridges whose removal would create a real mess.  (The Interstate System’s original purpose was military, as was the case with Adolf Hitler’s autobahns.)

But it’s also vulnerable in another respect: it’s in bad shape.  Every year the American Society of Civil Engineers delivers its report card on our crumbling infrastructure, and every year it is dreary, depressing reading.  My colleague, before heading out to this SAME meeting, made the observation that our enemies don’t have to blow our critical infrastructure up, they just need to wait until it collapses.

So how did the supposedly greatest country on earth allow this state of affairs to happen?  As with immigration, to err is human, to create a real mess requires a bipartisan effort.  On the left we have the environmentalists, who believe that improving our infrastructure will only lead to its use and the increase in carbon footprints, which is anathema.  On the right, our roads in particular have the bad taste of being built and maintained by the government; paying any more taxes for this is anathema.  Throw in the lack of interest in the future engendered by the declining birth rate (to say nothing of Boomer selfishness) and you have the perfect storm of a nation whose infrastructure is sliding to Third World standards.

The usual “fix” for this is to call for government advocacy.  In our political system, that’s an uphill battle.  Our government is drowning in trying to keep up with entitlements and transfer payments of one kind or another.  At this point we can keep plugging away, but until the bipartisan conspiracy to keep money out of infrastructure investments is broken, we’re not going to get very far.

And for those who want to bring us down?  Not blowing things up is a hard sell for some of them; I doubt Isis, struggling to hold their desert enclave and their foot soldiers in our cities ducking the cops, is much for waiting.  A more patient rival is China.  Facing the dilemma of the sick man of North America, a U.S. in decline of its own making suits the purpose of a nation for whom time is measured entirely differently than with a country where the long term is after lunch.

I’m not sure there’s an easy way out of this.  What to do is not difficult; getting it done is the hard part.  Benito Mussolini’s claim to fame was getting the trains to run on time; our task is to make sure they (and the cars, buses, planes, etc.) run at all.

You Really Can Do Biblical Preaching From a Lectionary

Recently my wife and I ventured to Regent University for me to deliver a paper.  While there we got the chance to view one of the University’s new acquisitions, namely a Torah scroll from Yemen.

torah-regentThe fact that a Christian university could acquire such a donation is a sign of the times: Evangelicals are about the only reliable Gentile group the Jews have for support, in spite of the attempt by BDS types to worm their way into the system.

A New Testament passage that prominently features a synagogue reading (not from the Torah) is this one:

Coming to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, Jesus, as was his custom, went on the Sabbath into the Synagogue, and stood up to read the Scriptures. The book given him was that of the Prophet Isaiah; and Jesus opened the book and found the place where it says– ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, For he has consecrated me to bring Good News to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to captives and restoration of sight to the blind, To set the oppressed at liberty, To proclaim the accepted year of the Lord.’ Then, closing the book and returning it to the attendant, he sat down. The eyes of all in the Synagogue were fixed upon him, And Jesus began: “This very day this passage has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21 TCNT)

The curator noted that, when Jesus was asked to read from the scroll, the reading was not of his immediate choosing, but came from a cycle of readings–a lectionary–that the synagogues employed.  He was told what to read, he read it and then interpreted it (not entirely to their liking, I might add…)

Lectionaries are the stock in trade of liturgical churches such as the Roman Catholic Church, Anglican/Episcopal churches, Orthodox churches and the like.  But Evangelicals avoid such constraints like the plague.  A good example of this came to me when I was in undergraduate school at Texas A&M.

One of the nice things that ministerial associations promote is pulpit exchanges, where ministers from different churches preach in other places.  For a Catholic church, this can be problematic, but in the 1970’s things were easier.  Our exchange was with a Baptist church; the Baptist pastor and our priest were good friends, shown by their mutually swelling waistlines.  (Gluttony, I might point out, was a sin for the Catholic, but a way of life for the Baptist.)

So the time for the Gospel reading came, and the Baptist preacher got up and, ignoring the fancy three-year lectionary cycle introduced by the Novus Ordo Missae, read from John 15.  His subsequent sermon on “love one another” was different: he observed that “the Aggies love the Aggies and the Catholics love the Catholics, but the Baptists don’t always love the Baptists.” (Subsequent experience would bear that out.)  That alone was probably worth the side trip from the lectionary, but it still was a side trip.

As was the case here, Evangelicals are loath to follow any kind of lectionary or reading pattern for the Scriptures. There are two main arguments against the practice.

First, some will say that it smacks of “formalism,” which is their objection for the liturgical concept.  But there’s no evidence that using a lectionary is a more “formal” way of doing things than doing it ad hoc every Sunday.

Second, Pentecostals and Charismatics will argue that it “blocks the move of the Spirit” if they are forced to preach out a set pattern of the Scriptures.  However, if it was good enough for Our Lord to not only read from a lectionary but to proclaim the fulfilment of prophecy, are we any better?

The major downside of doing it without a lectionary–assuming, of course, the lectionary is comprehensive in its coverage of the Scriptures–is that our ministers tend to develop a very limited repertoire of scriptures and sermons.  And didn’t Our Lord having something to say about repetition?

And, of course, special occasions pretty much demand a lectionary type of choice.  The first funeral I ever helped preach was for a former employee down in Georgia.  We got to the graveside, and the credentialed minister actually asked me what scripture to use.  (The answer can be found in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.)

So my advice to Evangelicals and Pentecostals is this: don’t disparage those who follow a lectionary, it just might improve what you are doing.

Sailing the Last Voyage with Newton and Pascal

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