Archive for the ‘current events’ Category

Remembering Katrina — A Poem of Political Failure

August 28, 2012 2 comments

Horses From Arabia Were Farmer Bush’s Mania.

Now Old Man Bush, he had a farm;
its purpose was to keep from harm
The animals of every kind
that lived around, in front, behind,
And all throughout that special place.
They trusted him to keep them safe.
But Katie came along one day
and made the creatures go away.

This Farmer Bush was known to say, “I run my farm in my own way.
If you don’t like the things I do then let me just say this to you:
You’re not the one they voted for, these animals that I adore.
No, I’m the one they asked to be the leader of the Farm, you see.

“And from the many things I’ve done it should be clear to everyone
Amid the sadness and the strife that I’m the one who values life.
So each and every animal, from horse to cat to pig to bull
Is just as precious, just as dear, to me as every other here.”

But horses from Arabia were Farmer Bush’s mania.
He loved them more than all the rest in part because they were the best,
And also for the help that they all gave him on election day.
Snow-white and strong and proud and slim, the horses had been taught to swim.

The bunny rabbits and the hares were not like snow and were not fair,
But black like cats and proud of it. Old Farmer Bush had not one bit
Of love for them or how they lived and they were not big fans of his.
Their chances to escape were grim ’cause they had not been taught to swim.

When little Suzie heard all that, she thought about the creatures that
Had drowned to death amid the rains while Farmer Bush was playing games.
(‘Cause Farmer Bush, or so they’d said, was on vacation when the dead
First floated up from way down deep.) The pictures of them made her weep.

Some would live and some would die and little Suzie wondered why.
She asked around and quickly learned the poorer creatures had been spurned.
The horses had been given much that helped them to survive and such,
Unlike the bunnies who’d remain at risk of drowning in the rain.

Little Suzie wondered why this Farmer Bush had let them die.
She asked him once and asked him twice, but Farmer Bush said “That’s not nice.
There’s a gov’ner. There’s a mayor. And this is why it is not fair
For you to say that I’m to blame. I treat the creatures all the same.

“And I believe in God above who teaches me I have to love!
I prayed to Him to tell me why those lovely creatures had to die.
But who am I to second guess why God Himself has made this mess?
For I am just a mortal man and God above has got a plan.”

But horsies lived and bunnies died and little Suzie knew just why.
And Suzie knew the simple fact that blamming God was just an act.
She learned of hate and apathy. She cried because she learned to see:
It wasn’t God who let them down. Farmer Bush just let them drown.

For Old Man Bush, he had a farm;
its purpose was to keep from harm
The animals of every kind
that lived around, in front, behind,
And all throughout that special place;
they trusted him to keep them safe.
But Katie came along one day
and made the creatures go away.

Devout or Deranged?

August 9, 2012 2 comments

Men OnlyThe AP recently reported that some ultra-Orthodox men, “in an effort to maintain their strictly devout lifestyle,” are now buying sight-blurring eye-glasses in order to avoid seeing women (“Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men offered blurry glasses look to keep Israeli women out of sight“).

Is this really “devout”? Or is it deranged?

I want to be clear: I support freedom of religion. And as fanaticism goes, blurry eye-glasses seem pretty benign, especially in the context of the increasingly common connection between religious zealotry and explosives. But why do we call this behavior “devout”?

"Fanaticism comes in many varieties, and either it's all devout or none of it is."If the Oxford English Dictionary is to be trusted, “devout” is anything that has to do with devotion to the divine. But for me, and, I suspect, most other English speakers, “devout” implies that in addition to being religious, the behavior is (1) unusual, (2) authentic, and (3) desirable.

The first quality is why the AP (again, following common usage) applies “devout” to the ultra-Orthodox, but not, say, to me in my role of Religious-School director, or to my father is his role of rabbi. Both of us look like most other Americans, while the ultra-Orthodox attire is unusual. Similarly, giving charity and helping the downtrodden is a way many people express devotion to God, but precisely because so many people do them, those practices seldom earn the adjective “devout.”

It’s the second and third qualities that concern me. Both the ultra-Orthodox men (when they oppress women) and the Taliban (when they blow up infidels) are doing what they think is God’s will. When we call the first group “devout” and the second “fanatical,” we are tacitly giving approval to what the ultra-Orthodox do. It’s as though we’re making the case that misogyny is like kindness: laudable, even if we aren’t all always up to the task.

I think that a different division is called for. We should be clear that the blurry glasses are part of a cult of fanaticism, along with segregated buses and other modern inventions of a group of people calling themselves the guardians of tradition. The Taliban are likewise fanatics. And I suppose there are those for whom my own religious practice of lighting plain white candles Friday evening before it’s even dark could come under the category of fanatical. Fanaticism comes in many varieties, and either it’s all devout or none of it is.

It seems to me that the important distinction here is between benign and destructive. When I light Sabbath candles, I’m not hurting myself or anyone else. The same cannot be said for segregated buses or suicide bombers.

I’m not entirely sure where the blurry glasses fall, but either way, I think the AP does everyone a disservice when it excuses some otherwise detestable behavior by calling it “devout.”

Two Monologues And No Dialogue: How (Not) To Talk About Religion and Social Issues

July 23, 2012 3 comments

FightingThe past few days have highlighted for me once again the degree to which our religious nation is divided. first example comes from the hugely popular megachurch pastor Rick Warren and his recent reaction when a man slaughtered moviegoers in Aurora, CO. Pastor Warren blamed the violence on those who teach evolution. “When students are taught they are no different from animals, they act like it,” he wrote on his Twitter and Facebook accounts. (He has since deleted his tweet, but not before on-line media such as The Examiner wrote about it.)

The second example comes from The Gospel Coalition’s collection of blogs, which featured a post by author and pastor Jared Wilson. In it, Pastor Wilson explains that God’s natural order of things is for men to dominate women, and that rape results from men and women who try to fight that God-ordained hierarchy. (Like Pastor Warren, Pastor Wilson removed the blog post, under protest. Excerpts and an analysis can be found here: “Complementarians and Martial [sic] Sex: The Jared Wilson / Gospel Coalition Saga.”)

The Bible doesn't take a clear stance on evolution, why people commit violence, or what marriage looks like.The same Gospel Coalition is promoting an anti-homosexual marriage blog post: Gay Is Not the New Black, written by Pastor Voddie Baucham.

Most of the reactions to these kinds of claims come in one of two varieties: (1) How could anyone possibly agree? or (2) how could anyone possibly disagree?

The naysayers cite their evidence: Pastor Warren has misunderstood the allegorical nature of Genesis, and misunderstood the natural world in that animals don’t tend to slaughter their own kind. Pastor Wilson has ignored passages such as 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 that put men and women on a par in the marriage bed. Pastor Baucham has taken 1 Corinthians 6 out of context while ignoring other relevant passages of Scripture. And so forth.

Then the claimants respond with their own evidence: Morality comes from religion, Colossians 3:18 subordinates women to men, and Leviticus forbids homosexuality.

As a Bible scholar, it’s abundantly obvious to me that both sides find ample support in Scripture. The Bible doesn’t take a clear stance on evolution, why people commit violence, or what marriage looks like — not beyond what we all agree on, at least.

But I don’t think that these are debates about evidence, science, or religion. In fact, I don’t think they are debates at all. They are, rather, collections of diatribes — monologues, as it were, instead of dialogues. And that’s because we tend to focus on our self-selected evidence instead of our motivations.

For example, if Pastors Warren, Wilson, and Baucham discovered that they were wrong about the intent of the Bible (as I believe they often are), would they change their minds? If a new manuscript surfaced, or a better understanding of the text presented itself, would they care? My suspicion is they would not.

Like slavery in its day and usury before that, these issues don’t start with the Bible. They start with how we feel.

So if we’re going to have a real conversation, I think it has to be about our motives, not the texts we choose to support them.

An Open Letter to CNN’s Piers Morgan

May 23, 2012 40 comments

[Update: An expanded version of this letter, with additional information about how I read the Bible regarding homosexuality, is available on the Huffington Post. (June 5, 2012)]

Dear Mr. Morgan:

I believe you have been promoting bigotry and helping to perpetrate a fraud.

Is Homosexuality a Sin?During both of your interviews with Pastor Joel Osteen on your CNN broadcast, you let the religious leader tell your audience that Scripture calls homosexuality a sin. But you didn’t ask him where the Bible says that.

It’s both an important point and an easy one to settle. You could have asked Pastor Osteen for the chapter and verse that he thinks calls homosexuality a sin. What you would have found is that he couldn’t provide it, because Pastor Osteen was expressing his personal opinion, not quoting the Bible. The Bible doesn’t say that homosexuality is a sin.

It seems to me that Pastor Osteen, as a religious leader, has a right to believe what he wants and to encourage others to follow. So if he doesn’t accept homosexuality, it’s his prerogative to spread his anti-homosexuality message. But I think it’s dishonest when he pretends that his opinions are those of the Bible.

Similarly, if you don’t like homosexuality, it’s your right to say so on air. But I think it’s irresponsible of you to let a guest tell your audience that something is in the Bible without even asking where.

This glaring omission is all the more surprising in light of your claim to be “challenging.” Why didn’t you challenge Pastor Osteen on this basic factual issue?

I look forward to your response.


Joel M. Hoffman, PhD


Copies: Meghan McPartland,
  Jonathan Wald,
Categories: Bible, current events

Homosexuality, Hypocrisy, and the Bible

January 11, 2012 21 comments

About a year ago I chastized Pastor Joel Osteen and others for what I called “hiding behind Scripture.” In particular, Pastor Osteen had just told CNN’s Piers Morgan that he was locked into his anti-homosexual position by the Bible. He is not, and, I believe, he knows it.

Pastor Osteen just confirmed to Oprah Winfrey that he believes that “homosexuality is shown as a sin in the Scripture,” noting that he encourages people to be “willing to change and grow.”

On the other hand, when Piers Morgan asked him in October whether he supports the Biblical position of a life for a life, Pastor Osteen admitted (in this video): “I don’t know,” because the death penalty is a “complicated issue.”

In other words, Pastor Osteen doesn’t feel compelled to support everything in Scripture. He openly ignores Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Dueteronomy 19:21. He reserves the right — as we all do — to pick and choose.

This is why I don’t think there’s any merit or integrity to his argument that he is forced to condemn homosexuality because Scripture calls it a sin.

As it happens, I don’t believe that Scripture says that, but I do support Pastor Osteen’s right to interpret Scripture as he chooses.

What I don’t support is the way he presents his opinions as unbiased fact.

As far as I’m concerned, until Pastor Osteen takes responsibility for his own words, he’s no better than any other coward who hides from the people he attacks.

Fixing Half the Problem

October 25, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s easy to fix half a problem if you don’t mind making the other half worse.

Like two groups of sailors --- each trying to save half the boat by shifting the water to the other side --- our leaders seem  focused on solving half the problem even if they make the other half worse.And I think this is what we see with President Obama’s plan to help home owners refinance at a lower interest rate.

At first glance, it seems like a good idea, because home owners will save money thanks to lower mortgage payments. But that’s only half the story.

The other half is that people who have invested in real estate will earn less.

For example, on each $100,000 of mortgage loans, an interest-rate drop from 6% to 4% saves a home owner almost $1,500 per year. If, let’s say, one million people shave two percentage points off an average of $250,000 in mortgages, then one million people will save on average upwards of $36,000 each over the next ten years.

But by exactly the same token, investors in real estate — banks, but also pension funds and the like — will collectively lose more than $36 billion over the text ten years.

Just by way of example, one adverse reaction will be to the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System, which has some $1.34 billion invested in real estate. If the return on that $1.34 billion drops from from 6% to 4%, the fund will earn $27 million a year less, for a total loss of $270 million over ten years.

In short, there’s no free lunch here. When some people save money, other people earn less from their investments.

Like a ship taking on water, America is sinking from debt. And like two groups of sailors — each trying to save half the boat by shifting the water to the other side — our leaders seem focused on solving half the problem even if they make the other half worse.

Categories: current events

On the Price-Tag Attacks in Israel

October 12, 2011 Leave a comment

A series of attacks on Muslim and Christian sites, marked by the slogan “price tag” and apparently committed by Jews, demands a response, simple though it may be: I condemn the attacks and find those who committed them reprehensible.

In the past I have chastised religious leaders and other prominent people for not speaking out against terrorism committed by their alleged coreligionists. So I want to be clear that I do not support what these Jews (if they are Jews) in Israel are doing. I’d like to think that no one could even make such a mistake as mixing up my respect and tolerance with their hatred and bigotry, but I know that as tensions rise, so does mistrust. That’s why I’m publicly denouncing these acts as clearly as possible.

Equally, I hope I’ll set a model for others to speak out, even when they might not think it’s necessary. The next time we read of religious violence or intolerance, I hope we’ll also read of masses of religious leaders speaking out against it.

Categories: current events