I guess I’ll do the honors for first post of the year once again

Availability cascade:

An availability cascade is a self-reinforcing process of collective belief formation by which an expressed perception triggers a chain reaction that gives the perception increasing plausibility through its rising availability in public discourse. The driving mechanism involves a combination of informational and reputational motives: Individuals endorse the perception partly by learning from the apparent beliefs of others and partly by distorting their public responses in the interest of maintaining social acceptance. Availability entrepreneurs-activists who manipulate the content of public discourse-strive to trigger availability cascades likely to advance their agendas.

John Tierney notes that while 2008 may just be underway, we’re smack dab in the middle of a global warming cascade:

Once a cascade is under way, it becomes tough to sort out risks because experts become reluctant to dispute the popular wisdom, and are ignored if they do. Now that the melting Arctic has become the symbol of global warming, there’s not much interest in hearing other explanations of why the ice is melting — or why the globe’s other pole isn’t melting, too.

Global warming has an impact on both polar regions, but they’re also strongly influenced by regional weather patterns and ocean currents. Two studies by NASA and university scientists last year concluded that much of the recent melting of Arctic sea ice was related to a cyclical change in ocean currents and winds, but those studies got relatively little attention — and were certainly no match for the images of struggling polar bears so popular with availability entrepreneurs.

Roger A. Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, recently noted the very different reception received last year by two conflicting papers on the link between hurricanes and global warming. He counted 79 news articles about a paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, and only 3 news articles about one in a far more prestigious journal, Nature.

Guess which paper jibed with the theory — and image of Katrina — presented by Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth”?

It was, of course, the paper in the more obscure journal, which suggested that global warming is creating more hurricanes. The paper in Nature concluded that global warming has a minimal effect on hurricanes. It was published in December — by coincidence, the same week that Mr. Gore received his Nobel Peace Prize.

Via Newsbusters, where surprise is expressed over the fact that such an article would appear in the New York Times. It’s really no surprise, though; Tierney is one of the few columnists who will occasionally pierce the veil of left-wing opinion that dominates the Times.

In the Wall Street Journal’s Americas column, Rev. Robert A. Sirico examines the shift in thinking about liberation theology among Catholic Church leaders in Latin America. Excerpt:

Catholic Church bishops, priests and other Church leaders in Latin America were once a reliable ally of the left, owing to the influence of “liberation theology,” which tries to link the Gospel to the socialist cause. Today the Church is coming to recognize the link between socialism and the loss of freedom, and a shift in thinking is taking place.

In a region that is more than 90% Catholic, this change might have enormous implications. A Church that emphasizes liberty could play a role in Latin America similar to that which it played in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, as a counterweight in defense of freedom during a time of rising despotism.

For proof of the change I refer to, consider a recent statement from the Catholic Bishops of Venezuela: It blasted the political agenda of President Hugo Chávez for its assault on liberty under the guise of helping the poor. It is morally unacceptable, the statement said, and will drive the country backward in terms of respect for human rights.

The Bishops’ statement from Caracas was not the first challenge the Church issued to Mr. Chávez. The late Cardinal Rosalio Castillo once laid out the Church’s view of Bolivarian socialism. The government, he explained, though elected democratically was morphing into dictatorship. He worried about the results of this process. “All powers are in the hands of one person who exercises them in an arbitrary and despotic way, not for the purposes of bringing about the greater common good of the nation, but rather for a twisted and archaic political project: that of implanting in Venezuela a disastrous regime like the one Fidel Castro has imposed on Cuba . . .”

Continue reading Rev. Sirico’s article “Liberty Theology” (registration required for the Journal’s online version).

Rev. Robert A. Sirico is interviewed by James Freeman, assistant editor of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, about markets and morality and about the Acton Institute’s Call of the Entrepreneur documentary.


Blog author: kschmiesing
Thursday, December 27, 2007
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For my money, some of the most interesting titles in recent years in the field of Christian scholarship have come from IVP Academic (an imprint of InterVarsity Press). The latest catalog features an announcement of Thomas Oden’s How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, as well as an interview with the author, which prompted a couple reflections. (The interview is available for pdf download here, Fall 2007)

I remember my first teaching assignment, a survey course in American history. We were covering slavery and related issues and the topic of Christianity and race came up. I made what I thought was a fairly obvious historical point about Christianity: identifying it with white Europeans is shortsighted considering that for several centuries Christianity was dominated by Africans, Palestinians, and Middle Easterners. The students, Ivy Leaguers all, looked at me in amazement, as though they were unaware of the fact. That memory returned as I read about Oden’s book, whose thesis is, in the author’s words,

Christianity has a much longer history than its Western European expressions. Africa has played a decisive role in the formation of Christian culture from its infancy, a role that has never been adequately studied or acknowledged, either in the Global North or South.

Oden also makes a point that lay behind my reaction to a trio of books that I reviewed for the forthcoming Journal of Markets & Morality (issue 10:2, to print any day): “…Euro-American intellectuals have transmitted [modern Western theological ideas] to Africa where they have been camouflaged as if to assume that these prejudices were themselves genuinely African.” The thought of Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, and Marcuse, he observes, has influenced writing in and about Africa far more than the thought of Tertullian, Cyprian, Athanasius, and Augustine, though it is self-evident which set of ideas is more genuinely “African” in any historical/geographical sense of the term. In my review, I display some unease about the appropriation of heterodox theology by African priests studying in Europe and the United States.

In the same IVP catalog:

The Legacy of John Paul II: An Evangelical Assessment

The Decline of African American Theology by Thabiti M. Anyabwile

Just Business: Christian Ethics for the Marketplace by Alexander Hill

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
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In this week’s Acton Commentary I examine “The Truth about Tithing.”

“Whatever benefits we claim to receive from tithing, whether spiritual, emotional, or financial, these are not to be the reason that we give. We give out of obedience to God’s word,” I write.

Here’s a link to a Marketplace Money report from last Friday that was the proximate occasion for the piece, “Tithing can be a good investment.” It’s a pretty disgustingly caricatured picture of tithing we get from the Marketplace report.

One more bit of evidence that the press just doesn’t “get” religion.

Last Saturday a brief op-ed commentary of mine ran in the weekly Religion section of the Grand Rapids Press, “Chandler case exemplifies need to repent.”

The occasion for the piece was the sentencing over the last few months of those convicted of involvement in the rape and murder of Janet Chandler in 1979 (more details about the case can be found in the Holland Sentinel’s special coverage section.) Chandler was a student at Holland’s Hope College at the time of her death. (Here are two of the stories that form the background for my article’s argument: “Swank: ‘No excuse’ for role in Chandler death” and “Lives built on dark secret crumble.”)

In the op-ed I make the claim that the work of the criminal justice system in the conviction and sentencing of those involved provides a necessary context within which forgiveness, or more precisely a form of restorative justice, might be sought. “For criminals who are in denial about what they have done, the power of the state to punish crime stands as public and objective testimony to the wrong that has been committed,” I write.

Swank: “No excuse…” (Sentinel/Dan Irving)

That’s exactly what has happened in this case. Earlier in December four men were sentenced to life in prison in connection with Chandler’s murder. After the four men were sentenced, Janet’s father Jim said, “As a Christian, I thought of saying we should forgive, but you have to ask for forgiveness. None of these arrogant people ever felt remorse or asked for forgiveness.”

Jim Chandler touches here on the critical difference between a forgiveness that is merely offered, and forgiveness that is sought out and received. Forgiveness that is merely offered is described as the “weak” form of forgiveness by Victor Claar, a professor at Hope College, and John N. Oswalt, a professor of Old Testament at Wesley Biblical Seminary in Jackson, Miss., in an article appearing in the Journal of Markets & Morality, “Can Neoclassical Economics Handle a Scriptural View of Forgiveness?”

Claar and Oswalt also describe the “strong” form of forgiveness: “This strong form follows the biblical view that forgiveness cannot be granted unless the victimizer has repented. Apology is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the strong form of forgiveness. Further, only the strong form holds the possibility of reconciliation. There can be no reconciliation without apology.”

Much of the reflection that lies behind the GR Press article is the fruit of the study behind a piece on restorative justice and the Christian tradition that is due to appear in an issue of next year’s Ave Maria Law Review. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how so-called “retributive” justice and “restorative” justice relate.

One way of putting the question is to inquire as to how to put together the instructions in Romans 12, such as, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath,” and Romans 13, including the statements referring to the civil magistrate, “He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”

For more on how restorative justice can work within the context of the criminal justice system, see this story about the work of Celebrate Recovery, a prison ministry at work in Michigan and around the country, “Pastors baptize 33 at St. Joseph County Jail” (HT).

Blog author: jballor
Monday, December 24, 2007
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“O GOD, who makest us glad with the yearly remembrance of the birth of thy only Son Jesus Christ; Grant that as we joyfully receive him for our Redeemer, so we may with sure confidence behold him when he shall come to be our Judge; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.”

“An Additional Collect for Christmastide,” Scottish Book of Common Prayer (1912).

Malika Worrell’s review of The Call of the Entrepreneur is a perfect storm of distorting prejudice, muddle, and simple factual errors. First, she says, “Much of Call’s 58-minute runtime is taken up with talking heads, most of whom are affiliated with the Acton Institute, affirming the film’s ideology that unfettered capitalism is inherently righteous.”

This is incorrect, and I told her it was incorrect in our interview. The majority of interviewees in the film, from Brad Morgan to George Gilder, Michael Novak, Jimmy Lai, and Peter Boettke, are not affiliated with Acton. Moreover, her description of the film’s “ideology” (why not say “argument”?) seems to be describing some other film. What little was said about the free market and capitalism in our film focused on the importance not of “unfettered capitalism” but of private property and rule of law. Such government-enforced “fetters” are preconditions for a successful capitalism. These are the lessons of economic history, not the deliverances of some kind of irrational faith, which Worrell suggests.

She also comments, “The film’s single-minded focus on the virtues of the free market is accompanied by a Calvinist streak. The entrepreneurial impulse contains elements “of God’s original creative act.” This is a quote from the film by Samuel Gregg, a Roman Catholic. The film is based on a book by a Roman Catholic priest, Robert Sirico, which Worrell elsewhere notes. Catholics aren’t Calvinists. Moreover, the idea that human beings are created in God’s image to be creators is a broadly Judeo-Christian idea, one shared even by deists like Thomas Jefferson.

On several occasions, Worrell criticizes the film because, apparently, it isn’t the film she thought we should have made: “Viewers hoping to learn more about the businesses Call’s featured entrepreneurs created will come away frustrated; the film is more interested in ideology than the actual logistics of entrepreneurship.” Again, she prefers the prejudicial word “ideology” to describe a perspective she simply disagrees with. In any case, this isn’t a valid criticism. The film is a response to the ubiquitous stereotype of business entrepreneurs as greedy misers that persists in both the entertainment and news media. It’s not a training film for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Today’s post will look at the Georgetown University Press Religion & Ethics catalog and the Westminster John Knox Academic Update (series index):

Titles from Georgetown University Press:

Titles from Westminster John Knox:

Ramsey Wilson provides a thoughtful and valuable post on my previous entry on Christmas consumerism. Upon reflection, Wilson provides an important insight that makes explicit what was perhaps only implicit in my previous post.

Wilson writes, “I hope and trust that the fellowship and exchange of gifts would point us toward reflection and remembrance of Who made possible such delights, and to take yet another step in the direction of knowing Him.”

Amen.