The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

When 'Apples to Apples' Isn't a Fair Comparison

When I was young, I thought a frozen pizza was a complete meal, because it contained the 4 Food Groups. The problem is that the cheese was more vegetable oil than dairy, the flour wasn't whole, there really weren't that many veggies and the meat was anyone's guess--loaded with chemicals, no doubt.

This example illustrates a problem with the kind of nutritional perspective Americans have. Let me explain:

Most of us were raised on the 4 Food Groups. While this approach has been denounced in recent years (and for good reasons), I will go out on a line and say that all in all, it is not a bad model for eating, if you don't take it too strictly. At its basic, it reminds us that we should balance our eating between fruits, veggies, starches, meats and dairy, with slightly less on the meats and dairy. That's not bad advice.

The 4 Food Groups has become so fundamental to how we view eating, it is hard to imagine not having such a perspective. Most people know they shouldn't sit down to a meal of just steak. We take it for granted now, but people did not always see it this way before that. I still plan my meals with a meat, a starch and two of the fruit/veggie group. For people who don't take much interest in knowing the details of food nutrition, this is a simple, straightforward approach that will serve you well when you serve yourself.

But the 4 Food Groups is misleading in that a starch is not equal to another starch, and one person's veggies are not the same as another person's veggies.

Look at the hamburgers I ate for lunch today: Grass-fed, organic beef patties on fluffy, whole-grain wheat buns with minimal additives--cooked on a cast iron skillet with some olive oil and simple spices. Compare that to what you get at your local fast food joint: Grain-fed, unhealthy beef on the cheapest refined white bread, cooked in God-knows what kind of fats and oils. The beef is full of the bad fats, low on the good fats (the reverse of mine). Additives, preservatives and maybe even taste enhancers are everywhere. The problem is that in both cases you can use the word "hamburger" to describe your lunch. Yet, I would say these are two entirely different meals.

The 4 Food Groups unconsciously taught us that beef is beef, grain is grain and apples are apples. Not so. How you prepare your foods and how they are raised can put them into an entirely different class of foods. The 4 Food Groups does not take into account the "wholeness" of foods, the cooking method used, the way it was farmed or the amount of additives it has.

We may need a whole new vocabulary for talking about foods this way.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

How to Read the Bible

One of the best tools for studying the Bible is the historical-critical method. The idea is to understand as much of the literary and historical context as you can so you can arrive at what the authors probably meant when they wrote their works. The Catholic Church officially calls this an "indispensable" method for Biblical study.

It is the arch enemy of Biblical fundamentalism. Fundamentalists will often pick up the Bible, open it up to a random page, read it, then immediately come to an understanding without any complimentary study. They believe all you need is the Word by itself, and even in an empty room the Spirit will guide you to a right interpretation. The problem with fundamentalism is that it does not take seriously the humanity of the Bible and its authors. Even among many Catholics today, there is a strong movement to see the Bible as a means of personal reflection and dispose of the HC method, despite the Church's stance.

The historical-critical method is not meant to be used by itself to come to a full theological understanding--that is a more complex task of faith, community as well as study. But the HC methoc is essential if we are to do the best we can to honestly and critically understand what the authors are saying to us.

Two good examples of this came out of my recent class on the Synoptic Gospels & Acts.

The Good Samaritan

We all know the story of the Good Samaritan. A man (probably Jewish) is seriously injured and lying by a roadside. Some pass by but do not help. The Good Samaritan arrives, does some emergency field dressings, and even buys the guy a stay at a hotel. It is a wonderful story of helping a stranger. And we can even intuit from this story that being a Samaritan makes the one man different than the others, so there is some sense of helping people from different ethnic backgrounds.

With a serious historical study, we can learn through other texts and archaeology that the Jews and Samaritans absolutely hated each other. While the Jews revered their own temple in Jerusalem, they destroyed the one the Samaritans had at Mount Gerizim. This was a bitter, bitter relationship. Yet, it was the Samaritan who helps the wounded man, not the others who were probably of closer ethnicity and faith as the man by the road.

You can still walk away from this story with a generally good understanding of it even if you know nothing of the conflict between the Jews and Samaritans. But doesn't it add a whole new dimension knowing this historical fact? The kind of love Jesus is talking about isn't just between random strangers, but even among the strongest of enemies. In modern terms, that would be like a Jew helping a Palestinian or the English helping the Irish in Northern Ireland.

"At the Feet"

The historical-critical method does not just enhance our understanding--it can prevent errors, as well:

In Luke's story of Mary and Martha, he shows that Mary is "at the feet" of Jesus, listening intently and absorbed in his words (Luke 10:38-42). Reading this with 21st century eyes and in standard American English, it is easy to think that the term "at the feet" is somewhat derogatory. Dogs are generally the ones at your feet, or perhaps kids. There is a clear meaning of submission with the expression the way we are accustomed to it. It might be easy to see Mary as a second-class citizen from this.

However, a proper analysis of 1st century usage reveals that "at the feet" was a euphemism for discipleship itself. It was a privileged place to be. Jesus was a man talking to crowds that numbered in the thousands, in a world without microphones, recording devices or even much writing, and she was the one with a front-row seat--sensing his breath, his every movement, his emotional responses in intimate detail. She was there to catch every word that fell from his mouth. There is a sense of immediacy--she was right there with him. There is closeness and even perhaps imitation--she was emulating him.

In The Life of Brian, there is a comical scene where onlookers totally misunderstand the Sermon on the Mount, because they are too far away from Jesus to hear him properly--to them, he sounds like the teacher in the Peanuts movies. That was the reality of the 1st century, but Mary did not have to struggle with that. "At the feet" is still a lower position in the sense of being a student or follower, but it is not second-rate, at all. In fact, Mary being "at the feet" could imply she was the star pupil, the first among equals--much like the beloved disciple in John's gospel who was "reclining by his side" (John 13:23)--right at the breast--and heart--of Jesus.


So there you have two great examples of why it is not only enriching but also crucial to know as much about the history and literary context of the Bible stories as we can. Without that, we run the risk of totally missing critical details or even getting a story completely wrong. We can never be guaranteed 100% accuracy in this--for all we know, the Bible is full of inside jokes we'll never get or even notice. This is why it is problematic to get caught up in individual details and not on the overall direction the Scriptures point to. If you read a particular line too literally, how do you know you're not missing something really big? The best way to deal with this is to take the scriptures as a whole and know that you're not going to take every word literally.

You can argue that the Spirit won't let you interpret a passage in error. But it seems to me that the Spirit respects our humanity as well, and if we are bound and determined to be stubborn about it then Spirit will let us be as wrong as rain--as evidenced by numerous people of faith who have been plain ole wrong throughout the ages. The best we can do is to humbly and continually challenge our assumptions and study more and more.

Snoozing on the Job: Pope Benedict

My uncle predicts that in 10 years the ecclesial structure of the Catholic Church is going to come crashing down.

It is not hard to see why. 3 priests retire or die for every new priest ordained. I can quote dozens of other statistics, but none of them says it as well as that one. It doesn't take a mathematician . . .

So what wise words does the pontiff have for us? Here's what he says:

"The first question . . . is: Are there true believers? And only then comes the second question: Are priests coming from them?"

Thanks, Benny! Way to do something about the problem.

Granted, these words were quoted from 1997, back in his 'pit bull of the Vatican' days and before he was pope. But what has he been doing lately? Touring around, writing some theological treatises on topics such as "hope", and imposing on us a ridiculous re-translation the words of the mass. And for what?

The Pope as CEO

With decades of John Paul II and now Benedict, people don't realize that the Pope--with all that power that they have worked so hard to centralize in his office--can actually be a Church administrator, and not just someone floating around making statements. They can study the problems--look at solutions--implement them.

The Cost of Discipleship

Let's all face the cold, hard truth: Folks out there just don't think the vocation of priesthood is worth forsaking marriage, parenthood and sex for anymore. There, I said it. If you have to balance between a call to ministry and a call to family, it's no surprise people pick the one with more flexibility than the option with no flexibility.

And let's be clear: No one thinks the ordained are on a higher plane than the rest of the rabble, anymore. In the past, the clergy had a more "pure" lifestyle, without the stain of sex, one step closer to God. People just don't buy that anymore. The pope also can't figure out why folks wouldn't want to be a priest in a church structure where power is more centralized by the day and where free, progressive thinking is actively fought against. The sad reality is that celibacy probably isn't the biggest problem out there, but we gotta start somewhere.

I think it is truly impressive that so many people have chosen a celibate lifestyle in order to follow their call. Regardless of all the pervs out there and others using religious orders to hide from their sexuality, there have really been a lot of folks who have made a supreme sacrifice. That is not a small thing by any means. It is a very impressive tradition, and there is no shortage of intense stories of heartbreak as people have wrestled with their call. But should such a high sacrifice be mandatory? I would love it if all clergy lived a life of radical poverty with the poor and willing to lead social justice causes, too. Let's require that sacrifice and forget the celibacy stuff.

So What's the Deal

The quoted article mentions smaller families as a source of the problem, too. Even Benedict recognizes this. But yet . . . he doesn't see how celibacy is an issue in relation to this! Let me explain this to him: People may not want to join the priesthood because it is up to them to continue their family lineage. With only 1-2 kids per family, there is a stronger expectation to produce children and provide financial security for the whole family. In the old days, poor families with multiple children were probably happy to offload some of them to the seminary.

The Good News

The good news is that the Church is going to have to do something about the shortage of priests. We are either going to diminish (and devalue) their role, recruit like hell in the third world, or open up the potential pool of priests to a larger population: Married folks and women. We are simply going to run out of priests, and there is very little reason to think that there is going to be any change in that without an institutional change of some kind. A more collegial, horizontal style of church organization (instead of hierarchical) would go a long way to help this, as well. The Church seems more than willing to just sit around and wait until the crisis become unbearable--but it will happen and it will happen soon.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

It's Time: The Ordination of Women

What the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about the ordination of women to the priesthood:

"Only a baptized man (vir) receives sacred ordination. The Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ’s return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord Himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible."

What I find most striking about this is the board assumption that this is based on. The Church is cherry-picking an attribute of Jesus and his 12 and making an all-reaching rule out of it. Jesus was a man and he picked 12 men . . . 12 Jewish men. But why is the qualification of "men" considered so important? By this logic, it seems like all Catholic priests should be Jewish men. By this logic, there should only be 12. Where did the authority come to grow beyond this? 12. Jewish. Men. Probably all married.

Maybe they all had black hair. Maybe they all worked in the skilled trades. Are those traits mandatory for priests today?

In a male-dominated society, it would have been perfectly reasonable for Jesus to have picked 12 men. Representing the 12 tribes of Israel, 12 men were needed to represent the 12 patriarchs. This was a patriarchal society in a very literal sense--not just with patriarchal overtones like we have today. It was legally patriarchal. To represent 12 patriarchs you're gonna need 12 men, it's that simple. It would be like having a movie about the Vietnam war but using black people as actors to play the part of the Viet Cong. Sure, you could be taking some artistic license to show that the Vietnam War was not limited to one time or place, but is rather representative of racism in America or something to that effect (actually this is a rather good idea), but to most movie-goers, it just wouldn't make sense. If you want to portray Vietnamese people in a movie, you're gonna want to have people of at least some kind of Asian ancestry to play the parts in most cases. That is why there are 12 men in the gospels.

Jesus could have overturned the traditions of his society to appoint women to represent these patriarchs, thereby working against the social order--but he just didn't. That doesn't mean Jesus was supporting patriarchy, it just means that was one reform he either never thought of or didn't think necessary given the point he was trying to make. It would be irresponsible to read into this an exclusion of women from apostolic functions. Besides, we know that there were more apostles than just the 12--Paul is a perfect example. So excluding priests today based on characteristics of the 12 is very weak grounds. Heck, for all we know Jesus had women among the 12 and it was the gospel writers who edited the names to make them--shall we say--more male. It wouldn't be the only time that happened in scripture or in a translation.

Historically speaking, it would have been improper to have been a patriarch of one of the tribes of Israel and also a single, celibate male. Yet, the Church does not require marriage for its priests, in fact, it prohibits it (at least for the last 900 years or so). Peter seems to have been married, with scripture references to his mother-in-law. So why isn't marriage required for priests? Why is the maleness mandatory but the marriage optional?

Jesus also picked 12 really confused men. Does that mean that being dense should also be a prerequisite for apostolic succession?

Many pagan sects of the day had women priestesses, but not in the Jewish faith. But there is strong evidence that Jesus had women disciples. Paul certainly traveled with deaconesses and other women who were "co-workers in the vineyard."


While the Church has not supported the ordination of women over the centuries, it must be asked whether this was on theological grounds or whether the Church was reflecting the cultural limitations of a specific time and place--just like Jesus or the gospel writers were doing when 12 men were picked. Many claim the argument from Tradition is more valid than the argument from scripture, but then I have to ask why does the Church use a scriptural argument in the quote above?

I am sympathetic to an argument from Tradition. I don't think the Church should change on a dime. The Church is a long history of a faith community. It has to come from somewhere and go somewhere. Still, the Church needs to be responsive to its own time. And many, many traditions have changed even after hundreds of years of practice--mandatory celibacy is one of them. The authority and prominence of the pope is also a rather "recent" phenomenon in the Church, as well. Speaking the vernacular at mass is another.

Priesthood at Baptism?

We can all be Christians--men and women. You don't have to be male to be Christian. It is along these lines that the logic against womens' ordination falls apart. Even though Jesus was a young man, with a Jewish mixed ancestry, living in 1st century Palestine, speaking Aramaic and possibly Greek, having grown up in a family of skilled trades, does not mean that to be a follower of Christ one needs to manifest any of these traits. The Incarnation happens in a specific person, time and place, but it is not limited to that. In fact, many of the early arguments recorded in scripture prevail along these lines--the Holy Spirit comes to all, regardless of your social class, ethnicity, degree of sinfulness, and yes, even gender. Why is the maleness of Jesus and the 12 so important when it comes to priesthood but not important at all for baptism?

Sex at Mass

One of the primary arguments is that Christ--being male--consecrates himself in the Eucharist and gives himself freely to others. This "giving" is a male act similar to the sex act and representative of male sexuality (apparently some people think that only men can be givers!) Interesting. Anyway, in a similar gesture, the male Catholic priests continue the same tradition to this day. These men--who are standing in for Christ himself--perform a nuptial union with the Church, which is the bride of Christ. Priests must be male to be in union with the Bride of Christ.

Does anyone else see some glaring details right there? If all priests have to be men, since male sexuality is an essential element of the priesthood, then doesn't it follow that everyone in the congregation has to be female? Because in a church that has such issues with homosexuality, I am not sure what to think when as a male I take communion as a part of the congregation--which is the female Bride of Christ.

And if men can be part of the female Bride of Christ, then . . .

. . . it stands to reason that women could represent the Bridegroom just as well as a man.

This idea that Christ is the Bridegroom and the Church is the Bride has be used as a support for a male-only priesthood. But if you take that logic at face value, then all men should be priests and only women would comprise the Church. Throw in the issue of homosexuality or transgendered folks or effeminate males and masculine females and the whole house of cards collapses.

By the way, there are some women who have already been ordained as Roman Catholic priests and bishops. Ahh . . . what they don't teach you in Sunday School.

Its the Rhythm That's Gonna Get Ya

One of the things that makes Metallica great is that they understand that music is about the rhythm. I respect them from afar, since heavy metal music rarely does anything for me. But I can see why this group is a standout in their field. Their distinctive rhythms really get the body moving in a genre where rhythm is often considered a second-class vocation.

Rock music lost its rhythmic centerpiece in the late 70s. It became increasingly about the melody and the intensity, but lost the groove. Look at all the hair bands of the 80s and on through heavy metal music, and you can see this trend. People today may find it hard to believe that the driving beat was the foundation of rock and roll, not guitar solos or soaring vocals. It had a beat that moved your body.

When you lose the rhythm as the focal point, it leaves you without your primary palette to work on. Without rhythm, your music is like a body without a skeleton--just a pile of flesh and chords on the floor (the manager of Goose Acres Music in Cleveland once told me that).

Without rhythm, the only way to communicate strong emotions (or any emotions at all) is to simply play louder and faster. Harder. Heavier. You have to be more sensational than the last time. There are no other options. This can be fun for a while, but it is a trap. You get put into a box where your only tools for communicating emotion is loudness and speed. There is a limit to how loud and fast you can play, and it doesn't take long to find that apex. It is also incredibly burdensome to be forced to play this way all the time.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Hawk Update

My dad talked to the folks at the Hiram College Field Station. A woman there (a biology professor?) told him that the hawks are probably Red-Shouldered Hawks. The behavior is indicative of parents teaching their young. My dad said that there are sometimes a few birds flying around, so this could back that up.

It is hard to tell. Wikipedia has it that "It is while establishing territories that the distinctive, screaming kee-aah call (usually repeated 3 to 4 times) of this bird are heard." This is definitely the behavior we are hearing.

I wish I could have gotten some good footage, but all I took was a short movie on my camera. You can't see anything, but the call of the hawks is clear as a bell in there. Maybe I'll post the audio when I get a chance.

This is a follow-up of this post.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Road Rage Rant

The world is divided between those who support Road Rage and those who don't, and ne'er the twain shall meet. But before you go flipping the bird to some little old lady because didn't manage a stop sign in precisely the same way you think she needs to, consider this:

You have no idea who is in the car next to you. For all you know, that person has had the worst day of their lives--perhaps beaten by a boyfriend. They may have lost their job or are spending their nights taking care of a loved one who is slipping away to some illness. Perhaps it is an elderly person struggling to live independently or someone who has had a string of the worst-day-of-their-lives. There are some folks out there really living their lives and dealing with some tough stuff.

To be living with that kind of heartache and then for someone to erupt in a fit of rage because you didn't accelerate after a green light on cue like a trained animal is darn near inhumane.

I know it may sound hard to believe, but the world actually does not revolve around you. Assuming it should is probably where some of your rage is coming from. I realize you are stressed--but so are others. Your stress does not give you license to abuse others, and neither does your license.

Many of us drive slowly or cautiously. We're allowed. We are well within the legal limits. Before you spout that everyone should be 'off to the races' whenever they put rubber to the road, I will suggest that if there is anyone pushing the limits of the law and jeopardizing all of our safety, it would be those with Road Rage.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Public Transportation Catch-22

I am toying with the idea of getting rid of my car. Thanks to Sarah, who you may have seen commenting on this site from time to time, I have started thinking about doing this. I have some ideas, but there are major obstacles.

The Situation

It is amazing how much I spend to own and maintain a car:

$200/month - Car payment
$200 - Gas
$100 - Insurance, license fees, oil changes

Already that is $500/month, and that does not even count repairs and pesky things like speeding tickets. Right now, repairs are minimal, but they usually start creeping in just as soon as cay payments start winding down.

Conservatively estimated, that's six thousands dollars a year! And this is a much cheaper automobile than what a lot of other folks are driving who have higher car payments and poorer gas mileage.

Growing up in a small town in the Midwest, we consider cars a necessity and rarely give a serious thought to getting rid of them. But this is some serious cash we are talking about. Giving up a car would be like giving myself nearly a 10 grand raise, when you consider the pre-tax money it equates to. It would also cut down on my carbon footprint and may encourage greater physical fitness.

(As a point of comparison for folks who aren't familiar with Ohio cost of living rates, my apartment is only $525/month. So having a vehicle is a virtually equal expense!)

Some Possibilities

Now I live in the city of Columbus, only live 10 miles from work via direct, city roads (slightly longer for freeway). That is a do-able bike ride. It would involve getting up earlier than normal, packing clothes and freshening up at work, but that isn't so bad. The bike is a worthy means of transportation the majority of the time here in Columbus, but there are days of blizzards and downpours. Maintaining a bike can involve some cost--helmet, decent rain gear, repairs. But all that doesn't seem too bad.

I could rent a car when I need to take weekend trips to visit my family in northeast Ohio.

So far, so good.

Now Here's the Downside

I live in the city, in the midst of bus service. I could get a monthly bus pass for $45. The COTA bus service that runs through town estimates my commute to work at approx. 1.5 hours. This is quite a shock. I can drive there in 25 minutes. From what I hear, this is not unusual for folks who take the bus. Even more shocking, the bus lines I would have to take are astonishingly simple--a ride down High St, then another west on Broad St (the two primary roads in the city). This is not a complicated route! It also has buses coming with greater frequency than on some of the other routes.

I realize a bus isn't going to match a personal car. You can get in your car whenever you want, take the roads you want, only stopping when you want to. It would be unreasonable to expect a bus service to match that. So I'm okay with incurring some time lag. But 3 times??

I am environmentally minded. I am fitness minded. I am loving the idea of saving a bundle of money. I am centrally located in a city near bus lines and close to work. And yet even with all of these factors, the thought of spending 2 extra hours each a day in commute or slogging my bike through snow and sleet on a regular basis gives me serious, serious pause. I consider myself one of the more likely candidates for getting rid of a car, yet it would still be hard. If I were to move to the other side of town, then the bus would be essential.

I suppose I could bike regularly and take the bus only in case of extreme weather. We also have the advantage of going half-and-half in Columbus: The bus service will porter you and your bicycle, so I could essentially take the bus for one convenient leg, then bike myself the rest of the way rather than wait to catch the second leg.

If someone who is as fitness and environmentally minded as I am really takes a long pause before considering such a lifestyle change, what hope do we have for a significant chunk of America to adopt these kinds of changes? Even if I take the leap, it is hard to imagine many of my peers following suit. It is not an attractive package.

I have heard about obnoxiously long commutes in New York City and Washington D.C. I always assumed that people just lived further away from their work than I do. Is the public transportation making their commute so long, or is it the distance of travel? How do cities such as Seattle and San Francisco (as well as European ones) encourage public transportation, walking and biking? Columbus is a rather compact, centralized city by Midwestern standards. And yet, these alternative means of transportation are not very user-friendly.

This gives some insight into the massive changes in lifestyle and infrastructure that we are up against. My goal is to promote changes that are actually do-able for a large swath of the population. I don't see how to sell public transportation in Columbus, OH, to people who already have automobiles.

The answer might be a combination of factors: People would live closer to their working and shopping areas, such as a quick one-leg bus ride away. Cities need to be planned with this in mind. You can't expect to live in the suburbs and have a smooth commute. However, it would be difficult for married couples to live in an area that is convenient for both of their places of employment.

The Catch-22

Public transportation needs to flood the market with way more routes than the current demand would ever require. They need to have buses, streetcars and subways running constantly all around town. If that were the case, I could pick up a line anywhere, anytime, and get to where I need in relative economy of time and cost. Then and only then would folks such as myself give a serious thought to using public transportation. The government needs to subsidize the crap out of this.

I may go ahead and make the change, anyway. There are multiple benefits and the overall package isn't so bad. But before these other means of transportation become widespread, something has to be done to make these methods more attractive to more people.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Red-Tailed Hawks

My family has some new guests on their property: A couple of red-tailed hawks. They seem to spend the better part of the day squawking at each other over and over. One will be on a tree near their house, the other a hundred yards away near the woods. They regularly get up and fly around, then perch again and resume squawking.

The mating ritual is supposedly an elaborate affair of birds circling each other and locking talons and descending downward. I haven't seen anything like that. We mostly hear the squawking back and forth all day. Once I saw the two of them on the same branch together, but only momentarily. Does anyone know what to make of this behavior?

I can't tell if they are courting or fighting, but I guess there's really only a fine line between--for people as well.

UPDATE: See this post for continuing coverage.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Can't Beet That

Now this is the part of summer I really love:

Erin and I sat down to a delicious dinner of just-dug red potatoes and beets, both grown about 15 feet from the house--not bad, considering the potatoes came from a bag we were throwing out in early May, but decided to plant just for the heck of it. This was way before the frost warning was over, but it worked out nicely. The potato plants are really struggling with bugs, but the crop was nice of the few that we picked.

In another pan were some garden-fresh green beans baked with naturally-raised pork chops--decked out with fresh rosemary from the front yard.

There was also a plate of steamed kohlrabi greens. The kohlrabi patch desperately needed thinning, so I helped out the garden as well as helped myself to some greens.

The beets were boiled, and the color bled out quite a bit. However, they retained their taste and the freshness was outstanding. Still, its amazing when you can see the color loss so blatantly, which probably mirrors the nutrition loss. I'm sure the same amount of loss occurs with potatoes, but you don't have such a strong color to bleed out like that so you probably don't notice. We left the beet skins on and boiled them together with the potatoes, with a steamer rack on top with the greens.

In the past, we've always baked the beets first, then peeled and threw them in a recipe. It is good to know that leaving the skins on and a simple boil works just as well when we don't have the time for the extra steps. We'd rather eat the skins, anyway, since that is probably where the nutrition is, like for potatoes. The beets need a little longer cook time than the potatoes. The next time, we're going to try just steaming them and see how long it takes. Steaming usually takes longer than boiling, but the cook times can be surprisingly similar, and the nutrition retention is significantly better.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Role of Charisma and Fellowship

I've never forget something my uncle told me once. He read that there is a common phenomenon for people who join religious cults. They start attending out of affection for the community. It is only later that they assume the belief system of that community. In other words, people do not convert because they have a change of theology--the covert over the appeal of fellowship. They assume the theology later as part of the whole package.

I have seen folks from a particular denomination attempt to convert others precisely through this method. They show up to your door not with Bibles and lists, but with a tennis racket and an invitation to go out.

This was a statement about cults, or at least it is more obviously about them. However, we may all be vulnerable to this.

The charisma of an individual is very similar to the pull of fellowship, in my opinion. One refers to an individual leader, the other to the group as a whole.

But aren't all good religious leaders--such as Jesus--charismatic? When someone is a stand-out person, giving off energy in massive waves and you like being around them, it only stands to reason that you would want to know more about them. What makes them tick? Once you start to trust them, it may be a slippery slope to start assuming some of that person's beliefs. You have to wonder--if this person is so great, maybe there is something about their belief system that is contributing to this. Maybe I want a piece of that, too.

The 80s song "Cult of Personality" trashes a lot of well-loved folks--Gandhi's in there, for crying out loud. Is following someone because of the draw of charisma so bad? I suppose as long as we check our emotions with reason and consider the whole package we should be okay.

Perhaps charisma is like any other attribute--it takes on a moral position only in the way it is being used. You can use your talents for good or for evil, but the talent itself is neutral until you put it to use.

Responding to the charisma of others seems to be a part of being human.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Pope is the Middle-Man

They say that every person is only 7 relationships removed from every other person on earth. I figure you only have to trace yourself to one famous person in order to "prove" this. I started thinking of the Catholic hierarchy:

Ever parishoner knows their priest --> Every priest knows his bishop --> Every bishop knows the pope . . .

The pope, in turn, knows all the other bishops --> Who in turn know all the priests --> Who know all the parishioners.

I count that as 6 steps removed from every practicing Catholic in the world. Considering we're only 7 steps removed from everyone on earth, I suppose this isn't quite an achievement since people of the same faith have a common association to begin with. But still. It makes the world seem smaller.

What is the point of this? It is a different way to look at the Catholic hierarchy: Instead of the pope as the head honcho, he's the conduit in the middle. Same system, just a different perspective on it.

And of course, you can always cut out the middle man (in a nice way, of course!).

A greater network of bishops who are in college with each other would remove a step or two. Assuming all bishops know all the other bishops (which may be a stretch, but I would assume most of them know a good many of them), then you can bypass the steps that involve the pope in the above example. The world gets even smaller. Suddenly you have:

Parishioner --> priest --> bishop --> bishops --> priests --> parishioners

I envision a Catholic Church where the bishops in college with each other are the movers and the shakers, much like how it was in earlier periods of Christianity. The pope is, of course, just another bishop.

It is amazing how hierarchy separates people, even while more efficiently organizing them.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Matthew is Dense

I have lately been amazed by the Gospel of Matthew. In just a few short passages, Matthew launches a barrage of just one jaw-dropping, infamous line after another. I am talking about passages that are near and dear to the hearts of many, repeated ad infinitum throughout the last 2,000 years--and here they appear in quick succession.

Take Chapter 7, the close of the Sermon on the Mount. It starts with "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged," quickly elaborated with: "Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye but do not notice the log in your own eye?" A couple sentences later there is, "do not throw pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you."

What's the next line after this famous line?

"Ask, and it will be given you, search and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you."

It isn't 2 lines later that you hear:

"In everything do to others as you would have them do to you"

The very next sentence begins:

"Enter through the narrow gate . . . for the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it."

There is a famous passage about good trees yielding good fruit--a common Matthean theme that a tree is known by its fruit, then it goes to:

Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven."

These read like Bartlett's Book of the most famous quotations in western civilization, and they appear virtually one after the other in a few short passages in the Book of Matthew. I don't have much commentary on this, only to remark that this is a stunning achievement by anyone's measure.

(Scripture quotations from the New Revised Standard Version)

Cosmetics Database and Another (Better) Deodorant Option

A useful tool is Skin Deep's Cosmetics Database. You input the name of a health & beauty product, and it will give you a safety rating based on a synthesis of available research. It also measures to what degree the product is untested (see "data gaps").

Its not just for cosmetics, but anything such as deodorants, shampoos, etc. Check the FAQ section of the website for tips on how to use it to create custom shopping lists and target certain products to avoid.

I was surprised to see that plain ole baking soda receives a rating of 2. This is on a scale of 0-10, with 0 being the lowest level of toxicity. The rating of 2 is still very low, but since I've been using it as a deodorant in order to avoid other toxic options, this was somewhat unsettling. Granted, most commercial deodorants look to be in the 4-6 range, which is significantly higher.

Lately, I've been using plain ole vinegar. It is even easier to apply than baking soda--dab it on with a washcloth or use a spray bottle. The smell of vinegar dissipates after a short while. It has a whopping rating of 0. I've been using it for a few days already, and it controls the smell flawlessly.

Sunday, July 6, 2008


I just started G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy. So far, it is living up to all expectations, and the expectations are quite high.

"Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion . . . to accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain . . .

The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.

The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason."

Waylon Jennings put is this way: "I've always been crazy, and its kept me from going insane."

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Challenging Vegetarian Assumptions

A vegetarian diet is often touted as crucial to nutritional health to environmental sustainability. Many claim that you can't be a true environmentalist if you eat meat. However, much of that has been over-dramatized in an almost cult-like fervor. While many of the arguments in favor of a plant-rich diet are good ones, the issues are far more nuanced than they may seem at first.

Which is better:

A side of beef grown on a local farm, entirely raised on local grasses without any addition of chemical pesticides, oil-based fertilizers or unnecessary antibiotics given to the animal. The manure is used to re-fertilize the pastures and possibly nearby organic crops. It is grown on a small family farm. It is delivered in bulk to your house where you keep it in your energy-efficient chest freezer for the year.


A conventionally-raised banana, with workers and plants heavily subjected to chemical pesticides on a large, exploitative corporate farm. It is picked un-ripe and shipped thousands of miles (possibly by energy-extravagant air flights). The land is depleted, local ecosystems destroyed and massive fossil fuels burned to get this tasteless and nutritionally-sad banana to your table.

On just about all counts, meat in this case is a superior choice to the fruit in question.

Now, before you all feel vindicated in your meat-eating ways, I have to ask: Is your meat pasture-raised, organic and raised on a humane, responsible farm? The arguments for a vegetarian diet still hold if you are eating the other stuff. The problems of conventionally-raised meats are enormous.

A completely organic vegetarian diet may still beat out a completely organic meat-eating diet, but even that may be in question: Animals are an essential part of any ecosystem, and a properly functioning organic farm is going to need inputs from animals at some point for fertilizer. Some farms can probably get around it, but it may be more trouble than it is worth.

I consume coffee, bananas and avocados, too. We are all going to splurge on something exotic shipped from the four corners. Its almost impossible to eat a perfect diet that satisfies all concerns. However, it is well worth it to make sure your compromises are intelligent ones.

I do think responsible meat eating is a huge part of our environmental responsibility, given the concerns that vegetarians have brought to the table. In light of this, I have decided to pay extra-special attention to my meat purchases: My eggs are local and pasture raised. There is a side of beef and a whole pig sitting in a freezer (you have to buy this stuff in bulk to keep costs down). The pig wasn't as healthy as the cow--finding a pasture-raised pig is not so easy yet, but it will be some day. Occasionally I buy a locally-raised chicken for soup. I splurge once in a while on some wild-caught salmon (one of the more responsible fish choices out there). I love seafood, but keep it to a minimum due to the overwhelming concerns of over-fishing and pollution.

I was a vegetarian for a short while. There is something about that diet that makes you dig in your heels and take an absolutist stance. I surprised myself when I started adopting a rigid attitude, because when I began the diet, I told myself I wouldn't do that. Yet, I couldn't help but sneer while watching folks eat meat. I wonder if there is something about that diet that encourages that kind of personality shift. Maybe forcing yourself to do something unnatural brings out a polarizing attitude.

In any case, we need to thank vegetarians for being some of the best crusaders for food quality out there. Their assumptions need to be challenged, though. A vegetarian diet by itself does not guarantee good food or environmental responsibility. Given the massive nutritional benefits of properly-raised meats and the importance of animals to healthy farms, I think the focus should be on responsible meat eating rather than the exclusion of meats from our diet.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Ancient Council

One of the most important aspects of Christianity that endured for a thousand years is virtually unknown to most of us today. Yet, it could be the key to the future.

Even educated people often see early Christian history this way: There was Jesus, then came the early Christian communities. Eventually they gained the support of Rome and the empire took over with a firm top-down hierarchy until the Protestant Reformation.

That's not how it went down.

The whole of Christianity was concentrated around five cities: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome. These cities had churches set up from the time of the apostles, and they governed the regions around them. They had a degree of autonomy in judicial matters, faith practices and even theology. However, when a crisis of faith arose, they convened an "Ecumenical Council" in hopes to settle it. It was believed the council had authority--the Body of Christ coming together to "flesh" something out. Authority wasn't about individuals making pronouncements, but rather the product of whatever happened when the descendants of the 12 gathered once again in his name.

Due to a number of historical reasons, this system broke down. Three of the cities fell to Islamic influence, leaving only Rome and Constantinople. The once-crumbling western portion of Christianity started to rise again, asserting itself as the seat of Peter and Paul and claiming authority for the Pope from that. Rome also decided to independently modify the Nicene Creed. This didn't go over so well in the East, and for this and a number of other reasons, the Great Schism occurred a thousand years after Christ. Suddenly we have the Catholic and Orthodox Churches of the west and east.

The rise of papal power continued to be a cause of concern in the west, as reform movements started appearing. The Waldesians and Cathars were put down as heretics. Other movements were absorbed back into the Church, such as the Franciscans, Dominicans and various mystics. Eventually, the Protestant Reformation occurred which split the western church again.

This comes from Hans Küng's The Catholic Church: A Short History. Maybe I've been reading too much Küng, but its hard to disagree that the rise of papal power is directly related to breakaway movements and internal friction within the Church. As time went on, power became centralized with the pope and less and less with the body of bishops and the community of Christ. It became less an organic, living body but rather an instrument of oppression as the hierarchy expected everyone to get in line--you either conform or you break away. Had the Church maintained a "council" approach, what would Christianity be like today?

It also makes me wonder what Christianity could be like in the not-so-distant future. There is a growing ecumenism. If you look at academic scholarship, peace & justice movements and progressive theology movements, these are not tied to a denomination. They are influenced by faith traditions in terms of culture, charism and values, but certainly not limited to their dogmas. People have individual opinions about matters of theology and do not convert over them. For many people, it doesn't make sense to formally covert to another denomination these days, since a lateral move from one denomination to another only solves some problems to generate others. Yes, we are in a post-denominational era. Most of us are wise enough not to throw away the faith traditions we have inherited, either, but the future is going to be different, no two ways about it.

Would Christians be open to recognizing authority outside their particular denomination? We would all have to give up something. Catholics would need to give up the idea that their pope is supreme liaison to God. I think we can do that, since we've had that view before (and many of us do right now). Protestants would need to give up their urge to breakaway. The Orthodox feel left out, since everyone broke away from them. Catholics who see themselves as the "One True Church" need a history lesson.

Few Americans know much about the Orthodox. We tend to think in terms of Protestants vs. Catholics, but that is only the scene in western Christianity. The Orthodox are not populous in the Americas, and they've been struggling of late since their region had been under the oppression of the atheist Soviet Union, but the Orthodox are still out there. Until the rise of modern Evangelical movements, the Orthodox were second in number only to Catholics, with Protestants combined as a distant third. I say this not to diminish Protestantism, but to emphasize just how significant the Eastern tradition is.

I imagine a day when these various denominations sit down together at a table not just for polite discussion but as the Body of Christ coming together again for the first time in 1,000 years. What would that be like? What kind of family reunion would that be? Loving embraces or cautious distance--would it matter? In the ancient tradition, there was room for autonomy of the different branches, but also a respect for the authority of the Body of Christ as a whole. Can we do it again?

Thanks the Berard Marthaler's The Creed for the primary thesis here.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

History of the Catholic Church

I'm about halfway through Hans Küng's The Catholic Church: A Short History. I started reading it at the bookstore and couldn't put it down, so I brought it home. It is an easy, enjoyable read and appropriate for a general audience. And given its scope, it is useful for all Christians, not just Catholics.

Sitz im Leben

Küng is clear that he is telling history from his own perspective--as a modern theologian who has faced the suppression from the institutional church, but who still loves the church and wouldn't want to be anywhere else. It is always good to keep this in mind whenever we read someone else's description of history. All history is interpreted. Any time somebody gives you their take on history, they are giving you exactly that--their take on it. Even when someone works hard to give only the who, what, where and when, they still have to make decisions about which information to select and then put it together into a "story." It is good for Küng to mention this, but he is no more "guilty" of this than any other writer.

The Changing Face of Catholicism

Modern Catholics often are under the impression that the beliefs, practices and dogmas of the Church go back to the beginning of Christianity. I think most of us realize that Peter didn't wear modern papal dress or celebrate mass exactly like we would know it today. Still, the impression remains that there was a linear path of development from the early Christian communities to the Catholic Church of today.

Küng shows the messy reality of that. The enduring legacy of the popes just isn't what it is cracked up to be--there were periods of time (hundreds of years in length!) when Rome had the status of a provincial capital, not the looming height of empire. Constantinople was where it was at for that milenium, while Rome floundered. Popes were often appointed by kings and just as easily disposed by them. The idea that the pope is one central, monarchical figure one step removed from God himself who can occasionally pronounce something as "infallible" is a very modern idea.

The Emperor of Constantinople convened many of the great councils (Nicea was the Emperor's residence) and there were times the Pope was not even invited or considered much in the procedings. The Pope was not even there when the Nicene Creed was formed! That would be unheard of in the modern era, but that is a symbol of the kind of status the Pope had for a huge swath of Christian history.

Küng hopes that by showing the many ways the Church has manifested itself through time we may not be so afraid of reform in our own era. These are not traditions handed down by Jesus himself, but rather choices the church has made in organizing itself--choices that can be un-done without tampering with the substance of faith.

We're Stuck But Then We're Not Stuck

The way I see it, modern Catholics are not afraid of the fact that many of our beliefs do not come directly from the Bible. We assume that the Church of Christ has continually been developing over time, gaining in wisdom with each passing age. The same Church that assembled the Bible hundreds of years after Christ (with the guidance of the Holy Spirit) is the same one that can continue to interpret and pass on the tradition of Christ in a new way in each age.

The Bible is a crucial reference point to make sure the Church doesn't go far off track, being the "first witnesses" to Jesus. However, just because something "isn't biblical" isn't an argument that will hold up with Catholics. The same God that guided the people of Israel through generation after generation did not just stop when the Bible was written. Its not like God said, "Well, I've been working hard with these people from Adam to Abraham to the Apostles, but now its time for something different--I'm gonna leave them this Bible and they can refer to that instead of my direct involvement in their lives." The problem with a Biblical faith is that it assumes inspiration is over, and that the best we can hope for is to scientifically reconstruct how it was during biblical times. A scientific reconstruction is not faith nor is it an active and present relationship with God (see Ratzinger Eschatology).

Back to Küng and the Popes

For maybe 1,000 years, Christians regarded both Rome and the Pope the way Christians today might regard Jerusalem for sentimental reasons, but none of us look to it for direct leadership. Did I say 1,000 years? The rise of papal power is a more recent phenomenon of the last 1,000 years. A significant amount of time, for sure, but it is a development of history that can be undeveloped. There are few signs that this tradition goes anywhere near to Christ.

So the bottom line is that an evolution in the way the Church has organized itself is not automatically wrong--the Church can and should continually re-invent itself with each passing age. The Church today does not look like churches in the Bible, but that by itself is not proof of anything. However, many Catholics don't know exactly how much evolution and contrary twists and turns the Church has taken over the years.

ADDED: Concerning the Pope's presence at Nicea: The New Advent website whitewashes this a bit, saying it is "unlcear" whether the council was convened through the Emperor or along with the Pope as well, but that the Pope sent at least 2 priests as representatives! Let's read between the lines: A major council for the entire Church is convened, destined to create one of the most definitive articles of faith for all of Christianity, and the Pope is a no show! He sends two priests, not even a bishop. This is exactly what Küng is trying to argue: We are led to believe the Pope had a much stronger role in history that the facts demonstrate.