Sunday, March 30, 2008

When pastors negotiate

Ben Dubow, the pastor at our church, wrote of a wonderful exchange with another pastor. Ben wanted to buy two church buses from this other pastor. Here's Ben's account:

"I made an offer. He countered.

His counter offer was for less than my offer.

He said he wanted to make sure we had some extra for registration, insurance, inspection, and any minor upgrades needed--and that it was a blessing to us!

In essence, we got both buses for the price of one (for what they had it listed as on Craig's List). I've never been in a negotiation like that before. "

Cool, huh!

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Saturday stuff

Recently a laptop computer was destroyed at our house with a cup of coffee spilled on it. This morning, Gus and Floyd has a very satisfying time taking it completely apart and seeing what was in it.

While they did that, I cleaned the car. Among the treasures, I found a check for $70 and a container of cottage cheese wedged between two seats. It was full, probably fell out of the bag on the way home. Anyway, we have no idea how long it's been there. Given how cold things are here in CT, it could have been for some time.

Here's what *not* to do when para-surfing. A very funny, perhaps disturbing video clip. (Thanks Josh!)

Here is a cheerleading squad that we can all cheer for!

Now, this is how to apologize. I was scheduled to meet with an undergrad, and he didn't show up. A little later, I got this message: "I suck and a one hour nap turned into a two and a half hour one after subconsciously turning my alarm off."

Friday, March 28, 2008

Kudos to Karen Sternheimer at (a blog I contribute to). It's starting to attract lots of attention, including the review posted below. She's putting together some really nice posts about a wide range of sociological topics. I can see this blog used regularly in sociology classes; in fact, a grad student came to my office a few days ago to talk about using it. Well done Karen!

"When some people think about sociology, they might think about Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, and Manuel Castells. The witty, irreverent, and very insightful sociologists at Everyday Sociology consider those esteemed scholars, but they also examine social dynamics on airplanes, Asian American voters, and the world of celebrity. The Everyday Sociology weblog is edited by sociologist Karen Sternheimer, and her contributors include a wide range of practicing sociologists. Visitors to the site can scroll through recent entries and also browse several categories, which include crime and deviance, sex and gender, social psychology, and popular culture and consumption. Also, users may wish to look through the archives, which date back to June 2007. Along with being eminently readable, the site also includes teaching activities and video interviews. "

Thursday, March 27, 2008

What should be measured in church surveys?

I got a thoughtful e-mail from a pastor/seminary professor here in New England in response to my postings on the Reveal Study.

He asks the big question with applied research on Christianity: What should be measured?

He writes: "Even after [years] as a seminary professor and pastor of a church, I have found no biblically and sociologically validated criteria that could serve as legitimate measures. While I've seen many books on what marks a good church, the criteria seem more intuitive or arbitrary than validated."

Great question...

We could actually break it into two questions:

1) What are the outcome variables. That is, what are the things that mark a successful church?

2) What are the predictor variables. What are the things that change the outcome variables?


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Christianity in the buff?

You learn something everyday...

Apparently there is an active Christian-nudist community in the United States that mixes the beliefs of Christianity with the practice of nudism. (Presumably it's practiced mostly in the warmer regions of the country).

Some links (sent by Edward B. Thanks!):


Christian Nudist Convocation, Planning their Summer 2008 conference:

The periodic Christian Nudist Convocation took place in July at the Cherokee
Lodge nudist camp in Tennessee, and according to a dispatch in Nashville
Scene, the group evokes skepticism not only from most Christians (who
dislike the flaunting of naked bodies, even if innocently done) but from
most Cherokee Lodge members, who see them as too intense for naturism's
laid-back attitude. One CNC attendee acknowledged that many Christians would
not approve of Cherokee Lodge, but to him '(I)t's Jerusalem.' Another
compared his work at nudist camps to missionary work: '(S)ome people get
sent to Africa, some people get sent to South America and the Lord was like,
'I want you to go to nudist resorts.' And I'm like, 'Wow, what an
SOURCE: News of the Weird

Christian nudists to build village in Florida by Phil Barnoti Wahba
(Columbia News Service Dec. 6, 2005)

'Naked Before God,' cover story in Nashville Scene. Christian nudists hit
the church—and the hot tub—for three days of wet and wild worship in the
backwoods of Tennessee by Elizabeth Ulrich

Now I'm not sure about the theology of all this. Returning to the ideals of the garden makes sense, but naked church? Not sure I'm ready for that.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

What should I do with my week?

In April, Cathy will take the boys on a trip to Arizona to visit her sister. Since my spring break doesn't match up with the boys, I'm staying here. That means that I'll have six full days at home by myself.

Here's the problem: I have no idea what to do! Most of my life is work and family, so my first thought was get more work done. Then I realized how boring that is. So, I asked my wife for advice, and she said that each day I should deep clean a room in the house. (I think, but am not sure, that she was kidding). Okay, that's even worse.

So... I'll ask you: Any ideas? I'm asking now in case any of the resulting ideas take time to prepare for.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Scot McKnight on deconversion

Last fall, Scot McKnight posted an interesting series on deconversion. His focused on reading existing studies & narratives out there. (I had meant to link to it at the time).

It's a five part series: 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.

As always, he has about the best comment/conversations in blogosphere.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Vampire Chronicles do Jesus--Anne Rice

Here's a beautiful testimony from Anne Rice, the author of the Vampire Chronicles. As someone so apart from God for so many years, she lends an interesting perspective to it.

In writing about her conversion, she comments:

"This was not a joyful moment for me. It wasn’t an easy moment. It was an admission that I loved and believed in God, and that my old atheism was a façade."

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Saturday stuff

When I got home this afternoon, a neighbor ran over and said, "I've got your son, and your wife is in the hospital." Yikes! Turns out she cut her hand putting in some flooring and needed six stitches. Fortunately, she just missed cutting the tendon. Both boys were super helpful with her,

Gus, the oldest, went to the hospital with her, and sat with her till I got there. As soon as I did, though, he disappeared immediately. When I asked later where he was, he informed me that "Die Hard" was on the lounge TV. Floyd focused on the emotional support. "Mom, are you okay? Are you feeling scared? I know I was when I got a cut."

Now, this is a great practical joke. If I were way rich, stuff like this would be a common occurrence in my life!

Floyd had pajama day in school last week. He and the whole first grade showed up in their p.j.s... I know we never did anything that fun when I was in school.

When someone gets too clever in how to propose marriage.

Friday, March 21, 2008

A funny Facebook friend request

I had one of my students this semester send me a friend request on Facebook. That's fine, so I clicked yes. Then I looked at the time of his request--it was when he was in class--my class! I got a laugh out of that...

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The number of pastors employed since 1850

One of the key empirical facts in the sociology of religion is whether countries (groups, people) are getting more or less religious over time. If they are getting less religious, then that would support secularization theories. If they are getting more religious, that would support rational choice theories (which say more freedom of religion = more participation).

In the context of this debate, Iannaccone put together the above figure. It plots the number of employed pastors per 10,000 people in the United States since 1850! He collected data from the US Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics. This measure avoids some of the problems associated with self-reported church attendance.

It turns out that there have been about 1.2 pastors for every thousand people during the whole period. The stability is remarkable (though perhaps not satisfying for either secularization or rational choice theorists).

In the church, there's often a lot of talk about how Christianity is disappearing in the U.S. While the above figure doesn't plot Christian pastors, per se, it does suggest that religion itself isn't going anywhere.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Walking log (pic)

After a snow storm a few weeks ago, anything going into the river had bell-shaped snow on it. I did a time-exposure to get the ripples in the river.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Why do strict churches prosper?

I've been reading up on rational choice theory as applied to religion (two things you won't think go together), and I was reminded of this research.

Rational choice theory assumes that all else being equal, we try to reduce costs and increase benefits. Applied to religion, how would this explain why liberal, mainline churches are losing members when more conservative, evangelical and fundamentalist churches are gaining? This is a puzzle because the latter make more demands on their members than the former, which wouldn't seem to fit with a rational choice perspective.

The answer? According to Laurence Iannoccone, the answer lies with free-riders. Free-riders are people who enjoy the benefits of something without paying their share of the costs. As a church makes more demands of its members, it loses the half-hearted leaving behind a more vibrant group.

Also, conservative churches tend to forbid some outside activities, and if these activities are fun, and church-goers can't do them, then what goes on in church--the remaining alternatives for them--seems that much better.

Now... if one assumes the existence of a spiritual reality, which I do, there would be other answers as well, but I thought this was an interest exercise in bringing a theory not rooted in religion to religion and getting an interesting answer.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Series on critics of Christianity

Brian Jones has posted a series on the critics of Christianity--including South Park and Late Night talk shows. Interesting reading (posts are in mid-March)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Stuff growing on a tree (pic)

I have no idea what it is, but it looked pretty cool growing on the side of a hemlock tree.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Saturday stuff

What do you get when you cross a GPS unit, a brother with crazy computer skills, and a great day hang gliding? Click here.

Cathy and Floyd took off to Washington D.C. this week, to visit the beloved Uncle Jon. They took the train, from New Haven, and made it there in less time than it would take to drive. The train seemed like a rational way to travel--not too expensive & easy to use. I just drove up to the train station, parked in the loading zone, walked them right to the train. Total time=5 minutes. Much better than all the hassle of getting onto planes.

With just Gus and me at home, I realize that we're the relatively-quiet ones in the family. We spend a lot of time just sitting, reading or on the computer. Things are much more quiet, and much less interesting, with Cathy and Floyd gone.

Congrats to Ray Fowler on his one-year anniversary of blogging.

A former undergrad wrote to update me on her career and to thank me for some of the topics we had covered in class. Wow... how gratifying.

Ben Byerly writing on the real killer in Kenya. I know that I was pretty scared when I was there back in the day.

When mascots go bad

Friday, March 14, 2008

Where to sit in the classroom

One of the fun things to do in sociology is to make empirical generalizations. Sometimes in research we start with an idea or a theory, make a hypothesis, and then collect data to test if our idea is correct. This is deductive research, going from large (abstract idea) to small (collecting data about specific people or situations). Deductive research can be very interesting, because we learn if our ideas hold up in the real world, but I don’t think that it’s as fun as inductive research (and as I am aging—about a year annually—I am placing more weight on research being fun).

Sometimes when we enter a situation, even if we don’t know anything about it, we start noticing things. We notice if there are patterns to peoples’ behavior. From these patterns, we create larger explanations about how the social world works. This is inductive because we start with the smaller observation, and from it we build explanations about the larger social world.

Here’s a simple example of how to create empirical generalizations. In my social research methods class, I asked my students why they sat where they did. It clip_image002[5]was a reasonable question because the class itself has about 100 chairs, but there are only 50 students, so they had some choice in where they sat.

After talking for about it for about 10 minutes, we came up with the following ways that students decided where to sit.

1) Look for a friend. When you walk into the classroom, first look for someone that you know reasonably well and feel positively toward and sit next to them if there’s an available seat nearby. Or, if you’re really close, see if they’ll move so that you can sit next to them. Don’t sit next to them if you know them well but feel negatively toward them (e.g., an enemy). Also, don’t sit next to them, at least too conspicuously, if you feel positively but don’t know them (e.g., you’re attracted to a stranger).

2) Figure out how close to the front of the room you like to be. If you’re right up front, you catch everything that is going on, but it does make it difficult to sleep, text message, or talk with your friends. If you want to goof around a bit, maybe sit in the back.

3) Find a comfortable seat. Classroom seating is usually pretty tight, with the seats being crammed together—just like economy seating on an airplane. The best seats are those on the aisle. Once class starts, students in the aisle seats can stretch out their legs more than those in the interior seats. The first students to arrive in the class tend to take the aisle seats, and as a result the students arriving later have to step past them to get to the middle seats.

clip_image0044) Keep an empty seat between you and others (unless you know them). When at all possible, pick a seat that has empty seats on both sides. Seating directly next to someone invades their personal space, and it gives you less room as well.

5) Sit in same area each time. Once you find a suitable seat, try to sit in it, or near it, every class period. This way you get the best seat for you each time, and you don’t really have to think about it. Of course, you may have to change if someone is sitting too close to that seat.

We came up with some other factors that might be incorporated, such as left-handed desks for left-handed students and not sitting directly behind people, especially if they are tall, but the five criteria listed above represented the main decisions made by the students.

Because students follow these criteria, when I as a professor look out on a classroom, I see alternate seating with only friends sitting next to each other. The aisle seats are always taken. Also, since students tend to sit in the same area each time, I learn to recognize them in


part by where they sit. In fact, on test days, when I assign random seating, I have trouble recognizing all of my students.

These seating rules are strong enough that they represent social norms, and it can be considered deviant to violate them. For example, if you have friends in a class, but you go sit by yourself, they would probably be upset. Likewise, if there are plenty of empty seats, but you pick one right next to someone, they may take offense.

Obviously where to sit in classrooms is a relatively minor issue in the grand scheme of things. Still, it represents a highly structured social interaction, demonstrating the reach of social norms into every aspect of our lives.

Originally posted on

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The modern apology

In the news this week, moral crusader Governor Spitzer was caught frequenting very expensive call girls. Amidst this, he offered the prototypic modern apology: "I have ... failed to live up to the standard I expected of myself."

This type of apology has both practical & theological implications.

Practically, it's a great way to get out of trouble and still look good. Basically, there's nothing wrong with the person, in fact they should be praised for having such high ideals, they just didn't quite achieve them--like one doesn't quite make a new year's resolution. Think of how useful this is:

When I mess up at home & with the family (a fairly frequent occurrence): "I'm sorry that I did not live up to my standard of being a fabulous, wonderful and all around outstanding husband and father."

When I forget or am late doing delivering on an obligation at work (again not infrequent): "I didn't live up to my own expectations of being one of the premier faculty members on campus--an ideal professor and colleague."

Theologically, it's a way of affirming the individual's moral correctness by casting the action as an almost unexpected deviation from an otherwise morally-outstanding life. Basically it reaffirms the person's belief that they are indeed a fine person. "I was, and am, a good person, but somehow this happened." What a wonderfully modern moral sentiment--self-esteem held on to unto the end.

In contrast, Christianity, as I understand it (and that's a big caveat...) holds that we are already a moral mess, have been, will be, and it's only by grace that we can leave it behind. We're always broken, and any good that we manifest is close to miraculous. Basically, the person is bad, and any moral rightness is a gift.

From this perspective, Spitzer would have been more accurate to say: "I am a lying, cheating, morally-bankrupt person who has abused the privileges of my office and the love of my family. I have consciously broken all that is good in my life. I am a fraud, and I need help."

As Christians, we can't get too caught up on condemning Spitzer or others because the same words apply to us as well. Our response to others immorality is "there but for the grace of God go I."

Our response to our own immorality: "duh."

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The ______ sensation Brad Wright

Just got through watching UConn women win the Big East BB Tournament (and they won the regular season too!). That reminded me that every time I read a story about Maya Moore, their amazing freshman (and first ever freshman Big East Player of the Year), the story usually refers to her as "freshman sensation" Maya Moore. Now, I don't begrudge her that title--it's both deserving and accurate--it's just that I think we should all be a sensation of some kind. So.... here's your chance: What kind of sensation are you.

Me? I am wise-cracking-when-he's-bored-in-meetings sensation Brad Wright.


Sunday, March 09, 2008

Steak and South Bend

Okay, I'm out here in South Bend, and it's snowing... (not much, though). I think that I'm spring-break challenged.

On the positive side, I had a great lunch at Steak-and-Ale, a restaurant down the street from Steak-n-Shake (I'm not kidding!). Breakfast at Steak-n-Eggs? A quick bite at Steak-n-Go? (Now I'm kidding). I suppose this comes under the heading of Midwest Restaurants knowing their market.

I'm getting some quality time in with nephews and nieces, though I almost got kicked out of the evening meal for teaching the kids how to do whip-cream shots with the canned whip cream. (Somehow when I did it, my oldest nephew got it all over his face and hair. Oops...)

Steak and Whipped Cream?

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Saturday stuff

My niece, Ashley, has finally got the long sought-after cell phone. There's only one hitch, her parents told her that she had to let her brother Conner use it sometimes. Her solution, showing herself to be a genius--she got a bright pink phone. Her brother hasn't asked to use it once.

Chris Uggen has a wonderful post about a moment in which he realized that his son is becoming an adult.

Cathy had another engagement last night, so she had me lead our Friday night Bible Study. It turned out to be mostly guys there, so we quite a little early to play video games.

I'm going to South Bend tomorrow for part of spring break. Guess I figured that it was warming up too fast here, and I wanted a place that still had snow on the ground.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Women file for divorce twice as often

Ask and you shall receive... In answer to yesterday's question:

"The proportion of divorces initiated by women ranged around 60% for most of the 20th century, and climbed to more than 70% in the late 1960s when no-fault divorce was introduced: so says a just-released study by law professor Margaret Brinig of George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia and Douglas Allen, economist at Vancouver's Simon Fraser University. The researchers undertook one of the largest studies ever on divorce, using 46,000 cases from the four American states that keep statistics on which partner initiates the action. In addition to women filing twice as often, the researchers found, they are more likely to instigate separations and marriage break ups."

Thank you Larry!

This doesn't address the religion question, but it's still very interesting.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Who files for divorce most often?

A reader of this blog e-mailed me with this question, and I thought I would turn it over to you the readers:

"I heard that 80-90% of divorces in the church are filed by women... do you have any idea if this is true?"

Does anyone know?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Brad Wright--talking head

The Reveal team at Willow Creek church has posted the podcast of my interview with them last month. Here.

Watching it, I'm reminded of what terrifically kind, sincere people they are--even if I still think that they over-interpreted their data a good bit.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Suffering and deconversion

I listened to a wonderful talk over the weekend by Jeff Arthurs, a professor up at Gordon-Conwell Seminary. In it, he addressed the issue of suffering from a theological issue. Obviously, this is a classic issue in both theology and philosophy, and there is much that can be said about it. Still, I found his remarks quite useful.

Besides a personal interest in understanding the issue, I was interested in what he had to say because this issue--why do people suffer--came up a lot in our studies of deconversion. A number of the respondents said they left the faith in part because they couldn't understand why innocent people suffered.

Though he didn't use this language, Arthurs cast the difficulty of this issue in terms of cognitive balance, and this perspective highlights why people would leave Christianity due to this issue.

Arthurs identified four simultaneously-true propositions about Christianity & suffering:

1) God exists
2) God is powerful
3) God is loving
4) Suffering sometimes happens to innocent people

Taken together, these statements are cognitively imbalanced. I.e., it's hard to know how all four can be true. But... take any one of them away, and they become balanced. To illustrate,

Drop #1--People think that God is powerful and loving, but in reality God does not exist, and that is why there is suffering in the world. This is the logic used by some of the deconverts.

Drop #2--God may exist and be loving, but if God is unable to prevent suffering, then innocent people will suffer.

Drop #3--God may be powerful indeed, but if God doesn't truly love people, then God wouldn't protect the innocent from suffering. This was another form of logic we found we deconversion--basically: Why should I follow a God who doesn't take care of people.

Drop #4--Maybe innocent suffering doesn't really exist. Maybe the suffering people were really not innocent, and somehow they deserved it. (E.g., Gays "deserving" AIDS). Or... maybe suffering doesn't really exist--it's an illusion.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Saturday stuff

The big news around here-my oldest son Gus is now bald. He did it for the last swim meet of the season, and initially he and his freshman friends didn't want to, but the seniors, shall we say, insisted. Apparently one of the freshmen ran away, but the seniors chased him down and carried him back to the clippers. I haven't seen his bare head since he was a baby--kind of interesting.

As an act of faith that spring is coming, I got my bicycle tuned up & I am starting to watch landscaping how-to shows. (They are too painful in the middle of winter).

My youngest son, Floyd, has started playing a video game which features cartoon characters and bad guys who are CEOs and lawyers. Needless to say, I let him play that one extra--good learning in life!

On this game Floyd needs to know his points of the compass. He was having trouble, but then Gus intervened with a mnemonic--Never Eat Soggy Waffles. Hasn't been forgotten since.

One of Gus' friends is now welcome in our house anytime. He was talking to Gus about his father's hair loss, and he said "your Dad has lots of hair--he'll never go bald." A statement far more appreciated than true.

A site I check a lot for the primaries.