Saturday, February 24, 2007

Unitarians Build a Church for Dragons

In the virtual world Second Life, Unitarian-Universalists have built a real church. Some of the regular congregants are human, and some are not. Bizarre Berry, the creator of First U-U Church of Second Life, wanted to create a real congregation, not just a show building. Catherine Cleanslate, a U-U minister in the real world, sees participation in the Second Life church part of her ministry of "radical welcome."

Other religious groups are colonizing Second Life, but FUUCSL seems to be the only regular congregation so far. Second Life seems made for U-Us, as both have a strong "do your own thing" ideology.

I was trying to imagine what First Presbyterian Church of SL would be like. I don't think it would fly. The world of permanent self-invention – the world of Catherine Cleanslate and those like her – is not really suited for the understanding of the world as fallen and in need of redemption.

And, of course, theological disagreement and moral uplift would not really be in the Second Life spirit. One of big draws of SL, I gather, are the sex clubs. I expect that a crusade to clean up the virtual red light district would seem to strike at the very soul of Second Life.

Second Life jihad, anyone?

Friday, February 23, 2007

A Market Solution to the Asian Bride Shortage

In many Asian countries there is a growing shortage of women. Years of favoring boys and disposing of girls are catching up with them. In South Korea, a market has sprung up in the past few years to find foreign brides for South Korean bachelors (my thanks to regular reader D-rew for this New York Times story). At first the marriage brokers went to ethnic Korean communities in China. Now, though, the brokers are arranging quick marriages further afield. This year's favored source for brides is Vietnam. South Korea is more prosperous than Vietnam, at least temporarily, and the "Korean Wave" of pop culture has made South Korea seem a good place to live.

Until recently this marriage market was unregulated. After a series of scandals involving lies and abuse by brokers and husbands, the Korea government has begun to set some rules, and the etiquette of the market has weeded out some of the bad actors. This market evolves very quickly – Vietnam is getting richer, and may dry up as a source of brides a few years hence. What first struck me about this development is that it is a market solution to a market problem. It was the cumulative effect of many individual actions that created the women shortage in the first place, creating a market that entrepreneurial brokers can fill. To be sure, some rural governments in Korea are sponsoring marriage tours to Vietnam, but they did not make the arrangements in the first place.

I can also see a few unintended positive consequences that might come from this international marriage market. Many Asian nations have exaggerated ideas of their own "racial purity," which they make central to their national identity. South Korea is no exception to this self image. Yet in 2005, 14% of South Korean marriages involved foreigners, up from 4% just five years earlier. Over time, mixing populations that way would undermine the idea that racial purity is essential to national identity – or even that it is ever was very prevalent. A second possible silver lining of Vietnamese women living and prospering in South Korea is that their frequent communications home might spur the Vietnamese people to press for democracy to go along with their increasing capitalist prosperity.

The Asian women shortage is due to the worst kind of sexist discrimination, devaluing of girls, and even deliberate killing. I find it encouraging to think, therefore, that there might be an unexpected silver lining or two to this dark cloud.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The North Carolina YouTube Breakup

The phenomenon of the moment on YouTube is the breakup of Ryan Burke and Mindy Moorman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Burke found out Moorman was cheating, and set up a public humiliation for her. The innovation is that he advertised it ahead of time on Facebook, and hundreds of people showed up. She came to the Pit, a public square at the university, for a "surprise." An a capella group serenaded her with a somewhat odd choice of song (the Dixie Chick's "I'm Not Ready to Make Nice"). Then he dumped her. She, taken aback, responds with a torrent of condescension. The crowd eggs them on for nearly ten minutes. He walks away first.

There has been some suspicion that the whole thing was staged by both of them. It doesn't look that way to me. I think he is surprised at how much publicity there has been.

I was struck by how they attacked one another. In that sense (and only in that sense) it does not much matter whether her response was spontaneous or scripted. The particular insults they, and the audience, chose were revealing. It is very hard to hear what they are saying, but he appears to call her a slut. At one point the crowd chants "Slut! Slut! Slut!" She responds by asking him if he is gay, asserting that "I am a woman and I have needs," and suggesting that he has a small penis. The crowd then chants "Small penis! Small penis!"

His position is that if she had sexual relations with another man, she deserved whatever humiliation he could think of. He appears to have no self-knowledge or critical reflection. Her response is also entirely in sexual terms. Neither of them makes reference to any deeper aspect of their relationship – no emotional connection, no intellectual engagement, not even the material gifts they gave one another. And no love.

Ryan Burke is clearly an ass. She is no prize, either. What is most striking to me about the whole spectacle, though, is that their entire relationship seems to be sexual, and they have no qualms about parading that in public.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

May the Wilberforce Be With You

The film "Amazing Grace" opens in two days. I was favored to see a preview last week. I commend the film highly. The ads suggest that the movie is about the song, but it isn't. The film is about the long struggle of William Wilberforce to end the slave trade in Britain. Friday, the day the film opens, is the 200th anniversary of the crucial vote in Parliament.

Let me say a bit about the movie first. Ioan Gruffudd does a pretty good job as Wilberforce. There is also a courtship story in the middle with a gorgeous Romala Garai as the eventual Mrs. Wilberforce. I thought the best performance came from Benedict Cumerbatch as Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, friend and close ally of Wilberforce's. Bristol Bay Productions made the film, following "Ray" and "The Chronicles of Narnia." Bristol Bay is not a Christian company, but, as we were told at the preview, it is full of Christians, and they have a mission to make decent films about moral triumph. "Amazing Grace" was one of the stories that Bristol Bay was created to make.

William Wilberforce is a hero of evangelical politics. I think he is all but unknown in this country due to his "right" religion and his "left" politics. He falls between the stools of American ideological polarization, which is a double pity – he should be a hero to both sides, and the sides shouldn't be divided into these camps, anyway. I think Wilberforce exemplifies the kind of "God's Politics" that Jim Wallis has in mind in the book of that title.

I had long wondered why it took more than twenty years for Wilberforce and the other abolitionists to succeed. What derailed the movement toward abolition for years was the French Revolution, and the subsequent war with France. Though there was no logical connection between the two, the slave powers succeeded in painting abolition as sedition, because abolitionists were critical of existing government policy in wartime.

"Amazing Grace" is not a great movie, but it is quite good. It is, though, the best movie about a great story, and a great model for religious politics today. I will be going with a colleague to opening night, taking vanloads of family and students. I urge you all to see it, too.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Natural Selection Speed Dating

This one writes itself. had a story about a special speed dating event in New York. The rules were not clearly specified on camera, but it appears that the women had to be young and beautiful, based on a judging panel's estimate of their photographs. The men had to have a net worth of a million dollars and (or?) income of at least $200,000 per year, with a higher minimum for older men.

Yes, it really was called Natural Selection Speed Dating. Paula Zahn's summary: "Deep cleavage meets deep pockets."

The organizer said they are planning a follow-up speed dating event, Sugar Mamas and Boy Toys.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Curriculum is the Untapped "Identity" Resource

I missed you all yesterday, as I was on a retreat with college students and colleagues. The topic was that current college favorite, "identity." We talked about our personal identities, our group identities, the identity of the stereotypical Centre student, and how these all connected. Students talked quite a bit about how their various identities shaped who ate together, who played together, who joined which social groups together.

Near the end of the retreat I as struck by the fact that almost nothing had been said about the curriculum. Yet as I reflected on my own college experience, what I learned in class actually had as deep an effect on me as any social experience I had in college. In fact, the best social experiences were based on talking about ideas that we had studied in class. In the last class I taught before the retreat, two newlywed alumni came back to talk about marriage. Again and again they came back to how things they had learned in their classes applied to their new life and work.

One of my projects over the past few years has been to write a history of the college. I was impressed with how long Centre has had a distinctive identity, and shaped students in a distinctive way. Many factors go into that identity, but the curriculum always holds its own as a shaping force.

When we think about how our teaching shapes lives, the faculty are comfortable with the idea that we are making "critical thinkers." When we start talking about our teaching making good citizens, we get more nervous. To think that the curriculum should help make students into more virtuous people is to invite resistance. Yet the alumni attest it all the time.

The curriculum does shape student identity, whether we intend it or not. I think we should intend it, and choose our curriculum accordingly.