Sunday, December 2, 2012

Rants on Construction

I haven't written anything about construction for a while, and the work I've been doing on a house for ourselves has reminded me of some of my old rants that have built up over the years.  So I've decided to dump them here for whoever may find them.

Unlike a lot of construction people, I have nothing particular against do-it-yourselfers, mainly because that is how I started out.  All we could afford in a house was a "fixer-upper" and we could not afford to hire the fixing.  I didn't know much when we started, but a combination of boning up on how to do what needed doing and practice with the tools eventually put me in a new line of work.

One of the things I have learned over these years is that there is not much in new construction or in remodeling that could be called "rocket science"--and in fact, if there was, most of the people in the field would have to find another way to make a living.  And the work they do is not secret lore that you cannot find anywhere.  The information is out there if you dig around--in fact, thanks to the Internet, it is more accessible than ever.

 One of the biggest problems in homebuilding is that most of the people on the jobsite do not understand any trade but their own, and a surprising number of them don't even know as much as they should about their own trade.  Here's a quote from Fine Homebuilding from November 2007:  "As an electrical contractor, I've hired many union and nonunion electricians over the years, and most were horribly misinformed about the electrical trade and the building codes."  And I would add that the electricians are not any worse than the other trades.  Multiply that by all the different trades that work on any given house, and the potential for problems in new houses is even worse than in cars.

But aren't these people licensed for their trade?  Well, that varies-- from trade to trade, and from location to location--as to what "licensing" means.  Some trades are not licensed at all (painters, drywallers, flooring installers, for just a few).  Framing carpenters are almost never licensed (and maybe should be).  Mostly, the mechanical trades--plumbing, electrical, and heating--are "licensed".  But that may only mean the "contractor of record" (the guy whose name is on the truck) has a license to be in that trade; it is entirely possible that the guy on the site is not licensed at all, and unless the company is small, the license holder may never show his face on that particular job! 

All too often, "licensing" serves mainly to limit entry to the field, and mainly benefits the established contractors.  (And the local government that collects the license fees.)  And since entry is limited, there is less competition, and homeowners pay higher prices to get their work done.  And in some places I have worked, electricians were not licensed by the local government--if they claimed to have a "license" it came from the electricians' union.

I mentioned above that most construction workers don't know much about any trade but their own.  This is a continuing source of problems in building houses, starting with the framers:  They don't know what the drywallers need for backing for the sheetrock, for one example.  So, the drywallers and the trim carpenters hate the framers, because the shortcuts the framers take make things harder for the later trades.  Then the electricians and plumbers come in; not understanding framing, they make holes in the framing for their work that may weaken the structure later, if in the wrong place or too large.

To add to all of this, most of the people I've known in construction were trying to go through their whole working career doing the things they learned at the beginning.  It is like pulling teeth to get them to learn anything new.  All too many of them can't make heads or tails of written instructions that come with a product that's new to them.  That's a major reason why there has been so little change in the way houses are built.

But what about the building inspectors, the government employees who are supposed to check the work?  Again, that varies from place to place.  I know of rural areas that had no county inspectors as late as 1990, and there may still be some left.  In one area where I worked, the county inspectors were paid the same hourly wage as a carpenter's helper--and they were supposed to know everything in construction?  They did not, and an awful lot got by them.  They seemed to know a few things to look for, and got drilled on the latest code changes.  But if you had a technical question up front, you had to go in and talk to the superintendent, the only man in the department who really knew much.  And if you wanted to slip something through, just schedule the inspection for a Friday, the busiest day of the week--everybody wanted their inspections on Friday!  To be fair, I have seen some good inspectors, mostly in urban areas.  The locality where I learned wiring had hired a private firm to handle electrical inspections for the entire county, and they were very good at it; and if you had a question about how to resolve a problem, you could call early in the morning before they left for their rounds and work it out in advance.  But in practice, a lot of work was done that they never saw.  As the first one I met said to me, "The way the law is written, if you replace one outlet, you're supposed to call us in to inspect it--we know how many of those we see."  He understood that few people would call and pay $15 (back then) if they replaced a 50 cent outlet.

The real key, whether you are a "pro" (which all too often just means someone is dumb enough to pay you for doing it) or a "do-it-yourself" person:  take the trouble to learn what you are doing before you dig in.  The information is out there for 95-99% of what gets done on a house.  I have seen (and had to clean up after) dumb things done by both homeowners and professional tradespeople.  So do your homework.  Learn how to do it right--the information is out there.  And then do a good job on whatever it is.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Return to Red River

In the archives of the first year of this blog there is a post on "Monuments" in which I mention the Red River Meeting House, the site where the Second Great Awakening began in what was then the American West in 1800.  We had quit attending their annual commemorative event, in part for the reasons mentioned in that post, in part because we had moved farther away, and in part because of time pressures.

But this year my wife and I went back down, taking a weekend vacation after a year in which we've mostly been on the fast track.  It was restful (The grounds still seem a peaceful place; I've heard it is like that at Cane Ridge, where an even larger revival meeting took place the following year, but I've never been there).

The grounds looked much the same:  the gravestones in the cemetery are maybe in a little worse shape, the log replica "meeting house" still stands but needs work.  But the people who came had largely changed.  Two couples among the locals who put the event on were still there, but of the historical re-enactors who used to attend, only two of our old friends were there with us.  The historical camp was still about the same size, but with a whole new crew of people.  On the other hand, the modern camp was larger, and there were a lot of small children.

But the bigger change was in the attitude of those who were there.  I came away with the impression that these folks are no longer content with polishing the monument:  They have moved beyond that and are praying for the fire to fall again, not just in Logan County, Kentucky, but on the country as a whole.  And I am glad to see it.  The group included people from Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, Illinois, and maybe some from farther away at times.  And a number of Christian groups were represented as well.

The culmination came on Saturday evening, at the end of the night's service.  The message was from one of the campers, not a professional preacher.  At the end there was an invitation to pray for the needs of some of the attendees.  This went on for a while (some in the area have been hard hit by the economic conditions the last few years).  Then it shifted into prayer for our country and for a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit--not just in this place, but all over our land.

There had been some recounting of the history of this place earlier in the evening.  People in the area back then had seen the need in their locality, and had made a covenant to pray at sunrise and sunset for a year for their neighborhood.  As it turned out, they prayed for three years.  And then, at a scheduled communion service, with no special emphasis and no big-name outside speaker brought in, the fire of revival fell.  And lives, and the region, were changed.  As the Book says, "This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes."

And historically, this is how revival happens.  Major outpourings are not led by popes, archbishops, and denominational executives.  They are sparked by little people that nobody had heard of before.  The "Big Men in the Brotherhood" are always so busy doing BMITB-type things that they don't respond when God wants to do something, so He uses nobodies who are available.  And when empowered by Him, they change the world, not because of who they are, but because of Who is with them.

There was some talk that Saturday night of "organizing" the feelings present, of making lists and signing papers, of "accountability" and so on, but it did not go far.  And I'm glad it didn't.  The important thing is not creating some kind of organization to pray for revival, but to just pray for revival!  It is good to know that there are others out there who also care and are praying; but trying to organize it will just turn into a substitute for praying.  We need real prayer and real revival, not some organizational substitute (remember, a substitute is something they try to give you in place of the real thing!).

So, I'm praying, and I know there are others doing so as well.  All who want to join in are welcome.  If anyone wants to tell us they're joining us in this, that's okay; if you pray without telling us, that's okay too; because the real point is the praying, not telling other people what we're doing.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Some Bitter Fruit

The issue has faded off the front pages and slogged into the courtrooms now--the Obama administration's attempt to force religious employers to pay for medical insurance for their employees that includes contraception and abortion coverage.  The only "religious exemption" to be allowed was for actual houses of worship themselves; if a religious group has hospitals, schools, universities or other charitable activities, they were to be outside the exemption.  There was a lot of uproar, and the spectacle of the Southern Baptist Convention siding with the Roman Catholic Church against the Federal Government.  The uproar has quieted down, but the lawsuits have been filed.  One small business even persuaded a judge to grant an injunction against the rule being applied to their operation--something that usually only happens if the judge thinks the plaintiff has a chance of winning his case.

But over time, this to-do reminded me of something I wrote almost exactly five years ago.  It started as a comment on my online friend Steve Sensenig's "Theological Musings" blog.  Steve thought enough of my comment to re-post it as a guest post.  I re-copied it to my own blog as well:   For those who might want to see the original extensive discussion, it's here:

For those who would prefer the quick version, I was pointing out a dichotomy that has existed in Christianity for most of its history.  Is Christianity (a) a set of activities engaged in on Sunday morning, led by official staff with a set of tenets enforced by the staff, or it is (b) a way of living, 24/7/365, in relationship with God and with each other.  Some might say it is both, but I pointed out five years ago that it is not a stable symbiosis--over time, (a) crowds out (b).  In fact, thinking about it now, I would add that in times when (a) dominates, the church is dull, boring, and what we might call "dead"--as well as having problems with internal corruption (pastoral adultery scandals among the Pentacostals and charismatics, a la Bakker, Swaggert, et al., pedophilia scandals in the Roman Catholic church, financial scandals among the Eastern Orthodox--and that's just the modern stuff, history is full of it!).  And in times of renewal and revival, (b) comes to the fore:  people begin to focus on applying Christianity to their daily lives and to the society they live in.  The abolition of slavery in Great Britain and its possessions was one result of this; the growth of abolitionist sentiment in the United States was likewise a result of the early 19th century revivals, and the failure of those revivals to penetrate as far in the Deep South as they did in the North and Midwest was a major cause of the Civil War.  (At Red River Meeting House, the beginning of the Second Great Awakening and the Camp Meeting movement in 1800, attendees saw the Holy Spirit falling on blacks as well as whites and concluded that black people did have souls--contrary to what some southern preachers were teaching--and that slavery was wrong.  That area, on the Kentucky-Tennessee border, became an anti-slavery stronghold, and may well have been a factor in Kentucky not joining the Confederacy.  If that revival had spread farther south as well as to the north, the Civil War might have been avoidable.)

Back to the present day:  It came to me that the administration's mandate does make some sense if religion is limited to what you do inside a building on Sunday morning or some other specified time, and is not expected to have any real influence on what you do the rest of the week.  So it is a result of, a "fruit" to use a Biblical term, of the (a) view of Christianity.  But the mandate is a total rejection of (b), claiming to override any place for Christian principles in the workplace or the health insurance market.  So this mandate controversy is a debate over the real nature of Christianity, not just what some in the government think it is, but what it ought to be, and to some extent, who gets to decide?   The fate of real religious freedom in this country hangs in the balance.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Matter of Evidence: Thoughts for Easter

No, the last post was not an April Fool's joke.  I did not like writing it, but it is a part of how I got to where I am today.  But I do have a post for Easter Sunday.  In the past week Andrew Sullivan, a much more known blogger than I am, wrote about the need to get back to Jesus--the real Jesus, not what the church has made of him.  He cited Thomas Jefferson's attempt to cut out all the parts of the New Testament that he thought did not belong there.  But in fact, this actually impedes finding out the truth about Jesus.

I studied under a professor who had done a master's degree thesis on the comparison of the evidence for Jesus of Nazareth and Alexander the Great.  He gave a lecture on that topic every year in his class on New Testament Introduction.  I do not have a copy of his thesis, nor his footnotes, but I am going to give a brief overview of the matter here.

Alexander lived in the fourth century B.C. and Jesus was on earth in the first century A.D.  Nobody now living on the earth was present in either period, and there are no scientific "experiments" that can be performed to determine what happened back then, so all we can go by is the historical evidence.  And this primarily means the written evidence; archeology is limited to study of artifacts that survive to modern times, and is mostly about general conditions, not specific individuals.  So let's look at some of the written evidence.

For Jesus, the primary sources on His life are the four Gospels:  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  The traditions of the early church say that Mark wrote first and John wrote last.  Of the four, Matthew and John were part of the inner group of Jesus' disciples, "the Twelve."   They were eyewitnesses of what happened.  Mark was apparently younger; he may have witnessed some of the events he recorded, but he is also named as an associate of Peter, another of the Twelve, and could have learned from him as an eyewitness like Matthew and John.  Luke was a Gentile rather than a Jew, and became a Christian later than the others, but his travels with Paul (including to Jerusalem) would have made it possible for him to access the eyewitnesses also.

For Alexander, there were first-hand accounts written after his death, including one by Ptolemy, one of his generals who ended up ruling Egypt. But none of those eyewitness accounts have survived to the present time.  Even the second-hand accounts that relied on those eyewitnesses have not survived.  All that we have about Alexander the Great is third- and fourth-hand accounts based on the earlier reports. One that some scholars consider the best is Arrian, a Greco-Roman historian from the second century A.D. (almost 500 years after Alexander's death!)

What about the quality of the work in passing on these accounts?  There was no printing press, so all copies had to be handwritten by scribes.  How accurate were those scribes, and how much did survive?  On Alexander, it is pretty bleak: what we have is a small number of manuscripts; the earliest date from the Middle Ages, hundreds of years later than Arrian's writing and even farther from Alexander's day.

For the Gospels, we do not have the originals, the "autographs" as scholars call them.  But we do have literally thousands of manuscripts of the Greek New Testament accumulated over the centuries before printing started.  There are complete or nearly complete New Testaments from the 300s, and portions and fragments that are even older.  It has been fashionable in some circles for the last couple of hundred years to claim that the Gospels were not eyewitness accounts, but were composed a couple of hundred years later, and incorporated myths and legends that had grown up by then.  This is one area where the archeologists have dug the ground out from under their feet:  years ago a papyrus fragment containing part of John's Gospel was found in Egypt.  It was dated to about 125 A.D., within fifty years of the traditional date of its writing, and on the opposite side of the Mediterranean Sea from where John wrote.  And in the last couple of months news leaked out that a fragment of Mark's  Gospel has been found that dates to the first century!  The "hundreds of years later" claim does not hold water.

But how good were those scribes at copying accurately?  Actually, very good.  There is a science called Textual Criticism that looks at these manuscripts, comparing them to each other, looking for the scribal errors and variations.  They can often tell which later manuscript was copied as part of a chain going back to a specific one of the oldest ones, because the variations got passed on down the chain.  But these variations do not add up to much.  Out of the entire New Testament, all the disputed and questionable passages put together add up to about half a page--that's all!  And no major doctrine of the New Testament is affected by those questionable passages.

The truth is, the church scribes were very accurate, all things considered.  What they were doing was an important part of their faith, and they took pains to do it right.  The Jewish scribes were just as good:  one of the results from study of the Dead Sea Scrolls was how little difference there was between the Scrolls and the later Hebrew copies of the Old Testament.

As for the claim that "myths and legends" grew up and were incorporated into the Gospels, the archeological evidence now has cut the available time too short; the evidence is too strong that all four Gospels were written within the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses (In I Corinthians Paul wrote that there were 500 hundred people who saw the Risen Christ at one incident, and most of them were still alive when he wrote that).

The other evidence is in the writing style of the Gospels themselves:  They do not read like "myths and legends," but like matter-of-fact reportage.  In a paper delivered at Cambridge University in 1959, C. S. Lewis (his academic field was medieval literature) wrote about John chapter 8:
"I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life.  I know what they are like.  I know that not one of them is like this.  Of this text there are only two possible views.  Either this is reportage--though it no doubt may contain errors--pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell [companion and biographer of Samuel Johnson in the 1700s].  Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative.  If it is untrue, it must be narrative of that kind.  The reader who doesn't see this has simply not learned to read."

From "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism" published in "The Seeing Eye" (1967) and later in "Christian Reflections" in 1994.

We have better evidence for the life and actions of Jesus of Nazareth than we do for Alexander the Great, or nearly any other figure of ancient history.  Some people may not like the evidence, or the conclusions it leads to.  But that is another issue.  But we live in the real world, not anyone's fantasy world, and sooner or later we must face up to The God Who Is There rather than the god we wish was there.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

One Redneck's Politics, Part 4: Liberal Theology

I referred to the idea of this post earlier, and finally found some time to get it out of my system.  It is definitely part of the reason I am no longer the liberal I was brought up to be.  My college degree is in theology, along with Christian Education.  And yes, I studied both conservative and liberal theological ideas. (A lot of the liberal seminaries only teach the liberal views, mentioning conservative views only to mock them.)

At first glance, it might look like there is a sort of spectrum, with Liberal at one end and Conservative at the other, and individual people scattered out all along the line.  And it often appears that way.  But the real problem is, that "spectrum" is not all Christianity.

Liberal theology began in Europe in the 1700s in the universities and clergy of the state-supported "established" churches (the kind of thing the framers of our Bill of Rights intended to avoid).  It was made possible by the institution of the professional clergy--men who made their living from the church and often had no clue how to make a living any other way.  And from the very beginning there was an inherent dishonesty at its very core.  There have always been people who cease to believe in Christianity; it even happens to pastors and other church leaders.  Often such people walk away from the church and find other ways to make a living.  I am saddened on behalf of such people, but I do not blame them for what they do; at least they have some integrity left.  But those who started and maintained liberal theology left the beliefs of Christianity, and yet stayed in the professional ministry, stayed in the seminary faculties, stayed in the denominational organization--and lived a lie the whole time.  In the local church, they used the same vocabulary as true believers but with their own definitions, different from those of historic Christianity.  Among themselves, they developed new ideas about the origin of the Bible--all theories spun out of thin air, with no historical evidence to back anything up--and about everything based on the Bible.  But they learned to be careful to hide their real beliefs, or lack of them, in public until they gained control.  And overall, their beliefs were not the historic doctrines of Christianity.

And gradually, they did gain control of denominations, colleges and seminaries.  Francis A. Schaeffer wrote about what had happened in the Northern Presbyterian denomination:  In the 1890s, a professor at Union Theological Seminary was "defrocked" (officially put out of the ministry, his ordination revoked) for teaching liberal theology.  But by the 1930s, J. Gresham Machen, one of the leading conservative theologians, was defrocked for being a conservative.  The liberals had gained control of the denominational organization, and tightened that control after many conservatives left and formed a new Presbyterian body.

By the 1930s, all of what were called the "mainline" Protestant denominations were controlled by those who held to liberal theology.  These included the Northern Presbyterians (now called the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. since merging with the Southern Presbyterians), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptists, the United Methodists, the Congregational-Christian Church (result of a merger between the Congregationalists, descended from the New England Puritans, and another group and now part of the United Church of Christ), the Evangelical Lutheran Church (the largest Lutheran body at that time).  By the 1950s, a new denomination joined them--the Disciples of Christ, split off from the independent Christian Churches, a loose group with no denominational structure (the liberals proceeded to set one up).

Now, the control is not absolute and complete, especially at the local level. Even in the 1950s, often the members of the congregation were more conservative than their pastors.  And individual congregations often were quite conservative and taught historic Christian doctrine locally.  And not all pastors were completely liberal.  I can remember when Don Wildmon, a Methodist minister, began to speak out on moral issues, he was upset that the press labeled him a "fundamentalist," a term from the '30s.  He very likely held some liberal views on the Bible and theology, but was still morally conservative.  But such people are now in the minority in these denominations and have little clout beyond the local level.

But what does all this have to do with politics?  Well, liberal churchmen and liberal politicians have worked together for the past century in this country.  There was a Religious Left long before anyone ever heard of a Religious Right in the '80s.  The clergy of the liberal churches pushed for the welfare state from the beginning, and for every liberal cause since.  And especially in the early years of the twentieth century, the backing of the pastors and denominations gave credibility to the plans of the liberal politicians.

The question boils down to, if a liberal pastor can stand up and lead his congregation in the Apostles' Creed or other historic statement of faith and not mean it--what does that imply about a liberal politician who is elected to office and takes an oath to uphold the Constitution?  Can we trust him, if we can't trust his pastor?