Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Resurrection and Radical Politics

I know new visitor Steven Carr will be frustrated with me for quoting favorably Anglican Bishop Nicholas Thomas Wright, but I want to do so to bring out what struck me more than anything as I approached the end of his dense analysis (with apologies beforehand for the length):
o imply that Jesus 'went to heaven when he died', or that he is now simply a spiritual presence, and to suppose that such ideas exhaust the referntial meaning of 'Jesus was raised from the dead', is . . . to cut the nerve of the social, cultural and political critique [inherent within the reusrrection]. Death is the ultimate weapon of the tryant; resurrection does not make a covenant with death, it overthrows it. . . . No tyrant is threatened by Jesus going to heaven, leaving his body in a tomb. No governments face the authentic Christian challenge when the church's social preaching tries to base itself in Jesus' teaching, detached from the central and energizing fact of his resurrection . . .

No wonder the Herods, the Caesars and the Sadducees of this world, ancient and modern, were and are eager to rule out all possibility of actual resurrection. They are, after all, staking a counter-claim on the real world. It is the real world that the tyrants and bullies (including intellectual and cultural tyrants and bullies) try to rule by force, only to discover that in order to do so they have to quash all rumours of resurrection, rumours that would imply that their greatest weapons, death and deconstruction, are not after all omnipotent.

Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, pp. 730-731, 737.

At the heart of the Christian message, then, is this kernel that is nothing less than a gauntlet thrown down before any power that challenges the faith. Death no longer has any power; power, indeed, no longer has any power, rather powerlessness is now the way to live a truly human life. Not obsequiousness, not surrender. Never surrender. Just . . . a refusal to accept the rules of the game as the powers that be determine them to be.

I like that. I like that a whole lot. It isn't for everyone. It may not even be credible to most people. Particle physics isn't credible to most people, either, even though our computers run on the basis of theories few people grasp with anything beyond a child's comprehension, so comprehensibility is hardly an issue in the running of our daily life. I doubt even Wright grasps the implication of what he has written; this is a challenge even so powerful, so all encompassing, and so freeing as to be beyond our ordinary understanding. We can sit and argue over all sorts of things (be "nitpicky", if you like), but this truth is no less true for any argument one way or another, because it is a lived truth, and those are always the best truths.

Andrew Greeley and Theological Paternalism

Over at Faith in Public comes this piece which discusses a recent symposium at a meeting of the American Academy of Religion in which Andrew Greeley displayed a remarkably paternalistic attitude toward developing theologies outside Europe. This is nothing new; in the Foreword to the 20th anniversary edition of his classic book A Black Theology of Liberation, James Cone noted that Greeley called Cone's book an example of "Nazi theology". That is hardly surprising; the evident anger in COne's work is a refreshing wind blowing through the aridity of scholarly theology. The text was not written for Greeley, and not even for me. It was a way of doing theology that grew out of the experience of being a person of color in a soceity dominated by white supremacy. It is a good example, however, of how the Roman Catholic Church has responded to indigenous theologies outside Europe in the last third of the 20th century. From Latin America through Africa and into Asia, theology has become a part of a broader struggle for life - it is a real life-and-death matter for many. Just ask Oscar Romero. Oops, can't do it, because he was gunned down by death squads trained by American advisors while saying mass.

Leonardo Boff was a Brazilian theologian and Franciscan brother. Threatened by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Boff continued to publish and was eventually forced out of the order and later left the priesthood. Other liberation theologians were similarly silenced in the Roman Church. Greeley's attitude - Third World theologians have to "take their ideas from us" (meaning western church leaders) - is a not-very-tame version of the same impulse. That we in the West and North of the world may have something to learn from voices that are vastly different from our own is simply outside the understanding of those who view theology as a settled matter, rather than a living, breathing thing, the result of a community's struggle with being Christian in a world that doesn't value those beliefs and practices.

I have been fortunate to have been exposed - just a bit, I grant you - to a variety of theologians not formed by western culture and society. I have met Gustavo Gonzalez, and had the little saint from Colombia lay his hands on me, a moment I shall never forget. I have drunk deep from the wells of fracno-phone theologian Eboussi Boulaga from Cameroon. Even North American theologian and professor of mine from Wesley Theological Seminary Josiah Young has been an inspiration to me, as he has struggled to find a voice that bridges the cultural rift of Afria and African-America. I have learned from them because their experiences are not mine, yet their faith is deep, their wisdom great, and their insights profound. I have learned, most of all, to do theology from life, not from doctrine and tradition. Theology serves life, as does the Church; we are not the products of the Church, but it is a result of us living and trying to figure it out as we go along.

Let us hope that there are others out there besides Andrew Greeley who can speak for a more humble, more open, and more inclusive vision of the Church as it moves further out into the world.

I can't get the durn link to link. Sorry.

A Short Response to Steven Carr's second comment below

You ask all sorts of questions - about questions N. T. Wright should have or may have or might have or could have asked of the the Bible but did not, and for failing to ask the questions, his work is not to be taken seriously. I find that such a ridiculous proposition on its face i can hardly take it seriously. Wright also didn't ask about the physics or bio-chemistry of resurrection, or what the status of previous relations and relationships were after the resurrection; or if theose who, like Jesus (presumably, according to Christian doctrine) rise and are not ever going to die again, experience time, as time is merely the physical manifestation of the process of entropy; do those who are resurrected feel pain, bleed if cut, feel sexual arousal or grief. There are a whole host of question Wright did not ask, and a whole host of passages in the Bible he did not examine, some of them dealing directly with the topic of resurrection. As his task for the book was to place the Biblical idea of resurrection in both a broader context of the history of that idea, and a narrower context of conflicting ideas on resurrection within first-century Judaism, he didn't ask a whole lot of questions for the quite sensible reason that they weren't pertinent.

I can find fault with all sorts of authors for not answering questions they never set to answer, and may not even have been aware of. Or, maybe, just maybe, I can read an author for what he or she is trying to accomplish and judge the results based upon the authors stated intention (the first chapter of Wright's book on the resurrection is quite long and sets forth very clearly the context in which he is writing and who is dialogue partners are and why; he also setes for th his method and the questions he is persuing). So, yes, I guess it is nitpicking to criticize an author for not doing something that author never intended to do.

I hate repeating myself, but I shall say it again: I do not agree with everything Bishop Wright has written or said. What I appreciate more than anything else is his approach, which is unflinching in the face of so-called rationalist criticisms of Christian doctrine. I also like it because, as I shall explore in a post coming up, he sees certain radical implications in the resurrection that are even more militant than even a modest Anglican Bishop might recognize.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Myth and the Bible

In his comments below, Democracy Lover brings up the whole issue of "myth" in reading the Bible. As he is not up on scripture scholarship, DL may not be aware that 65 years ago a German New Testament scholar named Rudolf Bultmann wrote an article for a German scholarly journal in which he argued that Biblical scholarship would not advance unless a vigorous program of demythologization was undertaken; Bultmann followed his own advice and the rest of his career was spent in a painstaking re-writing of scripture according to the rules he laid out in that 1941 piece. A practicer of what is called form criticism, Bultmann was confident he could separate the "ethical/religious" wheat from the "mythical" chaff through a meticulous culling of each and every scrap of original text; it involves rhetorical and grammatical analysis, comparing choices of words and phrases to figure out which may (or may not) be original and which may (or may not) not be so. This is predicated, of course, on the assumption that the larger chunks that may (or may not) go together constitute whatever was orginally intended by the author, and that the smaller pieces are add-ons. It also assumes that the divisions come up with in this way have any verifiable credibility. While there were many who supported Bultmann's program, the disagreements about what was or was not original text raged for a generation until someone had the brilliant idea that such a program was doomed to failure because what a modern mind may consider dross or irrelevant may have been central to an earlier time; all the presuppositions upon which Bultmann's program crumbled one by one, but the point he wrote about in his original article is still held by many.

My own feeling is this - what is myth? Whose definition of myth do we use? Franklin Fraser's? Joseph Campbell's? Any one of several offered by cultural anthropology? Part of the problem actually doing what Bultmann (and you) suggest is that there is no way to determine beforehand what is myth and what is not. Another difficulty is, to repeat what I said in an earlier post, it is based on the assumption that our own modern world-view is inherently superior to any ancient one. Your comments on advancing scholarship miss the point - Bible scholars are always using actual discoveries of how people lived to understand how people thought and therefore how and why they wrote the way they did. We cannot assume that where there are fundamental disagreements, for example (and one I hardly think matters) in the Biblical accounts of creation, there is a general consensus that the Bible is "wrong" and our modern view is "right". This is only true if you think the people who compiled those stories were writing about science. It is actually a story about God, who God is, and what God wants from this creation. If you ask a text questions it was never designed to address, you always come up empty.

TO take another example, of more than a little consequence, the resurrection stories have too often been lumped in with the "myth" category, under the assumption that they were generally held as credible by ancient peoples, but are incredible to a more contemporary view of the world. N. T. Wright wrote an eight-hundred page book called The Resurrection of the Son of God in which he shows that (a) the idea of resurrection was around in the ancient world; (b) was conceived of differently by different people; (c) even among those who professed to believe it, it was never supposed to occur as it did with Jesus; and (d) most educated ancients were as disdainful of the ideas as are educated moderns. In other words, it was considered mythical nonsense in the first century, except by those who were understood to be religious fanatics by the powers-that-be. To ignore this reality - the result of meticulous textual and archaeological research and analysis - in favor of a broad, and wrong generalization, that our modern worldview is inherently superior to the ancient (or any other) is a kind of cultural hubris I find distasteful. Does that lend credence to the accounts in the Gospels? Of course not, and neither Wright nor anyone else wourld argue that it does. It does, however, show that trying to come up with even a broad, generally accepted understanding of "myth" goes wildly awry more often than not because it is itself based on assumption of cultural superiority that are wrong.

Learning to read the Bible is an on-going process. This is why it is read and re-read and studied an d commented upon, and these studies and commentaries are read and re-read and attacked and replaced - each generation is trying to figure out how to place these very ancient texts in their own world, figure out how to derive meaning from them, figure out how to live with parts that seem incapable of providing any sustenance at all (my favorite in this last category is the last line from Psalm 137: Happy is he who smashes their child's head against the rocks; I often ask my wife to preach a sermon on that particular verse!).

I think you are correct about agreeing to disagree. I am glad this discussion took place, because (a) I have been forced to think through, in a public way, what I think about these things; (b) present them coherently; (c) do so in an environment of disagreement that never sunk to the level of name-calling, but took place where we respected one another (although you might think I'm kooky for believing what I do); (d)provided an opportunity for me to do what I wanted to do with this whole blog-thing in the first place, i.e., present the Christian faith in a way and forum that was free of the cant and nonsense of the Christian right.

Short Take

Glenn Greenwald has a great piece destroying what tiny portion of moral and intellectual credibility Tom Friedman had left. In so doing he shows that another entrant in the Walter Lippmann Replacement Marathon got a cramp and staggered off the trail, to be overtaken by a lawyer from New York whom everyone says has a limp.

It would be nice if Friedman would shut up now. You think he will?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Two Holidays

Which holiday are you celebrating this December 25th? One is a quiet day, full of prayer, lit by a candle or two, or perhaps a small electric bulb, with the hymns being both soft and solemn. The other is this huge, bombastic ever-more loud orgy of capitalist consumerism where "the spirit of the season" is measured by others, judging by the amount of lights covering the entire house, the inflatable deer cropping snow-covered grass on the front lawn, and the volume of "carols" blasting from speakers. Of course all that is prelude to the non-stop spending; our love for others is guaged by how deeper in to debt we are willing to put ourselves for them.

The personification of the first is a small baby, unremarkable, poor beyond our comprehension, destined for an ignominious death. The personification of the second is a fat, loud second-story man who is the personification of our collective ejacualtion of green across America, a veritable release of economic tension as we all sigh deeply once it's all over.

The first is a time to remember the very human Jesus who is God with us. The second is a time to be nostalgic for Peanuts' cartoons and Red Rider BB Guns. The first is represented by clergy leading congregations in prayer. The second is represented by those who wear Santa hats out shopping, with a piece of fake holly or misteltoe stuck in the brim, mistaking giddiness for joy, and spending for love and thoughtfulness.

Our family has opted to celebrate the former, while around us, in an ever-more-nauseating swirl spins the second. Which one will you celebrate?

Who would want to be a pundit, anyway? More on the Whine

Here, here, here, and here over at Hullabaloo; here, here and here at Glenn Greenwald's blog; here at Eschaton; and here at Crooks & Liars are all examples of what I think of as liberal blogger whine. It isn't a loud whine, not compared to the absolute, out of their minds, foot-stamping, madness going on in various right-wing circles as they try to come to terms with the fact the electorate just rejected them resoundingly. It is, however, a whine, similar to Rodney Dangerfield; in essence, they are claiming they get no respect, specifically from the mainstream press and mainstream pundits and commentators. They posit two things that are indisputable: (1) the bloggers were right about pretty much everything from the war to taxes to the election outcome; (2) mainstream pundits have been wrong consistently on just about everything of any substance coming out of Washington since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For this reason, it would seem the bloggers want not only respect, but acceptance into the ranks of the pundit class. They want their views taken seriously. They want to be heard in the din that is official Washington punditry. Apparently the difference they have made, the strides in getting out the vote, in voter education and awareness, in stripping the scales off the eyes of Americans to the insanity of our current government and the mendacity and lack of maturity among most of its capitol press corps - all this is meaningless if they have no access to power.

If the pundits actually pulled their heads out and realized how wrong they were; if their editors held them to the same level of professional accountability a normal beat reporter was forced to uphold in terms of accuracy and accepting responsibility when they were wrong, therefore depriving most of them of jobs; if the pundits saw the reality in front of them instead of trying to understand it in terms they understand but are no longer applicable - if all these things happened, perhaps I could see even wanting to join their ranks. Worse, if they accepted even one liberal blogger into their midst as a true equal, and not some exhibit from some strange planet far away, I would wonder, not at their judgement, but at the blogger's judgement. After all, considering the MSM track record, how right could or would they be?

Power and influence and important. Being a voice is also important. Yet, the liberal bloggers are outside the establishment, and their voice is the voice of the people - of all of us - and that voice was heard on November 7. The work is far from over, of course, but having the ear of the powerful is far less important than being rallying points for action, most important keeping the legislators' feet to the fire. All of us writing blogs, even this little one, carry that responsibility. I wouldn't pass it up for anything, not even a seat at the table with David Broder and George Will. Art Buchwald, maybe. . . .

Do Elections Matter? More on Fearmongering

Besides the various posts of Arthur Silber are this from Glenn Greenwald and this over at Crooks & Liars. The sum total of these posts is to dampen liberal and progressive enthusiasm for a chiange in the atmosphere of Washington. Based upon the idea that Cheney is somehow the dark and sinister puppetmaster of George Bush and his Administration, we are to believe that the Executive Branch will continue to operate as it has for the past five-and-a-half years, without regard to Constitutional checks on executive authority and the requirements of legislative oversight. In other words, these articles are suggesting, the election of a Democratically controlled Congress, and perhaps the most liberal Congress since the mid-1960's, if not since the New Deal, is meaningless because a member of the Administration holds the view that Presidential power, and Executive privilege trumps Congressional power. If so, why did we all work so hard, insist on getting out the vote, and celebrate when the change came?

Are we or are we not a democratic Republic? Do we operate under a rule of law or not? Was the exercise of the franchise irrelevant or not? We either accept that we have power now, and use that power towards the ends the electorate desires, or we crumple under the onslaught of Dick Cheney and his barking-cat mentality. I am, frankly, sick unto death of the fear so many have of this man. If indeed the Administration follows his lead and refuses to cooperate with any investigation or oversight COngress conducts, it will only succeed in hastening the day when impeachment proceedings arrive; we should not shirk our duty simply because, as of now, there seems little support for it. Provoking a Constitutional crisis is just the sort of thing holding Cheney's line will accomplish.

Or, we can accept the premise that the Executive will refuse to cooperate, and the Congressional Democrats will accede. If they do so, then the voters' trust in them was misplaced, and all the pundits in Washington - who have a record of spectacular error - may actually be correct about something.

In either case, we will still be faced with the question that titles this post? Do elections matter? If we are willing to grant that they do, part of that includes the part we must play in insisting the Democrats do the job they were elected to do. To quote Donald Rumsfeld (of all people), Democracy is hard. It isn't enough to just stick these folks in office and hope for the best. If they start to flag under the strain, we need to be their spines.

If, however, we stand trembling before Cheney like we were on a hunting trip with him, then I guess the Constitution really is dead. If we put the person in office above the laws surrounding that office, we are a monarchy, or a dictatorship, or anything but the Republic we used to be. That failure, however, will rest with us. Not with the Democrats in office, who are ony as strong as the support they get from the voters.

We have to act as if elections matter. If need be, we need to teach Dick Cheney and George Bush and Alberto Gonzalez and Condoleeza Rice and John Yoo and all the rest of them that elections matter, even when they don't go the way they might like.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Reality and Pundit Fantasy: Glenn Greenwald , the Whine, & Mainstream Idiocy

In this post Glenn Greenwald dissects, or perhaps vivisects, the way Washington punditry. By pointing out, again and again, that the completely fabricated "Harman vs. Hstings" nonsense was never about who chaired the House Intelligence COmmittee, but was part of a larger, still fetal, narrative creation of the recently-elected House Democratic majority as divided, back-biting lefties led by a vindictive harpy with values from her home town, er, something like that. What is so surprising is not that this particular piece of Inside-the-Beltway (another phrase I find so fascinating; does that mean Bethesda? Greenbelt? Vienna?) fantasy brought to us by the same people who bought five and a half years of Bush Administration lies and called it news; the same people who said the country would never elect Democrats to control Congress (even as all polls suggested otherwise); the same people who banged their forheads five times in ritual kow-tow to Karl Rove prior to the election, dutifully transcribing his every syllable of his math that proved, like non-calculus physics, horribly wrong in every particular. This is the same class of people that take David Broder as a sage, and treat Henry Kissinger as an elder statesman rather than an elderly war criminal.

I am beginning to detect more than a bit of whine about Duncan at Atrios, Jane Hamsher over at FireDogLake, and now Glenn Greenwald that sounds a bit like this, reported day after day - the mainstream pundits are continually wrong and we are continually correct, yet no one listens to us. Wah! Wah! Wah!

Memo to the big guys: People are listening. More important, people are no longer taking seriously the garbage spewed by Washington-based pundits. Didn't we just have an election that kind of showed us that. More to the point, why would you want to be taken seriously by people who not only despise you, but whose judgement is so severly in error? Stay where you are, keep doing what you are doing, and allow the mainstream pundits to do all the whining as the country succeeds doing the exact opposite of their advice.

Glenn's column is a cure for the idiocy of the mainstream pundits. But, leave the whine corked. Pop some bubbly instead, for the victory you have helped achieve.

Fearmongering versus Warmongering

Over at "Once Upon a Time . . .", Arthur Silber has written this piece pointing out the refusal of ridiculously stupid and wrong Peter Beinart to admit he was wrong in order to rescue himself from the intellectual and moral sink into which he has descended. I recommend it highly, as I do all Arthur writes. I want to take issue with something he writes, something echoed by Glenn Greenwald in his comment on a recent story about the Vice President. While I accept the VP does not believe, nor has this Administration acted as if it believed, there is or should be any legal or Constitutional check on Presidential power; while I believe the administration will fight to the end of its inglorious reign (can January, 2009 come soon enough?) any attempt by Congress to investigate, legislate, and of the judiciary to adjudicate against its gross usurpation of power; while I accept that there may be some in the Administration who wish to expand our military role to Iran and Syria - they are certainly making the same noises about Iran they made about Iraq throughout 2002; I refuse to accept as given that any military action will take place, because that may just provoke the kind of public constitutional crisis we have avoided since the Civil War, i.e., elements of the military, perhaps even at the highest levels, could mutiny against civilian authority.

This is a nightmare scenario even greater than the on-going constitutional crisis between Congress and the Executive over authority in the arena of foreign policy. What would happen if the President ordered strikes against Iran, and senior military officials refused? What if those senior military officials were replaced by more pliant ones, but lower ranks refused? I cannot imagine anything worse for us as a nation. The military is stretched beyond the breaking point by Iraq as it is; our fiscal policy is in a shambles because of a combination of Iraq, Afghanistan (which we never should have abandoned), and abysmal tax policy; the American people are certianly in no mood for expanding military action unless the threat is immediate, clear, and well-defined. I believe it is fear-mongering on the part of those who distrust this Administration (I include myself in that number, by the way) to insist that, regardless of elections and a clear public repudiation of the warmongering of the Bush Administration, that it will take us on a path that can only lead to disaster. There are no neo-cons left with any credibility (outside a media still numb from an election that rejected pretty much everything they wanted to tell us was real); conservatives in general and Republicans in particular are in such disarray, embracing a failed leadership to take them into a 110th Congress that will certainly be hostile to any mention of expanded military action absent a direct attack in US soil by a defined enemy; and no one in the country either believes or trusts the President.

We are ill-served by those who continue to spread the omnipotence of Cheney and the evil designs of those who share his disdain for democratic and legal processes. These were some of the same people who insisted that Rove would pull a rabbit out of the election hat. That never transpired, and Rove is now seen as a ridiculous figure who can't even do his own math. It is much better to humanize these pathetic figures, and consider the implications of what they are saying - expanding the war is courting a disaster of far-greater proportion than our current nightmare in Iraq. I do not absolutely discount the possibility that they would be so insanely stupid as to court a tragedy such as military mutiny and a threat to the Constitution such a blanket mutiny would mean; I just don't see it happening because the election means something, whether Cheney or others want to admit it or not. We need to remember that.

Learning to Read

In his comments, Democracy Lover says the following:
Frankly, I think the interpreation modern thinkers might make of the itinerant prophet from Galilee are much more appealing and helpful o us than the interpretations of first century evangelists.

More than anything else in his long, thoughtful comment, this caught my eye because it lies at the heart of the whole issue of Christian faith, an is part of the reason Wright is pursuing the project he has embarked upon. We need to relearn how to read Scripture and the early tradition of the Church without certain prejudices that our modern and post-modern thinkers have insisted are non-negotiable: the superiority of contemporary ways of thinking over "primitive" (Bultmann) ones, and the opacity of texts to readers, leaving them barren mirrors reflecting neither what early modern sciprture scholars thought they saw (early church controversies placed in texts) or late modern scripture scholars thought they saw (metaphors wrapped in symbols surrounded by an ever-retreating enigma named Jesus of Nazareth, always out of reach in his unsullied purity), but our own concerns and prejudices, which usually include the above, but are void of any actual content of their own. Wright is waging a one-person war against the deconstruction of Bibilical texts with a simple dose of interpretive common sense. As such, while I far from agree with everything he says, I find his approach refreshing, and some at least of his conclusions to be a wonderful counter to the "sensible" approach of too many non-believers masking as scripture scholars.

One of the things DL wrote concerns the mission of Paul to the Gentiles. Indeed, Paul's mission work was to Gentiles, but as Craig Hall, a student of Wright's from Oxford who now teaches at my seminary alma mater, Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, has pointed out, much of the so-called "Hellenists versus Hebrews" controversy is front-loaded with gross (in all senses of the word) anti-Semitism, and a complete miscontrual of the complexities of first-century Jewish life, not the least of them Jewish evangelism in the diaspora. Many of the "Gentiles" were, in all likelihood Jewish proselytes who had not yet completed the very rigorous conversion process. Paul was not out to invent a religion; there is nothing in his letters to even pretend such a reading is credible. Indeed, he protests constantly that his message is no different from the tradition that was passed to him (part of which he repeats verbatim from the Gospel accounts in his first letter to the Corinthians in re the institution of the eucharist). It is difficult to get around the simple truth that Paul no more invented the divinity of Jesus than did the writers of the Gospels make up stories of resurrection to say something else. I will grant that the God-man, as you call him, is nonsensical in a variety of ways. I will not grant, however, that it is a later gloss by those intent on distorting a message to serve ends other than those of Jesus.

This, in fact, is part of Wright's point. We completely misunderstand early Christianity if we think the divinity of Jesus was easier to understand for early Gentile Christians than for either their Jewish counterparts or contemporary thinkers. In fact, the idea was and is preposterous on its face. Part of the struggle the early church faced was that Jesus' teachings, not their teachings about him, were a complete re-writing of Jewish thought on messianism, not the least of which included the inevitability and necessity of his own death. I do not try to rescusitate substitutional atonement theory; it is a viable reading, although my reading of it is not traditional, nor is it Wright's. As to why God would require it, ask God. Part of the problem with a question like that implies that there exists some general idea of what God can and cannot do to which the Christian God must conform. I do not ask you to either believe in God or like what the Christian God does and does not do. I struggle with this issue no less than you do, but I cannot escape something that is both simple and, to me, profound - God isn't me, and God's ways aren't mine, or yours, or anyone else's. The situation is what it is, and there comes a time in any person's life when that person is forced to take it or leave it. If you leave it, it doesn't make it any less real or true. If you take it, though, it just might mean all the difference in the world.

We have to surrender our own prejudices and, perhaps, open ourselves to the possibility that those first century evangelists knew a thing or two we sophisticated moderns and oh-so-cynical and knowing post-moderns do not. We should take them at their word, although not in any literal way, and read them for what they say, not what we want them to say. In the same way, we should come to God not expecting God to conform to our thoughts and ideas about what God should be and do and say, but as God is. God did the same, and asks no less of us than God was willing to do.

The Church and Sexual Minorities

Democracy Lover and I are having a conversation. The rest of you are welcome to listen in. There are some points in the comments he placed on the wrong thread yesterday (snicker) to which I want to return, but I promised this first.

Sexual ethics in the church are dangerous territory. No matter what one says, the end result is few are happy with the outcome. What is worse, the easiest softball insult of all - "Hypocrite!" - can be tossed with abandon, because, to quote St. Paul, "all of have fallen short of the Glory of God" (I will say no more, but allow others to draw their own conclusions). Yet, if the Church is to be the Church and not some God-club thingy where we all go to sing pretty songs from the 19th century and feel good about being together and not much else, then the Church needs to say something about human sexuality, and do so in a way that respects the good gift of sexuality and the message of love and service that is at the core of the Christian confession.

I cannot speak for other denominations. In fact, I cannot "speak" for my own denomination. I can speak of my own denomination, the United Methodist Church, and its own evolving position of human sexuality in general and its stance on sexual minorities in particular. Along with a new set of laws and rules regarding structure and function that is produced every four years, TheBook of Disciplinie, the UMC also produces The Book of Resolutions which is a compendium of legislation on matters not pertaining to church governance. Taken together, these two publications provide a good snapshot, every four years, of the development of thought across the entire denomination on a variety of questions, including human sexuality.

First, the UMC affirms that sexuality is a good gift of a good God. This is neither controversial nor surprising. As my mother says, "If God made anything better than sex, he kept it to himself," which is another way of saying the same thing. Where people usually have a problem with the Church is its insistence on abstinence, or as the Discipline says, "celibacy in singleness" (what a tortured neo-logism I have always found that to be; do I now live in "marriedness", or perhaps "wededness"?). The reason people object to that usually comes down to an argument something like this: "Come one, get real. Single people not only are going to have sex, they are having sex right now, even as we speak. Let's be honest then move on, OK?" My response to this is two-fold. The Church is not denying the reality of premarital sexual behavior. Nor is it legislating how people are to behave. Indeed, the Judicial Counsel of the UMC has ruled that the language is such that it is not proscriptive at all, but rather advisory, even in relation to clergy behavior (this after a case was filed against a clergy woman caught sleeping with a man). In that sense, it is unlike Roman Catholic teaching at least as I understand it.

The gift of sexuality, our desire for the physical and emotional and psychological pleasure that comes from the sexual act with others is to be treated with respect. I find the UMC position on sex to be both healthy and wise. It understands that we are far too blase about how we act as sexual beings; we couple with a frequency and lack of concern that is breathtaking in its superficiality. Somehow treating this most intimate of moments as no different in kind from masturbation is seen as an act of maturity, while adivising people that, like all gifts, this too can be abused and such abuse can lead to dangerous, even deadly consequences, is somehow thought of as unrealistic. I find that absurd to the point of parody. It is one thing to recognize that people are going to have sexual relations outside the bonds of marriage. It is quite another to simply give a clerical stamp of approval to these passing fancies in the name of some "reality" that is never quite defined or defended.

The other part of the response is this: the Christian life isn't supposed to be either easy or "normal" however that may be defined. Why should the church change its teaching to accomodate a reality that is antithetical to its core values? Why should the UMC say, "Yeah, fine, you're right, go couple when- and wherever you like, and with whomever you like"? There is a reason the UMC's governing document is called the Discipline after all; that is one of our principles - the Christian life is a disciplined one, not haphazard. You want easy, stay home Sunday morning and watch Meet the Press.

As far as sexual minorities are concerned, the Church has a two-fold stance. It supports the inclusion of sexual minorities in our social and civic life without discrimination. At the same time, it insists that sexual minorities are excluded from the clergy and from affirming their relationships in public in United Methodist houses of worship. Seven years ago, a clergy person here in northern Illinois was put on administrative leave for a year for doing just that (our Bishop supported the act but his hands were tied by church law; the man could have had his orders stripped, as happened in Washington State about a year later). Our church has been struggling with these two issues - gay clergy and gay marriage - for many years, and the struggle continues.

I want to add a personal comment here. As a general note, again, why should the Church automatically change its views to accomodate contemporary standards of conduct and belief? I will not deny the reality of power-politics within the Church plays a huge role in distorting the direction the Church is moving - to do so would be a lie - but there is also a serious point here. Because two of the most liberal denominations, the UCC and UUA, have moved to inclusiveness in their ordination process does not mean all liberal Protestant denominations should do so. Nor does such changes as happened within these groups negate the reality of struggle within them, and struggles that go on. They simply reached a socially acceptable end point sooner than others have. Or may not ever. Who knows? I think the process of debate and struggle is as important as the conclusions we reach, because we all learn something, not least of which is to listen to one another. In a church of 8 million people that is never easy.

Another point that is important to note, at least as far as the whole gay clergy thing is concerned, is that, let's be honest here folks, they're already there. I used to argue that the entire issue would disappear in a day if all the gay clergy stood up at Annual Conference and, in unison, declared their sexuality, then dared the denomination to throw them all out at once. For reasons of pragmatism, the debate would end then and there. Of course, such a dramatic action will never happen, but a person can dream . . .

Am I defending an indefensible position? I don't think so. I disagree with our official position, both on the ordination of sexual minorities and on gay marriage. I also understand the compromise the church has made, at least as far as gay clergy is concerned, to be something that, while not pleasing to everyone, allows people who are gay and lesbian to serve with a certain integrity if they so choose. I also have much sympathy for those who want the issue to just disappear; one can go over the same ground again and again and again, but the result is always just a big muddy mess. We are still slogging, though, because we have to. People's real lives, their calling, the recognition of their love for one another is at stake, and the church is an institution that, if nothing else, takes these things much more seriously than bumper-sticker Christianity and politics could or can imagine. I hope my side wins (who doesn't?), but I also respect the process, and love and respect those who disagree with me because, again to quote a parent (my father), "You don't know every Goddamn thing."

Short Take, Part II

Apropos of what I wrote yesterday Fire Dog Lake has this and takes a somewhat different view of things. I actually agree with some of what TRex wrote. The politicized elements of the Christian Right have long since abandoned the more mundane parts of chuch life - love for others, service to others, sacrifice for others, in an ever-more-shrill quest for power. I also think that, apart from whatever "church" stuff they might do, the IRS is very late in investigating their activities in violation of partisan politicking.

I can't help but feel sad, however, for Joel Hunter. He sounds like an earnest, thoughtful conservative. Maybe the inmates really have taken over the asylum.

He Might as well Have Stayed Home

I heard a report on NPR this morning about President Bush's trip to Estonia that said he would not be out in public during his stay in Tallin. Last week in Vietnam, an aide was quoted as saying that even though the President would not appear publicly, there was a "connection" as Bush's motorcade travelled from the embassy to the meeting hall in Hanoi. Apparently the person who made the comment forgot that the President's limousine has frosted glass windows.

The most striking part of the story about Bush's trip to the Baltic's was the comment that Queen Elizabeth, in a recent visit, spent time meeting and greeting folks in public, but that security officials in Estonia insisted people stay indoors when Bush's motorcade passed. So, if I understand this correctly, a monarch was willing to mix it up with the commoners but the head of state of the world's most powerful democracy wanted no dirt from the plebes on his suit.

He goes to Vietnam and manages to insult the leaders of a nation with which we are trying to repair relations, and refuses to meet the people he avoided protecting thirty-five years ago. He goes to a NATO ally and manages, again, to not actually learn who our allies are, and why they might be worth risking our blood and treasure.

It has been nearly twenty years since Reagan and Gorbachev stopped a motorcade in Moscow and the two of them strolled through Red Square meeting the people of the Evil Empire. How Conservatives have fallen.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Jesus, Paul, and the Message of the Church: Democracy Lover Again

It would take several very thick volumes to detail the ways in which the Gospel accounts of Jesus and the teachings of Paul in his existing correspondence converge and complement one another. It would take several more volumes of equal thickness to discuss the philosophical and theological understandings of who Jesus was, how he was understood by his earliest followers, and how that understanding morphed as time and place and circumstance and language changed. In fact, those volumes have been written, and constitute the vast corpus of Christian theology from the Bible to contemporary works. I shall focus my attention here on the writings of Anglican Bishop and New Testament scholar Nicholas Thomas Wright, who is working on a multi-volume study of early Christian and Jewish literature and the origins of the Christian faith. Although some of his suggestions are, to put it mildly, controversial (the Fourth Gospel was written by the Apostle John) his approach in his repudiation of recent New Testament and theological approaches to these questions applies a combination of historical humility and good old common sense.

Some general comments, then, and even those will take more space than I might wish.

First, the common contemporary (for the past one hundred years or so) understanding that Paul was not interested in the message of Jesus and therefore distorts Christian teaching ignores something so simple it is easily missed - Paul is the earliest Christian teacher whose writings are still in existence; even the Gospels as written documents are later by almost a generation. As such, had there been serious disagreement between what the Gospel writers wanted to say about the tradition of Jesus and what Paul was teaching as he traveled the Mediterranean there surely would be some record of it somewhere. In fact, there is none. Even the later, non-canonical writings of Justin Martyr, Ignatius of Antioch, and Clement of Alexandria follow the route of Paul, dealing with programmatical questions rather than the substantive issues of the teachings of Jesus. Rather than showing a cleavege between the teachings of Jesus and Paul, this would show that, in fact, the teachings of Jesus were non-controversial and above any question.

Paul was writing to various churches for a variety of reasons - church practice was not in line with common practice in Corinth; the church was suffering some sort of persecution in Phillipi; Paul was introducing himself to the Roman church prior to a visit; Paul was defending his authority to teach and preach after it was questioned by teachers in Galatia - and that he never mentions the teachings of Jesus, rather than showing he didn't care about them, shows that they were accepted for what they were. Had Paul wanted to, he could have written all sorts of things that run counter to what Jesus taught, but there is nothing in Paul to suggest he ever thought about doing so.

As to the whole question of Jesus' identity - what has been traditionally called the doctrine of the two natures, i.e., Jesus was fully divine and fully human - while the explanations became ever more convoluted and involved all sorts of metaphysical gymnastics that are irrelevant to a non-metaphysical age, the basic theme is the same today as it was 2000 years ago: God loved this creation. Through human acts, a rift was driven between God and creation, and humanity no longer could fulfill its divine ordination to be a caretaker of this creation. No propitiation could suffice to set this relationship right except for divine action. Such was God's love for creation that God was willing to fully invest a human person in order that through the life and death of this person, the final power of death - the ultimate enemy - could be broken. The resurrection story is not some coda attached to Jesus' life by those who came later, but the central fact of his presence and ministry. It provides the authority to all he taught, all he did, all he suffered.

Even contemporary New Testament scholars, as Wright shows in abundance in his book The Resurrection of the Son of God, are uncomfortable with the resurrection narratives because, to be blunt, they don't believe them. Not only do they not believe them, they do not see how any thinking person can accept them for anything other than metaphors for some spiritual experience followers of Jesus had (following the NT scholar Rudolf Bultmann). Part of the problem with such a reading misses a point Wright makes emphatically throughout the work noted above - resurrection was no more plausible to first century A.D. residents of the Roman Empire than it is to early-21st century residents of the American Empire. As Wright further notes, in a look at first and second century comments by Roman authorities, more than anything else the early Christians shared a devotion to the resurrection that was unshakeable, even under torture. Rather than renounce this teaching, they suffered horrible pain, and many were put to death. As condescending and demeaning as Richard Dawkins and other critics of contemporary Christianity, these Romans were amazed that anyone could hold beliefs that were, to say the least, unbelievable.

Part of the problem in the (mostly fake) Jesus-Paul controversy is a streak of Romantic primitivism that believes, without justification and on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, that there exists some pure unsullied message of Jesus to which, if we could only return, the Church could rescue itself from its two thousand year history of metaphysical nonsense and political and theological repression. Such primitivism ignores the truth that there is no such thing as an uninterpreted life and uninterpreted message. It assumes that all persons at all times and all places can hear certain words and understand them in the same way. It assumes also that we live our lives moment by moment, without recourse to any narrative structure, and that others do the same. Alas and alack, both these assumptions are wrong. The primitivists forget not only that all wordws need some sort of interpretation, but all lives do so as well. We may not be aware of it; we may even argue strenuously against such an idea. That does not make it any less true.

There is no "pure, simple message of Jesus" existing somewhere to which the Church must or should turn in order to appease its contemporary critics. How would such an appeasement satisfy those who are unwilling to accept the heart of the Gospel message about a God whose love is shown through suffering, exclusion, and a horrible God-forsaken death as a failed political agitator? As Paul wrote, the cross is a stumbling block to the wise because they refuse to accept what is, on its face unacceptable.

This very long post hardly does justice to a topic that is well worth further treatment. The specific context in which was brought up - gays in the church - I will try to treat later.

Short Take

Courtesy of Faith in Public comes a story that shows the growing rift between true evangelicals and the politicized Protestantism of the recent past. The Rev. Joel Huunter of the non-denominational Northwood Church in Longwood, FL was recently elected head of the Christian Coalition of America. He resigned because he was "unable to broaden the oranization's agenda beyond opposition to abortion and gay marriage."
He hoped to include issues such as easing poverty and saving the environment.
"These are issues that Jesus would want us to care about," Hunter said.

Thus endeth the Christian Right.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Christianity and Secular America: Who Speaks for Whom?

This entire discussion is a wonderful example of two things: Why I blog, and the interconnectedness of different ideas. Again, I can't thank Democarcy Lover enough for continuing to respond. This is the kind of thing I love.

The public face of Christianity in America, for a generation now, has been a combination of Billy Graham's evangelical Baptist fervor and the various political preachers, of whom James Dobson (around since the beginning, but little noticed) is the latest entrant. The problem with this parade of media stars is that they are too often taken at their word to be spokesmen for Christianity in America. In his comments on my last post on this topic, Democracy Lover asked what a non-Christian is to make of the distinctino I wish to draw between these media darlings and the reality of multiple denominations with a variety of differences and legal structures, etc. The simplest response is this: exercise a little skepticism and do a little research. We are prone to question what the media present to us in areas where we each have a bit of understanding; why not be skeptical when Dobson is called a "Christian leader"? The internet is a wonderful thing, and anyone can access the websites of a variety of denominations, find out what they believe, what they practice, who speaks for them, how they operate, etc. The difference between the media appearance and reality is so wide, one wonders how we lived with the fiction for so long.

As for the idea that secular America has no "leader" (apparently unlike the various Protestant Christians who all believe what Jerry Falwell believes), that is true. Yet to say that there is no cohesion or coherence in American ideology is simply wrong. Our political and social consensus, one could even argue conformity, is so clear - from musical choices to what stores we shop at and why to the need to prop up our shaky capitalist economy to what movie to watch - it hardly needs explicating. As these are generalities, or expressions of generalities, there need be no spokesperson, as it were. There are enough persons who accept certain ideas and practices, while never doubting the reality which is much more diverse and diffuse, that to address these notions with counter-claims from a Churhc perspective is all too easy.

A good example is consumerism. We are no longer citizens. We are consumers. Our existence, whether political, educational, or social, has been reduced to its barest economic reality. We no longer think or vote or learn - we consume what is given us. I keep picturing baby birds, their mouths open, their cries deafening, and the mother regurtitating down their throats. This is how Americans are viewed, and how much of both the media and its corporate sponsors wish us to perceive ourselves. This is how we are addressed - as children who need to be led to feed on whatever is vomited at us. A failure to act as a good consumer is to fail to act as a good American.

This is such utter nonsense - the idea that we individuals acting in our own self-interest are the real engines powering the great economic ship of state - one wonders how anyone can believe it. Yet, this is what we are not only told; it is practically screamed at us from a variety of sources. Our political debate, our social discourse, even our economic thinking, is debased by such ideas. Our personal lives, our social existence, our spiritual lives existing only as a function of what we purchase demeans us, dehuamnizes us, and leaves us defenseless in the face of the onslaught of corporate rapacity. One need not even be a Christian to find the flaws in consumerism!

As to the disturbances in some mainline denominations over gays and lesbians within their ranks, I can only speak for the denomination to which I belong (the United Methodist Church) and say that much of the debate in the past fifteen years has been over ordination. It has been settled for some time that there cannot be discrimination in membership based on sexual orientation (although a recent Judicial Council ruling argues otherwise; it is being reconsidered, however, because the basis of the decision throws our entire connection - our legal structure - into question). The debate is on-going, but our current practice - we do not ordain "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals" - has been interpreted in such a way that a both parts of the modifier must exist in order for legal action to be taken within the Church for the removal of orders. While it does not satisfy everyone (what compromise ever does?) it certainly has allowed people to answer their call and live their lives under a certain disciplpine and with integrity.

Our social discourse is injured by a media too ignorant and lazy to actually do the work of learning about a topic before reporting on it. Complexity does not sell papers or work well in limited air-time. The reliance upon a corporate-controlled, herd-minded media creates too many false impressions, and too much misinformation for a healthy society. I am increasingly impressed with the way the internet actually helps us move things forward. This is where America comes to talk, listen, learn, and most of all - to think. We speak for ourselves!

Musical Interlude and Promo

When I first heard Seal I marvelled at several things. First, the mix of styles and influences, everything from progressive rock to 70's era funk to late-80's dance club slickness. I also thought former-Yes vocalist Trevor Horn's over-production was a bit much, distracting from the essential power of Seal's music. The pile of overdubs and effects become distracting, even dizzying. Yet, I could not forget songs like "Crazy" and "Prayer for the Dying". When, on his third album, Seal switched producers, I found that, in fact, Horn's production values were exactly what Seal needed to create the effect he wanted (although I believe his insistence on the liner notes to his Gold, best-of collection that he prefers the simplicity of acoustic performance).

Give a listen to "Furture Love Paradise" and try not to sing along. Give a listen to "Human Beings" and try not to dance. Give a listen, and remember, "If we're ever going to survive, we've got to get a little bit crazy."

Free Speech and its Discontents

Over here at my right-wing neighbors (and budding friends) to the north in the land of cheese and badgers (Badgers?), is a good discussion in the comments section on the place of pornography in a broader understanding of our First Amendment rights (have you ever noticed those two wrods are, more and more, capitalized, like Holy Bible?). The context is the careful content control exercised by China that includes an almost total elimination of "adult" content on Chinese websites. The standard argument (Standard Argument?) against the censorship of pornography is that the Constitutional ban on laws restricting freedom of the press does not say "except for those that portray sexual acts or nudity". In other words, it is a, ahem, literalist reading of the First Amendment. There is, of course, the "slippery slope" argument, which is not so much a legal argument as it is social commentary. Once we decide certain things are off-limits, what is to stop us from becoming Nazis who burn Picasso and smash Mondrian?

I wish to make it clear that I accept the legal argument concerning censorship. I shal return to the whole slippery slope thing in a moment, but I want it understood that I am not advocating limiting anyone's access to Juggs magazine or the on-line edition of Barely Legal. The First Amendment, in its individual content - the freedoms of speech, the press, assembly, religion and the official separation of church and state, and the right of petition to redress grievances - has to be understood as a whole that is greater than the sum of its very wonderful parts. These freedoms are primarily, and to those who wrote and ratified them, political freedoms. The Bill of Rights was inserted into the Constitution in 1791 after Patrick Henry led a serious threat to ratification in Virginia. He insisted that there be codified guarantees to protect the expression of political discontent with the national government. None of those who sat and argued in the earliest Congresses on the various amendments would have even thought it plausible that the right to sit and peruse naked people performing acts both silly and embarassing was included in an understanding of the amendment. Precisely because the entire amendment references public, political acts solely and exclusively.

As to the slippery slope argument, it can be dispatched easily. What keeps us from sliding down the hill from freedom to despotism is the collective discernment of the people that certain things are acceptable and others are not. We already restrict access - not very well and usually in the breach more than in actual practice - to porn to those over the age of 18 or 21 depending upon the jurisdiction. If we were seriouos about the slippery slope thing, we would open the floodgates. We don't because we are wise enough to understand that people not emotionally, psychologically, or sexually mature enough to udnerstand can be seriously damaged by exposure to sexually explicit material. Can we not be wise enough to say that our society as a whole is seriously damaged by widespread access to and consumption of pornography? What does it say about us as a people that we are willing to tolerate, not just the viewing of salacious material, but its production, which by its very nature exists on the fringes of society, and too often ends in destruction of those engaged in it? To stifle this debate with First Amendment arguments is disingenuous at best, because it ignores the truth that we are not a better society for the wide availability of pornography. We also would not be a better society if we arbitrarily denied access to it; perhaps we need to debate the issue thoughtfully, perhaps even worked toward a time when it was less prevalent - through education and awareness. A nice thought, eh?

Virtual Tin Cup

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