Friday, December 22, 2006

Happy Holidays to You and Yours (A Little Vacation Here for Family)

I am planning to remove myself completely from the Internet until Tuesday, to spend time with my wife and children in the run up to Christmas and the day itself. While there are many things I would like to comment upon, I would rather let the idiocy, criminality, and insanity of the world slide off my shoulders for a long weekend as I and we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Three days (four really, because I am limiting myself to this longer-than-I-intended post) will create quite a back-up, so expect all sorts of interesting things, including a year-end round-up (God, I hate those things, but I feel obligated) at the end of next week. For now, though, take a moment to remember that, for Christians around the world, we are lighting candles to celebrate the coming into the world of Light, in the midst of the darkness and death that surrounds us.

Charles Wesley is the poet-laureate of the Methodist movement. He wrote over 6,000 hymns and poems, and even the great Isaac Watts (among Watts' compositions are "Joy to the World", sung to a variation of Handel's "Lift Up Your Heads, O Ye Gates" from The Messiah) was impressed by some of those that appeared during Watts' lifetime. The first publication Wesley produced was 1734's Hymns and Poems on the Nativity of Our Lord. A shorter version of one of those hymns (Wesley was famous, or perhaps infamous for the length of his poems; ten or eleven verses was not uncommon, and some could have close to twenty) is among the best-loved Christmas hymns:
Hark! the herald angels sing
"Glory to the new-born king;
Peace on earh, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!"
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
woth th'angelic host proclaim,
"Christ is born in Bethlehem!"
Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that we no more may die,
Born to raise us from the earth,
Born to give us second birth.
Christ, by highest heaven adored;
Christ the everlasting Lord;
late in time behold him come,
Off-spring of a virgin's womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th'incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

More Light! (Last Words of Goethe)

I suffer from a bit of seasonal affective disorder, and this year it has been aggravated by working Third Shift. What that means is, I rarely see more than an hour or two of daylight. My slight downturn in mood is made worse by a lack of adjustment to this new schedule; I still haven't figured out a routine way to balance all my commitments, and thus feel pressed for lack of time to accomplish both what needs to get done, and what I need to do for myself. Frustration inevitably follows. It does not make me a good partner, and I feel bad for my wife and daughters, because, even though I understand the source of my moods, I feel a bit helpless to do much about them.

Today is December solstice. I am being geographically correct in saying that rather than "Winter Solstice", because it is also solstice in the southern hemisphere and it is the first day of summer down there. As the earth revolves around the sun, the angle at which the northern hemisphere hangs relative to the sun limits the amount of sunlight, and therefore both warmth and light, to a few hours and an average of just a few degrees above the fressing point of water. In my little neck of the woods, the sun will rise at 7:22 am and set at 4:27 pm, nine hours and five minutes of daylight. Starting tomorrow, that will begin to expand, roughly a minute a day, until the June solstice, when we will have close to fifteen hours of daylight and much warmth.

In the midst of winter, indeed at the very beginning of winter, the seed of spring and summer is planted. My recent feelings of slight depression are countered by the knowledge that this, too, shall pass, and that, even as winter seems to drag on without end, the daylight continues to lengthen, and I will have more and more opportunites to enjoy daylight, and warmth.

I wish all of you who have this discomfort or disorder a happy solstice, then, and offer hopes that you remember that we are entering a time when darkness slowly fades beneath the onslaught of celestial mechanics.

Theological Musings

Yesterday I spent part of a post kvetching about the sad state of theology as it is currently practiced in the hallowed halls of academe. Of course, I really don't know how it is practiced anymore because it has been 13 and a half years since I graduated, and things may have changed drastically in the interim. I doubt it, however, because the curriculum uner which I staggered was little changed from thirty years previous - we still read Karl Barth and Paul Tillich; we still were breathless over Reihold Niebuhr's unremarkable conviction that even when we have good intentions, they spring from sinful motives; we still discussed Rudolf Bultmann even though he was long discarded in intellectual circles.

Part of the problem with studying theology, as in any discipline, is getting a handle on what, exactly, it is about. I studied political science as an undergraduate, and if ever there was a discipline in search of an identity, there it is. Serious studies on "voter behavior", "citizen attitudes", and "party alignment" that spwaned conclusion any moderately educated informed citizen could draw. The big names in the biz had reached their peak during the Vietnam era and were still discussed in the Reagan era with a seriousness that should have left us wondering why the hell we signed on to this particular bus tour.

Theology is no different, except its history is much longer, and much more varied. Along with the really big names from the past - the Gospel writers, St. Paul, Augustine, St. Thomas, Luther/Calvin/Zwingli/Melancthon, John Wesley, Schleiermacher, Barth, and Tillich are the less well-known but oh-so-important figures such as Tertullian, Origen, Gregory of Nanzianzus, Basil the Great, Anselm, Albertus Magnus (the tutor of Thomas), William Ockham (my personal favorite medieval thinker), Jonathan Edwards, the Spanish mystical poet St. John of the Cross, Walter Rauschenbusch, Richard Niebuhr, and Langdon Gilkey. There are the controversies - the early heretical controversies, the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, the struggle between the sacred and secular powers the raged for five hundred years between the end of the Roman Empire and the assertion of Church supremacy at the dawn of the second millenium. Once the Protestant Reformation began, the story becomes even wilder, and harder to follow in a single flowing narrative.

With all this history, and competing narratives and claims of authority, when we arrive at the 20th century, we become burdened with a flood of theological talent that makes all those who come after seem unimportant - from Adolf von Harnack at the beginning of the 20th century, through the early years of dialectical theology to the post-war boom in the reputations of Barth, Tillich, the late Bonhoeffer, Niebuhr, Harvey Cox, Martin Luther King, Gustavo Gutierrez, James Cone, Rosemary Radford Reuther.

There is no doubt these were powerful thinkers, with tremendous influence. The problem is that the world to which they spoke, and from which they spoke, is dead. It is important to read and understand them, as it is important to read and understand all those mentioned above and the great intellectual background - the neo-Platonism and neo-Aristotelianism of much of developing Christian thought; the role of monastic life on church teaching; the differences between Sabellianism and patripassionism - but all of it must remain as background, the great well from which we must now draw new water. All the names and controversies and ideas mentioned above are the foundation and wall stones of the well; we must seek new water in this well, our water, something that slakes our thirst for spiritual meaning and understanding in a world drastically different from any previously lived in. This is not to say the world isn't always changing, and new ideas aren't always necessary; I am saying, however, that there are patterns of thought to each rough time period in history, and the patterns of thought of our present moment are much different from those we inherited from our teachers. As hard as it is to do, we must read all these, and more, as great historical tomes, not necessarily relevant documents that can offer us hope and guidance. Again, I am not suggesting there are not opportunities for learning something new from the past; if something strikes us, we must surely retrieve it for our own day. We must not treat them with undeserving respect or deference, however; we must be brutal with authority which would stifle creativity and opportunity for new understandings that speak life for us today.

Rather than look for the next Karl Barth or even the next Emil Brunner (another Swiss theologian overshadowed by and rejected by Karl Barth because of his love affair for natural theological knowledge), I would suggest we work to cultivate, within ourselves, the habits that make for lively, relevant theological understanding. I am Karl Barth. So are you, if you try just a little. I am also Paul Tillich and Freiderich Schleiermacher and St. Thomas. You could be St. Teresa of Avila, or perhaps William of St. Thierry. The one in back, hands stuffed in his pockets and shoulders hunched could be the next Martin Luther. Theology, like all spiritual gifts, comes from God; it is the grace of the Holy Spirit, emboldening us to speak of those things for which speech is, un the end, inadequate. It is the fearlessness that forces us to challenge what was and what is with what could be and what is promised. I am heartened by many nascent theological developments, and I am a not uncritical fan and reader of Bishop N. T. Wright. My hope, however, is that this base becomes the foundation stone of glorious new theological exercises that both sustain and challenge the church into the next century. I do not wish to leave the greats from the 20th century behind, as put them in their place - in the historical section of the bookshelf - to make room for an understanding of what God is doing, or could do, for us now, and in to tomorrow.

Short Take

Congratulations to Monica Lewinsky, for graduating with a Masters Degree in Social Psychology from the London School of Economics. The photo over at Yahoo!News is a two-and-a-half year old file photo that shows a beautiful woman where before was a more awkward post-adolescent. I know that few of her critics (including, once, myself) could have achieved what she has done; LSE isn't ITT Technical Institue, you know. All the best, Monica, and best wishes.

Is Cal Thomas (gasp!) Evolving?

I ran across this column by Cal Thomas through a link from Travis G. at Sadly, No. I seem to be obsessing a bit about Cal, ever since I read the strangest column in the aftermath of the elections, and which I wrote about earlier. What made the column strange was its depth, its signalling of a possible re-evaluation of the political dimension of right-leaning Christianity. The column linked above is in that vein, and the results are, well, mixed. It shows that Cal's transformation from bold culture warrior to a perhaps more thoughtful, cautious observer of America is slow, with hiccups and bumps along the way, yet nonetheless a strangely compelling thing to watch. Like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, it takes time, and sometimes the pupae is uglier than the caterpillar, but we all hope the butterfly is gorgeous at the end.

With a snide sneer at the War on Christmas in the first paragraph (all culture warriors die hard, apparently), Cal considers the MSM's love affiar with Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain, and Rudy Giuliani in terms of religious messianism. This is neither new nor original; what would have shown a real breakthrough in Cal's rather turgid mind would be a column on the continued obsession among many on the right with George W. Bush as an actual Messiah figure. Such a column, to show an actual breakthrough would have ripped such nonsense apart. Perhaps it is a bit early in the process to ask such things, although I was hoping as I read he might at least venture in to that territory. In any event, there is no doubt that there are elements from messianic literature - sacred and secular (read Ernst Bloch in the MIT translations for a good example of the latter) - that feed our political narratives. Especially in times such as those in which we currently live, where our President is broken, indeed the office itself may be ireeprably damaged, we long for a leader to return us to greatness. This is only human.

Of course, such longing, as Cal points out (correctly I might add), is based upon a perception of our own weakness and helplessness in the face of events over which we seem to have no control. I think this is less a description of the public, which elected a progressive Congress as a counterweight to the Bush Administration, than it is Establishment types who long for some sign that Humpty Dumpty will be put together again. The Establishment, media and political wings thereof, disdain the public, quoting poll numbers that have become increasingly irrelevant, and ignoring an election that, to put it bluntly, scares the shit out of them. Cal's dismissive tone towards the messianic tone of the coverage of the (press') leading Prsidential hopefuls (where's Tom Vilsack in all this? Dennis Kucinich?) is a sign that he is starting to awaken from his dogmatic slumber and see that, in a democracy, we do not need a Leader, because we are not powerless, and forces are not outside our ability to control. Leave messianism to those who feel a desire to be led.

While Cal has far to go, I think this particular column shows that, as a work in progress, Cal shows much promise. I do not doubt he will remain as conservative as he always has been. To me, that is neither here nor there. My hope for him is that, having been slapped by reality in November, he continues to recognize reality as and for what it is, and respond to it, rather than create fantasies and myths and dwell in some Platonic realm of never-changing forms. I think Cal is evolving nicely and I will continue to pray for his continued progress.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Discussing Something that Never Happened

First, a link - this piece by guest blogger Nitpicker over at Unclaimed Territory - which discusses what Pres. Bush did and did not say in his WaPo interview. While he cited the "not winning, not losing" quote, he did so in a way that, in his own words, he thought it "interesting", although he seemed to make clear that he did not think it was correct. Bush still sees victory as possible, even necessary, even though he never defines what victory would look like.

Fast-forward to today's news conference, and Tom Gjelten of NPR asked the President a question for which that supposed quote was the basis. So, we have a press corps incapable of understanding exactly what an article in the press actually said, and framing a discussion over something that was not said.

What made it worse was that a discussion on NPR with E. J. Dionne continued to discuss the whole question in this bizarre context - everyone continues to claim the President said something he demonstrably did not say - and thus the discourse becomes further and further removed from reality.

Bush would never admit we were not winning. What he said today is little different from what he has said in the past - it's tough, and it's going to get tougher, but victory is necessary and inevitable. He never said in the interview that he thinks we are neither winning nor losing. He didn't change his rhetoric today, or retract his statement, because there is nothing to retract. The whole exercise is some strange, incoherent nonsense that makes a mockery of the press and its role to inform the public. It is bad enough we have a President unwilling, or perhaps constitutionally incapable of dealing with the reality we are facing, militarily in Iraq or politically in America. We have a national press corps equally unable to understand the situation in Iraq or the radically different political context in which we now live. Rather than face the uncomfortable reality, they create easily digestible non-controversies in order to stay within a framework they understand. Not a single reporter asked the President whether or not, with a vast majority of the American people favoring withdrawal as soon as possible, and a recent election confirming this opinion, he thought it necessary to face the distinct possibility of withdrawal. Not one person asked the President if he was taking seriously the ISG report (except for a question to which everyone knew the answer concerning negotiations with Iraq and Syria).

Is it any wonder the political blogs are so popular?

Secularism vs. Clericalism?

Some years ago, German Reformed theologian Jurgen Moltmann published a series of essays on the role of faith in public life entitled God for a Secular Society. Moltmann is no lightweight. His A Theology of Hope inaugurated an entire new way of doing theology by living the faith; Moltmann was inspired by utopian Marxist Ernst Bloch to re-envision theology and the Church as a source of hope, a place where, to quote Jesus from the Gospels, a new thing is being done. He is given credit with starting a movement called political theology in Europe; those who followed in other parts of the world were more directly beholden to Marx on the one hand and actual ministerial practice on the other, and created the liberation theologies that upset the current pope so much he actually excommunicated one of its practitioners, Leonoardo Boff. Moltmann has written numerous weighty tomes on the doctrine of creation, the Trinity, the Church, and eschatology.

I realized the old theological paradigm in the United States - await with baited breath the latest German book because the Germans invented serious scholarship - was dead when I read the first essay in which Moltmann, in arguing for the continued relevance of the Church and its discourse in a secular society uses the Federal Theologians of the 18th century as his discussion point. The Federal Theologians were a group of Swiss Reformed theologians attempting to work out an alternative to the more hierarchical understanding of the Trinity and Providence that was prevalent in more authoritarian parts of Europe. Writing from more democratic Switzerland, the country that invented federalism, they attempted the first real democratic rendering of Christian theology. It is a fascinating historical period, and many of the theologians in question made important advancements in how we can describe the ineffable in a way that is not necessarily compatible with monarchy.

This in no way means they are at all relevant for our lives today. While I find reading theology and philosophy relaxing, invigorating, and even occasionally aggravating, I have ceased to believe that we need to rehash the same debates Karl Barth had with the Liberals, whether Bonhoeffer or Harnack were more representative of the best of German Lutheran theology, or the possible relevance of Hegelian ontology versus Kantian epistemology in constructing theological arguments. These are not just sterile; they ignore the fact that theology is supposed to come out of the lebenswelt - that wonderful Heideggerian term that refers to our particularity, our here and now.

Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall seemed to agree, and published a 3-volume work on "Christian Faith in North America" that tried to do just what I felt needed to be done. He wrote one of the great theological works of the early 1970's. Of course, he wrote it in the mid-1990's, thus rendering him as irrelevant as Moltmann.

With the exception of N. T. Wright, there are no serious theologians that jump up and say, "Hey!". We are starved for serious thought. We need a new way of taking Christian ideas and making them speak to our age.

We do not need the evolving position of Pope Benedict XVI (former Roman Catholic theologian Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) put forth most clearly in a Philippine newspaper by Fr. Roy Cimagala (and reprinted here at Faith in Public, which posits something called "secularism" as one pole of unacceptable social thought, and "clericalism" as another pole. My problems with this evoloving position are many (not the least its Aristotelian "mean between two extremes" approach to ethical thought that creates a fake neutral position between two equally fake ethical extremes), but I find the understandings of "secularism" to be insulting, and of "clericalism" to be disingenuous at best.

The Pope has spoken often against "secularism", and Fr. Cimagala is express in his understanding that secularism, being unGodly by definition, is therefore amoral at least, if not immoral (since God is the standard for morality, and if God is absent from secularism, therefore . . .; is it any wonder I detest the simplistic use of logic? You create false universals, posit an equally fake particular, and that leads you to a fake conclusion). Of course, secular social thought is far from immoral; John Stuart Mill, Richard Rorty, W. E. B. DuBois, Bertrand Russell, and Isaiah Berlin (to name some both of my favorites and the more important non-religious moral philosophers) are all concerned with ethical conduct and a just social order. None of them were particularly friendly toward religion, with Russell even writing abook called Why I am not a Christian. To argue, as Cimagala does, that "secularism" is subjectivism writ large, is simple ignorance.

On the other hand, to claim that "clericalism" - the idea that God should take sides in political disputes - is inherently wrong is at best disingenuous. First, there is an irreducible political core to the Christian faith. Second, as James Cone, Gustavo Guteirrez, Josiah Young and other liberation theologians have argued, God does indeed take sides. He sides with life - real human life, not necessarily feti - over and against all those forces that would bring death and dehumanization. The previouos Pope made many of the same arguments, which has always made me wonder why he and Ratzinger were so hostile to their South American and Central American Catholic brethren who were arguing much the same thing, just using different words. I suppose there is an element of truth, and one I have argued and still maintain, that those with whom we dispute are still children of God, in need of love and foregiveness. That truth should in no way prevent us from saying what needs to be said, and doing what needs to be done. Jesus loved Jerusalem, he wept over Jerusalem. He also pronounced a sentence upon it for its refusal to act as God wanted it to act, and paid a staggering price for that verdict.

The "secularism versus clericalism" paradigm that is evolving in Roman Catholic circles is no more real or relevant than Jurgen Moltmann's discussion of 18th century Swiss theologians or Douglas John Hall's embrace of Paul Tillich for the 1990's. We still must wait for serious theology to adress where we are, and more important, what we are to do.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Dangerous . . . or Irrelevant?

The much-heralded "Listening Tour", which followed the even-more heralded release of the ISG report, is over, and Bush seems determined to send more troops to Iraq. The numbers floated range from 15,000 to 50,000, depending upon the source, but the common thread seems to quote at least 20,000, with 15,000 of those destined for Baghdad alone, doubling our present force in the Iraqi capital. While the press has put the stories out there, it seems only the left end of the Internet is discussing the context within which such ideas are floated. A typical example is this piece at Think, where Bush's earlier claim that he would take the advice of his generals in the field is now, in Ron Ziegler's wonderful turn of phrase, "no lon ger operative". Ignoring the unanimous advice of his generals, including the Army Chief of Staff who has said publicly that Iraq is "breaking" the United States Army, Bush seems bound and determined to do the exact opposite of what he should do if he were actually listening - to Baker-Hamilton, to his military advisors, or to the American people as expressed in the recent election. We are confronted with a potentially dangerous situation, a Constiitutional crisis of epic proportions, should current active-duty military brass refuse to follow direct orders from the Commander-in-Chief and not agree to his orders for more troops to the Mesopotamian abbatoir.

Of course, the generals will most likely suck it up and send the men and women over there. Or they will retire - as many have done - in disgust over the way the Administration is treating the military, and go public with their criticisms. Or they may choose a middle ground, operating within bureaucratic circles to delay or cirumvent as much as possible the carrying out of the orders without actually disobeying them (although this might constitute a crisis-in-hiding). The point is, or perhaps should be, that the President is doing what he expressly said he would not do, and going againt the wishes of the American people as well. Bound and determined to be correct no matter how many people have to die, Bush is presenting us with a very dangerous situation, and our choices as how to respond are not helped by a media that continues to operate under the illusion that Bush matters.

We could get very afraid. We could also, on the other hand, see this as an opportunity to do to Bush what the Republicans wanted to do to Bill CLinton but never could because he was smarter than all of them (including the collective wisdom of the oh-so-wise, Inside-the-Beltway pundit class)- make the President irrelevant to the forging of policy in the United States. A man entering the White House determined to reassert the Imperial Presidency could end it returning the office to its status as cipher that it held throughout much of American history (name an accomplishment of President Banjamin Harrison). Should Bush continue on his reckless course, threatening the deterioration of our military capabilities, the proper balance between the civilian command structure and the uniformed services, the Bill of Rights and American law enforcement in the name of the non-existent War on Terror, we may see the effective end of the Bush Administration come January as the Democratic Party takes control of Congress (despite the media vultures hanging over Tim Johnson's sickbed; Cokie Roberts was almost breathless yesterday in her determination to find trouble for the Democratic Senate). Without actually removing him from office, by asserting its prerogatives over the purse and oversight, Congress could render Bush completely irrelevant to the formation of policy.

I am not suggesting that Bush is not dangerous to our Constitutional balance of power, civilian control of the military, or our civil liberties. On the contrary, he and his Administration are the most reckless, criminal bunch of hooligans to ever waltz through the corridors of power. Rather than react with panic however, a little judicious assertion of proper power on the part of Congress could start the return the balance where it belongs. Rather than talk impeachment, although it certainly seems warranted, perhaps the Democratic Congress will discover that it has no need to remove Bush to render him no longer President.

Nostalgia, Memory, and Christmas (More personal, although a bit political)

I have hesitated to write about the whole phony "War on Christmas" because I earlier made an unwarranted, unethical personal attack on someone who firmly believes such is actually taking place. I didn't want to visit a place that reminded me that I was capable of being as shallow and nasty as the right. I also didn't want to get into an "argument" over this nonsense because, to put it bluntly, it is a bit like arguing with Holocaust Deniers. You don't argue with them; you ignore them. I feel the same way about those who carry on about the War on Christmas. It simply isn't true, and no amount of arguing will convince anyone who refuses to be convinced. When an ideological article of faith becomes "true", it is impervious to factual argument - free markets are the answer to all our ills, Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, George Bush is a great President, liberal secularists are waging a War on Christmas. All of them are demonstrably false and easily refuted. All of them, however are also still discussed as if they had some inherent truth value.

Having said all that, it is hard to ignore the fact is is less than a week before Christmas, except maybe for the fact that, after an earlier batch of winter weather, we hear in the northern prairie are enjoying late-October/early-November weather. The daylight lasts about 4 hours, the kids are getting restless and eager, and my wife is dreading this weekend, with 5 services between Saturday evening at 6 pm and Sunday night at 11 pm. And, as always, there are still presents and cards to buy, wrapping to get done, meal planning, and the inevitable head slap as something gets missed.

I have great memories of Christmas from my childhood. The youngest of five children, my earliest Christmas memories are of a huge, out-of-control day with lots of noise and things going on. I have a picture from one of those Christmas mornings. It must have been 1967, because I was about 2 years old. My mother must have taken the photograph, because my father's leg is visible (but that's about all). The five of us are spread across the floor of the living room and one can almost hear the cacophony of the room.

Some other Christmas memories include the year my oldest sister was freshman, or perhaps sophomore in college. There is nearly eleven years difference in our ages, so while she was enjoying wild times in care-free early adulthood, I was in third or fourth grade. This was the last year of "Santa", and I was up at 5 am to get my stocking (my parents had gone to bed about an hour before). I immediately went in to my sisters' bedroom (my two oldest sisters shared a bedroom, and this was the last year my older sister was home for Christmas for several years) to open my stocking. My sister was all smiles and "oohed" and "aahed" over everything. She had returned from a party about the same time my parents had gone to bed, yet she indulged me in my childhood Christmas joy.

I remember many evenings spent sitting in our living room, listening to RCA records released through the old Grants' store chain - Steve Lawrence and Edie Gourmet will always be linked with Christmas in my mind. Incidentally, if anyone knows where CD copies of those old records are available, let me know; there is a recording of Johnny Cash singing "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" and the Andre Kostelanitz Orchestra performing "Angels we Have Heard on High" that still takes my breath away. Christmas Eve service, carol singing, my father reading the Christmas story from Luke from his old KJV Bible, the huge trees in the bay window - all of it reminds me of Christmas and good, warm feelings.

I also remember horrible fights over tree decorating and putting the lights on; one year my mother threatened me with a yardstick and my sister broke in to hysterics. My brother and I have always had a difficult relationship - it is difficult to define the source, and many of the details are either irrelevant or too horrible to go into any detail - and one year he sucker-punched me so hard I spent ten minutes in a heap on the floor. There were the years money was tight and presents were scarce. Of course, the worst was the year the Jehovah's Witness came to our house, with six of us spread across the living room (my oldest sister was married and enjoying Christmas with her family), and the woman had brought her daughter along. The child's eyes goggled, and my mother only made things worse by trying to foist a gift upon her, insulting the woman and her beliefs.

So, yes, I suffer from Christmas nostalgia as much as anyone, emphasizing the good and ignoring the bad. Yet the bad memories are as much a part of my Christmases past as the good ones, and part and parcel of what "Christmas" means to me. I sometimes think, in contemplating the whole "War on Christmas" thing, that too may suffer from some kind of nostalgia bereft of real memory to leaven the rose-colored, snow-filled glasses of those who would insist that Christmas be observed in only one way, preferably the way they remember from childhood. This is a danger because it prevvents us from thinking clearly and honestly about what the holiday is and how we should celebrate it. We must not separate Christmas from memory, nor indeed any of our life from memory, because it threatens our equilibrium. It would be nice if all Christmases included big snows, laughter, gaggles of children enjoying little but fun and excitement, and quiet moments of contemplation of the birth of the Christ child. They don't and to pretened they either have or should to be real is to engage in nostalgia, which is a servant of ideology (the idea is not original with me; I stole it from Christopher Lasch). Once we start insisting that reality conform to our preconceptions rather than that we follow the ebb and flow of real events, even those difficult to contemplate or integrate into our lives, we are entering the fantasy realm of ideology.

None of this means that I am either joyless or not planning to have a wonderful Christmas with my two small children. I still enjoy listening to Christmas music, although I no longer listen to Steve Lawrence and Edie Gourmet; my speed is more classical and even baroque Christmas music, including great choral peices by Bach. I still am eager to peek in my stocking (my wife and I exchange stockings), but I usually wait a bit later to awaken than I did thirty years ago. Although we have toned down the decorations this year, and have also seriously toned down the whole Santa thing - this is a parsonage after all, and there is a reason the day is called Christmas - we still try to keep a festive house and exchange gifts, even ones with "Santa" on the tag. I refuse to buy into the current, near-insane commercial stampede that is the "Holiday Season", an affront to the real meaning of the day, and prefer quiet to noise. If that makes me a "threat" to Christmas, so be it.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Holding Them in Contempt

One is tempted to wonder why the main stream press is so clueless concerning liberal and lefty bloggers' attitude towards the Bush Administration. They seem to assume, without any concern for the reality surrounding them (not least the recent election), that the Executive is entitled to deference simply because it is the Executive. They thus treat the words and actions of the President and his officials as worhty of comment and consideration whether or not any one in the country gives a fig. The disconnect between the press and the public was once, during the impeachment of President Clinton, a matter of some commentary among the press, although then it tended to come down to how little the public understood the weight of the mattes under consideration. Rather than think that, perhaps, the public was wiser than their media and Congressional representatives, they held the public in contempt for their support for President Clinton and disdain for the Congressional Republican witchhunt.

Fast forward eight years and the disconnect between press and administration on one side and the public on the other is not even noted. Indeed, the press doesn't even bother to note, except in passing, the polls that show the public does not support the President, the Republican Party, or the President's latest trial balloon of increasing troop strength in Iraq. They just report and report and report, and we just shake our heads in disgust. As an example, I heard Cokie Roberts on NPR this morning (why in the world is this vaccuous woman wasting electricity?) and she is the perfect example of the empty-headed, small-minded Washington press corps. Her "analysis" was lacking substance, understanding, or even consideration of policy and the impact of public policy. It sounded much more like a gossip columnist in some monarchy, discussing who is in favor, who is out of favor, and how dare the Democrats actually assume they can govern when the wise ones of Washington have declared them incapable of doing so. It was nonsensical and devoid of any appreciation for what is happening in the nation; it was inside-the-beltway crap at its worst.

I believe what Scarecrow at Fire Dog Lake said about the Administration in this piece applies to the main stream press as well:
[They do] not beieve in America. They don't accept the principle that the authority of government flows from the consent of the people. They don't believe in America's core ideas of democracy, or the rule of law, checks and balances, the Bill of Rights, individual human dignity, or such quaint notions as pursuing negotiations instead of war.

These are the reasons I hold the vast majority of the main stream press in contempt. They reflect the worst of the Administration and its habits of malignity. They do so because they are reflexive in their insistence that the President and the Administration deserve some amount of deference and respect, rather than the strange democratic idea that support and respect flow both ways; since the President does not respect the wishes of the people, why should we accord any deference to him or his policies, especially those that go against the express wishes of the American people? The press are as bad as the government they cover.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Congrats to Me and You

If you, like me, have a blog, you are Time magazine's Person of the Year. If you upload to YouTube, you are Person of the Year. If you comment on what you read on the internet, you are Person of the Year. We have already become a force to be reckoned with in politics, and are making changes in society as well. We aren't just kids swapping rumors at MySpace, or the one-handed porn-surfers. We are the Person of the Year. I think we all deserve a pat on the collective back.

Bizarro World Gets Even Moreso

It is just shy of six weeks since a national referendum left a spanked Republican Party sstanding on the sidelines, with even president Bush admitting the Party had received a "thumpin'". The top issue, of course, was the current occupation of Iraq. Between the election and now, there has been much discussion of what the results of the election would mean for an administration institutionally incapable of accepting criticism. Also, there was the much heralded Iraq Study Group (ISG) report, released with much adulation from Dean Broder and other Washington sycophants, that offered not so much a solution as an opportunity, at least, to think honestly about the mess we have made. There are no real solutions offered, because the ISG could honestly admit that, in fact, there are no solutions left. No matter what the United States decides to do, the situation is what it is.

In a world where elected leaders acted on the behalf of the elctorate, a consensus would be firming up as to how best to extricate oursleves from Iraq as quickly as possible. In a world where politicians were held to account for their words, Joe Lieberman would be trying to explain how he can justify his statement that no one wants to end our occupation more than he does. In a world where there was a press that was not under the thumb of a now-descredited Republican Party, no one would listen to John McCain.

Instead, even as most Americans want us out, the sooner the better, from Iraq, the President, with rhetorical backing from John McCain and Joe Lieberman (name anyone else who is saying it, please) want to actually increase our troop levels by 20,000. Of course, where these troops are to come from, no one is saying, because no one knows. What we are going to do with these troops no one knows, because there is no real policy in the White House. Perhaps there is some magical belief that, by putting more American soldiers and Marines in Iraq, the Iraqis will be intimidated into ending their civil war. No one, at least in the mainstream press, has asked an even more fundamental question: Why, in the face of a national decision to end the war symbolized by the election, and national opinion dead-set against any move to prolong this occupation any more than possible, is the President even floating the idea of an increase in troop strength? Above and beyond the pracitcalities of the matter, why is no one saying what should be obvious - there is no support except among a few die-hards, for such a move?

The President won't listen to his generals. He won't listen to the elctorate. He won't listen to the bipartisan philosopher-kings of the ISG. He won't listen to Congress. There is something almost pathologically sad yet very dangerous going on here, as if he thinks that by defying public opinion and collective wisdom, he can snatch his now crumpled and scorched chestnuts from the Iraqi flames. Of course, it means more death and destruction, but these broken eggs will make the fine omelet of a legacy for President Bush as Wiser than Everyone.

Is it Janueary 2009 yet?

God mend thine every flaw

I have to give a hat tip to Duncan for this, as he quotes the final stanza of "America the Beautiful" in this post linking a short post from Matthew Yglesias. It got me thinking about "patriotic hymns".

I am not a fan of them. I do not think they have a place in church. Too often they are sung, on or around the fourth of July, not in praise of God (as should be the case in church), but in praise of America. Ditto "Battle Hymn of the Republic" (what an awful title, that). The church is not American, it is only in America, a distinction it is necessary to keep in mind if we are not to lose our identity as the Church of Jesus Christ.

Yet, the last stanza of "America the Beautiful" is a powerful prayer - America! America!/God mend thine every flaw/Confirm thy good in brotherhood/Thy liberty in law - that America actually achieve its lofty goals and aspirations. While I do not like the word "brotherhood", either, it is a plea for solidarity, for a national identity that transcends our more communal loyalties. It is also a plea for true freedom and justice, not through the absence of law, but through the legal recognition of them as part and parcel of what it means to be American.

It is also a wonderful protest against the mindless affirmation of all things American that too often occurs in churches. Years ago I saw a horrid children's sermon (in a United Methodist Church, no less) involving the American flag and how it was our Christian duty to protect it. I wanted to take my lighter our of my pocket and light up right there. Anyway, this last bit shows us that, even in the midst of loving our land, there is a recognition that we have not arrived at the goal, we are still running the race for social and racial justice, for freedom and justice under the law, and that we earnestly pray for Divine Providence to fill the cracks and erase the blemishes from our national life. In other words, it is an honest prayer for forgiveness, guidance, and hopefulness in the face of our many flaws.

There are many on the right who honestly believe that criticism of the United States, in whatever form, is unpatriotic. It displays a lack of faith in our leaders, a lack of trust i n our institutions, and a lack of appreciation for the many benefits we share as citizens of this great Republic. I have always felt that, in fact, criticism is the highest praise a person can give. I love America. I think we have constructed, through turmoil and Civil War, social protest and labor wars, court battles and social upheaval, a great nation. Our aspirations are among the loftiest in human history. Our energy is boundless. Our belief in new possibilities is breathtaking. Our race relations are abysmal. Our wealth gap is a scandal. Our current national leadership are a bunch of suparannuated frat boys who need to be bounced off campus as soon as possible. Our laws are being twisted to give more and more arbitrary power to the state, including most recently the revocation of the Great Writ.

We have far to go to become who we could be. We are an ongoing experiment, as Abraham Lincoln, the last great Republican President said. I think it only right for me to admit that, when it comes time to sing it in church, I will agree wholeheartedly with the decision, as long as we sing with gusto the last line of the last verse, and we include those words in our daily prayers.

European Wingnuttery

I will admit to being a Europhile. I love all things peninsular - French cuisine, German philosophy, Italian politics, Swedish . . . health care. Don't even get me started with Britain. In fact, as summer turned into fall and the elections approached, I discussed with my wife the serious possibility of emigrating if the Republicans retained control of Congress this election cycle; I hated to think about it, but I wanted to abandon the nuthouse before the lunatics who were running teh asylum put my name on one of their lists. For several months now, I have visited two sites (Contra Capa and Cristy's, linked to the right) from Portugal. I have enjoyed getting to know someone my own age who lives in a very different society, yet with whom there seems to be an abundance of similarities (she like Marillion!).

In my visit today, I came across this post highlighting comments on a survey of gay support for abortion rights (there is a vigorous debate going on right now in Catholic Portugal over both abortion and gay rights). What struck me most was the fact that, here isn Europe, so often portrayed as superior to America in its political sophistication, was something that could have been written by James Dobson. I suppose nutty ideas know no borders, but it was sad to see an American franchise suddenly sprout in what I had thought was the unfriendly soil of the Iberian Peninsula. Next thing you know, they'll have McDonalds and Starbucks . . . oh, wait . . .

Note: The blog is in Portuguese, but at the bottom of the side bar, just click the "Babelfish" icon, and a very rough, semantic translation will open in a separate window. Give Cristina "um beijos" and tell her I sent you.

Virtual Tin Cup

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