Friday, June 29, 2007

Some Thoughts on the Seminary Experience

I have recently had general discussions with a couple friends, one old, one new, on the fact of going to seminary. It has prompted some reflections I have had before with others who ask about it, and I feel like sharing them, for whatever it's worth.

First of all, like all academic experiences, the classroom part is only part of the seminary experience. The relationship between academics and extra-curricular is closer, as I will explain in a moment, but it is only part of it. It is important to remember that people come to seminary for a variety of reasons, from a variety of faith backgrounds, with a variety of goals. It is also important to remember that, like any experience, what one receives is only proportional to what one gives, and what one allows oneself to take in. I had classmates whose theological position shifted one hundred eighty degrees during seminary; I had others who didn't budge an inch, viewing the experience as one more hurdle to get over to the real goal of serving a church.

When I started, I remembered the words of a woman in the midst of seminary. She explained that seminary plants dynamite at the building of your faith, and early on blows it all to smithereens. The remaining task is one of constructing, brick by brick, something stronger. I would only add to this that sometimes the new bricks have to be made first, and it doesn't stop when you walk out, degree in hand. Should you be open enough, the rebuilding of faith takes the rest of your life.

Part of the intensity of seminary is the fact that a person's faith is intricately tied up with their identity. Any blow to something a person believes is immediately construed as a personal attack. Any question that confronts an article of conviction is an attack on a person's integrity. I witnessed discussions in seminary classrooms that could have descended to barroom brawls because each side was much too emotionally involved.

Because of this intensity, there was a whole lot of partying, and laughing, and serious discussions and arguments outside the classroom. Interesting enough, we rarely left issues in the classroom, but talked and argued and drank and laughed about all this stuff together outside the classroom. The degree to which one was committed to investigating all this stuff tended to determine how willing you were to keep going after hours. There were many times we gathered at a pizzeria over on Wisconsin Ave, NW, with multiple pitchers of beer, and ate and drank and talked theology until the wee hours.

Because of the emotional intensity, people tended to become more in touch with their won inner conflicts and problems. The amount of therapy seminary students went through was phenomenal, myself included. You want to investigate your own motives, and the sources of those motives. It could lead people down interesting paths, sometimes scary paths.

I remember well Lisa's crisis. At the halfway point through her first semester, she was sitting and crying on the curb in front of the academic building, because it had just hit her that the last post she had clung to supporting her old way of believing was gone. She wondered if there was any place to go. I sat, consoled her, and reflected on my own journey both to and away from that place. The nice thing, the best thing, is that we have done it together.

Friday Night Rock Show

I won't be around tomorrow, so here's some stuff to tide you over while you're reading me.

In 1995, Lisa and I attended our last rock concert together. We had previously seen The Moody Blues and Yes. We headed out to the state fairgrounds outside Richmond to see The Allman Brothers Band. Lisa complained that they were much too loud. I complained that they let their opening act, Rusted Root, play too long. I still loves me some Allman Bros, especially as traveling music. So, here's some Allman Brothers for you:

And from Austin City Limits

Exhibit "A"

I have been saying for a long time that the religious right has been played by Republican pols, and played for a fool. I offer, as latest exhibit "A", today's column by Michael Gerson in The Washington Post, as dissected here by Pastordan at Street Prophets.

I have nothing to add to the substantive critique. I only offer this as a kind of "meta" post on the whole thing. Michael Gerson, along with being factually and analytically challenged, obviously cares little for issues of faith. He only cares how they can be leveraged by politicians for electoral advantage. This display of seriously flawed political nonsense is perfect for this reason alone: it demonstrates just how ridiculously apathetic to religion the Republican Party and its party operatives are (now that's some German sentence construction, by the way; the verb is all the way at the end of the sentence! sorry, ER).

I'm It?

Apparently, I've been tagged, whatever that means. I'm contrarian enough that I would rather stand here with my arms crossed and exclaim, "Nope, won't do it." But, why not? It's all in fun. I'll toss in the book business, and add CD's as well. I just don't have eight bloggers to tag, so we'll let that one go for now.

Eight Trivial Facts About Me:
1. I recently went from a size 40 waist to a size 34 waist pants, and am holding steady under 200 pounds.

2. My first paying job was as a swim instructor at my high school.

3. My first job after college was as a canvasser for Greenpeace.

4. I have appeared in supporting roles in productions by two different community theater groups, one in Belvidere, IL, the other in DeKalb, IL.

5. I have had a mustache since I was 20 years old, recently adding a beard so I didn't look like a 70's porn star.

6. I used to follow professional wrestling, to my wife's amusement and utter embarrassment.

7. In sixth grade I was knocked unconscious by a bully who was twice my size. He and I would laugh about it in years to come.

8. In four years of college, I had a roommate for sixth months.

1. I own between 500 and 600.

2. Currently reading - The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900-1950 by Gary Dorrien.

3. Recently purchased - The Making of American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, and Post-Modernity, 1950-2000 by Gary Dorrien, and The Crossan-Wright Dialoge, The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright in Dialogue, ed. by Robert B. Stewart.

4. Favorite Books - Waiting for the Galactic Bus by Parke Godwin; The Last Lion: Visions of Glory, Winston Spencer Churchill, 1974-1932 by William Manchester, and Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture by Edward Macan.

5. Book I've read that everyone talks about without having read - The Warren Commission Report on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

1. First LP purchased - The Grand Illusion by Styx.

2. First CD purchases - Fly Like an Eagle by The Steve Miller Band.

3. Current CD count in personal library - around 400.

4. Favorite band - Dream Theater.

5. Currently listening to - Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards by Tom Waits.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Rated "R"

Over at ER's place is a link to a site where your blog is rated. I tried it out and here's the result:
Online Dating

Mingle2 - Online Dating

Why? Because I include the words torture, dead, abortion, and kill. The first time I went, they also complained because I included the words zombie and abortion. Remember, this rating is based upon the appearance of the word, not context.

Back in the 1930's Hollywood set up what became known as the Hayes Office, which was actually a censorship office. Rules were set concerning all manner of things considered indecent, from the length of kisses to the absence of any kind of profanity. The reason? Why people might be offended? The most famous swearing on film occurred soon after the institutionalization of these rules - Clark Gable's last words in Gone With the Wind. Until the 1960's there was a conspicuous lack of realistic dialogue in film.

When Jack Valenti took over the MPAA after leaving the Johnson Administration, his first major accomplishment was abolishing the Hayes Office and instituting a rating system. The rating system has been remarkably successful, although the way ratings are assigned has changed over the years. Infamously, Midnight Cowboy was given an "X" rating because of the realistic portrayal of male prostitution. It still won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Today, it might garner a "PG-13". This is not due to what George Will loves to call "the coarsening of our culture" (I really hate that phrase). Rather, it is due to the stunning acceptance that reality and its depiction on film should move closer together. In reality, people use foul language. In reality, people appear nude in front of one another, and even sleep in the same bed. In reality, when people are shot, or stabbed, or strangled or fall off tall buildings, the result is often bloody (in the case of strangulation, there is also the voiding that occurs). While bullet holes have always appeared in film, their more realistic depiction in film today is as much a protest against violence as it is a pornographic enjoyment of it.

While I am a little hurt by my rating, I suppose I am in proud company. While it may indeed be a sign of the coarsening of our culture, I prefer to think of it as a protest against silly, arbitrary rating systems.

NB: The rating thing appears at an online dating site. I did not go there to check out chicks. That is just where it happens to be. Please, no jokes or questions about that, OK?

The Anti-Intellectualism of our Media Elite

I once applied for a job as a writer at a weekly newspaper in southern Virginia. The editor was pleased and very positive until she read the writing samples I had submitted. I was turned down for the job because I didn't write for what she termed was "the average reading level" of the population - sixth grade. I was quite shocked and hurt by this; I was turned down for a job because I wrote smart, or something like that. Before ER can jump in, I recognize this is a legitimate complaint; editors don't want to get swamped by a bunch of calls and letters complaining that readers can't understand what the world they're reading. In journalism, clarity is everything.

I have struggled since then with the awareness that my impression of what I write does not correspond with the impressions others have. While I do use some tortured construction, and I seem the compound-complex sentence's best friend, I aim for clarity at all times, both of argument and of language. Apparently, however, because I don't use simple sentences (and believe me, I admire those who can construct pithy sentences that get to the point), my dreams of a career in journalism will never be fulfilled. I have resigned myself, reluctantly, to living two lives - the life in my head where I write clear sentences and paragraphs, and the life of readers who struggle through searching for a thread to get them from the beginning to the end.

With the media's shrill attack on Al Gore's book, The Assault on Reason, I feel I am in good company. The chief complaint against Gore, and his book, is that they both are too smart. The first piece of evidence I will introduce is from Eric Alterman's latest column from The Nation, which should be read in its entirety here:
The Post's Outlook section published . . . another assault on Gore, this one by Weekly Standard editor Andrew Ferguson. Astonishingly, Ferguson began his screed by asserting, "You can't really blame Al Gore for not using footnotes in his new book.... It's a sprawling, untidy blast of indignation, and annotating it with footnotes would be like trying to slip rubber bands around a puddle of quicksilver." I say "astonishingly" because, as the annoyed Mr. Milbank pointed out in the same newspaper, the book contains 273 source notes spread across twenty pages right there in the back. So common was the anti-Gore animus that it apparently blinded everyone involved with the piece, thereby allowing Ferguson to humiliate himself as well as the newspaper with an accusation so amateurish it dissipated with a mere glance at the book.

In an attempt to complain about Gore's erudition, Ferguson tried to assert that Gore did not source his work. Happily for the rest of us, Ferguson only embarrassed himself by missing the fact that Gore used endnotes rather than footnotes, which most readers feel are disruptive and break the flow of argument.

Another example, from today's Daily Howler, is the first entry, entitled "Millbank Bollixed Again", captured in full:
Once again, Dana Milbank ran into too many big words when he watched a Big Dem give a speech. White House hopeful Bill Richardson was giving the speech—with subsequent Q-and-A’s, no less!—and poor Milbank found himself stuck in the audience:

MILBANK (6/28/07): Leading a detailed, hour-long discussion about Iran in which words such as "fissionable" and "Abrahamic dialogue" were invoked, Richardson demonstrated why he is running a distant fifth for the Democratic presidential nomination, and why, in a CNN poll released this week, 54 percent of respondents had either never heard of him or had no opinion of him.

Poor Milbank! The discussion in question had lasted an hour, and several large words had been said! Later in his confessional “sketch,” Milbank helps us see how brutal it was. The speech “occupied nine single-spaced pages and had the warning ‘3,325 words’ at the top of the text,” he explains. He details the brutality:

MILBANK: When an attempt at a joke fell flat, the candidate added: "That's supposed to be funny." He could be heard to utter phrases such as "I revert back to the Nunn-Lugar initiatives, which have been underfunded," and "the IAEA naturally has the lead on nuclear issues," and "there are at least six major reasons why Iran is strategically significant." When he finally uttered the words "in conclusion," Richardson chuckled, perhaps realizing the challenge he had presented to his listeners.

Imagine being asked to sit through such statements as “the IAEA naturally has the lead on nuclear issues!” And imagine how it feels to be told that there are six reasons for something!

For years, the Post has reveled in its growing know-nothing culture, with various pundits rushing to complain about the long speeches they’re forced to endure—speeches which may contain long words and statements of stunning complexity. In August 2000, David Broder said he almost fell asleep during Gore’s convention speech—a speech which plainly rocked the election, sending Gore soaring in the polls. In recent years, Broder has continued to grouse when Hillary Clinton makes him listen to detailed discussions, and Milbank recently embarrassed himself with the utterly ludicrous “Washington Sketch” about all the big, long words Gore used when he discussed his new book. The sheer stupidity of such presentations doesn’t faze these toasted Posties, who express the type of Versailles culture often found among powdered elites.

Tomorrow, we’ll offer final thoughts on that op-ed column in which the Post asked someone who counts on her fingers to expound about global warming. Increasingly, the Post seems incapable of being embarrassed. But life has always been like that inside the world’s great pleasure domes.

Milbank is one who chided Gore and his book because Gore manages "to annoy just about everyone" because "he's the smartest guy in the room". This complaint would be silly if it weren't partly to blame for the past six and a half years; the press's relentless attacks upon Gore's intelligence - not that he didn't have any, but that he seemed to have too much - are part of the reason George Bush managed to eke out enough votes to force the Florida showdown (read The Daily Howler if you don't believe me; I'm not saying it's the only reason, but it sure is part of it).

If it were just these examples, I would shake my head in wonder. It isn't. Charles Krauthammer spent months touting George Bush as the next Winston Churchill, including our dysphasic Presiden't attempts at giving speeches. The press insists on writing about issues such as evolution and global warming as if there were two sides to the story (it's all about fairness and balance after all . . .) when no such other sides exist. The tortured and overused construction, "There are those who say . . .", is a lazy journalist's fallback when he or she would like to insinuate controversy where none exists. Chris Matthews spends hours on end gushing about Fred Thompson's looks, Mitt Romney's shoulders, and complaining about Hillary Clinton's voice, and we are led to believe he is a serious person doing serious journalism.

The impression I am left with after this cursory survey is that it is our media whose reading level hovers at around age 11. They have difficulty understanding dense issues of substance, or they are so entrenched in the superficiality of our television/glamor/tabloid culture that they can't escape discussing our Presidential candidates as if they were celebrities on the red carpet, or through some weird paternalism they assume most Americans (among the best educated people on the planet) are so stupid that discussions should avoid complexity, confusing substance, and nuance - whatever the reason, I am glad I didn't get that job at the Greensville County Paper. Why would I want to work with people who thought their audience was that stupid?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

That Great Radical John Wesley

In comments in a thread below, Marshall Art asks the following question in reference to the issue of reading the Bible:
How does and should experience be used to understand Scripture? Where do you even get the idea that you SHOULD use experience in the manner you suggest? Is there any Biblical justification or teaching in the use of experience, or is it just some new age concept by some modern liberal thinker?

This "new age concept" was implicit in the work of John Wesley, as outlined by the late Wesley scholar Albert Outler. Outler explained that, for Wesley, there were four pillars for living the Christian life, and these four have come to be known as "the Wesleyan Quadrilateral". In order they are Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Each informs the other, highlights various parts of all, and change and move and grow as one deepens in faith, moving towards perfection in this lifetime (that is, perfection in love).

That is part of where I came up with the idea that experience should inform our reading of Scripture. That, and common sense.

Honor and Integrity, Republican Style

Just when I said I wasn't going to comment on each little outrage that appears in the news, something comes across my computer screen that makes me just want to howl with rage. In an effort to keep myself from pounding the keys on my laptop through to my desktop, I will attempt to put this particular incident in some kind of larger perspective. Of course, by so doing, I will probably end up denting the desktop from pounding so hard.

Think Progress has a piece today expanding upon a story I heard on NPR this morning concerning the "revelation" that a former member of the Bush White House legal team, now a federal judge, lied under oath when he was questioned about his role in internal White House debates over the issue of the detention of foreign combatants. My initial reaction upon hearing this was, "What else is new?" After consideration, and Durbin's rather limp response (I think the word he used during the NPR story was "misleading"), I must say that I am tired of the lying, and I do think it is time one or two of the Democratic Presidential candidates started mentioning them.

Serial falsehoods are SOP when these men and women go before Congress. Since they are led by a Vice President who views himself and his office as outside any framework of scrutiny and oversight, bolstered by legally moronic opinions by should-be-disbarred John Yoo that, in "wartime", a President can do whatever he or she wishes to do in his or her capacity as Commander-in-Chief, it should be no surprise that they lie. They lie. They lie about having lied. When called on it, they lie when they say they never lied about lying. It's in the air they breathe, the water they drink. The entire Bush Administration has been one big lie.

When we look back and remember Bush's pledge to restore honor and dignity to the White House, we must remember that his reference was rather narrow. He was insisting he wasn't going to receive oral sex from an intern. Back in the late-1990's, all the right-wing pundits were aghast at having to tall their children their President was at the receiving end of what turned out to be an inexpert act of fellatio. Where is all their concern now that the entire Executive Branch is a pack of liars? Of course, sex is much worse than lying, as we all know, so whose kidding whom here?

What makes this all the worse is the fact that there are folks who call themselves Christian out there who insist, over and over again, that the Bush Administration is in fact an exemplar of Christian values. Leaving aside war, and torture, and "extraordinary rendition", and domestic espionage, and the general shredding of the Constitution, since when is lying OK? There is not one act of this Administration that is defensible on Christian grounds. Not a single one. Anyone who argues otherwise is either lying themselves, ignorant of the facts, or both. There is simply no defense for anything these people do.

Until Articles of Impeachment are passed and a trial commences in the United States Senate (oh, Lord, John Roberts would be presiding judge. . .), there is little hope of any honor or integrity in the White House until the January 20, 2008, when a Democrat enters the White House.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Who Am I?

Over here at Cameron's place and here at Marshall Art's blog I am involved in some interesting discussions that revolve, in the end, around the whole issue of identity. What does it mean to be a human being? What does it mean to be me, as an individual? There are as many answers to these questions as there are questioners, I think, but I provide an answer, in different ways in different contexts, that end up in the same place - the vigorous assertion of identity by individuals is no substitute for the granting of identity by official organs. Indeed, in a very real sense best demonstrated most recently by the Bush Administration, it is important to realize that, failing the granting of identity, or having that identity removed by fiat or force of law renders an individual a non-entity, a non-person, holding no rights or privileges any legal organ of any state has any reason to recognize or respect.

I first realized the implications of this fundamental reality upon reading Richard Rubenstein's The Age of Triage. Rubenstein's fundamental interest is the Holocaust; his examination of the history of various ways in which states have removed legal identity from individuals and whole populations shows that, no matter how interesting or even convincing this or that theory of identity is, it means nothing if not backed up by official paperwork. From the Enclosure Laws in Britain to the de-humanization of the Jews in German-occupied and controlled Europe, no amount of philosophical or theological protest could escape the fact that states are capable of rendering human beings non-human, thus outside any concern, at will.

Of course, the history of chattel slavery in America shows the same conclusion. In the course of the most infamous Supreme Court decision in our nation's history, Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote that, not only were slaves not citizens, free blacks were no more citizens of the United States than were slaves. The complainant had no standing to sue because, as a non-citizen (a legal non-person) no African-American had "any rights a white person need respect". From then until our contemporary situation in which the President can strip a US citizen of his or her citizenship, and whisk his or her away to an undisclosed location without recourse to courts, to lawyers, to any appeal to our constitution or even our sympathy, we must remember that the most important realistic aspect of our identity, whether we like it or not, is the one granted us by the state.

Should you doubt me, try an experiment. Travel to a country other than the United States, Canada, or Mexico. Romania, say, or Thailand. Toss you driver's license, your birth certificate, your credit cards, and your passport in an incinerator. Go about your business (having used your ATM card to get yourself some cash in the process before it, too, was destroyed) until accosted by local law enforcement, and asked for a form of identification. You respond that you have none, but that you are who you say you are, you are doing nothing wrong, and you wish to pass unmolested by the local gendarmerie. Should you emerge from prison long enough to contact a US consulate or embassy, I promise that by the time your identity is established, we would have passed through one or two Olympic cycles, at the very least.

This is the ultimate fault of any discussion of identity that fails to be aware of this rather important dimension - the legal one. This is the root problem of libertarianism/anarchism, of a kind of philosophical and theological monism that assumes psychological or biological monism, without reference to any larger community, including the legal one that actually grants us our identity in the way that matters most.

Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while in a Gestapo prison awaiting execution for the part he played in a conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler, wrote a poem of the above title, and ended it with the line, "Whoever I am, I am thine, O Lord." This is a wonderful sentiment, yet there is something tragic about it as well. Bonhoeffer was recognizing that, living as a non-person in a basement cell, there was little recourse to any other identity. It may have given him spiritual comfort, but it did nothing to save his life.

Another "Meta" Post, Ignore At Your Leisure

You might have noticed that this blog has changed subtly since I returned from my little hiatus a while back. There are reasons for that. The biggest reason was that I realized I was losing myself, my distinctive voice, and becoming indistinguishable from any number of other liberal/progressive bloggers. Part of my identity is as a Christian, yet as my wife pointed out, I rarely posted anything substantive about religion, and in fact was getting in to all sorts of areas best left alone. I feel refocused now, even if I don't always post on the latest outrage from the Bush Administration, or the latest bit of nonsense from the media, because I feel I have found a surer footing.

While the temptation to enter in to debates on issues that arise out of the latest bit of news always exist, I feel justified in feeling good about my decision, and the new direction (or perhaps renewed is a better word) I am taking because I think that, all other things being equal, much of our public dialogue is much ado about nothing. As the recent Washington Post series on the Vice President shows, our current Administration is, in fact, totally out of any kind of control. As long as impeachment remains off the table, there really is no point in harping on how awful things are, because, in truth, nothing short of getting these men and women out of office will change the way things are. When articles of impeachment are passed and a trial starts in the Senate, then, maybe, I might start back talking about matters of immediate public concern. For right now, I think the Beltway Stranglehold on our national discourse, as surreal as it is, is too strong, and I am such a tiny voice in this conversation, that my energies are better spent on other topics.

I have not forsworn progressive politics, or my utter disdain for the clowns who run this country, or the really stupid things our media puts out there, or the utter failure of the Democrats to really do the job they were elected to do - end the war and put a stop to our criminal Executive Branch - but I get tired of it all, and have found other interests that are both more constructive and more interesting. The future may be progressive, but we aren't there yet, and I would prefer to make my contribution in my own way. In my own words. With my own voice.

Finding My (Theological) Roots

As a follow-up to my last post, I want to reflect a bit on how exciting reading Dorrien's history has been for me. I have written previously of my own frustration with current academic theology. It really began when I purchased Jurgen Moltmann's God for a Secular Society: The Public Role of Theology, and the first essay was on . . . the federal theologians on seventeenth and eighteenth century Switzerland. Snore.

That was compounded by Douglas John Hall's three volume Theology in a North American Context, which I found to be wanting in a number of ways. Now I know the chief want was an almost total ignorance of American theological liberalism.

In the meantime, I have been wooed by the American pragmatist tradition in philosophy, as well as the pluralism of Isaiah Berlin. Yet, philosophy is, to me, incomplete, even at its best. Finding this deep well from which to draw - a well, moreover, of our own, American, construction - has been a blessing. I certainly don't agree with everything I read; I do, however, find solace in the fact that my own struggle, and the struggle of mainline churches today, are echoed in previous historic battles with both secular liberals and progressives on the one hand, and fundamentalists on the other. There really is nothing new under the sun . . .

One of the most important things I have found is a desire to keep theological reflection secondary to the life of actual Christians as they are actually lived out. For too long, a theology influenced by European Calvinism insisted that the theological task was a necessary first step in the Christian life. We had to get it right before we could move on. For me, that meant not going anywhere. Now, I know that we move, and reflect on that movement. Since where we are changes as we move, what we reflect changes as well. There is no sin in changing one's mind.

Hall was correct in one respect - the influence upon mainline academic theology by foreign influence (German academic theology on the one hand; indigenous theologies from Third World Christians on the other) have blotted out much contextual reflection on what it means to be a Christian in North America. One of the complaints leveled against the pragmatist position, then and now, in both philosophy and theology, is that it reflects a certain bourgeois comfort and complacency, an optimism that trusts in renewal through reform. I agree with this critique, but I also would suggest that it accurately reflects prevailing American values. There is nothing wrong with being middle class, and there is nothing wrong with having a theology that reflects the best bourgeois values. The alternatives - the kind of crisis theology offered by Reinhold Niebuhr, especially in his earlier, socialist phase - is an important corrective to some of the more drippy sentimentalism of pre-neo-orthodox American theology. Yet, Niebuhr, I believe went too far in the other direction, and ignored one aspect of American liberal theology - at its best, it was a protest against many aspects of our society (poverty, racism, the corrosive effects of capitalism upon various social institutions) that Niebuhr himself shared. The problem which he highlighted, a lack of understanding of what he called the tragic element of life, may be true, but I think he and his European counterparts over-emphasized that element a bit much. As the aforementioned Edward Scribner Ames wrote, there is indeed a tragic element of life, but part of the Gospel message is that tragedy does not win in the end. The "crisis" of the crisis theologians was a rage against their god that failed - the optimistic liberalism of Harnack, Ritschl, and Euro-American progress in its secular and religious forms as a result of the First World War. They were spurned lovers.

We can't get behind the neo-orthodox movement, but rather than flail around looking for a way out of the impasse, we can look to our roots to find all sorts of resources to move forward. That is part of the gift of Dorrien's work - intellectual and existential tools to find out what it means to be a Christian in America without having to learn either German or Spanish first.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Finding Myself In Good Company: Edward Scribner Ames on the Reality of Religious Phenomena

I am currently reading the second volume of Gary Dorrien's three volume history of American liberal theology, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900-1950. I am presently reading the section on the rise of what came to be known as "the Chicago School", a species of religious liberalism that was influenced more by William James and John Dewey than by Jonathan Edwards and Billy Sunday. As a group, they offered an intellectually vigorous alternative to the more thin gruel of the Social Gospelers, as well as moving within a very definitely uniquely American strain of thought, the pragmatism of William James and John Dewey.

I just finished a paragraph I would like to reproduce as food for thought, as it demonstrates a theme that I have continually harped on as a necessary prerequisite for thinking seriously about religion, and for taking the fact of religion seriously against some contemporary critics who seem unwilling to treat it so. The paragraph is a summation of the first work of Edward Scribner Ames, philosophy professor at the University of Chicago, and pastor of a then-growing Disciples of Christ Church near the campus. Raised in the non-creedal, theologically insouciant tradition of his denomination, Ames found theology dull and irrelevant. Philosophy, especially the empirically minded variety of pragmatism just coming into definition and practice in the psychology of William James, provided a way for Ames to continue to take religion seriously, be an active, fervent minister, and shed much of the supernaturalism and speculative dimension of what he considered irrelevant theology. Ames' first major work, The Psychology of Religious Experience, is heavily indebted to both James and Dewey, but with a very definite personal flair. The following is from p. 230 of Dorrien's book:
[Ames] began his early major work, The Psychology of Religious Experience, with a Jamesian description of religion. The prevailing definitions of religion are either narrow or vague, he noted. Kant defined religion as the knowledge of one's duties as divine commands; Schleiermacher defined it as the feeling of absolute dependence; Hegel defined it as the knowledge posses by the finite mind of it nature as absolute mind. Ames did not cite James's specific definition of religion - "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude" - which had its own narrowness problems, but he argued that in contrast to the prevailing alternative, James was broad and concrete. For James, "religion" was a collective name, like "government". It did not signify any specific belief or attribute, but included many practices, beliefs, and sentiments. Religion was a name fore the many ways in which people engaged in religious practices. For James, as for Ames, there was no such thing as a single essence of religion. On empiricist grounds, Ames banished "essence" language altogether. He suggested that even such words as idea, image, and concept should be replaced by such words as reacting, associating, attending, feeling, perceiving, reasoning, and the like. IDeas are comprehensible only in the context of their history and by their effects, he explained, expounding a Lockean theme. So-called "ideas" are movements of imagery and feelings. Mental life is the cognitive process of mediating ends and smoothing the way for action. With Hume and Hames, he believed that just as there is no such thing as an essence of religion, there is no such thing as pure consciousness. Thought is always particular. We never merely think, but ablways think about something, just as we never merely feel, but feel cold or warmth or pain: "In the same way, consciousness is actually of this or that kinf, and there is nor more a consciousness in general than a tree in general."

In other words, to speak of "religion", or even "Christianity" without speaking in very specific terms about particular instances of religious practice or particular Christian communities of faith is to speak of nothing at all.

I find myself comforted that I am in such good company with a long tradition of American pragmatic empirical thought about the religious experience.

Music Monday

This past winter, I purchased the book Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 by British music journalist Simon Reynolds. A chronicle both thematic and chronological of the various branches that sprouted from the roots of the punk explosion in Britain, it begins with John Lydon's guest spot on BBC radio, in which he revealed himself as more than just a foul-mouthed nihilist but a sensitive aesthete with a wide-ranging taste in music. The end of the story is the waning of both the musical ideas and the hijacking of the movement by corporate interests for profit by the mid-1980's. At its height, it was one of the most creative forces in contemporary music. As a college student at the tail end of its most creative moment, I enjoyed many of the fruits of the labor of these bands and individuals.

First up is the band Joy Division. Short lived, due to the suicide of its lead singer, the band produced some of the most interesting, intense music of the early post-punk years. What I find most interesting is the fact that the lead singers whole demeanor was not one of joy, but almost caricatured depression. Just listen to "Love Will Tear Us Apart", and try and find any joy there. This is "Transmission/She's Lost Control":

One of my favorite bands of the period was The Beat (called The English Beat here in the US because there was an American band of the same name). They had a minor hit here with "Save It For Later", which Pete Townshend loved so much he performed as a solo acoustic bit during his taped solo concert in Brixton in 1986. Here's the video of the original:

Finally, there was Southern Death Cult. Beginning as a Goth band led by singer Ian Astbury, the band shed first the "Southern", then the "Death", becoming The Cult. Their first major-label release, coming after the postpunk movement had lost creative and cultural steam, while not well-loved by Reynolds, was still far and away one of the better recordings to emerge in the mid-1980's. That the band turned in to a corporate band is sad, but Love is still an awesome listen. The following is a clip that includes the title track and the first single, "Rain" (I couldn't find anything with "Phoenix"; "She Sells Sanctuary" is great but not the best cut on the album):

Do any of you have favorites from this genre and era? Let me know, and another post will surely follow with requests.

Are Christian Progressives Being Played? Obama at the UCC General Synod

There is much discussion of Sen. Barack Obama's speech to the General Synod of the United Church of Christ in Hartford, CT. In that speech, Obama made the assertion, that is both obvious and banal, yet heralded as heroic, that the Christian Right "hijacked" Jesus for partisan political ends. I fail to see why this obvious sentiment, having been repeated by many over the years, is somehow "news" except that we have a liberal politician and Presidential candidate saying it. Alas for others who are both Christian and of a progressive and liberal bent, I can only say that this is a less than heartening development.

The vocal and very public rise of the Christian Right has been documented ad nauseum, and I for one believe it is in eclipse, even while it continues to make much noise and have a death-grip upon Republican Party politics, especially in this Presidential Pre-Primary season. Part of the reason I believe that the Christian Right, for all the nuisance it can still cause, and all the noise it still makes, is now and will continue to fade as force to be reckoned with is the dawning realization that the blind support of one political party have failed to yield tangible results, with the possible exception of 44 states banning, either legislatively or constitutionally, same-sex marriage. We are no closer to Christian prayer being mandated in public schools, the removal of evolution from the science curriculum, the outright banning of abortion, or any other of the main themes of the Christian Right than we were thirty years ago. In fact, while the Republicans had a working majority in Congress, they failed to move forward (with one exception) on any of these issues (the exception was the recently upheld so-called "partial-birth abortion" ban). While this has heartened some, most conservative Christians are waking up to the simple fact that they have been used and manipulated by the Republican Party for the purposes of gaining and maintaining power, with no real desire to move forward on their agenda.

Now, Obama is doing for Progressive Christians what first John Connally, then Ronald Reagan, did for the Christian Right - saying things to them they have been saying to others for years, giving them the kind of legitimacy they must have lacked because a politician failed to say them. For me, I would have much preferred than Obama said little about this. I will assume he did so out of good intentions and a serious commitment to progressive Christian views. This does not mean, however, that his political views are in lock-step with those of progressive Christians.

More important is this - even were he elected President, the argument between politically conservative Christians and their liberal counterparts is one that cannot, indeed must not, be a part of public concern. This is an issue to be hashed out between and among Christians, and there is no reason to believe there could be an end to these debates. To me, it is rather troubling that a public figure of Obama's stature would choose to pick sides in a debate that has little to do with public affairs. It is all well and good that Obama takes solace from his faith, and finds his political positions rooted in aspects of his Christian faith. This only reduces Christian debates to partisan bickering, rather than serious question divorced from the various swings within the American electorate.

There are many progressive Christians who are heralding Obama's statement; there are even some non-Christians who are glad. I would much prefer Obama talk about substantive proposals for ending the Iraq occupation, reinstituting Executive submission to Congressional oversight, health care reform, and other issues than chide members of the Christian Church for disagreeing with him. It is unbecoming, and distracting from real issues. It also poses the threat that progressive Christians will be taken for the same ride the Christian Right has been on since the rise of the Moral Majority.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Something to Think About: Reading the Bible as a Beginning, Not the End of Christian Devotion

My wife and her associate pastor have set aside the lectionary for this Christian Year and are preaching a series of sermon series, rooted in the Wesleyan idea of threefold grace. The first part was called "Rooted in Christ". The second part, on-going now, is called "Growing in Faith". Today's service was entitled "Through the Grace given in Searching the Scriptures." She used as her text 2 Timothy 3:14-17 (the following is from the Revised English Bible):
But for your part, stand by the truths you have learned and are assured of. Remember from whom you learned them; remember that from early childhood you have been familiar with the sacred writings which have power to make you wise and lead you to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All inspired scripture has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, or for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man of God may be capable and equipped for good work of every kind.

I want to pause a moment to offer some thoughts that Lisa's sermon, and this text, brought to me, with a bit of a coda at the end on one of my favorite hymns, which opened today's service.

Not to get all post-modern on you, but I think that Paul's little bit of advice - or, should we be technical, the author of this epistle attributed to St. Paul - is important, but lacking in the kind of contemporary qualifications necessary for truly opening the Scriptures. In fact, I would go so far as to say as there is a certain unspoken post-modern assumption buried within this missive that needs to be made explicit in order for the radical nature of the advice to really shine. I realize I may be reading in to the Scripture something that is not there, but bear with me. For the author of this bit of sage advice, please recall, "sacred writings" and "inspired scripture" was what we call "The Old Testament" or the "Hebrew Bible". Should we be a modern, critical reader, we might note that there is nothing either explicit or implicit with the Hebrew scriptures that points specifically to Jesus of Nazareth as the embodiment of God's promised deliverance. The bone of contention between Jews and the newly-formed Christian movement, at the time the second letter to Timothy was written, was a debate over what scripture actually said concerning issues of messianism, national deliverance, and the like. I want to side-step for a moment the question of whether or not these debates differed on a this-worldly versus other-worldly approach to this question, to focus on this issue alone: the entire controversy that led to the eventual separation of the Christian church from its Jewish parentage came down to an issue of reading.

Buried within this seemingly innocuous, indeed somewhat authoritarian missive to remember one's Bible-reading is the radical idea that new ways of reading offer new ways of thinking and living. It is all well and good to insist that we return to the Scriptures, and remember all the benefits gained thereby. To be honest, however, returning to something we have previously read is always turning to something we have in fact not read, because we are not the same person we were when we originally read it. We are changed, and the text changes with us. The voice we hear changes. The emphases and accents change. Even the language itself may change. Just as Heraclitus said that we never enter the same stream twice, we never encounter the same text twice. Returning to the Bible, because of the very nature of reading, is never really a returning, but always a new beginning.

The service opened with the Fanny Crosby hymn "Blessed Assurance". Fanny Crosby was a voluminous hymn-writer. Living and working in the poor areas of New York City, including Hell's Kitchen, blind from birth, she had writing partners who approached her with what contemporary musicians would call "a riff". They would play the opening line, or chord-structure, and Crosby would say, "This sounds like . . ." and give the opening line. The two would then sit down and compose the hymn in tandem, although sometimes the completed hymn would be brought, with minor changes necessitated by Crosby's versifying. While steeped in late-Victorian sentimentality, Crosby's hymns still resonate because of the earnest simplicity and transparency of her faith. I love "Blessed Assurance" because of all the hymns she wrote, this works best in a large musical setting. The bigger the congregation, the better this hymn sounds. I especially like the bald confession of submission in the last line of the last verse - "filled with his goodness, lost in his love." I always choke up on that, because that is the goal, after all. Singing these words, one knows that Crosby believed this about herself. It is, not so much a confession and testimony for me, as it is an honest, fervent prayer:
This is my story
This is my song
Praising my Savior all the day long
This is my story
This is my song
Praising my Savior all the day long
Lyrics by Fanny Crosby
Music by Phoebe Knapp
p. 369, The United Methodist Hymnal1988, Nashville,TN: The United Methodist Publishing House

Let's Party Like It's 1929

Over at Fire Dog Lake, Ian Welsh has a piece on the latest deconstruction of the regulatory safety net put in place to thwart another market meltdown and economic collapse like the one that happened when my parents were kids:
Back in the early 70’s a proposal was made to repeal the securities regulation that required that short sales on stock (selling a stock now, but delivering it a later date, in the hope that the price has gone down by the time you have to deliver) only be done on an up-tick in price of the stock.

Leave aside the merit of that regulation for the time being, it came into existence as part of the New Deal, after the Great Crash.

In the 70’s a proposal to repeal it got nowhere. There was a huge public outcry, and it was shelved.

In June of this year, the up-tick rule was ended by the SEC.

No one outside the securities industry cared and it barely made the news.

Welsh goes on the highlight the biggest deregulatory blunder of the Republican-held years, the 1999 repeal of Glass-Steagall, that was designed to prevent the consolidation of financial institutions and the conflicts of interest that accompany such amalgamation. The rest of the article is an interesting comparison between the economic/financial/governmental atmosphere of 1920's America and our present age, with Welsh highlighting the fact that, along with the disappearance of the regulatory safety net, the biggest economic threat is debt. Not just consumer debt, which is unsecured, but the debt financial institutions incur as a result of all that unsecured debt. Banks use all that credit card debt as collateral for loans. Some of them go to homeowners in the form of mortgages. Some goes to small business owners. Huge chunks of it, however, go to investments overseas, particularly in China. This is where the risk is greatest; as there is no legal structure to force foreign businesses to pay back loans, should the Chinese decide to write off these debts, or should they renege in some other form, there is nothing substantive holding the house of cards together.

Already, we are seeing signs that unsecured bank debt is leading to serious problems. The collapse of the so-called "subprime lending market" (really predatory lending practices on those only marginally qualified for a mortgage) is leading to serious consequences. Of course, the worst part about this is that is was telegraphed well in advance. A year before the housing bubble actually burst there was almost constant buzz about when it would burst and what the fallout would be. Were financial institutions truly rational, they would have cut back on such loans, restructured or refinanced others, and generally eased the fall. Instead, they all sought to get as much short term gain as they could; the result were hundred and thousands more marginal loans than should have been made. When the bubble did burst, these last to get on board the train were the first to be booted off. The problem, of course, is the train didn't stop. It wrecked, and foreclosures are way up. Thanks to another wonderful act of corporate charity on the part of the Republican Congress, it is much more difficult to file for bankruptcy, so there are fewer ways to escape the debts incurred partly as a result of bankers greed.

While all this is a tragedy for homeowners, there are banks teetering on the edge. All those marginal mortgages which are now worthless, and most likely never to be repaid, were used as collateral for other loans. Such leveraged loans, and the intricate web of paper that underlies them, are the keystone to a major economic landslide that is already shaking and quaking. Since so much of our financial system is internationalized (without any legal framework for managing it) this is not just bad news for the US, but for all of us. It was the collapse of international banking, due in part to economic retraction in the early-1930's, that led to the general collapse of world-wide capitalism we call the Great Depression. The market collapse in 1929 was bad and led to horrid consequences, but it took a while for the real and final blow to fall.

We are setting ourselves up for the same kind of thing now. Of course, none of this is discussed, not because we Americans are stupid or ignorant, but because editors and journalists at our major news organs don't understand this kind of thing, so they think we don't, either. When the collapse does come (and it will; the question is only what the magnitude might be) we may ask ourselves why we didn't see it coming. Thankfully, some did. If only their voices were heeded.

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