Saturday, July 21, 2007

Saturday Rock Show

Speaking of surreal, I was looking for a video of Peter Frampton doing "Do you feel like we do?" for today over at YouTube. No such luck. Along the way, however, I stumbled over the following video, of Frampton doing a (mostly instrumental) version of Soundgarten's "Black Hole Sun". Other than missing Kim Thayil's rather frenetic guitar solo, I hate to admit that I was rather impressed with this. Judge for yourself. As cover songs go, it's definitely a step or two above Don Ho doing Peter Gabriel.

Some Thoughts On An Exchange At Street Prophets

First of all, the past couple days have sucked. Woke up Thursday afternoon quite ill indeed - fever, chills, feeling like I had been dragged over cobblestones while marched on by elephants. Ibuprofen seemed to help for a while but not much. I woke up Friday morning with no more fever, drenched in sweat, the sheets soaked, and TIRED. I spent most of yesterday sleeping. I seem to be myself again, though the last two days have been so surreal that it's hard to judge.

I want to highlight an exchange I had here at Street Prophets with someone writing under the moniker "The Werewolf Prophet". It may surprise you to learn from this exchange that I learned quite a lot from it. First, I learned that I am quite fed up with people who use whatever victimization they may have encountered in their lives as a badge of honor. I am going to go out on a limb here, perhaps even the slenderest of reeds, and say that the position "Wolfie" stakes out is morally obtuse and offensive. Apparently, he is the first person in the world to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. While I respect that he has escaped the narrow confines of an imposed fundamentalism, I do not respect his refusal to acknowledge the co-humanity of those who denied him his full humanity. Anger and vengeance are understandable, but we Christians, I thought, were to rise above all that.

Second, I just love the whole concept of "my truth". What a wonderful way to stifle discussion. Not only does such a move silence any questions coming from outside. It also walls up the person proclaiming "my truth" inside a prison of subjectivity so strong, it can be unbreakable. It doesn't help, of course, that I for one have not only heard this type of thing before, but have tried it on occasion myself. More fool me.

Finally, I so enjoy it when people create exceptions to the radical grace of God. "Wolfie" doesn't see forgiveness applying to those who until recently led him astray. Along with accusing me of using such words as a "weapon", he sees no reason to extend the same courtesy to those who wronged him as was extended to him by the God who loves him despite his sin.

He accuses me of preaching "law", when, as I point out, I was talking about those three virtues St. Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 13, faith, hope and love. It all flows from the same source, the grace that we cannot understand but is always there.

I also point out that, since "Wolfie" names himself "prophet" (something else I find so precious), the Old Testament prophets tended to announce, along with the righteous anger of the LORD, the simultaneous unflagging love for and devotion to the people of Israel and Judah. In one breath, the LORD would speak of the terrors about to descend, and list the indictments that were their source. Then, the prophet would announce, "How can I abandon Israel, my child?" Judgment and grace go together for the prophets. They always have. They always will. Unless you are willing to extend grace even while you are casting judgment, you aren't so much a prophet as you are a self-righteous human being acting out of "my truth".

Friday, July 20, 2007

Of Lions and Buffalo Packs (with a nod to ER)

I just have a few general thoughts on the video I put up yesterday in which some lions and water buffalo square off. First, were my wife here, she would be near tears because, through it all, the calf was still alive. What that tells me is that lions aren't always the swift killers they're portrayed as being. This pride was inexpert, to say the least.

The point where my own sense of awe is triggered is the appearance of what ER calls a pack of water buffalo. It seems clear that the parents of the calf went off and got a few dozen of their closest friends to come to their aid. The actions of the buffalo display a certain intelligence, a kind of planning, while also respecting the power and danger of the lions. They do not pursue the lions. They scare them off. Once the calf is back with them, they merely chase the remaining lions off.

I still laugh when I see, during the initial approach of that huge herd, one of the lions take off. She sees what's coming and decides that discretion is the better part of valor. There will be other buffalo calves.

What I get out of this is simple - how do we account for the behavior of the water buffalo? How do we make sense of it? There is a display of communal support. There is evidence of a certain level, not just of intelligence, but of forethought that is remarkable. In fact, if this were an IQ test, I think the lions would lose; once that herd of buffalo show up, rather than work together to protect their not-quite-dead kill, they allow themselves to be separated, picked off one by one by the buffalo, and chased away.

There is something so awesome about this little vignette. The ways of nature are strange and wonderful. Once we figure we have a good line on things, we get a piece of evidence that throws everything we thought we knew in to question. I'm not sure who said it, but someone once said, "Not only is the universe queerer than we imagine, it's queerer than we can imagine." if you don't believe me, watch that video again.

Six or seven years ago I was watching some show, I believe on Discovery Channel, about a private effort to map the floor of the ocean in detail. It is a cliche that we know more about the surface of the moon than about three quarters of the surface of the planet, because it lies submerged beneath water. In a section of the Pacific, I believe in the Gulf of California, or the Sea of Cortez, they discovered an area that actually mimicked the ocean. Superheavy, supercooled sea water had pooled in a huge expanse itself hundreds of feet deep. The area surrounding it was alive with all sorts of creatures. The large pool, a lake really, had tides. Ten years ago, if someone had told me there were ocean tides under water, I would have said you were nuts.

I mention this because, like the video of the behavior of the water buffalo, it shows just how little we really know, and how wonderful, strange, alien, and terrible this world is. For all we claim to know, and actually do know, about our world, it seems we are like sophomores, those wise fools. We still have a lot to learn.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Neo-Earth And What It Tells Me And Some Questions For You

That little world map with the yellow and flickering red dots is more than just a cool thing. It gives me information I can use, not the least of which is the unsurprising revelation that the vast majority of visitors here are one-timers. They either stumbled across it accidentally, or perhaps read of it somewhere, or whatever. On the other hand, it does give the number of visits from each little dot you see on that map. I didn't get neo-Earth at the same time I got site meter, and I didn't get site meter until two months in to this whole new blogging gig, so the numbers don't represent the total number of hits I've had. Site meter has been counting since January; neo-Earth has been doing its thing since late January/early February.

Neo-Earth tells me the number of times a particular city has visited my site, Interestingly enough, there are a few - those really big yellow dots, one of them sitting on the US map somewhere in the Kansas/Nebraska area, one sitting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, another in the English Midlands, that are titled "US", "Saudi Arabia", and "UK" respectively. The two biggest visitors are "US" and "Saudi Arabia". I find that more than fascinating.

I also know that I have repeat visitors to this site who comment either seldom or never. That is not only OK, I am glad for all the return visitors. In fact, I'm glad for all the visitors, even those who stumbled across it and clicked the "next" or "exit" button before they even figured out where they were. There are plenty of sites I visit that I have never, and will never, post a comment to, including Eschaton and FDL. These tend to be long-established communities that get more hits in an hour than I have had for the entire life of my blog, and the comments' threads tend to be clubby, chummy, contain all sorts of in-jokes and asides, and by the time I may feel like saying something, or even reading a post, the comments have gone down so many side roads they may be in another county altogether.

On the other hand, the commenters I have here are both reliable and few. Trust me when I say I am glad for the readers I do have, and the relative frequency that certain people have of caring enough, or getting upset enough, to post a comment. Yet knowing I have some readers who visit and say nothing leaves me wondering - what am I doing wrong? How can I improve what I do?

I know ER (and most likely others as well) would insist I should keep my posts shorter than they tend to be. Trust me. I try. I just don't have it in me. On the other hand, with practice . . .

Also, are the topics I cover irrelevant, uninteresting, or not framed or discussed in a manner that makes them accessible, interesting, or relevant? I have made some changes in the general content and focus of this blog since my recent hiatus, and I am pleased with my new emphasis on both parts of my identity - progressive and Christian. That doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement.

I am saying all this to kind of open the door to old readers, new readers, frequent commenters, never-before commenters, any and sundry - how does this blog serve you and what can I do to make it better? It would be nice if those numbers of neo-Earth continued to rise for repeat visitors, because the whole idea here is trying to reach as many people as possible, and discuss with as many people as possible. I'm not interested in standing (or sitting) pat. I just want to keep improving.

So feedback, if you please.

This Is Just Fascinating

I stumbled across metacafe and found a video I would like to share. It involves a pride of lions hunting water buffalo, wrestling their prey from a crocodile, and then being confronted by a whole herd of water buffalo. All those old Wild Kingdom where the herd resolutely ignores their recently deceased member being devoured just got chucked out the window for me. This is the real deal here, from the accent of the guide my guess is in either Namibia or South Africa.

Lion VS Crocodile And Buffalo - For more of the funniest videos, click here
I would like to comment on this, but first I just want some raw reactions to it.

My own? This is one of the coolest videos I have ever seen. Just fascinating.

Please Don't Go There

A couple weeks ago, I wrote here that there are some issues I just won't debate because there is none. Whatever "debate" or "disagreements" may exist are imaginary, the creation of people either ignorant of the subject, or more concerned with muddying the public waters with meaningless questions to create the illusion of controversy. Whether it's the Scooter Libby verdict, the crimes of the Bush Administration, or the superiority of the Beatles over Elvis, there are just issues for which debate seems pointless.

Relatively new blogger Marshall Art had gotten off to a rip-roaring start a few weeks ago when he suddenly had to go on hiatus due to surgery. Last night, in lieu of anything seriously productive (like sleep), I scrolled through old posts, and found out that this wildly successful and free-ranging thread had spun completely out of control. From a rather interesting, occasionally heated, but never dull discussion centering around abortion, with pit stops discussing the relevance of God, 114 comments later the comments' thread descended to - evolution.

Whoa, Nelly.

Now, I could play along with this particular game, if I chose to do so. I don't however, because I learned a while back that, if one accepts one's opponents terms of debate in public discussions - especially when those terms are factually inaccurate - you have already lost. By accepting the possibility that there is something to discuss concerning biological evolution is already to have lost because it creates the false impression that such a position has a certain intellectual legitimacy. It doesn't. I refuse to get in to a phony debate on a non-issue, shedding more heat than light, and giving an intellectually vacuous position the false legitimacy of being a debatable option.

That's the short statement of my position. I wish to flesh it out with just a couple examples. Before I do, however, I want to go back to March, when I posted herethe abstract of a paper co-written by, among others, my sister, who is associate professor of biology at Lincoln University, and a researcher at the University of Delaware. I will be highlighting some of that, but you can click and go back and see how the abstract was used then. I will be calling upon it soon enough.

The foray in to the issue of evolution began this way, with commenter mom2 writing the following:
These people that refuse to believe that human life begins at conception are probably the same ones that believe in the "big bang" theory of creation. It takes a whole lot more imagination (I refuse to call it faith) to think that something as intricate and beautiful as this world came about by some kind of explosion. All of the different species of animals, insects, birds and humans as well are much too complicated to have just happened by some kind of mysterious accident. In the beginning was God.
It seems to me like human stubbornness or desire to be like a god to try to explain away the awesomeness and greatness of God. Evolution makes no sense to me either.

One marvels at the simplicity of such a statement. At one level, there is an abiding faith at the awesome power of a god who can whip up a Universe as complex, intriguing, frightening, and wonderful as this in six days a few thousand years ago. At another level, however, is the ignorance of someone who insists that they understand things better than, say, actual scientists. At a third level is the effrontery of someone presuming to make ignorance a virtue and integral part of belief in the Christian God.

One commenter, les, took up the gauntlet, and offered a standard rebuttal (more power to ya, dude!):
Actually, mom2, I'm a creationist, yet I have no problem accepting evolution as a solid scientific theory. Furthermore, I don't think the two necessarily have to be mutually exclusive - even biblically. Who's to say the heavens and earth being "finished", as read in Genesis 2:1, excludes the principle of evolution? Namely, why couldn't God's finished product include the capability to adapt?

Pretty good stuff. A nice rejoinder, and one I have used myself back when I thought such things as "debates" over evolution made some kind of sense. Mom2, however, was having none of it, however, and responded with the following rejoinder:
Where are all the fossils and evidence to prove the evolution and progression of the species?

One possible response would be "museums of natural history". Another would be "the ground". Interpretations of these fossils can be found in a host of scholarly publications, and popularizations such as the old columns by the late Stephen Jay Gould in Natural History magazine. Responding in this way, however, still gives the question an acceptability that it doesn't warrant. While not particularly polite or conducive to the kind of comity I prefer (even in the midst of heated discussions), a much more honest response to such a question would be: "How stupid are you?"

In point of fact, despite massive gaps in the fossil record (to be expected on a planet as geologically active as ours over the course of hundreds of millions of years), there are wonderful reconstructions of the evolutionary path of species such as horses, camels, whales (the subject of one of Gould's columns that I remember well), and, of course, Darwin's finches, not to mention human beings. There is even all sorts of evidence that takes on that old creationist bugaboo, the evolution of the eye. It's all there, and more, and its been written about, discussed, debated (by scientists) with the conclusions pretty much accepted - except by those who don't want to be convinced, of course.

Marshall gets in to the act, as well. In response to my own comment at the end of the thread, Marshall writes the following:

I can't be sure, but I believe Mom2 was referring to the lack of fossils of transition creatures, or, the animal that bridges one distinct species to another distinct species. Similarities are one thing. There are similarities amongst every different animal group, which isn't surprising, coming as we all do from the same planet. But no half-bird/half-dog or some such thing.

But anyway, the thread goes on as long as someone has something new to offer. I'd prefer it stay on topic, especially since I'm still breathlessly awaiting opposing data to counter my argument. For now, I'd be satisfied with a good reason as to why my argument is not yet made. Either should be entertaining.

"No half-bird/half-dog or some such thing . . ."


I mean it. Wow.

Just one point I would like to make here. While its relevance is questionable, I suppose, it is something to ponder. In the course of the discussion within the comments on this post, Marshall attempts to garner support for a particular moral position by arguing from the scientific evidence of DNA that a zygote is a full human being. This same DNA, which Marshall presents as evidence so incontrovertible as to be unanswerable, also presents the evidence that we share more DNA with chimpanzees than do most other related species. This, however, is evidence of evolution, and is either ignored or discounted. One might hope that those who wish to marshal science to their aid (no pun intended) would at least be consistent.

More to the point, a statement such as the one quoted above shows a remarkable ignorance of the way species are determined, and the physical similarity between some species that are quite distant within the evolutionary web on the one hand, and the bio-chemical basis for determining species differentiation on the other. My sister, whose paper I will be quoting from momentarily, did her dissertation on the subject, and I learned from her that very often the distinction between species is one not pf physiology, but chemistry. The reason there aren't "half-bird/half-dog"'s (bird-dogs, one supposes, like the German short-haired pointer) is because, while there are occasional leaps in the evolutionary ladder (the Cambrian Explosion is one such, part of a theory expounded by the aforementioned Gould known as "punctuated equilibrium, a topic for another occasion), most of the time, evolution works its way in a statistically predictable way.

Finally, I think it is important to see the distinction in both style and substance between the kind of statements given to create the illusion fo doubt and controversy on the subject, and the way scientists actually write about their subject. I present this to ask the following question: Who are you going to trust, those who say they don't accept evolution because it just doesn't seem to track with their own perceptions or people who are educated and trained to do actual science? The gap, always huge, and widening all the time, should become obvious from the following:
Regulation of Expression of 1,25D3 –MARRS/ERp57/PDIA3 in Rat IEC-6 Cells by TGFβ and 1,25(OH)2D3

Benjamin Rohe1, Susan E. Safford2, Ilka Nemere3, and Mary C. Farach-Carson1*

1Department of Biological Sciences, University of Delaware, Newark, DE, 19716; 2 Department of Biology, Lincoln University, Lincoln University, PA; 3Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences, Utah State University, Logan, UT

* Corresponding author

Tel: 302 831 2277
Fax: 302 831 2281

Running title: 1,25D3 –MARRS Expression in Rat IEC-6 Cells Abstract

We examined the transcriptional regulation of expression of the redox-sensitive Membrane-Associated Rapid Response, Steroid-binding (1,25D3-MARRS) protein specific for 1,25(OH)2D3 in a rat small intestinal cell line, IEC-6, that demonstrates rapid responses to 1,25(OH)2D3. 1,25D3-MARRS binds and is activated by 1,25(OH)2D3, but is not itself up-regulated by treatment with 1,25(OH)2D3, nor is there a vitamin D response element (VDRE) in its proximal promoter. We previously reported that transforming growth factor β (TGFβ) increased steady state levels of 1,25D3-MARRS transcript and protein approximately two-fold (Rohe et al, 2005). To determine if this up-regulation could be attributed to the function of a highly conserved consensus smad 3 binding element present in the proximal promoter of the 1,25D3-MARRS gene, we created a promoter-reporter [SEAP] construct that was responsive to TGFβ (200 pM). Deletion or mutation of the smad 3 element greatly reduced the response of the 1,25D3-MARRS promoter to TGFβ. Subsequent studies found that the smad 3 response element is bound by a protein found in the IEC-6 nuclear extract, most likely smad 2/3. Interestingly, although 1,25(OH)2D3 alone did not increase expression of the 1,25D3-MARRS promoter-reporter, co-treatment of transfected IEC-6 cells with 1,25(OH)2D3 and TGFβ shifted the dose response for the response to a lower concentration (100 pM). We conclude that TGFβ is a transcriptional regulator of 1,25D3-MARRS expression via a functional smad 3 element and that cross-talk with non-classical 1,25(OH)2D3-stimulated pathways occurs. The findings have broad implications for redox sensitive signaling phenomenon including those that regulate phosphate transport in the intestine.

The technical exactness and complexity of real scientific work and its detailed expression, while confusing to the non-scientist, should be considered against the backdrop of questions about "half-bird/half-dog"'s. In the end, this is why I really don't like to venture in to the territory of false debates. Those who attempt to raise questions are, to be blunt, ignorant of the reality of science. It might be nice if scientific literature were accessible to the uninitiated, but technical expertise doesn't invalidate the reality that real science is light-years away from the truly ignorant questions of the creationists.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

No Sacred Cows

I am engaged in a bit of a heated exchange with Cameron on this thread at his blog. It concerns a political cartoon in which American troops are portrayed as morally equivalent to the caricature of the evil, Islamic terrorist.

I think the cartoon is spot on in a number of respects. I also think that it is wholly fair to take aim at the rhetoric we use to justify our heinous criminal war in Iraq, and the way our troops are used as pawns, manipulated by rhetoric. Finally, while it should probably go without saying, I think it is important to reply that criticism of the actions of some of our troops and some of the more egregious, criminal acts they have committed is not a slander on all our troops who are in a horrible situation, with no end in sight.

I also think that even were I one of the few who thought our troops are all equally awful human beings deserving whatever horrors they might receive, while despicable, is acceptable. Unless our troops are defending some kind of freedom that doesn't include the freedom to hate them and what they are doing, then I suppose we should all pull up stakes and go home. Are these fighting words? Perhaps.

While perhaps irrelevant, I think some personal items for consideration are in order. Three of my mother's brothers served in military intelligence. Two of them were so deep that their military records are classified over fifty years since their discharges. My mother's oldest brother literally disappeared after boot camp at Great Lakes and was not heard from until the day after D-Day, when he called my grandmother from Switzerland (an interesting place for a naval officer, no?). Another of her brothers served in the Army during the Second World War, his service cut short by an automobile accident that broke both his legs.

My father and his brother also served in the military during WWII, my dad in the Army, my uncle in the Navy.

I am proud of the service of my family to this country. I am proud of all our troops currently serving, doing an impossible task in an impossible situation by incompetent, venal civilian leaders. Neglected, used as pawns and rhetorical props by politicians too ridiculously myopic to see their complicity in the destruction of our military, our troops deserve better than those currently tasked with leading them.

None of this, however, means that our troops are a priori exempt from criticism. My criticism tends to be of the politicians and their rhetoric. My criticism is based upon a deep and abiding love for this country and those who serve in the military, risking more than they should be asked to risk to keep us safe. That doesn't mean that people who don't believe the way I do should remain silent. It may be gauche, inappropriate, and resentful to tar our troops, but it is not un-American.

Sinners In The Hands of a Loving God

I used this line in comments on this thread over at Adam Walker-Cleavland's blog Pomomusings. He asked the question, "What is sin?"

The phrase is a reversal of the most infamous, and misleading, sermon of America's greatest theologian, Johnathan Edwards (I doubt there is a relationship between the first and his contemporary namesake running for the Presidency, but who knows?). I say "unrepresentative", because it should be taken in to account that Edwards' collected papers run to 60 fat volumes, available through Yale University Press, I do believe. Edwards wrote on subjects as diverse as beauty, metaphysics, the revelation of God in the beauty of nature, mysticism, and the power of grace and love. I do believe "Sinners in the hands of an angry God", with its horrifying imagery is used as representative of both Edwards and the First Great Awakening because historians are ignorant of the diversity and power of the even. It is all too easy to caricature Edwards if one only considers this particular sermon.

In any event, the reason I turned the tables on the sermon is this - I no longer accept the idea that God harbors anger towards human beings. Indeed, I do believe that God's love is tinged more with sorrow, rather than wrath. While there is Biblical warrant for speaking of God's anger (just read some of the prophets), I think that Christians who want to create a dialectic, or dichotomy, between God's love and God's anger, or between God's mercy and God's justice, miss the synthesis inherent in the crucifixion. All those old dichotomies and contradictions are taken up in to God and released and given new life as God's unfailing love and grace for all creation. We are called to participate in this great gift God has presented us. I do not believe there is any anger in God towards his errant creation.

We are not suspended above the fires of hell by a slender thread in the fingers of a God who would just as soon let us fall to eternal perdition. We are buoyed up by a God who would shelter us, not only from that eternal separation, but from our own folly, evil, and resistance. While I do believe this is part of Edwards' point - the mystery of Divine grace in the face of human sin - I would erase the initial imagery. God does not deliver us despite God's sense of justice, but precisely because of it. We are, indeed, sinners in the hands of a loving God.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Left Wing Blogs and Third Parties

Anyone alive and aware at the time remembers the 1992 Presidential bid by Ross Perot. In the summer of that year, Perot had a solid majority in most polls, with the eventual winner, Bill Clinton, a distant third. Perot, alas suffered from a politically fatal gun-shot wound to the mouth, dropping out of the race and showing the world his insidious paranoia, then getting back in the race after he had ceased to be taken seriously. He did manage to get 19% of the vote, and while he most likely didn't effect the outcome in any way, he did make everyone sit up and take notice of third parties and protest candidates.

In 2000, Ralph Nader made his most serious run at the White House. At the end of the Clinton era, the left was frustrated with Clinton's middle-of-the-road approach, and the right pretty much hated everything about the guy. With Gore and Bush, at least rhetorically, there really didn't seem to be much of a difference (although, to be honest, the press hated Gore so much that it was difficult to discern exactly what his positions were). Nader convinced enough people on the left (including me) that there wasn't a dime's worth of difference between the two parties and candidates, and that if one was a serious liberal/left-winger, he was the only candidate who represented that particular perspective. While I do believe that the latter argument was generally correct, I do not think that was a good reason to vote for him. In fact, I have regretted ever since my vote for Nader. And not just my vote, but my public advocacy for him, and my parroting of the "Republicats" nonsense that spilled from Naderite literature.

If the previous six-and-a-half years have taught us nothing else, they have most surely taught us that there were, and are, very fundamental differences between the parties, and the candidates that represent them. This year, one need only glance at the opposing fields of presidential candidates to figure that out. While I know ideologues are not happy with the Democratic field (except for Dennis Kucinich), it seems to me that, even taking ideology in to account, any individual candidate on the Democratic side (with the possible exception of Joe Biden, who worries me on a number of levels) outshines the entire Republican field of candidates. Since Biden won't approach the nomination, this is why I have no fear or doubt about who will win the Presidential election next year.

The media, however, are getting all frothy over the possibility that New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg will make a vanity run at the White House as an independent. David Broder in particular has written a couple columns on the possibilities of a Bloomberg run.

I think Bloomberg will find little traction other than with Beltway pundits this year for one simple reason - the liberal and left-wing blogs. Unlike fifteen and seven years ago, this new dynamic has changed the way political discontent and action is focused and channeled. While there is nothing wrong in theory with third parties or third party runs at the White House (in New York, at least while I still was a resident, ballot access was so easy that, the first time I voted for President, in 1984, there were many tiny party candidates, including a whole array of socialists and leftists, as well as right-wing and single-issue candidates; my favorite was from the Temperance Party). In practice, however, they are ineffectual, doomed to failure, and steal much needed pressure from the mainstream debate. If there is a serious left-wing, or right-wing, or even middle-of-the-road third party run, it marginalizes that section of public debate; people can say, "Oh, so-and-so has that area marked off as his/her territory, and we don't have to take it seriously."

The best thing about the liberal blogs, for me, is the way they take citizen anger and frustration and channel it toward advocacy within our current system. Rather than create a ground for a fruitless, and most likely unsuccessful third party, Fire Dog Lake, The Daily Kos, MyDD, and others are taking activism mainstream. They are also having a demonstrable effect, not just upon the public debate, but upon practice as well. Just consider the all-nighter Harry Reid has called in the Senate; this was first advocated by a number of liberal blogs as a way of highlighting Republican obstructionism. Were they wasting time calling Harry Reid all sorts of names, giving up on him because he isn't perfect in some way or another, this session wouldn't be happening, and the Republicans wouldn't be called out for what they are.

I think that, at least in the near term, the hopes and dreams of third parties will wither on the vine because the best political protest is being used to push for real change within the system as it exists. It may never create the kind of structural change many, including myself, might prefer. It most certainly has had tangible results, however, and this only shows the possibilities inherent in keeping the pressure up.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Music Monday

I suppose I telegraphed this yesterday, but I have just two words to begin: Black. Sabbath.

I know that most fans believe that sabbath ceased to exist for all intents and purposes when they kicked Ozzy out in 1979. Ronnie James Dio will always have a special place in my own musical heart, however, because he is (a) short; (b) has one of the more distinctive voices in heavy metal; (c) and so earnest, taking himself and his goofy lyrics so seriously. Also, I think that "Heaven and Hell" is one of the best Sabbath songs ever, right up there with "Paranoid" and "N.I.B."

Lest you think I have taken leave of my senses completely, I think much of Ozzy's later solo material, with Zach Wylde on guitar, is far superior even to the music of early Sabbath. My own favorite is "No More Tears".

Christ and Culture Revisited

In 1951, H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a now-classic study of the relationship between one's beliefs concerning Jesus as the Christ and culture, which Niebuhr understood rather broadly as a mix of what we now call society and the cultural products of society. He gave four general views as distinct approaches which, while fuzzy around the edges, serve as a good typology for the ways the Christian churches have stood in relationship to the societies in which they exist, and of which they are a part. They were, in the order in which they appear in his book, "Christ Against Culture", "The Christ of Culture", "Christ Above Culture", and "Christ and Culture in Paradox". While dated in many respects, I think these distinctions are important as an intellectual exercise for interpretation. I do not think that they are necessarily good guides for figuring out a "best way to be the Church", however. We all feel our way along as best we can, of course, and often change our minds. For me, at this point in time, I would like to offer what I think is both a descriptive and proscriptive assessment of the relationship between the Churches and our contemporary American society and culture.

I think that it is necessary to take all four stances simultaneously. Part of the reason for doing this is my own commitment to erase the demon of choice and decision from the Christian life. For too long, we have been told that being a Christian involves making a choice. It is either, in the post-Enlightenment pietist view, an intellectual decision to accede to a body of doctrine concerning all manner of things. Or, in the Kierkegaardian, neo-orthodox view, it is an existential decision concerning how one is to live one's life. The radical view - that of liberation theology in all its forms, and post-Christian spiritual philosophy a la Henry Nelson Wieman and the ethical humanists - is that we need to decide to work for a better society, either through a recognition of the Divine "preferential option for the poor", or through a recognition of our ethical duty to make our society better because of the necessities of the moral law. While I do not wish to dismiss either of these positions, I do want to suggest that they are still held captive by a prior commitment to the whole notion that we must make a decision, and make a stand.

First of all, I think that it is impossible for anyone to completely divorce him- or herself from the society in which her or she finds him- or herself. It is possible to make certain imaginative leaps, and to think and live critically. Even the options for what constitute a critical stance, however, are dictated by social norms that, for reasons that should be obvious, are part of what all of us think of as "natural". A counter-cultural lifestyle is just a mirror of all that society thinks of as appropriate and acceptable.

Second, I think that the Church deludes itself when it thinks it can exist as, in the words of Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, "resident aliens". We are as much products of our society and all it sees as both good and evil as we are products of our baptisms, therefore redeemed and renewed for the service of God. Because the alternatives placed before Christians for living are always given in terms relative to the society and culture in which they find themselves, it is impossible to simply jump out of that set of givens and announce something sui generis, wholly other, handed down from Above on Stone Tablets.

Having said that, I do think that an uncritical embrace of the surrounding society is certainly not an option. Just as Jesus spent much of his time berating the religious and political leaders of Judea (and what distinctions actually existed between these modern designation?), we should speak the word of powerlessness, of faith, and love, of justice in a time when power, knowledge, hatred, and vengeance rule. At the same time, we should not bow to certain conventions of acceptability dictated by social position, status, race, or income. I have often argued that a great ministry would be to go to bars, especially those where prostitutes and drug addicts abound, and be a presence and moment of grace in lives filled with despair. In the late 1960's and early 1970's, this was popularized as "the ministry of presence", but it tended to be reduced to simply "being-there". I want something far more radical; I want our middle class churches (I surrender to my own middle class status, but call us to account for our inherent biases) to get out there and offer the love and forgiveness to those most outside our society. Not in a patronizing way. I want us to not just sit around and chat; we should be offering services, a way out of lives of despair and desperation and fear. Jesus did nothing less, scandalizing those who thought a spiritual leader should hang with a more respectable crowd.

Another point where I differ from many is my disdain in general for Christian alternatives to popular culture (this should be obvious). I think that the evangelical alternatives such as CCR, Christian television (DoveTV or whatever it's called; we don't have satellite or cable so I'm not up on these things), and other "family friendly" alternative cultural products distract the church from the possibility of understanding who we are as a people. If we insist our young people listen to various "Christian" artists and ignore Slipknot, or Snoop Dog, or Toby Keith, we are missing out on a necessary part of what it means to witness - we are refusing to understand the attraction of popular culture and addressing those concerns. It is not enough, however, to do this and then offer CCR as an alternative (to continue this example). I think it is important to listen to the most discordant voices around us and hear a word of grace and of judgment in the rage-filled screech of death metal, the preening and posing of the rappers, and the stories of infidelity, drunkenness, and broken lives and hearts that fill country music. If we refuse to listen because they are too loud, or filled with horrible imagery, or dirty words, or offer acceptance of activities we think are not conducive to a Christian way of living we are actually missing the point - we are refusing to hear people who are, like ourselves, children of God, in need of love, acceptance, care, respect, and are worthy of being listened to.

The dialectics inherent in the traditional Christian notion of the incarnation - the simultaneous immanence and transcendence of God - is too often difficult to balance. We either become comfortable with the idea of God immanent with us, or transcendent to all that we do and have and are, and we lose sight of the truth that lies within the paradox: God is both immanent and transcendent precisely because of God's love. God is both outside any category of thought or existence (however one wishes to define that) and intimately present in each moment of our lives. The incarnation, the person and work and death and resurrection of Jesus who is the Messiah, is just the clearest manifestation of an intimacy-within-distance that is rooted in the Hebrew faith as it sorted out its relationship to this God who brought it out of Egypt, nurtured its independence, and continued to care and love a people whose homeland had been stolen and who were cast in to exile. The dialectic of immanence and transcendence is at the heart of the Jewish and Christian experience of God, and as such should have served as a warning to those who insist that to be a Christian is to choose.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Stealing Our Anger And Fear

Getting ready for my usual "Music Monday" feature, I stumbled across the following video. Yes, I am telegraphing my plans for tomorrow, but my reaction to the video was such that I felt it deserved some commentary outside the usual boundaries of "just plain entertainment" that I try to keep with my regular music posts. Two things before you click "play". First, the video contains the graphic image of a Taliban execution by AK-47, so you might want to be aware of that. Second, even if you don't like heavy metal, the video montage is more affecting if you watch it with sound (I've tried it both ways). The song is by Tony Iommi, the guitar player from Black Sabbath, sung by Dave Grohl, formerly of Nirvana, currently of the Foo Fighters, called "Goodbye Lament":

September 11, 2001 was the first day of a week's vacation for me. My father's 80th birthday was on Saturday, and Moriah, who was then four, and I were going to drive to my parents' for the party (Miriam was three months old and my wife was not really up for traveling 775 miles with a three month old). I got off work at 7:00 am and came home and got in bed. An hour or so later, my wife rushed into our bedroom, waking me up out of a barely begun restful snooze and started screaming that the United States was under attack - the World Trade Center had been hit, the Pentagon had been hit, there were stories of other fires and strange things in Georgetown, etc. I wandered out to the TV room, and stared uncomprehendingly at the images of the Twin Towers burning and smoking then, without comment, went back to bed (I was exhausted)>

I got up about 12:30 and asked my wife if I remembered correctly, something about the US being attacked. Like everyone else that day, she was in shock, but said yes, that's right, the Towers had fallen, who knows how many were dead, the Pentagon had a hole in one of its sides, and so on. Like pretty much the rest of the country, I sat and stared at the television screen for the rest of the day, wondering at what had happened, and why. Every time they replayed the footage of the Towers collapsing, or of the planes hitting the Towers, I thought of the people inside; we were watching people die.

In the years since then, all the sorrow and rage and fear engendered on that horrible, beautiful September morning has been stolen from us, used for ends and purposes that have little to do with vengeance or justice (for myself, I recognize my own acceptance of vengeance as a legitimate reaction to the events of that day; it isn't pretty, and I wish I could feel otherwise, but I want the people responsible for that day caught and/or dealt with). All the righteous fury, all the fear, all the goodwill the world showed towards the United States in the ensuing days and weeks has been stolen by an Administration that saw the opportunity to use those emotions engendered on that fateful day for its own ends.

They continue to do so. Michael Chertoff talks about his gut telling him another attack in imminent. The Administration, duly noted by our stenographic press, insists that we are fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq, rather than dealing with a messy, multi-factioned civil war. Rudy Giuliani is running for President on the graves (some unmarked) of the real heroes of that day, the firefighters and other first responders who lost their lives doing what they loved - going in to burning buildings to save people. Joe Lieberman has built an entire second career out of snuggling up to our President and his exploitation of our reaction.

There are days, ladies and gentlemen, that I hate these people for what they have done. There are days that I am so enraged at how out of control, how unfocused we have become, I want to scream. Watching this little compilation video, which brought back to me all the sorrow and anger of that beautiful sunny day, I am convinced more than ever that, no matter the political cost, it is imperative that we provide backbones to any and all politicians who are willing to take a stand - NOW - and say, "Enough!" Impeachment should not only be back on the table, it should be the table. Those who died that day, so visibly and horribly, deserve nothing less than to have their memories salvaged from those who have destroyed the reputation of the United States, and our rule of law, on the pretense of remembering and avenging their deaths.

Virtual Tin Cup

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