Saturday, July 28, 2007

An Extra Music Post - Casting Crowns

In honor of ER's post on Keith Green, I thought I'd highlight the one contemporary Christian artist I like. Casting Crowns speaks to me, sometimes speaks for me, out of the depth of my own faith, and lack of it. They have a new CD coming out August 28, and a new single. Below are, first, the song that, no matter how often I hear it, makes me weep from deep within, because it speaks of my own fear, my own cowardice, my own desire to be what I wish I could be, but fear I will never be. It might be overused, but I can't help it. It's "Voice of Truth":

Also from their previous CD is a song that ponders the wonder embedded within the strange thing called Christianity, that the God who created the Universe has some kind of sense, some kind of relationship, desires to be with . . . me. It's called, "Who Am I?"

Finally, off their new album, The Altar and the Door, is their first single, "East to West":

Perhaps I will make a muddle of it, but I feel a need to explain something here. These songs touch me because they reflect the very deep sense I have of the reality of what the Church and the Bible talk about. It is too personal to relate, too deep for words, too strange to comprehend. Sometimes I think I hide behind debates about the nature of Christianity to mask my own sense that, in the end, it all comes down to the feelings expressed in these songs, feelings that highlight not glory and praise, but doubt, fear, awe, and the desperate wonder that comes from a very personal Divine-human encounter. I would take refuge in such subjectivism, but I cannot, so I try to make sense of it all. When all is said and done, though, the reality sung about here - this is my experience put to music. I cannot make it any more plain than that. This band, this singer, these songwriters say what I cannot say because, if I said it, it wouldn't make sense. When they sing it, it not only makes sense, it becomes real.

Saturday Rock Show

I will always be saddened by the demise of Rockford's MediaPlay. Along with the almost inexhaustible supply of death metal - I had no idea it was so popular here! - they also had a great variety of prog and prog metal. The best contemporary label is Germany's InsideOut and its American affiliate. Each IO CD comes with a catalog, and with the help of Amazon, I have managed to keep myself supplied with some really good music.

Among them is Ayreon, the studio project of Dutch multi-instrumentalist Arjen Lukassen. Producing what are essentially rock operas, often with fantastic, sometimes over-the-top themes, he has always managed a consistently high level of musicianship among his various guest musicians and singer. On The Human Equation, the story of the mind of a man in a coma, with the various facets of his personality sung by a who's-who of prog metal - James LaBrie, Mike Baker, Devon Graves, and Devon Towshend among them - Lukassen surpasses all his previous efforts. Here is "Day 11: Love".

An Imaginary Acceptance Speech

When I work, I have a whole lot of time to think. Last night, I started to imagine what the acceptance speech of next year's Democratic nominee for President might sound like. For what it's worth, here it is.

Fellow delegates, honored guests, my fellow Americans:

A generation ago, one of the great political parties of this country was captured by an ideology of fear, resentment, anger, and greed. Nourished on the money of the skittish wealthy and corporations who saw the main chance to diminish the gains of working people, feeding the American people a constant stream of anxiety, we now sit at the end, viewing the wreckage they have wrought upon our land. Our military is in tatters. We are less secure from very real dangers and threats. Our system of public financing is out of balance. Held hostage by a small group of ideologues who would rather see nothing accomplished than work to solve the peoples' problems, Congress had been ineffectual in working towards solving the myriad problems we face. Our public discourse is distorted by an adherence to outmoded ways of thinking.

We have the power to change all that. As the Presidential election eight years ago showed us, more powerfully than ever before, every Presidential election is the most important election we face. Every voter matters. Every vote counts, and must be counted, to insure that the wishes of the American people are heard. This November, we face a stark choice between the failed policies of the past eight years and the opportunity not only to change course, but to offer the people something our opponent cannot - hope. 16 years ago, then-Gov. Bill Clinton stood before this convention and said that he still believed in a place called hope. We recall his words today because now, more than ever, we need to find hope again. We need to remember that we are better than our worst fears. We need to remember that, even in the worst tragedy that befalls us, we are mightier than our foes because our strength rests upon our ability to welcome as many people as possible in to the American home.

Our opponents offer us only fear and exclusion. We are to fear those who worship God differently, or a different God. We are to fear those who speak a different language. We are to fear our neighbors who are gay, because their love is a threat to our love. We are to fear the future because it may bring danger. In the end, the only currency our opponents trade in is fear. There seems to be no answer to the constant invocation of all the threats to our livelihood, our way of life, and our national existence, except this: None of it is true.

Fear is the last refuge of the weak, and the American people are not weak. Fear is the last refuge of those who themselves are afraid. When our leaders preach and practice the politics of fear, they expose themselves as weak, fearful, skittish before the world. For the past eight years, the politics of fear has led us to a war of choice, broken our military, bankrupted the public purse, and reduced our public discourse to the dialogue of a Marx Brother's movie. We are no longer admired and envied around the world, but both feared and ridiculed. We are no longer the shining city on a hill both John Winthrop and Ronald Reagan reminded us of, but the blighted and encircled armed camp afraid not only of what is outside, but perceiving the enemy within at every turn. Our resolve is sapped even as we are called upon to sacrifice more - although, as we all know, the sacrifices are always called for by those who sacrifice the least.

I make a pledge to day as I accept the nomination for the office of President of the United States. I will never stop fighting to repair the damage wrought upon this great land over the past eight years. Make no mistake, our country has suffered not only the ravages of a war of choice, but the neglect of much of our physical and fiscal infrastructure as the small-minded, the greedy, and the corrupt have sought to enrich themselves at the expense of the common good. We hope to change that, and we will change it. I believe that hope is always more powerful than fear, and also more true to what is best in the American people, and I will never allow those who preach fear to prevail.

Make no mistake. I know the road between now and November will be filled with the lies and slanders and fear-mongering of our opponents. They will stoop to nothing to destroy the credibility of this ticket, this party, and this vision of an America renewed, strengthened, and revitalized by hope. Any and all failings, small and large, real and imagined, will be presented to the American people as reasons to run from hope and embrace fear. As a candidate for Presidency, not for godhood, I admit that I am not perfect. I pledge to you, the delegates to this convention and to the American people whose desire for a new beginning, a new birth of hope cannot be pushed aside by the fears of the powerful, to fight every twist and turn, every lie, distortion, and even every accusation immediately. With each fight, I will remind all of you, Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, that such tactics reveal the pettiness of our opposition, the smallness. It also reveals that they are unworthy of the office they seek if they continue to rely upon the politics of lie, innuendo, and personal destruction to scare away the American people. We are better than that, and this November, we will prove to all the world that America is better than our worst fears. We are stronger than our weakest elected officials.

We hope. With hope we will move forward to victory in November, and begin the task of rebuilding all that the politics of fear have torn down. Shalom, salaam aleykum, and God Bless the United States of America.

It isn't perfect, but something like this would bring the house down. At least my house.

Friday, July 27, 2007


I have moved from the early days of liberal American political theology (James Luther Adams, J. Deotis Roberts, Martin Luther King, Jr) to the second generation of American process theologians. These are the men and women who follow the thought of Alfred North Whitehead's Process and Reality and his main interpreter, Charles Hartshorne. If ever a theology was to be considered bunk, here it is.

There is nothing more enervating to the spirit, more destructive of awe, more tiring of mind and heart, than to consider the castle in the sky created by people who think they are actually talking about something connected with anything like reality. Most of the discussion among process theologians resemble arguments among scholastic theologians - refinements of points left murky by the founders, or the insistence that only in process theology are the real questions answered in a way that is true.

I just can't get past my gut reaction to it all. Bunk. Hogwash.

I admire the intellectual ability that allows these men and women to discuss with all seriousness the difference between God's primordial nature and God's consequent nature, or consider whether, as real entities, rocks have consciousness. I marvel at the insistence that there is something called "mind" and something else called "soul" that exists separately from, and has a life outside, the physical matrix of the body. I can follow the arguments, because I understand the vocabulary, and the rules seem pretty clear; I just refuse to grant that they are speaking of anything worth considering. It's all earnest and sincere, and driven by a double devotion to God and to use Whitehead's vocabulary of a new metaphysics to make clear what is otherwise murky. I simply refuse to grant them the satisfaction of having succeeded.

Sorry for the rant. Had to get that off my chest. I feel better now.


A minister I once knew well told me a story of her oral exams prior to graduating from Wesley Seminary. During the course of the exam, Prof. Roy Morrison, a wonderful, curmudgeonly old Unitarian Universalist skeptic on all matters theological (he taught philosophy of religion) asked her, after she mentioned grace, "So, is grace like electricity?" Her response was beautiful, and while it probably didn't satisfy Roy all that much, it has captured my imagination ever since: "No, it's more like vulnerability." As a United Methodist, grace is a central tenet of our way of thinking about the relationship between God and humanity. For Wesley, grace was the central fact, and mystery, of the divine-human encounter.

As fact, it explains wonderful unmerited love of God that goes before us, runs with us, and prepares us for growth in love. As mystery, it serves as no explanation at all, because it begs all sorts of questions that, unless we rely upon all sorts of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, resist any explanation at all. This mystery - why would the God who created the Universe care all that much about us? Why would a God offended by the gulf that separates us from Divine Guidance and freedom grant us access to that love and freedom unmerited and unwarranted? To these questions all sorts of answers have been posed, but none of them satisfy, because they all end up begging questions that result in a spiral of reflection and contradiction. For some, that is enough to reject the entire scheme. For me, however, it just means that there are mysteries that are best left as mystery. No one can explain gravity, but we cannot deny its reality. In a theological sense, grace is like gravity. It is all pervasive, the source of our faith and the unexplainable mystery behind the impossibility that is the Christian faith. We grope in the dark, with only grace as our guide. It ignites not just our faith, but our hope and our love as well.

To describe grace as vulnerability captures one of the mysteries of grace that escape any explanation. It is the vulnerability of God that opens the Divine life to human sin, waywardness, finitude, and death. It is the vulnerability of human persons who open themselves to the promise of life, of hope, of love, and of freedom before God and other human beings to live and declare their allegiance to something wholly other. Mutual vulnerability is always dangerous; we place ourselves open to the Divine with the understanding that such not only brings hope and faith, but also danger and the threat of annihilation. We always live with these threats, of course. Living in the light and faith in grace only makes us aware of our contingency, our sinfulness, and death. Grace is the vulnerability of Jesus hanging on a cross and forgiving those who put him there. Grace is the refusal to surrender to all those forces that tell us we are wrong, nonsensical, irrational, illogical. Grace is the source of that human audacity that dares to speak of that for which words are always inadequate. Grace is the willingness to be open to a world and a life that desires to close its eyes to its radical dependence upon that which it cannot see, describe, or even make sense of.

Grace is like vulnerability. It is like daring to be led in the dark through horrible dangers that threaten life and sanity, trusting in this invisible yet very real presence to guide us home safely. I like that.

Theocracy? Feh!

Two posts that may seem unrelated actually touch upon similar themes. I want to address this issue directly, because I haven't before, and I think it is important to make my position as clear as possible. Over here at Street Prophets is a discussion of the recent meeting of Christians United For Israel, held in Washington, DC. Among the guest speakers were former Rep. Tom DeLay and current Senator Joe Lieberman. Max Blumenthal attended, but was kicked out when he asked an actual question, but managed to videotape some pretty scary stuff, not the least of which was Tom DeLay saying he hopes for the Second Coming of Christ. After hearing him, so do I, so I won't have to listen to him anymore.

Over Hullabaloo, tristero has a great post on the mainstreaming of the rhetoric of the John Birch society. As someone who has a copy of the original Blue Book of Robert Welch, I have known about this for some time. I'm not surprised others didn't, but I am glad tristero managed to get it out in the open, so we can be clear we are dealing with lunatics here.

In both cases, the general topic is the fringe nature of much of right-wing rhetoric. Over at Street Prophets, there is much earnest surprise, a la Capt. Reynaud in Casablanca, that right-wing Christians would have the ear of prominent conservative politicians. This is something we need to concern ourselves about, for some reason. As I noted in comments, who do they think Bush and the rest of them are going to listen to, a United Methodist Bishop?

There is a connection between these two that goes back a more than a generation. In right-wing circles the great-grand-daddy of Christian political fundamentalism is a guy with the unlikely name of Rousas John Rushdoony. He connected both the Birchers and the Christian Right back when it was still considered a fringe movement, even as it had millions of followers and hangers-on. Learned but narrow, devout but dogmatic, having no charisma yet having many followers, Rushdoony managed to set the agenda by which most of the Christian Right continues to live and work.

A key element of the right has always been the recognition of the United States as a Christian nation, ruled by the Word and Law of God. starting last summer, several books appeared that breathlessly explained the coming danger of the Christian Reconstruction movement, whose goal is stated above. I laughed when I first saw them; Kevin Phillips and Amy Sullivan apparently thought no one had been paying attention for the past twenty-five years as these people took their extreme rhetoric and goals mainstream. Alas, I was wrong, and even among those who should know better, Christians of a certain progressive bent, there was surprise and anger over the realization that certain elements of the Christian faith posed a dangerous and immediate threat to our current secular society.

I laughed then, and I laugh now. They may have emerged from the shadows, as it were, but just because people are suddenly paying attention to them does not mean they are any closer to their goal, or we need fear the sudden rise of theocracy. Just as the Christian Right is dwindling in power and influence, all these mainstream journalists suddenly become aware of some of the more extreme instances and policy goals of their agenda, and we are supposed to all be either surprised or afraid? As one commenter at Street Prophets told me, they are not to be underestimated (cue minor-key strings playing threatening undertones).

Why should it surprise anyone that Pres. Bush listens to the kind of Christians that echo his political beliefs? Just because a bunch of Christians advocate bombing Iran somehow makes it more dangerous than when Lieberman or Charles Krauthammer demand the same thing from a non-religious point of view? Please. . .

I am less worried about theocracy than I am with simple lawlessness and de facto authoritarian government. At Street Prophets I called these people at CUFI ignorant, bigoted clowns. I was told that contempt was dangerous and convinced no one. I repeat what I said there - I hold their views in contempt, not them as persons. For the record, the kind of earnest seriousness that leads people to lecture others on just how dangerous these theocrats are is just as annoying to me as contempt is to other people. By treating them as the ridiculous figures they are, I at least keep them in proper perspective.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

An Escape That Isn't An Escape

I am fighting the despair our current political scene creates by reading the best history of theology I have encountered in years. Unfortunately, it brings me back to our current situation again and again precisely because it presents a way of thinking and living Christianity that is rooted in our life. The encounter between life and Scripture, between our experience and the testimony of ancient witnesses can create cognitive dissonance.

There are a variety of options for responding to this dissonance. One is the fundamentalist option of granting normative place to scripture, denying the reality around us in favor of a Biblical hermeneutics of reality. Another is the modern/post-modern secular/atheist option of simply denying Scripture any place whatsoever. This is attractive precisely because it cuts off the possibility of conflict within oneself and between individuals by tending to business as it comes up.

For myself, the first option is ridiculous. While there are times in my life I have flirted with the second option, it is a non-starter as well. I find myself dragged back, again and again, to the reality of "something more" that is always just outside my own ability to either define or explain. I find Scriptural language helpful as an entry to understanding this "something more". It is just an entryway, however. I believe it necessary to put our contemporary reality up against Scriptural testimony, as well as the history of the Church and its doctrines to try and figure out a way of understanding who we are. This interpretive jumble, in which the only "norm" is a recognition that we will never come to any firm conclusions, can be confusing and occasionally confounding. There is this "nevertheless" that pushes us to continue down this road, if for no other reason than we need to make sense of it ourselves.

By doing so, I am brought again and again face to face with our current catastrophe, and am asked again and again, "What to do?" Taken outside any larger frame of reference, the despair I have voiced on more than one occasion seems not only appropriate, but the only rational conclusion. On the other hand, despair is the last refuge of those who believe they have it all figured out, and can see the end as clear as day. While this isn't an answer, it does offer the opportunity to refuse to buckle under the pressure of events, because we know them to be fleeting.

So, while it might seem nice to be able to hide inside the covers of a book, in fact I am pushed outside those covers again and again as I confront our current reality.

I just wish I had an answer.

Presumption - Rethinking James Cone

I finished the section of Gary Dorrien's The Making of American Liberal Theology in which the liberal black theology of J. Deotis Roberts met the radical black theology of James Cone. Cone has always held a special place in my heart, as two works of his, A Black Theology of Liberation and God of the Oppressed were the first major theological works I ever read. It has been nearly seventeen years since we were assigned the latter in a survey class my first year in seminary. Being an earnest first year seminarian, I purchased the former and decided to read it as preparation for reading the latter. I will confess that I made it through the confusing and ponderous dialectics of Paulo Freire's Introduction to the second edition and about five pages in before I put it down, infuriated by Cone's tone. After two weeks, however, I picked it back up and finished it. I went right on and read God of the Oppressed eagerly. While exposed to the even more, atheistic, critique of black theology given by William R. Jones in Is God a White Racist?, I still found Cone uplifting, revelatory, and chastening.

After all these years, however, and after considering the differences offered up by comparing Roberts and Cone, I have decided to act with presumption and reconsider certain aspects of Cone's thought. This criticism should not be taken as a rejection, but rather as my own reflection on certain aspects of Cone's thought that I think are wanting. It is still a necessary corrective to the complacent color-blindness and invidious racism of too much Christian thought.

First, while it has been repeated often, including by Cone himself, his reliance upon neo-orthodox methodology limited his appreciation for and appropriation of the history and lifeways of African-American life as a source for his theology. He made strides towards correcting this one-sidedness, both in God of the Oppressed and his short study of black music, The Spirituals and the Blues. Still beholden to the Barthian disdain for culture, however, the impact of his musings upon his own and his people's history had only limited impact upon the way his thought unfolded. In some ways, he treated Scripture as a way of interpreting African-American history, rather than considering both in light of one another.

More seriously, I think it is fair to say that I was able to return to Cone's work after I considered his theological position as therapeutic rather than ontologically normative. That is to say, I took his claim of the blackness of God and Jesus to be a metaphor, and an ameliorative metaphor, rather than a claim of metaphysical truth. I have to admit that is actually a patronizing attitude to take, and I must apologize to Cone from long-distance for being so, yet taking this position did allow me to hear what he had to say, albeit in a truncated fashion.

On the other hand, his one-sidedness on this issue, his identification of the personhood of God with the social construction of race in the furnace of American race relations created as much of an idol as did the conscious and unconscious racism of white American theologies. I can affirm the identification of God with the suffering of African-Americans in their struggle against white supremacy without reducing God and Jesus to "blackness" as a metaphysical truth. Perhaps this is another way of introducing a therapeutic interpretation of Cone's desire for the real blackness of God, but I refuse to countenance the absolute identity of God with any group whatsoever, even one as historically beleaguered and dehumanized as the African-American community.

I think Cone is still right after all these years in his insistence that the definition of liberation, redemption, and reconciliation are the product of the struggle against racism, and white America needs to listen for what these definitions mean. On the other hand, Cone is obstinate in his refusal to give such a definition. If the Christian faith isn't about redemption and reconciliation, or even their possibility even in the midst of the most grievous sin of white supremacy, it isn't about much of anything. On this one point, Cone is most wanting, not so much moving the goal posts as keeping them off the field entirely.

I have benefited in my life from the thought of James H. Cone in multiple ways. In many ways he was my first theology teacher. One of his former students, Josiah Young, was my very real teacher, both of systematic theology, as well as the leader of a seminar on Karl Barth. Along with these venerated teachers, among my friends who confronted me and presented me with the opportunity of seeing life through the lenses of racism were Alpha Brown and Rodney Graves. I treasure our conversations, even and perhaps especially those that made me uncomfortable. Having one's eyes opened to new realities is never easy, especially when I though I was one of the enlightened.

It was from Young, Brown, and Graves that I learned the vital lesson of shutting up and listening. I could do so, however, because I first shut up and listened to the Rev. Dr. James H. Cone. I still recommend any of his works to those who wish to be challenged, perhaps even infuriated. I only ask that you remember that he speaks from the heart, and as such, his words have the power to kill. They also, however, have the power to heal, if you allow them.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Richard Rorty as Prophet

Richard Rorty published a collection of essays on the public relevance and application of pragmatist thought under the title Philosophy and Social Hope ((London, New York: Penguin, 1999). Included is an essay entitled "Looking Backwards from the Year 2096" (originally "Fraternity Reigns" in The New Times Magazine, 28 September, 1996). In this essay, Rorty presents an intriguing look at what he calls, at the end, a "chastened" America. In the book, Rorty posits a military coup leading to dictatorship from 2014-2044.

When I first read this last summer, I thought, "Pshaw!". Now, I wonder if he wasn't off by a few years on the beginning of the whole thing. For Rorty, part of the price of overcoming our current predicament is surrendering our sense of American uniqueness. Since the days of the Mathers in the Massachusetts bay Colony, American intellectuals have insisted that there is something different about the project of life here in North America. This indefinable "something" has come to be called "American uniqueness". Whether in Christian or secular forms, it is the conviction that there is a qualitative distinction between the United States and all other countries that have ever, or will ever, exist. It has guided us through expansion, Civil War, recovery, industrialization, two world wars, the Great Depression, and the convulsions of living under the thumb of OPEC and our decreasing ability to dictate terms in the international arena.

While certainly a tragedy, Rorty sees a period of dictatorship as a blessing in disguise. We will no longer consider ourselves above the historic fray, including the temptation to absolute power. We will no longer sacrifice the lives of millions of our fellow citizens on the altar of "economic opportunity". We will no longer insist that we always be more powerful, more productive, more threatening than the rest of the world. The endless pursuit of power corrupted our national psyche to the point of the collapse of our republican institutions. This is much too high a price. We may no longer think of ourselves as #1, but there are other social goods that don't threaten to destroy what is good about us as a nation. Things like more equitable distribution of income. Things like a separation of political power and economic concentration. Things like surrendering rights talk for social goods talk.

For the past few days I have grown desperate as I watch the combination of incompetence and unreality of our Executive Branch continue to destroy and degrade our public sphere. Our press is either myopic, stupid, or compromised, but whatever the reason the press refuses to acknowledge what is visible to most of the rest of us - our country is in the midst of terrible times and the choices left to us are dwindling. Just consider - after Alberto Gonzalez' performance before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday, I was confirmed in my belief that the rule of law has collapsed. As long as the Executive refuses to acknowledge the power of the Legislature to hold it accountable, and as long as the enforcement mechanisms are in the hands of the Executive, there is literally nothing Congress can do to enforce its will. There are no independent police forces anywhere that can act to hold these people accountable. This is de facto authoritarianism. Whether or not they yield the government next year, the line has already been crossed. Until and unless the Republican Party either (a) disavows the President and acts for the good of the country; or (b) is held accountable as a group for the destruction of our public institutions, there is little to prevent them from doing similar things in the future. In fact, as the precedent has been set, the Democrats can now do it, too.

Rorty's "look back" is most chastening when one thinks that he saw clearly over a decade ago what the rest of us are now living through. The only difference is, we haven't come out the other side yet, and I fear there is a long slog ahead of us.

Right There, Right Then

In the spring of 1991, I was beginning to accept that my life really was turning around for the better. For two years, my life had been on a downward spiral, bottoming out about as far as can be imagined. As I began to believe that I would survive, I started to hear this song called "Right Here, Right Now", by a band called Jesus Jones. Watch and listen:

With its sly digs at Tracey Chapman and Prince, its peppy tempo, a hook that gets you bobbing and smiling, and references to the world waking up from history, it gets you moving and remembering the sense of possibility in those days when the Cold War ended.

The period from the spring of 1989, when Poland announced multi-party elections, Hungary opened its borders to Austria, and China teetered on the brink (the one sad moment in a year of triumphs against repression) until the day in August of 1991 when the classical radio station in Washington broke in to a string quartet with "Back in the USSR" to announce the collapse of the coup attempt in the Soviet Union were times both heady and awful. I remember crying as I watched the East Germans dance on the wall. I remember how swift it all was - and its seemed to move from north to south. First Poland, then East Germany, Hungary, Romania's short, bloody revolution, Bulgaria's communists voting themselves out of office before they ended up a bloody pile on the evening news a la the Ceaucescu's. Even as my personal life spiraled out of control, crashed and burned, then started to right itself again, these events seemed so bizarrely wonderful (yes, I know, I used an adverb; you can't kill 'em all) that I couldn't help feeling good.

By the spring of '91, things were much better personally. Even with the invasion of Panama in '89 and the first Gulf War, I thought that things really were different. I would hear this song on the radio and it would hit me, again - all the noise and threats and deaths and . . . it was over. It seemed to me the possibilities were boundless. It was more than mere optimism. It was hope. Hope contains all the contradictions of life and transcends them with an "even so . . ." that makes no sense except for the person who expresses them. It recognizes tragedy, but looks forward to comedy. It acknowledges evil, but refuses to give it the last word. It suffers, but refuses to collapse in self-pity.

Living as we do today, could anyone write or sing a song as full of hope and joy at the end of history as this? Will we, one day, sing songs of awakening from this nightmare in which we live right here, right now?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

On Prayer

I have been wanting to write something about prayer for a while, and I wanted to begin with this long quote from Eugene Peterson. It captures the danger involved in prayer:
Prayer is a daring venture into speech that juxtaposes our words with the sharply alive words that pierce and divide soul and spirit, joints and marrow, pitilessly exposing every thought and intention of the heart (Heb. 4:12-13; Rev. 1:16). If we had kept our mouths shut we would not have involved ourselves in such a relentlessly fearsome exposure. If we had been content to speak to the women and men and children in the neighborhood we could have gotten by with using words in ways that would have them thinking well of us while concealing what we preferred to keep to ourselves. But when we venture into prayer every word may, at any moment, come to mean just what it means and involve us with a holy God who wills our holiness. All we had counted on was some religious small talk, a little numinous gossip, and we are suddenly involved, without intending it and without having calculated the consequences, in something eternal.

Too often we think of prayer as an occasion to go shopping. We ask for this, we pray for that, we demand (although we never call it that) Divine Intervention to prevent something horrible. We do not think of it as communication. Even less do we consider listening.

For years, I have thought of prayer less as an activity than as a way of life. Recognizing the reality of the presence of God with me (do not ask me to explain this right now), I see little choice but to remember that, in a phrase, "the channel is always open." Prayer makes us vulnerable. We open ourselves to the possibility of risk. We might hear an answer - and by that I mean hear and answer not just figuratively but literally - we not only don't want to hear, but confounds our every expectation. The reality of God is annihilating, and we risk annihilation when we are confronted by the presence of God. This is the threat. Anyone who prays thinking that we are just mumbling phrases inside his or her head forgets that we are communicating, and communication is a two-way street.

Whether it's the whispered prayer in the dark before bed, or the cry of the heart in the face of tragedy or pain, or the thankfulness before a meal or some unexpected blessing, we must always be aware that at the other end is the source of life. At its heart, prayer seems impossible, foolish, but rarely do we think of it as dangerous. The next time you bow your head, or close your eyes, or just recite something in the silence of your heart, remember this: God hears, and God responds.

Monday, July 23, 2007


Lest anyone think that I am insufficiently alarmed by our current Constitutional crisis, I should probably come clean about my own feelings about the scary direction current events are taking.

First, I believe that we are in a Constitutional crisis. I think the across-the-board "executive privilege" claims of the Administration are cause enough to get started on impeachment. I just despair that current political realities being what they are would strangle this particular baby in its crib.

Second, I believe that the recent Executive Orders concerning contingencies in the case of another terrorist attack might just be a set up to suspending the Constitution in the face of any threat, no matter how minuscule. I do believe that we are entering in to scary territory. The fact that Bush has been more than willing to fire general after general while insisting he listens to his generals shows that he has nothing but contempt for pretty much anyone.

Third, I believe that, should the contingency be used, we would be entering territory this country hasn't seen since the 1860's, if even then. This is a frightening scenario, and one not outside the realm of possibility. If so, all bets are off. Would the military back its commander-in-chief in an executive coup d'etat? Would elements of the military square off against one another? To contemplate such questions is frightening.

The alternatives we face are limited by a stubborn executive and the limited power of Congress, as it is sitting right now, to enforce its will. Perhaps that is the reason Conyers said that elections are our only recourse (if, in fact, he said it at all). Our options are limited, but part of repairing the Constitutional structure is working within it.

I honestly feel we are in a bad way until January, 2009.

Music Monday

Frank Zappa. 'Nuff said.

Cindy Sheehan on Bill Press (UPDATED with link to FDL)

I listened to a bit of an interview Bill Press held with Cindy Sheehan this morning. I was always impressed with Sheehan's earnest, moral fervor. Almost single-handedly, she changed the nature of our public debate about Iraq. For her troubles she was slandered, demeaned, her character and person were attacked, and members of her family were quoted to the effect that she was unbalanced, unstable, and did not represent their views on the war, or the loss of her son, Casey. Standard Operating Procedure for the Republicans - attack-attack-attack.

She was in DC today as part of a walking tour she is doing, to end in New York City. Her plans for today included a march from Arlington National Cemetery to the Rayburn Building and a meeting with Rep. John Conyers. Her hope was to push for Conyers to introduce impeachment resolutions in the House. She also reiterated her consideration of a run against Nancy Pelosi, and her disdain for the Democratic leadership in the House. While I think she is correct on a number of matters, I also found her strident, naive, and representing a certain self-righteousness I feel we need to be rid of.

On impeachment, she dismissed the arguments against pursuing such action by stating that (a) the House only needs a majority to pass impeachment resolutions, and if the caucus sticks together, they have the votes; (b) the issue of impeachment should be non-partisan, and Republicans should vote for it as well; (c) the failure of the House leadership to "keep it on the table" (I'm almost as sick of that phrase as I am of "cut and run") is a failure to do their Constitutional duty.

As a practical matter, she is correct about (a). As a political matter, however, there is a relationship between (a) and (b) that would create the impression (or at least allow Republicans to create the impression) of partisan payback for the impeachment and trial of Pres. Clinton By the way, one reason I believe the Beltway Boys and Girls are not pushing the issue of impeachment is directly related to this issue. They know they were burned for their pumping of impeachment. They do not wish to be burned again, not so much by the American people as by those insiders who provide them with information.

While there is much truth to (b), it is naive in the extreme to think that Republicans will somehow shed their partisan ways once enough evidence is presented forcing impeachment. They didn't do it for Nixon. They won't do it for Bush, no matter how unpopular he is, and no matter how prima facie the case might be. Anyone who thinks that the Republicans will simply toss politics aside for whatever reason is living in cloud-cuckoo land.

As for (c), I think that we are again entering into naive-land. It is one thing to support impeachment of the President (I do). It is another thing to say that those who either aren't acting to make it so or are not supporting it are guilty of bad faith, weakness of principle, or failure to live up to certain obligations. She urges that all listeners should contact their representatives and push for adoption of impeachment articles against the President and VP. I for one refuse to do so, because my representative, Don Manzullo, is a low-level Republican back-bencher, of such little importance that even when the Republicans had a majority, and the Speaker of the House was from a neighboring district, all Manzullo got was the chair of an inconsequential subcommittee. Besides that, Manzullo has shown himself to be an partisan hack. I have no desire to waste my time trying to change something that doesn't exist - his mind. For Sheehan, this may smack of cowardice. For me, it is a way for me to do what I can in my own way.

Which leads me to a final thought. I think that Sheehan has shown remarkable courage, and a strength of will I know I do not have. On the other hand, I think that she has read a few too many of her press clippings. Earnest chest-thumping and moral grandstanding, especially the kind that reveals an ignorance of political realities (no matter how distasteful), may serve one well as a symbol of outrage against an administration hell-bent on destroying the US. They do not serve well as the jumping-off point for a discussion of the politics of impeachment or ending the war in Iraq. I agree with her diagnosis of the problem. Her solution is untenable. There are other ways of gaming the system besides calling people names and insisting that our leaders are moral cowards for not following her advice.

UPDATE: Fire Dog Lake reports that Cindy Sheehan and others were arrested for a sit-in at Rep. Conyers' office. Sheehan came out of an eighty-minute meeting with Conyers saying that the Rep. had said "the only recourse is elections" and proceeded to lead a sit-in. Conyers, on the other hand, refused to comment on the meeting. Who are we to believe?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Potter, Good, Evil

Like ten million others around the world, I have my copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Like more than half of them, I'm also finished with it. I will only say this - the spoiler on the Internet is wrong about a bunch of stuff. Read the book.

For years people have been saying that the Potter books are about the battle of good versus evil. In the same way that they say the same thing about Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, this is both true and much too simple. Part of the power of both sets of books is this: in the course of the story, the characters discover the complexities of the world. There is good and there is evil, and they are both powerful. Sometimes, they do battle (although rarely explicitly). Yet, who is good? Who is evil? How are we to judge? How do we reckon with poor decisions, bad choices, the secrets that lie upon our hearts?

There are more thoughts, some of them I will save for the future. I will say this, however. I believe the final triumph of the books is true, and it poses the dilemma of that truth as starkly as any short story by Miguel de Unamuno - is the price of the good worth the life of one innocent child? There is no satisfactory answer to that question, because the answer depends upon the individual. It is my contention that these books, for all that they are offered as "juvenalia" present to us all this stark truth - beating within all of us is this heart of darkness. Who we are, who we will be is a never-ending project. Only those who really believe that all choices are final and that redemption is either an illusion or impossible surrender to death not out of courage, but out of fear. Or they run from death at all costs.

For all their flaws (yes, I said this marvelous series of books has flaws), the Harry Potter books are a masterwork for the ages. We are witnessing the end of one era, and the beginning of another. We should all be thankful we have lived in this time to learn, with Harry, that the real magic isn't waving a wand, but living a life of love.

Virtual Tin Cup

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