Saturday, April 04, 2009

On Whose Authority?

Over here, there is a lively discussion on the issue of Biblical authority. I hadn't really paid attention to it, being otherwise occupied this week with memories of family, both good and bad, and work issue, mostly frustrating but finally ended because the week is over. I was sent an ethereal note that my name had been dropped, so I popped in and, after reading the comments up to that point (40), I wrote the following:
Standing behind this issue - what is to become of the Church if we can't read the Bible the way we used to? - is the question of authority. Upon what authority do we rest our conviction that, in Jesus of Nazareth, we have a, perhaps the, unique manifestation of God, God's Will and intention for humanity, the expression of Divine Love and Grace, for all creation? If the Bible is no longer understood as "authoritative" in the sense it was 200, or 500, or 1500 years ago (which it clearly is not, nor should it be), upon what do we rest our insistence that we are followers in an unbroken line that stretches back to Roman Judea and Galilee?

I would suggest a partial way to begin to answer this question as follows: The Bible is authoritative - for all its flaws - first of all because it has been the collective decision of Christians down the ages to affirm that authority. This may seem either empty, or tautological, or both, but in fact it represents our (individual) assent to the (collective) agreement that we Christians, for all our myriad differences, rely upon a certain set of testimonies, not as the foundation of our belief, but as the authoritative guide for why we believe what we do.

The second way to deal with this issue is, I suppose one could say, to sidestep it all together. Having said above that the Bible is a testimony to why we believe what we do, the question becomes, What is that? This is where confession in Jesus of Nazareth as the unique manifestation of God, etc. enters the picture. Now, obviously, there is something circular here - where else but in the Bible do we receive our information on who this Jesus was, what he did, and why we should believe? Yet, the Church has confessed since its earliest days that it exists not because of the Bible, but because of Divine action (think Pentecost, the Holy Spirit). The authority of the Bible, it seems then, rests not on any merits it might hold, but on the Spirit which enlivens the dead words on the page for believers.

The interplay between the individual and the community, between the text and the hearers/readers, the confessions of the ages and our own refusal to stand pat - or our acceptance of the wisdom of the ages (following Newman, in some sense) - is part of the ongoing struggle of defining "church" in each age and generation.

I believe this problem is far more acute for Protestants than for, say Roman Catholics or the Orthodox faiths. Along with Scripture, the latter have tradition, liturgy, and the divinely invested authority of the hierarchy as supplements. Particularly we American Protestants have a problem with authority (not necessarily a bad thing), and I'm not sure there are any a priori answers to the question of "on whose (or what) authority do you claim to believe?"

This is something with which we all struggle, in some way, all the time. For myself, I believe because of the interplay between my own life, the life and history of the community of believers of which I am a part, and the way each informs the other. It is an on-going process. Different texts - historical, Biblical, whatever - inform different times and phases of belief - and while it might seem attractive to incorporate non-traditional, non-Western, non-Christian texts in to one's own personal canon, this is a decision I, for one cannot make. Some can. I cannot. Mine is a wholly pragmatic, contingent decision, resting upon nothing more than my own conclusion. Others may reach different conclusions, and that's OK with me. I do not believe, at this late date, there is any way to arbitrate such differences (see how pragmatism works in my spiritual life?).

Lively discussion ensued, I re-entered the fray once more, but the crux of the issue, for all intents and purposes, still seem to revolve around this question - Why should we trust the Bible? This issue seems bedeviling only if one seriously believes it necessary to give some account of why we believe or trust anything.

I don't.

My first stop along the way is . . . the Bible. In Matthew's gospel, chpater 21, comes the story where the priests ask Jesus on whose authority he says and does the things he says and does. The author presents the story as one in which these priests attempt to trap Jesus; Jesus, understanding the trap being set, turns the tables and asks the priests their opinions on John the Baptist. The priests are suddenly thrown in to a tizzy. They decide by not deciding, and Jesus then says, "Fine. You won't answer. Why should I?"

There are many ways to read this wonderful account, not the least wonderful of them being the fact that Jesus manages to stick a big old finger in the eye of the Establishment.

For our purposes here, I would suggest one possible reading - don't get trapped in to discussions by other people which use their premises from which to begin, toward an answer they are seeking, for their own purposes. It is a rule I attempt to follow at all times.

The entire discussion, at least Feodor's rather long comments, all boil down, in the end, to the question, "But why should we listen to the Bible?" He doesn't like my own answer, which is really of two part. First, why worry about this issue at all? Second, if you are going to worry about it, my own answer is, "Just because."

Why are we "small 'd'" democrats? Feodor insists because people once held certain beliefs as part of a larger moral and philosophical system that showed this was the best way to organize society. I agree this was once true, but isn't anymore. We are democrats because it has shown, through history, to be the worst form of government there is, unless one considers the alternative (to quote Winston Churchill). While in speeches during the Civil Rights movement, many leaders invoked the Bible and various Enlightenment figures from Montesquieu to Jefferson, in the end, it all boiled down to legal issues, defining who is included as Americans and who is not, and a larger understanding of "American" was settled upon.

Feodor wishes to insist that this lines up in some way or another with some grand moral theory or system. If that makes him happy, please indulge. It is certainly better that this is so, and America is a much better place to live because of those laws; we even have a President who could not have been imagined before those laws were passed. Is it necessary to reward ourselves with some kind of transcendental cleverness award, insisting that by passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, our legal system was now in line with some ephemeral thing called The Good? Is it necessary to show this to acknowledge that America is a better place because of these laws?

Is it even necessary to continue to argue, as Feodor insists, the way the people who supported these laws did, invoking long-dead white folk from previous centuries?

Nah. If he wants to, I won't stop him. I think America is a better place - a much better place - because we decided to codify the general consensus that discrimination based upon race is a bad thing. The appeal in the laws was not to philosophical arguments, however, nor to moral systems. The appeal in the laws was to the Constitution of the United States. As far as I'm concerned, that's a legal "just because" argument. One cannot, nor should not, attempt to "get behind" the Constitution of the US and ask, upon what principles do its propositions rest? Why should we? The endless spiral would simply ignore the reality that, for all practical purposes, the Constitution runs the show. We need no more justification than that, nor should we.

The same goes for the whole issue of Biblical authority. At some point, the issue seems to arise - why should we listen to the Bible? The history of the churches is rife with discussions of Biblical authority, especially vehement in the past half-millennium with the rise of the sola scriptura principle of Lutheran Protestantism. As a member of a denomination whose chair has four legs, rather than one (Albert Outler set out what he called "The Wesleyan Quadrilateral" - Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience), the question of "authority" becomes a bit more diffuse, although our Articles of Religion insist on the primacy of Scripture. Why shouldn't it? Setting aside all other considerations, it is the primary source of information on why we are the community we say we are. It is the text against which we set ourselves, and usually find ourselves wanting.

Now, it is common among non-traditional Christians, skeptics, and anti-Christians of various kinds to point out the historical accident that is the Biblical canon. They point with glee at the mundane reality that the Biblical canon developed over time, shaped as much by partisan politics as by anything else. Further books were dropped during the Reformation (what we Protestants call "The Apocrypha" - mostly Greek-text additions to the majority-Hebrew Old Testament), and Luther himself wanted to get rid of both the Epistle of James and the Revelation to John (the last highly surprising, considering Luther's own view of his own time's dispensation).

All I can say is, so what? Some Christians wish to insist there is something magical behind the canon in its final form. What's really surprising is, if one reads those texts rejected as canonical, one should be surprised that the texts chosen, for the most part, are not only better written, but far more uniform, given their variety. There are "Gospels" in which Jesus has a twin; there is the Gospel of Thomas in which a young Jesus kills someone who pisses him off (like Elisha and the bear, no?). The final form of the Biblical texts - and I would add that I fully accept the reality that there was probably some judicious edition at some point to make the various texts line up the way they do in a number of areas - shows a remarkable consistency.

The Bible is authoritative because the Christian Churches in various ways, using various philosophical and theological formulae, have declared it to be so. I, for one, do not adhere to the neo-Platonism of the Church fathers, nor the revised Aristoteleanism of the Scholastics, nor to the various theologies of the Reformation, nor even the kind of semi-Empiricism of Wesley, but I, too, affirm the authority of Scripture because there is nothing else. Why should that be a bad thing to say? Our national laws are based upon the Constitution because there is nothing else.

I fail to understand why this is a big deal. At one point, Feodor insists I do not say why I set aside these previous language games. I thought I had, but I shall be explicit.

I don't think it's necessary to create arguments in the way of Greco-Roman neo-Platonists, or 12th-century Scholastics, or 13th century nominalists, or 18th century Enlightenment figures, or mid-20th century existentialists because I am not any of those things, and the society in which I live isn't Greco-Roman, or even mid-century European. Feodor claims I say we cannot read the Bible as one of these figures. I never said that, although I think that is true (there is so much cultural and linguistic baggage that one carries along when reading that is invisible, even to oneself, that attempting to read the Bible as anything other than who one is would be so artificial as to be nonsensical). If you wish to read the Bible like a 4th century neo-Platonist - go for it. I certainly won't stop you, but I also really wouldn't be interested in the results of such a reading.

The greater task, for any Christian, is to be faithful both to the text, and to ourselves. Even more than reading, living the text in the here and now is always the challenge. The authority of Scripture rests upon no foundation other than "just because" and we live that out every single day. If one wishes to set aside the authority of the Bible, I will not, nor could I stop you, by inventing some grand meta-narrative of Divine intervention, or perhaps with the theological threat of eternal damnation. Alternately, if you wish to worry yourself over the question of authority - knock yourself out.

For myself, I'm just reminded of Jesus being asked about authority, and gleefully setting the question aside because he recognized that the question is almost always posed by someone setting some kind of trap. I've said it before and I will continue to say it - I just don't play that game.

Saturday Rock Show

Unlike other hard rock bands that emerged from LA in the late 1980's. Guns N Roses didn't look slick. They didn't wear spandex. They didn't wear makeup. In fact, they looked as if they didn't bathe or change their clothes all that much. Also unlike most of their peers at the time, their music had a whole lot more merit. All one has to do is listen to Appetite for Destruction and any release by Poison, say, or Enuff 'Znuff, and you will notice the difference immediately. It isn't GREAT MUSIC, to be sure, but it does rock. Sometimes, that's all you need. This is a good song about a horrible subject, "Mr. Brownstone", live at the Ritz during their peak of popularity.

Mixed Day Yesterday

It seems that when I sleep in the early afternoon, and then have a busy evening, I miss stuff.

Our neighboring state, Iowa, managed to do the decent thing yesterday. Courts there ruled that gay marriage should be legal, and so it said in three weeks - it will be. Good for Iowa.

Binghamton, NY is only forty miles east of where I grew up. While not intimately familiar with it, the neighborhood where the shooting took place is a busy intersection I have been through many times, albeit years and even decades ago (I moved from the area for the last time in 1990). Still and all, not only is it horrible this kind of thing happens; it is very scary that it happened in Binghamton of all places.

I promised some folks a post soon. After some coffee and checking one source, I really, really will write it.

Friday, April 03, 2009

If There Weren't A Newt Gingrich, Would We Have To Invent Him?

There is so much I want to say, but really shouldn't have to, other than . . .

Shut up, Newt Gingrich. It's too early in the morning to be slapped that hard by stupid.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009


My cousin, Claudia, has a wonderful blog up and running. It has provided my sister and me opportunities to remember stuff from our - very different - childhoods, catch up with a beloved family member, and just generally spend some time remembering all sorts of stuff.

It has been on my mind since my sister first pointed me to this post. My sister said it was "bittersweet", because of the ending. At first, I was so awed by it all - hearing these memories of events I remember differently, and far more vaguely, is a wonderful exercise. Also, I was very, very humbled by the view of the family in which I grew up. That, and the fact that my very cool oldest sister is very much the awesome human being she pretends she's not - well, it's nice to have that reinforced.

But, at the same time, yeah, it is bittersweet. My sister and I were chatting and we both agreed we were very lucky - ours was by and large a very happy home life growing up. Hearing that others looked in and saw . . .something . . . there that a focus on some of the bad parts might miss is a nice reminder that too close a focus on the crap can blind you to other virtues that you might not even realize are there. Our parents, I think, had far more patience than we realized at the time, were far more indulgent than they could really afford to be, or should have been, anyway. I do know that I have a lot of happy memories from growing up. We did a lot of laughing in my house, especially when we had family visit.

Not everyone is so lucky. I hear stories from people I work with, friends of mine from various times in my life, and I think, "How did they live like that?" I think we were, all five of us, incredibly lucky in many ways. This is not to downplay the bad stuff, but just to put it in some kind of overall context. It think the simple fact that the five of us are all still alive, living our very different lives with a certain amount of success is a testimony to the work my parents did raising us.

One more note on all this. Many years ago - it was actually Christmas, 1991 - I was visiting my folks with my woman friend of the time. My parents, my friend and I were sitting in the kitchen talking about thises and thats, and my Mom told me about a surprise visit she had the previous summer from an old friend of another sister of mine. This woman's name, Diane, was actually the first word I ever spoke. That summer, Diane's husband, with whom she had run away and married right after (or even during, I can't remember for sure) high school, had left her and their children for another woman. Diane had lived for years estranged from her family. Mom said during the visit that Diane had told her, my Mom, that she always thought my mother was so great, and she came to see her because that was who she thought of when she needed to "come home" in the wake of all her troubles. My Mom, who I have only ever seen get teary-eyed a couple times in my entire life, was all choked up when she was telling me this.

Ours wasn't a perfect home. Then again, there isn't such a thing, and I have no doubt my daughters will have "issues" when they are older. At the same time, I am inspired by reading Claudia's memories, and thinking about what Mom told me Diane said to her, to be a better father, to provide my kids with the kind of home other people will look upon with wonder, and maybe even a little envy. If I do even half as well as my parents did, I think I'll have done all right.

Getting Off On Talking Tough

There's a whole lot of eliminationist and violent rhetoric out there in right-wing world. I don't know how seriously to take it, to be honest. I mean - do they really think there's all this willingness to take violent action against the government out there? I don't see it, but I'm a crazy liberal who likes Barack Obama.

My own impression is that, for the most part, these are couch-potato warriors. They were all through the Bush years, and now they are just transferring all those bloody wet dreams back home from Iraq. While it is true this kind of rhetoric and these beliefs spurred on Timothy McVeigh, for the most part, these yahoos are so dumb I'm surprised they know how to open their bags of Cheetos without reading an instruction manual. They think reading Tom Clancy and watching Saving Private Ryan qualifies them to know about all sorts of military stuff. I have some news for them - a paint ball gun isn't the same thing as a rifle.

The difference between now and the 1990's should be easy enough for anyone to spot - our country is, in many ways, on the verge of collapse. The vast majority is looking to the federal government for help. While it is very frustrating at times, things are being accomplished. We have just lived through eight years of right-wing world, and with the country, our political and physical and even Constitutional infrastructure in tatters, is ready for balance and moderation (which, being of the lefty persuasion, is not where I'm at even if I recognize the legitimacy of the majority's preference). All those goofballs writing about revolution (typing one handed, of course) are more a source of amusement than anything else. I doubt most of them would do more then shoot themselves somewhere that might at least prevent them from procreating.

Doesn't mean we shouldn't keep an eye on some of them. We should also, if so moved, laugh at them, too.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Music For Your Monday

One of the biggest frustrations for any serious music fan is the continued support - by the music industry if not by fans - of segregation. There is white folks rock, and then there is black folks hip-hop and r&b. If you want a fix of one kind or another, you have to scan the music dial, from "AOR" to "Urban Contemporary" and back again.

Following on this "market segmentation", is the really dumb way the press and industry treats those folk who cross genres. White folk doing rap is big news - the first act Madonna signed to her new label in the mid-1980's was The Beasties Boys; Vanilla Ice was, for a brief moment, considered a serious artist. Black folk doing serious rock, though, is an anomaly, a fluke, maybe even a novelty, the equivalent of such songs as "Purple People Eater". Certainly nothing to be taken seriously. Living Colour? Aren't they cute - the lead singer even dresses like a surfer don't you know and how many black folk surf I mean really?

Bad Brains melded two very obvious music styles, reggae and punk, and came up with a hard, even blistering sound, full of both rage and protest. They received . . . zero air play. Not only because they were different. They were a bunch of black guys doing punk and everyone knows no one wants to hear that! Sadly, most of their audience was white, which only further throws in to relief the ongoing belief that African-Americans aren't rockers. Here they are in Reading, England doing their song "Rise Up".

Another group that followed Bad Brains in melding reggae and dub with hard core, introduced to me by my friend Jim Bush-Resko, is Fishbone. First, here they are doing a cover of the Curtis Mayfield song, "Freddie's Dead":

Here they are just plain rocking out in Essen, Germany in 1993 with their song, "Swim". That riff sounds straight out of Metallica, doesn't it?

One of the saddest chapters in the history of the music industry was the treatment by their label of the hardcore band Body Count. Founded by rapper Ice-T as an outlet for his love of heavy metal and punk, they produced a song entitled "Cop Killer" that was highlighted by former US Vice President Dan Quayle. In the ensuing controversy, Body Count's label pulled the song from future pressings, and it is almost impossible to find anymore. They persevered, however, and Body Count still records and tours, in between Ice-T's growing acting career, including a role as a . . . police officer! This song is "There Goes The Neighborhood" - a direct assault on the very phenomenon I am writing about here.


One hopes. Gen. Tommy Franks called Feith "the stupidest fucking guy" in the world. I do so hope that he lives up to his moniker and just talks and talks and talks.

Of course, getting Feith would be nice. Cheney, though, and Bush and Rumsfeld - maybe they should just keep Spain off their travel list for a while.

So Much For Which To Repent

I have repeatedly been told by one right-winger that the United States did not torture during the Bush years. Despite abundant testimony and evidence to the contrary. Despite lively discussions on the topic. Despite a memo from the White House's top lawyer at the time, consigliore Alberto Gonzalez, that redefined torture in such a way as to make it disappear. Dan Froomkin, who blogs at The Washington Post, summarizes an article in the Sunday edition of that paper that went a long way toward shredding Bush Administration rationale for the practice of what it called "enhanced interrogation methods and techniques" - which is a horrifying euphemism for torture.
Finn and Warrick reported that "not a single significant plot was foiled" as a result of Zubaida's brutal treatment -- and that, quite to the contrary, his false confessions "triggered a series of alerts and sent hundreds of CIA and FBI investigators scurrying in pursuit of phantoms."

Zubaida was the first detainee to be tortured at the direct instruction of the White House. Then he was President George W. Bush's Exhibit A in defense of the "enhanced interrogation" procedures that constituted torture. And he continues to be held up as a justification for torture by its most ardent defenders.

But as author Ron Suskind reported almost three years ago -- and as The Post now confirms -- almost all the key assertions the Bush administration made about Zubaida were wrong.

Consider the content of those three little paragraphs. First, the essential facts were first revealed three years ago, but are only now real because they have been reported in the Post. Second, obviously, the Bush Administration lied, in multiple ways. Third, torture was counterproductive. What are some of the specifics behind that euphemism?
Just two weeks ago, in a New York Review of Books article based on a confidential report from the International Committee of the Red Cross, Mark Danner described the techniques used on Zubaida in harrowing detail.

Here is what Zubaida told the ICRC, via Danner: "'I was taken out of my cell and one of the interrogators wrapped a towel around my neck; they then used it to swing me around and smash me repeatedly against the hard walls of the room.'

"The prisoner was then put in a coffin-like black box, about 4 feet by 3 feet and 6 feet high, 'for what I think was about one and a half to two hours.' He added: The box was totally black on the inside as well as the outside.... They put a cloth or cover over the outside of the box to cut out the light and restrict my air supply. It was difficult to breathe. When I was let out of the box I saw that one of the walls of the room had been covered with plywood sheeting. From now on it was against this wall that I was then smashed with the towel around my neck. I think that the plywood was put there to provide some absorption of the impact of my body. The interrogators realized that smashing me against the hard wall would probably quickly result in physical injury.'"

It goes on and on. Waterboarding -- and Zubaida is one of three detainees known to have been subjected to that notorious torture technique -- was only a part of it.

One part of Froomkin's piece that needs to burned in to the brains of the American people is the following:
Last April, ABC News reported that starting right after his capture, top Bush aides including Vice President Dick Cheney micromanaged his interrogation from the White House basement. "The high-level discussions about these 'enhanced interrogation techniques' were so detailed," ABC's sources said, "some of the interrogation sessions were almost choreographed -- down to the number of times CIA agents could use a specific tactic." Bush has acknowledged he was aware of those meetings at the time.

These people not only knew about it. They directed it. From beginning to end.

If this doesn't make you angry, you have no soul.

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More