Friday, December 31, 2010

Re-Imagining The World: An Introduction To The Parables Of Jesus

Bernard Brandon Scott's Re-Imagining The World is a marvelous introduction for the general reader to the power, the possibility, and the multi-layered nature of the parables of Jesus. In the introduction, Scott says that while the book is not a scholarly text, his hope is that it is, nonetheless, scholarly. Indeed it is. Using a variety of sources - the Beatles, the Talmud, non-canonical Christian texts, Pliny the Elder - Scott brings to life a perspective upon and understanding of the parables of Jesus that restores to them their arresting, even scandalous quality.

A point that Scott makes early on is the distinction between orality and literacy, something we moderns need to keep in mind when considering the reality of the parables, indeed considering the pre-literate Gospel tradition, which began as oral storytelling, only later to be committed to paper in a literate, sometimes narrative, form. By drawing on a wealth of information in a succinct manner - very often his asides are quite literal, boxed definitions or quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures, or some other source - Scott makes clear in a variety of ways the inherent power of oral storytelling to use compression to its advantage. What even a single word conveys in a parable, requires, at a minimum, several pages of unpacking for the modern reader.

As presented by Scott, the parabolic teachings of Jesus remind me of what Walter Brueggemann writes about The Prophetic Imagination. Using the prophetic call of Jeremiah as a template, Brueggemann sees the prophet's call as both destructive and constructive; to use the words contained in the scriptures, "to pluck up and to plant." In much the same way, Scott's introduction to the parables shows Jesus deconstructing our received notions of the sacred and holy, as well as constructing alternative possibilities for real human community lived outside these received notions. Central to the destructive/constructive project lies the very first parable he considers - the parable of the leaven.

This was the most arresting point for me, as a reader. Indeed, I wondered how, in all the years of reading and study, this short parable of a woman baking bread could be overlooked for its radical revisioning of holiness, of our view of women in society and their relationship to sacred community, and much else. The destruction/construction continues in each of his discussions, from the Mustard Seed right through to the parable of the great feast. In each case, Scott shows the way, in as economical a way possible, Jesus subverts, and even insults and confounds, our received ideas, in the process offering a living, breathing alternative to those ideas.

Were I to teach a short class to laity on the parables, this would be the central text. Despite the three previous posts that point out where I differ or disagree with some of Scott's methodological choices, this short work opens up the parables of Jesus in a new way, offering to any reader reasons to think, perhaps to frown in disagreement, but certainly to be challenged and, best of all, changed.

Problems Of Method In Scott's Re-Imagine The World, Part III: False Distinctions

In the concluding section of Bernard Brandon Scott's Re-Imagining The World, he writes the following:
Jesus' revolt takes a very special form. He revolts in parable. I see no evidence that Jesus was leading a political revolution or that he had a social program in mind. . . . Although the idea is now out of fashion, Jesus the oral storyteller seems to me closer to a poet. The activist will always be dissatisfied with he poetic vision, but change comes about because a creative individual has that vision.
First of all, the evidence that Jesus may well have been leading, at least in part, a political revolution is the manner of his death.

Be that as it may, the distinction Scott offers - Jesus wasn't a political or social activist or organizer, but a poet - misses an important point. These distinctions would have been unintelligible for Jesus' original audience. Furthermore, the idea that political activists are not visionaries - that this is the realm of the poet, a part in some way of the life of the mind, rather than the gritty life of a political or social revolutionary - is belied by the fact that the most important political and social activists are, in fact, visionaries, sometimes visionaries of a most poetic bent.

To see Jesus as a traveling poet, I think, subsumes the rest of his ministry to his parabolic teachings. For Scott, they are primary; all the rest of Jesus life and teachings and ministry is the working out of these parables. While the parables are important for understanding what Jesus was about, they should be set alongside the rest of his ministry - his direct teachings, his healings and exorcisms, and his various social engagements that raised so many eyebrows. They are part of a whole, rather than the central fact of his ministry, to which the rest of his work was dedicated.

It is important to remember our modern preference for separating out the political, the social, the religious, and even the poetic, is false. It is part of our problem, one of the ways the modernist project, for all its successes, fails us. By creating artificial divides among the various ways we live our lives, we see ourselves fulfilling different roles, with different rules, different values, and different voices. We are not whole people, living from a center within a community that defines and upholds and supports us, but wandering hither and thither among a variety of situations and communities that compete to define who we are.

This is not to say that Jesus' ministry can be reduced to political activism, or re-envisioning social relations, or even kicking against the pricks of the established order. It included these things, but transcended them, and in that transcendence pointed out the contingency of all our attempts to corral God for our personal projects.

I would like to repeat that I really like much of what Scott has to say. I am setting my criticisms in separate posts in order to make clear that they do not at all distract me from the wealth of goodness this short work contains.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Problems Of Method In Scott's Re-Imagine The World, Part II: Parables In The Gospel of Thomas

Among the parables considered by Bernard Brandon Scott is one from the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, the parable of the empty jar. While certainly a fascinating entrant in parabolic literature, I am not sure that including this parable serves anything other than the narrow purposes of Scott's larger project of separating the parables from their literary contexts. By doing so, including a parable that we have from only one source - non-canonical at that! - he creates multiple problems. First, ripping this parable out of the Gnostic context of the Thomas' Gospel does structural violence to the parable itself. Since we have no other source for this parable in the canonical literature - or other non-canonical literature - pretending that we can understand it outside the Gnosticism of Thomas leaves me wondering how we do that, exactly. If the intent of studying the parables, apart from their literary settings, involves a certain amount of serious intellectual legwork, including comparing and contrasting across various literary contexts, then how can we arrive at any conclusions outside the context of the Gnosticism of the Thomas Gospel?

While the non-canonical texts, including non-canonical Gospels, are important intellectual and literary sources for seeking a greater understanding of the texts we consider canonical, it is always important to keep in mind that they were not included in the canon for a reason, or multiple reasons; examination of the texts themselves usually reveal these reasons, while occasionally being odd to our modern sensibilities, do make a considerable amount of sense. Taking a single parable from Thomas' Gospel, without any canonical referent, leaves me scratching my head.

Furthermore, Scott's argument as to the antiquity of the Gospel's compilation just doesn't hold up for me. The earliest extant manuscripts we have of the Gospel of Thomas do not predate the beginning of the third century of the common era. They are in Coptic, and while revealing a certain tendency to struggle to render in to Coptic from some original Greek source, this original source has yet to turn up. To argue that the originals may date as early as the mid-first century, without any evidence other than the extant are translations from some earlier Greek version adds nothing to the antiquity of the originals. Again, it needs to be emphasized, the earliest manuscripts of the canonical Gospels predate the Gospel of Thomas by at least, if not more than, a century. Absent evidence, such as a scroll or fragment, that can be dated with a certain amount of precision, any speculation as to the date of the original is just that - a guess.

None of this is to suggest we cannot learn from the non-canonical texts. We can indeed. All the same, we must do that learning with a different set of assumptions; the Gnostic literature, in particular, presents unique issues for any faithful Christian. Does this mean the parable of the empty jar isn't a true parable of Jesus? Of course not. I am just not convinced, given Scott's arguments and the paucity of evidence, that such arguments matter all that much. Furthermore, one can gain much from a study of the parabolic literature in the Synoptics and St. John's Gospel without reference to non-canonical sources to bolster any arguments we make about how they served various purposes in Jesus' ministry.

Problems Of Method In Scott's Re-Imagine The World, Part I: The Historical Jesus

I received a marvelous Christmas gift from ER. Re-Imagine The World: An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus is a fantastic general introduction to the parables of Jesus. I do not wish this post, or the one to follow, to indicate anything less than my great thanks for this little book and the way it has opened up possibilities for reading the parables in new ways. I only write these posts as introductions to a far more appreciative overview to come once I've finally finished it (I'm about two-thirds the way through).

One of my most treasured possessions is a biography of Geoffrey Chaucer by John Gardner. The book was given to me by my father, and was originally a gift from one of my older sisters decades ago. At the beginning of his book, Gardner points out a major obstacle to writing a serious biography of Chaucer - we have no information, first hand or otherwise, on Chaucer's life, beyond certain records of his various official, royal, positions, and his writings. Much, then, of Gardner's book, involves painting a portrait around the empty space that is the man Geoffrey Chaucer in the hopes that this empty space can be filled in by the intellectual and existential vacuum it creates. By drawing in from what we do know in general, and those rare bits - baptism records, court documents on Chaucer's diplomatic missions, the writings he left behind - it is hoped we can come to some understanding of who Geoffrey Chaucer, an English gentleman of the early Renaissance, was.

The biggest problem one encounters, faced with a lack of evidence, comes at portraying the last years of Chaucer's life. At some point, the documentation that the man Geoffrey Chaucer lived, simply ceases to record this same person as living. There is no record of anything - no death records in any church, no records of judicial procedures, no diplomatic letters from others at the time noting his passing - and, as my mother noted, "He just disappears." My father points out that, as a royal diplomat and courtier, in all likelihood, Chaucer attracted enemies, not the least for the profane nature of his writings as for his service to the crown. His disappearance was probably the result of intrigue; the Argentines and Chileans may have perfected the disappeared, but the English managed to go a long way to creating that category.

At the end, while Gardner's book is extremely strong on Chaucer's writings, his speculations of an elderly Chaucer enjoying his sunset years puttering in quiet obscurity just doesn't square with the massive silence that ensues. Given what we know about the ways of courtiers, in all likelihood, Chaucer's ending was probably far from pleasant.

With Jesus we face an even greater silence from start to finish. Jesus wrote nothing of which we know. The extant records of his life, contained in the canonical and extra-canonical Gospels, are hardly biographical. The various contradictions among these texts would confound anyone trying to reassemble anything like "The Life of Jesus".

Except, of course, such silence hasn't prevented a whole cottage industry of "Historical Jesus" scholarship from continuing on, blissfully insouciant to the many problems such an intellectual feat faces. Bernard Brandon Scott is among those scholars, a member of the Jesus Seminar, and committed, as he says at the outset, to understanding the parables as the stories of the historical Jesus, the first century Galilean Jewish peasant. Right at this point we confront a major obstacle - we have no direct access to the first century Galilean Jewish peasant apart from the various portrayals, written after his death, who attempted to understand his life and work through the prism of his execution and reported resurrection. Everything we have, accepted by the Church or not, can only be understood with that in mind. While we can, as Gardner did with Chaucer, come to an understanding of the world in which Jesus lived, the various communities that shaped his life and work, wrestle with the differences between orality and literacy as they pertain to Jesus' ministry (an issue to which I shall return when discussing the substance of Scott's text), and consider his ministry as part of the larger Jewish struggle against Roman dominance, at the end of the day, the hole in the middle of the story cannot be filled by all that ever-growing, overlapping sets of information and learning.

Which is not to say that the historical Jesus is some kind of cypher hiding behind the various portrayals of him in the Gospel literature. On the contrary, given the state of various historical-critical methodologies, understanding who Jesus was, what he taught, and how the communities that produced the texts we call Gospels understood his teachings becomes both deeper and broader with each passing year. All the same, I believe it not only impossible to get behind the extant texts to recover the man, Jesus, behind the testimony of Christ, I believe it is unnecessary. Jesus himself is clear enough, roughly speaking across the textual evidence we now have, about who he is, what he is doing, and why he is doing it. It is the texts themselves that testify who the person, Jesus of Nazareth is, because he was none other than the wandering preacher, teacher, healer, friend of tax-collectors, prostitutes, and other outsiders.

Furthermore, as an introduction to the second post - on the inclusion of the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas - the four Gospels, for all their contradictions, inner incoherence (at times), range of literary standards (from Mark's barely literate koine Greek to the fully realized narrative expanse of the Gospel of St. Luke and the cosmic Christ of the Gospel of St. John), provide a marvelous, multifaceted view of this Jesus, who he was, what he did, and most of all why he did it. To understand Jesus, absent any other evidence, by pretending that there exists behind these texts something that is accessible without these texts is really to pretend to something that isn't possible. This position is not helped by Scott's insistence that the entire reading project is theory-laden. This is true, to be sure, but his position on what constitutes a "theory" is wrong. A theory isn't a guess. Rather, it is a set of working assumptions that have proved themselves repeatedly and are connected because, fitting them together in a particular way makes what was previously unintelligible, intelligible.

Finally, while it is certainly important to understand the parables qua parables, the attempt, as Scott says, to understand them as this historical man Jesus told them, without the contextual settings in the Synoptics (as he notes, the Fourth Gospel is parable free, one of many reasons I find N. T. Wright's theory that is the earliest Gospel untenable), does violence not so much to the meanings of the parables themselves, but the narrative function of the parables within the larger project of each Gospel writer. Ripping them from their literary context robs them of their noetic authority, their theological depth, and their reality as part of a larger whole. Much like the "Q" hypothesis - arguments over what is and is not contained in a document that does not exist strikes me as an odd way to spend one's academic career - I find this way of "reading" presupposes facts not in evidence, and incapable of ever being in evidence.

That there was a historical Galilean Jewish peasant named Yeshua who ended up on a Roman crucifix at some point in the ham-fisted reign of Pontius Pilate as proconsul is pretty much beyond dispute. Of the man, the only testimony we have that remains after two thousand or so years is contained in a limited number of unique literary documents that limit themselves to various deeds, sayings, teachings, and goings-on that relate to his work in and for the poor and outcast in Roman Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, and how these acts are related to the claim that this same murdered apostate and rebel rose from the dead. Getting behind this portrait, regardless of the intellectual rigor involved in the effort, ends us up where it began. In the process we lose the context, the subtlety, the beauty, and the testimony of the Gospels. In other words, we lose far more than we gain in the attempt.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Steven Wilson

First, this is a nice summary of who he is.

Second, his many moods . . .

Porcupine Tree - "My Ashes" (live, with John Wesley on vocals on the chorus):

Blackfield - "Once" (live in NYC):

No-Man - "All The Blue Changes" (live in London)

Steven Wilson - "Collecting Space"

When I saw the name "Porcupine Tree" on the back of a tour t-shirt back in the spring of 2006, I had no idea it would lead me to one of the most obsessively creative musicians I have ever encountered. With no less than four simultaneous, on-going musical careers, Wilson is nothing if not driven and prolific. What makes him stand out, at least to me, is each of his projects - PT, No-Man, Blackfield, and his solo material - is distinct; further, one would be hard-pressed to find anything definitive such as a "Porcupine Tree sound", or trace a "Blackfield sound" back to something Wilson had written years before for No-Man.

What keeps me coming back, time and again, is the consistently high quality of the songs. In Porcupine Tree, Wilson works with three other musicians (John Wesley, second guitarist and back-up vocalist, is a touring companion, occasionally doing backing vocals on some of their studio recordings) who are among the most thoughtful and accomplished, not to mention talented, I have heard and seen. Indeed, seeing Porcupine Tree live at the Vic Theater in 2009 was a musical highlight for me.

Wilson, though, is the heart of all these projects. His ideas drive them, his personality holds them together, his refusal to settle keeps the quality consistent. I have little doubt that he has little life outside music, driven as he is. Some people have a difficult enough time with a couple jobs; Wilson juggles four very different jobs, with aplomb, deftness, a sense of humor (even when he's being a gloomy Gus), and, it seems to me, a sense of joy.

I couldn't end this without this emblematic PT song, the title track to Fear of a Blank Planet. This performance is part of their Anaesthetize DVD because it shows, no matter what we may say about him or his music, he is a rocker.

"I'm alive. I need help. But when you call for help, it seems like no one's there."

Back in the late 1980's, I had a subscription to Mother Jones, a hell-raising, left-populist magazine named after a famed hell-raising, left-populist labor heroine. In the early 1990's, I was thinking of resubscribing, but an acquaintance, much further to the left than I ever will be, insisted it had become the People magazine of the left. I steered clear.

I have been reading Kevin Drum's blog for a few weeks now, and it vindicates, in some way, my previous opinion of MJ. Drum's pieces are thought provoking, more than occasionally indignant, and do not deal in either trite formulas or stale jargon. For that reason, many on the left don't like him.

While reading him this afternoon, I came across a link to this story. The author's search for understanding why a seven-year-old girl was accidentally shot and killed by a Detroit SWAT officer on a mistaken raid on her home ends up providing a portrait not just of a city in rapid physical and civic decline. The story shows, in graphic, heart-rending detail, what happens when a city is abandoned, first by the businesses that helped create it, then the political infrastructure that sustained it, and finally any sense that the city contains human beings in need. The quote that serves as the title of this post is from the 39-year-old mother of two murdered sons, a plea that seems to fall on ears deafened to the cries and pleas from our abandoned cities.

I offer no answers to the multi-layered issues and questions this article presents. I offer only the article itself, a piece to be studied, read and re-read. In the face of the overwhelming testimony of decline, despair, and death that is the current reality of so much of the city of Detroit, I don't know if "answers", as a concept, a word, a set of possible policies, even exists. All the same, the city is not some abstract thing, but the place, long abandoned by the auto-industry, that 800,000 people still call home. These 800,000, long before we start devising "solutions" to their "problems", need to be heard. They need someone to acknowledge that their cry for help has not gone out to a silent universe.

Beyond that, we need to be silent. Listen, weep silent tears for the Aiyanas and Chaises and all the rest of those whose deaths seem too routine to bring about even mourning in their communities. Listen again. Then keep listening for more Detroit voices, more cries from the depths of our American Golgotha, a place outside the walls of American acceptability, where it seems people are condemned for no other reason than they live there.

So, just read this article, always with one ear open for more voices, more cries that need to be heard.

Monday, December 27, 2010

I Think We Need New Categories

The Immanent Frame is not really a blog, although it calls itself one.
Founded in the fall of 2007, The Immanent Frame is a production of the Social Science Research Council’s Program on Religion and the Public Sphere. In 2008, the new blog was named an official honoree by the Webby Awards and a “favorite new religion site, egghead division” by The Revealer.
This interview with Australian academic Simon During offers up some interesting food for thought, not the least of which is that we need to stop talking about "post"-cultural eras. Post-modernity, that marvelously trivial and largely spent attempt to make the decline of western capitalism look both inevitable and profound, tells us next to nothing about what, exactly, comes after modernity. Because it was less about what comes "after" the modernist project - everything from the Enlightenment to Nietzsche and Heidegger, really - and more about convincing the world that alternatives to capitalist dominance were pretty much doomed to failure even as it considered capitalism itself pretty horrible, it offered nothing more than the shrugged shoulders of the resigned fatalist.

Post-secularism seems to me, at least as it is explained and expanded upon here, to be much the same kind of term, although serving different ideological ends. While on the one hand, it seeks to correct the totalitarian nature of secularist thought by engaging with the historical reality that literally billions of human beings adhere to a variety of religious beliefs with some level of serious commitment, it clings, in many ways, to certain secularist principles, not the least of them being that much of the content of religious belief qua religious belief is humbug. Rather than engage Christianity, Islam, or other religious beliefs on their own terms, as well as larger social and cultural phenomena, they merely see them, as the author quite rightly points out, as pre-modern remnants of socialization that can serve as a critique of global capitalism precisely because these sets of beliefs and practices predate global capitalism.

How we are to utilize these potential sources without engaging them on their own terms, however, the author doesn't seem to consider. Furthermore, while the secularist critique of religion as an ideology certainly contains much with which I agree, and the social practices of secularization have been, by and large, forces for good, without setting engaging seriously and thoughtfully with what has been lost in process of secularization, as well as the short-comings of secularism as a part of that same ideology - global capitalism - that "post-secularism" wishes to critique.

Finally, it seems to me we are only now, albeit belatedly, to the realization that there are limits to the benefits of secularization, much the same as we have yet to learn there are limits to the benefits of global capitalism. One would hardly imagine calling our age "post-capitalist". "Post-secular" just doesn't seem even a good placeholder as a way of thinking about our current moment.

The Church Calendar - A Reality Check

It was years ago that I learned the first feast days on the (Roman) Church calendar are the Feast of the Slaughter of the Innocents (as told in St. Matthew's Gospel) and the Feast of the Martyrdom of St. Stephen. While hardly cheery festivals, these days coming on the heels of the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus remind us, first, of the kind of world in to which Jesus was born; second, with the Feast of the Martyrdom of St. Stephen, we remember what price we pay for following the man that Christmas baby will become.

Part of our problem, at least as Christians living in the United States - among many others! - is that, culturally speaking, we are the descendants of Rousseau. We view children as these marvelously innocent little creatures, open to the world, yet also destined to be corrupted by it. Our maudlin, hyper-romantic approach to the scenes of Jesus' birth too often elide a whole host of matters we would rather not consider in our warm, softly-lit Christmas homes. Everything from the heavy hand of Roman imperialism, Judean royal collaboration, the pretty obvious poverty and desperation of Joseph and Mary become matters that set a scene, rather than the heart of the problem Jesus came to address. With the birth, of course, we forget the ritually unclean state Mary and Joseph would have shared (if, indeed, Joseph assisted with the birth; he most likely did not), further estranging them from the larger society. We personalize our thoughts of the birth and immediate aftermath, rather than socialize them. Our minds filled with saccharine sentimentality, we refuse to allow any thoughts of hardship, worry, or care enter in to that moment that Mary first held her newborn son.

Thanks to the Roman calendar, we are snapped back to reality. Herod, that quisling false king, saw fit to order the death of all boy children under two years old. The blood of those children, the cries of the parents, the stink of the piles of corpses - these are ever-present realities, no less so for the horror, rage, and sorrow they evoke. We must never forget this moment, nor the reality that it was the birth of Jesus that brought it about. Herod, in his fear, sought to prevent any possible rival, even a newborn infant, from rising against him. All because he had heard of the birth of Jesus. Jesus' birth brought not just joy and peace. It also brought wails of mourning and streets running with blood.

St. Stephen's martyrdom gives us reason to remember that following Jesus is not a child's game. It doesn't fill us with that same saccharine sentimentality we keep trying to recall for our American Christmas celebrations. It is a matter of life and death. It might, perhaps, mean our death.

As we continue the week-long party that is Christmas/New Years, it is nice to have these little reminders that Jesus was not born so that we might vacation time, and have it more abundantly. Jesus was born in to a world filled with death and horror, of war and genocide. A world not much different from our own. Following this little baby, all cute and snuggling against his mother, can mean peace, to be sure. It can also mean rejection and horror and death.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

We Are The Reason To Hope

A report on Christmas Eve painted a portrait of national despair. Another report, this Boxing Day, offers us the image of the people of Florida having elected Ebeneezer Scrooge governor of Florida.

Do we despair? Do we blame the poor for their plight? Do huddle in the tattered remnants of an earlier age of largely false enthusiastic optimism, grasping what little remains to us, casting aspersions on the moral rectitude of those victimized by the false schemes of snake oil salesmen of market fundamentalists?

Of course, it seems we may well do just those things. All the same, I hope, beyond any evidence or reason to the contrary, because there is nothing inevitable about the future. Despair, as nonsensical and irrational as the sunny-eyed optimism of which it is just the flip-side, grants us nothing but the ridiculous notion that we have a grasp of the suture that is just not ours to have.

In the morally obtuse preachments of school marms like Rick Scott, we may rest for a moment if only because it assures us that we are not they. The bottom may have collapsed, but still have a toehold upon the ledge; those who have lost everything have no one but themselves to blame. If any such sentiments are less American, I cannot really imagine them.

The reason I have hope is simple - the future is in our hands. We may not believe it. We may think we need to listen to others for how we are to be America, but, really we don't. Climbing out of the pit in which we find ourselves, largely the making of the same people lecturing us now on our moral laxity, insisting we need to expect less from the future, begins with no longer heeding those voices that claim authority over us. We must understand this before we understand anything else - those same "leaders" who tell us that our choices are curtailed by "natural" economic forces, by the rules of the game that support those institutions that rained down such destruction upon us no longer have a hold over us.

We are free. We always were, but now, in an age of loss, we can also lose the illusion that we are chained to cruel fate, disguised as the economic marketplace.

Having lost so much, my hope lies that we can also lose our reliance upon those who insist their voices must be heeded. My hope lies in the possibility that we might just stand up, wipe the dust from the wreckage off our tattered clothes, and say together, "No." That would be the first step in the long journey to making us who we could be. It takes courage, to be sure. It also takes solidarity, recognizing that all of us, together, suffer from the misrule of those for so long who viewed their role as "leader" as natural, even inevitable.

This is the reason I do not despair. This is the reason that, even in the midst of fear and anger, I believe it is possible we may yet, together, move forward, lifting our hands out to those who have already fallen, instead of glancing away in fear and disgust.

Mary's Pregnancy And Our Sex-Obsessed Culture

The reading for today is Matthew 1:18-25, which tells us of Joseph hearing of Mary being with child, as verse 20b says, "the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit." He had been planning on ending their betrothal, albeit quietly, but with this news, he took her in to his house.

The post-Apostolic era, even through the early Church Fathers, was rife with stories about who the father of Mary's baby might be. Many rumors suggested that Mary, far from being the pure child, had worked as a Temple prostitute and was pregnant with the child from some Roman. Other stories were that she was raped by a Roman soldier. From the very beginning, the claim of "virgin birth" was considered ridiculous, and stories swirled that attempted to paint the conception of Jesus in an apposite a light as possible.

Yet, reading this passage, as well as the story in Luke 1, about Mary discovering her pregnancy, really, to my reading, have little to nothing to do with, to be blunt, biology or gynecology, and everything to do with theology. That is to say, Mary's child was not the result of the Holy Spirit placing within her womb a fetus. Rather, the story is about the grace-filled workings of God in the life of this young woman.

Part of my problem with the doctrine, if one can call it that, of the Virgin Birth, is its inherent hyper-rationality. It seeks to understand the mystery of the incarnation through a consideration of our basic understanding of human reproduction. Jesus is the Son of God; Mary gave birth to him; therefore, there must have been some kind of Divine intervention at the very beginning, to place this child within Mary to grow and from which to issue forth. This crossing of the lines between a simple, almost logical consideration of the facts we understand concerning how we make babies, and an almost magical view of the workings of God has produced this odd, and to my mind irrelevant notion, that Mary not only was a physical virgin before her pregnancy, but continued to be so after. Despite the clear testimony of Scripture that Jesus was part of a family with siblings (including James, who, after Jesus' passing, became a leader of the Jerusalem Church), the Roman Catholic Church has stretched this idea to the non-Biblical notion that Jesus was the only child of Joseph and Mary.

We can get so caught up in insisting on the necessity of the Virgin Birth for an understanding of the incarnation that we forget that these stories aren't about sex. They are about Divine grace. There really is no way to understand "how" it came to be that Mary, a young unmarried Nazarene woman, came to be with a child that her parents seemed to understand was more than just a generous gift from God to them, but for the whole world. Beyond insisting that the Holy Spirit was at work even then in the lives of Mary, Joseph, and the fetal Jesus, I think it is enough to say that it happened.

Far too often talk about Jesus' birth get caught up in social discussions on everything from abortion and class attitudes toward pregnancy (particularly as it to relates to the institution of marriage), to our general cultural psychosis about sex. It would be nice to do away with the magical thinking, which - to my mind anyway - seems to carry an implicit idea that sex, particularly in the case of the parents of Jesus, is somehow wrong. Much better to think of a young, barely adolescent Mary, pure and holy, discovering that she is with child through the intervention of God and in no other way.

It would be nice if we could reclaim the marvelous divine gift of human sexuality within the context of the birth narratives. The old rumors and stories - was she a whore? was she raped? - are of little consequence at the moment. Rather, we might just consider the all-too-human idea that Mary and Joseph, like not a few couples, might have eaten of the fruits of the matrimonial tree before they were fully ripe, as it were. In saying that, I am not saying anything more than that Jesus parents were, just as our Church has claimed for close to seventeen hundred years for their first child, fully human.

Friday, December 24, 2010

What Would A New Carol Look Like?

Like the sainted Dickens, my hope is the following doesn't put you out of temper with me, the day, or the sentiments of the season.

Toward the end of John Mortimer's Introduction to the sesquicentennial edition of A Christmas Carol, he "wondered how far we had really come in a century and a half since that endlessly active pen scratched its Christmas message."
All over the world povery and ignorance are tolerated. Those great Western democracies, the United States and Britain, accept the existence of an abandoned underclass, unemployed, unwanted, uneducated, and ignored. In Russia poor children live on the rubbish dumps, in Africa they starve. What we need is another Dickens, a novelist to stir our consciences and succeed where politicians and preachers and pamphleteers have so conspicuously failed. (p. xiii)
As marvelous a piece of literature as A Christmas Carol is I have to wonder how effectual it, or a contemporary equivalent, would be in snapping us out of our socially moral lassitude. The obstacles we face in regard to issues of wealth and poverty, the attitudes represented by Scrooge and, in particular, the Spirit of Christmas Present, would find it far more difficult to penetrate the hearts of our contemporary Scrooges. The problem is not that ours is a less religious, or less moral time. The problem is not that our economic and financial elite are in some manner, fashion, or form less moral, or even more evil, than those in Lord Palmerston's Britain. Rather, the structures within which these elites operate, the professional and ideological demands upon their attention, that which sets their public priorities, could not be met by appeals to their better human natures, to the thought that, as Marley's ghost tells Ebeneezer, the dealings of their trade are but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of their business.

Part of the problem with any attempt to do what Dickens was attempting here - to paint a picture of a society indifferent to the condition of a large sector of its population even as it claims the mantle "Christian" - is that we all too easily get hung up on the personalities involved. Because Scrooge, in particular, but also Bob Cratchit, the gentlemen who come calling for a charitable donation, even Fred Holliwell and Old Fezziwig are such marvelously drawn characters that we can forget that they are much more than that. For example, I can imagine Larry Summers or Robert Rubin announcing tomorrow that they are willing to make slightly less money if it would mean paying their employees slightly more. I cannot imagine, however, any government official, or CEO at a major bank announcing policies that would harm quarterly profits. I cannot imagine a scenario in which the Chairman of GM or Dow Chemical would welcome greater environmental regulation. I certainly could not see the Board of Target or some other big box store inviting labor organization at its stores.

The obstacles to a more just, more equitable society are not personal. I am not the least bit moved by character sketches of this or that person in business or government, because who they are as individuals means nothing to their professional, public conduct. It may well be that Dick Cheney is a loving, attentive father and husband. His public, professional conduct, however, in offices of public trust, has been egregious not for the least reason because there are structural rules and limits upon those offices that limit the impact any particular individual's personality may have upon their operation. This is why the endless focus on certain personalities - Sarah Palin, Pres. Obama as a person, John Boehner as a lachrymose spray-tanner - really mean little to me. I could probably sit and have a nice chat with all of them and more, share a beer with the President, tell jokes with Boehner, talk Winston Churchill with Newt Gingrich, and it would mean little to nothing about who they are as holders of public office.

Which is not to say that we are not in dire need of a fiction of moral redress in regard to the abysmal state of our political, economic, and social life as we are currently living it. Some attempts, such as Jonathan Franzen's bleak perspective of an ever-shrinking field of moral choices, are more descriptive than prescriptive; for all that, they seem to offer little hope in their explorations of the tortured soul of America in decline.

While it would be marvelous if the Spirits would visit, say, our Secretary of the Treasury, inducing his support for fiscal stimulus and greater banking regulation, my guess is even if they did visit - and please remember the vision of spirits bound together granted to Scrooge, which he divines as "governments" condemned in much the way Marley is - our public policy would change little, and the larger framework within which public decisions are made would not alter one bit.

I am not saying we should not read Dickens' "ghost of a tale". I am hardly suggesting that its weighty moral vocabulary is irrelevant. I do hope you don't get the impression that I do not believe there is still so much for us all to hear in the words of Marley's Ghost and the two Spirits who speak to Ebeneezer. I am only suggesting that Mortimer's idea of some contemporary fiction of moral sermonizing faces a far more difficult set of obstacles than those faced by Dickens.

So, God bless us, everyone!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Women And Motherhood: A French Feminist Perspective

I could probably spend days reading through the links on the syllabus at The New Inquiry. While older - from August - this interview with Elisabeth Banditer certainly offers an interesting perspective on the choices women face, and the differing cultural pressures, as well as generational changes, effecting women's realities. While her particular view is parochially French, her constant compare/contrast with German domestic culture and the pressures German women face is reminiscent of the same pressures American women face.

Because of the large influx of German immigrants here, much of our domestic culture in the United States is a rough adaptation and translation of the "kinder, kurche, kirche" notions of Wilhemine Germany. With the heavy weight of these demands, the demands of second wave feminism in the 1970's were felt as every bit revolutionary as the Civil Rights Movement. That these ideas were baptized by a cultural Christianity didn't help, at least here in the United States.

It is also nice that Ms. Banditer notes the socially structured limits on women's choices, that these structured limits aren't as present in France as they are in Germany (and the US as well). Yet, it is precisely at this point that I think Second Wave Feminism failed. While they pointed to the correct problem, placing it solely at the feet of patriarchy as a socio-cultural-political force ignored the capitalist system's demands, not just upon women, but men as well. The one attempt to redress the critique of patriarchy and capitalism - Catherine MacKinnon's Toward A Feminist Theory of the State - places feminism and Marxism in dialogue. MacKinnon, however, has far too many other issues, far too much baggage, to give her the kind of credibility needed to work through the synthesis such a dialogue might construct.

In any event, I recommend several reads-through as it offers up a whole salad for thought.

Holy Conferencing Starts At Home (Error Corrected)

With thanks to Matthew Johnson for the head's up, I would like to respond to this editorial at the United Methodist Reporter's website with some thoughts of my own.

Rather than looking to either individuals or a group at the top in the elusive quest after leadership, the United Methodist structure already has its own grassroots structure, waiting to be rethought, practiced with eyes toward real change, offering opportunities for real engagement. The Charge/Church Conference, the meeting of the local congregation that is held, minimally, annually, to address matters before the entire congregation, is far too often overshadowed by the Annual Conference as the place where we place our hopes. Yet, it is precisely here that local congregations/charges define themselves; where leaders find and even exercise their voices; where the vital interchange between clergy under appointment and laity exercise authority.

Far too long has the charge conference been seen as an autumn ritual to be gotten past. Far too long has its sole purpose been understood to be setting the pastor's salary, arguing over apportionments, and making the church's feelings clear concerning their appointed clergy to the District Superintendent. Yet it is precisely here, when the clergy and laity are gathered together to sum up their previous year, discuss the upcoming plans - budget! - and set out their vision for who they are as "church" that we have a far-too-untapped resource. We hear far too little of the ways local congregations can use charge conferences as a moment for making clear who they are, what they wish to be, and how they are to achieve their goals.

In my wife's previous appointment, a turning point was being reached. Not only was the church growing, but that growth had changed the self-identity of the whole congregation. A new group of younger leaders was coalescing, yet without any set of defined qualities, goals, or any mission. In this context, Lisa led a group through a year-long exploration that resulted in a Charge Conference that altered the leadership structure of the congregation, offered a vision and mission-statement that invigorated them, and set them on a path toward not just numerical growth - a result of changing local demographics that would have occurred anyway - but vigorous growth in their self-perception. It was a marvelous example of the power of Charge Conference as a vehicle for real change, real leadership, and the promise of what Holy Conferencing can achieve at the local congregational level.

I have a few other examples, but I think the point here is clear. Rather than seek "a leader", perhaps we need to rediscover the real leaders that we already have - our local churches, gathered in Charge Conference, telling the world who they are as the gathered Body of Christ.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


This might just reopen a great conversation.

Compared to America's legal drugs of choice, alcohol and nicotine, marijuana is relatively harmless, in terms of the health effects. Far from creating monsters, as alcohol can, it creates a mellow atmosphere, where strangers can become friends. The mild hallucinogenic effects, the way it opens up reception to stimuli, and the way it makes all such stimuli fascinating are all in contrast to the hyperactivity of nicotine, and the depressive, even narcoleptic effects of alcohol.

Plus, it does seem to mitigate certain issues in regard to appetite and pain relief under certain circumstances.

The debate over the legalization of pot has yet to finish, and Robertson's endorsement of decriminalization seems a huge step forward. While I doubt Pat fires up a hookah, it does offer a comical moment, too, the picture of moral rectitude sucking a fatty as a way of helping hear a Word from the Lord.

Confronting Library Shelves With Hope

I admit a bit of nerdishness here. I love University libraries. I remember times at the library at Wesley Theological Seminary and The Catholic University of America where, it seemed, endless possibility passed before me as I walked the stacks. For someone interested in just about anything, a University library in particular can be a dangerous place. It is all too easy to lose oneself in this or that set of stacks, rather than concentrate on getting the titles for which one is searching. In the midst of these searches, you run across a monograph on Chinese art, say, or the Northwest native Potlatch, opening up whole new vistas for understanding what it means to be human.

Even reading something daring in scope and intent - my own favorite in this regard is Bloch's Principle of Hope - provides an awareness of just how much there is to learn, how much to understand, about the world. Anything and everything is there for the taking.

It was with surprise, then, that I read Rob Horning's "Confessions of a Mass Man".
The palpable sense that there was so much more to know, the concrete proof of it bound up in volumes front of me, not only made it difficult for me to imagine leaving the library; it also made it hard to actually start reading anything. I wanted to stay there in the narrow aisle, facing the books forever, contemplating the spines, surveying Contents and Works Cited pages, poised in a moment of perpetual potentiality. As long as I didn’t commit to any one text, I could continue to fantasize about reading them all. Walking away from the shelf would be tantamount to surrender; I’d have to admit to myself how much there was that I would never know, how I was doomed to dilettantism.

This sort of library visit was somewhat counterproductive to my studies. I learned to evade that state of petrified fascination in the stacks only by avoiding the library altogether and ultimately by dropping out of school.
Obviously, this is a fully human choice. Horning sees himself as one of Ortega y Gasset's "mass men", defined in his The Revolt of the Masses as "constitutionally incapable of appreciating the society in which it found itself."
Sunk in a mire of “self-satisfaction” and “radical ingratitude,” this new inert generation lacked the autonomy to strive for the “noble life” of ceaseless moral and intellectual struggle. “They are from birth deficient in the faculty of giving attention to what is outside themselves, be it fact or person,” Ortega asserts. “They will want to listen, and will discover they are deaf.”
Ortega y Gasset's view of "mass man", however, is really a description of the petit bourgeois, that most reactionary, defensive, frightened of capitalist creatures. Threatened from below by the fear of proletarian victory, envious of the success of the bourgeoisie that always seems to elude them, the petit bourgeois' rage and frustration finds its outlet in fascist politics, anti-intellectualist attacks on culture, and racist and xenophobic attacks on "the other".

Far from the overwhelmed undergraduate, numb and dumb before the prospect and promise present in the University library, I would suggest, rather, that Horning's attempt to see himself reflected in Ortega y Gasset's "mass man" does himself a disservice. One can, I suppose resign oneself to a life viewed as dilettantism. On the other hand, one can dedicate oneself to seeing those shelves as holding the promise of a lifetime of learning, seeing the connections among things that might elude others. Certainly the reality of specialization, as Horning notes, leaves ever smaller niches, to the point where real knowledge and understanding will disappear. All the same, this is not the only possible answer.

An Odd Interview

The folks at The New Inquiry offer up an interview with Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor at The Utopian that is just strange. The interview seems to want to revolve around questions raised by Taylor's last, magesterial work, A Secular Age. The very first question signals that the interviewer hasn't quite grasped either the central point of Taylor's work, let alone surveys our contemporary scene for any clarity.
Is it possible to be religious in today’s world?
Even European intellectuals, long either resigned or elated by the passing of even the possibility of religious belief are coming to the realization that, as a very real human phenomenon, it has not and will not disappear as easily as was once envisioned. Indeed, the history of the past generation, if anything, is testimony to the tenacity of religious belief, and the very limited appeal of the western critique of the possibility of religious belief.

This last point is something that Taylor has made part of his philosophical project, that is, understanding how it is that the supposedly universal criticism of the possibility of religious belief is, really, merely a socially and culturally conditioned position. Furthermore, while it has given to the West many gains (which Taylor describes in brief in the interview), it also entails losses as well, which he also discusses.

Furthermore, the interviewers seem insistent to draw out from Taylor what he believes to be the political implications of the work, a view he rejects.
The book may have political consequences, but it’s not something that you could necessarily produce by political action.
What Taylor discusses in his book is the slow-moving intellectual change, with some political effects, but others as well. Are there political ramifications of this intellectual arc? Obviously. Yet, they are far more subtle, and might even be contradictory. Taylor is pretty clear about that in his work, as well as the interview.

Part of the problem, it seems to me, is the interviewer hasn't grasped the essence of Taylor's work. The following question makes that pretty clear; Taylor's response is generous, to say the least.
So let’s talk about these political consequences. If you jettison something like the mechanistic worldview, and perhaps substitute it with a more holistic religion that makes more claims of authority during our time on earth — wouldn’t one of the consequences be that it would be very difficult for many such religions to co-exist? Is the liberal part of your soul worried about the societal clashes that might result?

That sort of thing is possible, but it’s not inevitable. Religions can be lived in very many different ways. One of the big things that started happening in the 20th century is ecumenicism. I don’t just mean: let’s get together, let’s be nice to each other. (Laughs) I mean, I’m all for that.

But there’s something else which is much more subtle. This is ecumenicism as a real desire to learn from the other — and this extends to atheists as well — to learn from the other why their position so deeply appeals to them. There is a great deal of exchange operating at this level. It both presupposes but also builds initial respect and friendship. Again, you could say that this all corresponds to a new upheaval for people, who find it very difficult to flip back to the old way. So people argue that it, too, has downsides. I’m not sure about that, but it certainly has upsides. For instance, it frees in a plural-religious situation — where the other is a real possibility — certain kinds of ecumenicism that have traditionally existed in more despotically ordered societies. For instance, where the Greek Christians and the Armenian Christians and the Turkish Muslims all co-existed and nobody expected anyone to look at each other.

But in situations where one can move around, there is an easy tendency to defend yourself against any doubts about whether you should become an atheist, or whether an atheist should become a Christian, by supremely deprecatory views of the other. “I mean, I could change my mind, but their view is so ridiculous,” or horrifying or whatever. So the side of all this that clears away the deprecatory images is very important to one’s spiritual development — but it’s more than that. It’s a sense that (one is tempted to use one’s own language, naturally, so let me use the Christian language) you can see the Spirit moving in all these different lives, and that is something both very inspiring and furthering of one’s own spiritual development. I think a lot of that is coming to exist.
The interview is interesting precisely because there is an almost total failure to grasp the complexities of Taylor's argument. Like so many in today's world, there is the search for easy answers, for direct political or social implications from a certain intellectual stance. The interview is odd, and interesting, and worth a read, although at times, I wonder if Taylor isn't treating the interviewer like an undergraduate who hasn't quite got the point.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"[I]f you hate America, you have a great future in the Methodist church"

After linking to this story this morning on Facebook, I've been hesitant to say much more, not wanting to draw attention to Judson Phillips' stupidity. I decided, however, that I should at least make some folks who aren't with me on FB aware I saw it, and how I really feel.
Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips has a dream: "No more Methodist Church."

A blog post on his Tea Party Nation page says that on Friday he walked by the United Methodist Building in Washington D.C., which had a sign that said, "Pass the DREAM Act." Phillips wrote: " I have a DREAM. That is, no more United Methodist Church."


Phillips explains that he was formerly a member of the church, but he left because it's "the first Church of Karl Marx," and "little more than the "religious" arm of socialism."
The United Methodist Church's Board of Church and Society has prime office space, right across the street from the Capitol building, hard up between the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress. They have been working hard to educate church members on the DREAM Act - originally introduced seven years ago by that Marxist Orrin Hatch and co-sponsored by the American Politburo consisting of Charles Grassley, John McCain, Susan Collins, and Sam Brownback - and urging them to contact legislators in support of it.

That is perfectly legal. It is in keeping with the UMC Social Principles. It continues the lived witness of John Wesley, who, along with fighting off personal attacks and the rejection of the C of E establishment, worked with Members of Parliament to pass legislation.

Beyond that, I really have nothing more to say. Mr. Phillips is certainly entitled to his opinion, as insane as it may be. He may be upset with the UMC for urging passage of the DREAM Act. Shoot, he can even work toward ending the denomination, although right now we are doing a nice job of suicide, really.

Mr. Phillips is also invited to Cornerstone UMC in Plato Center, IL for Christmas Eve candlelight service on Friday night, should he be in the area. My guess is the clergy - my wife, Rev. Lisa Kruse-Safford, and Associate Pastor Rev. Calvin Culpepper - will not even whisper St. Karl's name that night, mention the DREAM Act, or anything else. Instead, there will be the singing of carols, a recollection of the birth story by reading the first section of the second chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke, the lighting of the Christ Candle, which will burn until Good Friday, and a whole lot of folks wishing one another Merry Christmas.

I also would add, as my first reaction as I read the sentence which is this post's title:

Merry Christmas, Mr. Phillips. Many blessings during this season of hope and in to the new year.

Republicans In House Love Marriage So Much They Want To Protect Minors Forced Into It

Summarizing a large, now deleted, preface to this post, I am hesitant to cast aspersions on one political party over and against another. In regard to specific actions, however, it seems to me that aspersions need to be cast, particularly when they are egregious.

TPM noted an otherwise passed-over bill fail in the House.
On Thursday night, hours before passing the tax cut compromise, House Republicans thwarted a bill that aimed to protect girls around the world from being coerced into child marriage. They opposed it because, they claimed, it might fund abortions.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), was blindsided. After the Child Marriage Protection Act passed the Senate with zero objection on Dec. 1 -- a rare feat these days -- it didn't seem like there was much to worry about.

But just before the vote began, Republican leadership blasted out a "whip alert" to GOP staffers with a message: Vote no. The alert claimed the bill cost too much and that a competing bill, introduced just the day before, would be better.

"There are also concerns that funding will be directed to NGOs that promote and perform abortion and efforts to combat child marriage could be usurped as a way to overturn pro-life laws," the alert read.


The text of the bill does not mention abortion, contraception or family planning. Instead, it directs the president to make preventing child marriage a priority, especially in countries where more than 40 percent of girls under the age of 18 are married. The ways to do that, according to the bill: support educating communities on the dangers and health effects of child marriage, keep young girls in school, support female mentoring programs and make sure girls have access to health care services.
Apparently, it's that whole "health care services" provision. Some folks see that, they read "abortion!!! contraception!!!" and they just fear that some fetus might be harmed at some future point in time.

So, rather than help children, the Republicans are saying they want to prevent any potential fetus from some scenario that might threaten it, or might not.

The fetishization of the fetus has reached alarming, ridiculous proportions.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Poor Beleaguered Ross Douthat

I posted a link to Ross Douthat's column from today's Times, and its has sparked quite a bit of comment. I think it best to clarify why I don't like it.

The very first sentence of Douthat's column tells a perceptive reader that it is not going to go well.
Christmas is hard for everyone. But it’s particularly hard for people who actually believe in it.
How is Christmas hard? How is it hard for everyone? How, on God's green earth, could anyone who is a Christian claim that it is especially difficult for them, compared to others?

Now, perhaps for non-Christians, the season is difficult. For Jews and Muslims, Hindus and others the saturation of cultural Christmas (which some folks on FB have dubbed Consumermas, a marvelous name) probably causes enough confusion. Is this a religious celebration or some kind of socio-cultural event? Are we remembering the birth of the Christian savior and also anticipating his return? Are we, rather, celebrating the triumph of consumer capitalism by buying a whole lot of crap, signifying that buying in and of itself is some kind of national liturgical rite?

For Christians, regardless of the depth of their faith, this is a marvelous time. For Americans generally - at least those with a lick of sense - it is a time for families to get together, to take a moment from the imposition of so much busyness and be together. Even more than Thanksgiving, the parties and meals around Christmas are a means to an end, rather than the reason for the day.

Yet, let us take for granted that Douthat is right, that Christmas is tough, most especially for Christians. Why is that so?
[T]his is also the season when American Christians can feel most embattled. Their piety is overshadowed by materialist ticky-tack. Their great feast is compromised by Christmukkwanzaa multiculturalism. And the once-a-year churchgoers crowding the pews beside them are a reminder of how many Americans regard religion as just another form of midwinter entertainment, wedged in between “The Nutcracker” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”
The "multiculturalism" jab is a bit dated. The attitude toward Christmas-only church-goers is a large reason why they only go once a year.
These anxieties can be overdrawn, and they’re frequently turned to cynical purposes. (Think of the annual “war on Christmas” drumbeat, or last week’s complaints from Republican senators about the supposed “sacrilege” of keeping Congress in session through the holiday.) But they also reflect the peculiar and complicated status of Christian faith in American life. Depending on the angle you take, Christianity is either dominant or under siege, ubiquitous or marginal, the strongest religion in the country or a waning and increasingly archaic faith.
Ross, you certainly aren't one of those "overdrawing" a Christian's anxiety about his or her place in our national life, are you? I thought not.
In the last 50 years, the Christian churches have undergone what “American Grace” describes as a shock and two aftershocks. The initial earthquake was the cultural revolution of the 1960s, which undercut religious authority as it did all authority, while dealing a particular blow to Christian sexual ethics. The first aftershock was the rise of religious conservatism, and particularly evangelical faith, as a backlash against the cultural revolution’s excesses. But now we’re living through the second aftershock, a backlash to that backlash — a revolt against the association between Christian faith and conservative politics, Putnam and Campbell argue, in which millions of Americans (younger Americans, especially) may be abandoning organized Christianity altogether.
I wondered how long it would be before those horrid 1960's reared their radical heads. As I write this, I'm listening to CSNY's Deja Vu, which should tell anyone where my sympathies lie.

I also find it amusing for Douthat to write about "sexual ethics", considering part of his internet fame/notoriety stems from a piece he did on-line a few years back detailing an encounter with a young woman he described as "a chunky Reese Witherspoon." Readers of that particular piece are unanimous the young lady in question dodged a bullet.

As for young people leaving the Church in droves, that might well be a good thing. Particularly since our churches are far more well known for what we are against, rather than what we support and actually do, is it any wonder? Douthat barely mentions the fact that conservative Christians spend quite a bit of their time in public ranting about how gays are destroying our country.

This should provide an opportunity for the various denominations to talk about what being a Christian means. It means living in love toward others - all others. It means talking to those in the pews, for all their various reasons, about the possibilities of the Christian life, about living in faith and hope and love with and for others. Instead of whining about it, we should be celebrating this chance for clarification.

Douthat chooses the path of victimization and whining.
Their argument is complemented by the University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter’s “To Change the World,” an often withering account of recent Christian attempts to influence American politics and society. Having popularized the term “culture war” two decades ago, Hunter now argues that the “war” footing has led American Christians into a cul-de-sac. It has encouraged both conservative and liberal believers to frame their mission primarily in terms of conflict, and to express themselves almost exclusively in the “language of loss, disappointment, anger, antipathy, resentment and desire for conquest.”

Thanks in part to this bunker mentality, American Christianity has become what Hunter calls a “weak culture” — one that mobilizes but doesn’t convert, alienates rather than seduces, and looks backward toward a lost past instead of forward to a vibrant future. In spite of their numerical strength and reserves of social capital, he argues, the Christian churches are mainly influential only in the “peripheral areas” of our common life. In the commanding heights of culture, Christianity punches way below its weight.
I have always maintained the "culture wars" were largely a distraction, a fake way for the powers-that-be to keep us occupied with peripheral issues with which politics is ill-equipped to deal. Rather than get incensed at out-sourcing jobs and cutting wages, we have Churches talking about how gays are a threat to the fabric of American society. Instead of talking about how we need to work together to feed the homeless, we get lectures on dirty art and sex education in our schools. Is it any wonder why the culture wars have rendered the Church's incapable of returning to the message of loving service to the world? Does Douthat even mention that core of who the Church is to be, those who bear witness to the Gospel?

In sum, Douthat's entire column is a pose. He writes of two recent books on the place of Christianity in America without really engaging the questions raised by these books. He does not set to one side the issue of the status of the Christian believer in the United States today, because he, like far too many, are invested in the long-lost inculturation of the churches, when priests and preachers were the voice of bourgeois conscience in small towns and commanded a presence in the halls of power. Far better to my mind that we are in the situation of social and cultural decline. This is an opportunity for us, not a reason to play the victim card.

John Wesley, Karl Marx, And The Full Life

One of the more important decisions my wife and I made this past year was that I would no longer work full time. After moving from Poplar Grove to the outskirts of Elgin, the commute to Belvidere was longer, my time with my family much shorter. Worse, from my own point of view, was the sense of disconnect, not just from my family, but myself, that I experienced. We looked over things, and realized that we could continue to make ends meet, albeit perhaps without some extra treats and gee-gaws, if I moved to part-time rather than full-time. We have made it work just fine.

To say that I experience my employment, in any time capacity, as alienation, would be an understatement. Were I a bit more confident, were our family situation more secure, leaving work completely would be marvelous. The compromise we reached, however, is satisfactory enough.

I find the connection between Marx's discussion of alienation in capitalist societies, in many ways, to have an affinity with John Wesley's discussion of the necessity for the New Birth. Marx is speaking of a socio-economic condition that leaves us strangers to that which most makes us human. Wesley is speaking of a spiritual condition that leaves us estranged from God. In both cases, there is, indeed, a solution. For Marx, it is a reordering of society so that labor, that which makes us most human, is no longer opposed to but rather supports a fully human life. For Wesley, the experience of the New Birth, acknowledging what God has done for and in us, awakens us to our new life in Christ, a new life lived in community with God and our fellow Christians, a life lived toward holiness, which Wesley understood as the further work of Divine Grace in the community of believers.

Both men saw the sad state of their fellow human beings. Both men felt compassion for the very real human suffering. Both men offered a diagnosis of the underlying condition - alienation, original sin - that cut through all the social and religious hype that helped so many rest uneasy with their truncated lives. The pabulum of the capitalist, the cheap grace of the State Church with its assurances that baptism was sufficient unto salvation are little more than the rhetoric of the powerful who offer us nothing but sickly-sweet bromides, veils for our eyes and blocks for our ears so that we cannot even see or hear the reality around us. We are lost. We know it. We cannot, however, define or understand what this lostness is, let alone what to do about it.

For Wesley, the New Birth was the work of God. With this "moment", as he calls it, we now have the opportunity to work toward that holiness of life and heart, as he calls it, that leads to eternal life. For Marx, the revolution leads to the control of the means of production, giving to the working class the power to make work, that which makes us human (he borrows from Feuerbach the term "species-being" to clarify the understanding of work as that which differentiates us from other animals), no longer alien to us, a power over us, but something fully human.

St. Paul wrote that Christ came not only so that we might have life, but that we might have it more abundantly. Wesley was working through his own understanding of what that meant. In much the same way, albeit in different language, with different concerns, Marx, too, was working through what it might mean, in a situation where an entire class of human beings is estranged from that which makes them most human, what it would mean to have a full life, an abundant life, a truly human life.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The God Who Never Gives Up

This is the second in what some might call a series of (probably) rambling posts on the topics of salvation and grace.
In the spirit also [Jesus] went and made his proclamation to the imprisoned spirits, those who had refused to bey in the past, while God waited patiently in the days when Noah was building the ark; in it a few people, eight in all, were brought to safety through the water. 1 Peter 3:19-20
I once heard someone who, in answer to a skeptical question whether grace was akin to electricity responded by saying, "No, it's like vulnerability." That has stuck with me for all these many years as I have tried to come to terms with grace, the call to holy living, the ethical life, and other such matters.

If God could be said to have a weakness, it's us. Oh, I don't mean "us" as in "us Christians", or "us Americans", or some other subset. Rather, "us" includes all of creation. Karl Barth was correct; God is the God who loves in freedom. As Terry Eagelton points out, that there is something rather than nothing at all is a sacrament of God's superabundant, prodigal capacity for love. Creation is a sign that God chooses to be with, with us, with creation. With rocks and planets and stellar clusters and blue whales and E. coli and even Germans. The unfolding meta-narrative of the Bible, buried beneath all the confounding tales, the brutality, the contradictions, the fantastic stories, is this simple reality - God wants nothing more or less than two things: to be loved by those God has created; for God's creatures to love and care for one another as God has loved and sustained them in being through love. As Jesus himself said, all the Law and Prophets is summed up here.

So, we are the unhealed wound in God's heart, the source of Divine pain and rage and long-suffering, and finally decision to join us in the vicissitudes of this life, going the full mile to death, only to take up in the Divine life this ending of all things so that the terror it holds over us could be broken. By breaking death's capacity to instill fear, we no longer need worry about such fleeting things as power and riches; we need no longer be concerned whether we have enough to sustain us through tomorrow. This worry is rooted in the fear of death, and in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, we now know that death's victory is fleeting, momentary.

In 1 Peter, we hear of the dead Jesus, preaching to those trapped - in hell? in Sheol? In limbo? In Wyoming? - because they rebelled against this profligate love. Even the dead hear the Good News so they, too, can escape the natural cycle of fear and death, and the silence the grave imposes upon all our hopes.

Could this story be true? I honestly have no opinion. What this story tells me, regardless of whether or not "it actually happened" is this. God never gives up on us. Never. Never. Never-ever. Even in death, these who so long before had rejected the pleas of God embodied in Noah building the Ark are offered the opportunity to hear of real salvation, of God's never-ending love and grace poured out for all creation. Even the dead.

Grace is like vulnerability because God is willing, freely, lovingly willing, to make a fool of God by going to the dead who long before rejected God's pleas for love and community - with God and one another - so that they, too, can join the blessed community.

When dealing with moral scolds who insist that God's law entails certain narrow understandings of human behavior, or social conformity, or what have you, I think about who God is as testified in Scripture. God was more than willing to demean the Divine Persons in order to rescue even those who are dead; how on earth is it possible that I, or anyone else, can make any judgments about who is in and who is out of the running for Divine grace?

The year after my wife and I were married, the state of Illinois executed John Wayne Gacey. Even now, I shudder when I consider the horrors this man visited upon the lives of so many families; I want to weep when I consider the fear, the pain, of the boys he tortured and killed.

My wife, who had been a child, and grew up not far from where Gacey preyed on young boys, turning his suburban home in to a grisly combination of mausoleum and abattoir, was adamant that she did not want to see Gacey executed. I was dumb-founed. Back then, the few folks I thought were deserving of this last full measure of state justice were people like Gacey. Yet, Lisa told me that, by stating that some people, even those who committed acts as foul as Gacey's, we were making a claim that some people existed outside God's grace.

Over the years, I have thought about this again, and again, and again. I realized that Lisa was right. The Biblical meta-narrative concerns a God who, quite simply put, never gives up. Those whom God does not surrender to the cruelties of apathy are . . . everything. All creation. There is a fungus that uses the digestive systems of birds to survive; in part of its life cycle, it invades the bodies of land snails, and set off a chemical reaction that make the snails both visible and edible to birds. There is something horrible about this. There is also something awe-inspiring about them, too. That some creatures have evolved to propagate themselves in this extreme way shows how powerful is the force of life, that same force that God redeemed in the cross and empty tomb of Jesus Christ.

It may be true that there are individuals so broken in this life they need to be removed from society. People like John Wayne Gacey. This does not mean, however, they exist in some way outside the grace of God, while the rest of us are embrace to the Divine bosom. All of us - every single individual human being, all creation that is either apathetic to existence, or participates in the great alimentary canal/reproductive act of life - are invited by God, no matter how far we may have wandered, no matter how broken our lives, no matter how adamantly we refuse to hear of God's prodigal love for us, nevertheless to reconsider our decision in regard to God's insistence that we are all precious in the Divine sight.


With the passage yesterday of the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, some good news peaked through the cloudy political season. I heard a portion of John McCain's speech yesterday, and was flabbergasted that no journalists pointed out that, quite contrary to the claims of "real harm" to the military, it has been demonstrated that the services are pretty open to the prospect of serving with openly gay and lesbian fellow service members. So, he's either ignorant of the study the committee on which he serves reviewed and had hearings on, or he's lying.

While Congress deserves applause, there's a part of me that has to wonder. This stand-alone bill passed with relative ease, which makes me wonder why the lengthy Sturm un Drang, years and years of hand-wringing and back-and-forth, fed mostly by ignorance and bigotry, as well as underestimating both the humanity and professionalism of our military.

We are a far better country today than we were yesterday. Now, all we need is to get rid of marriage discrimination, as well as laws on the books in multiple states that allow employers to fire people for their sexual orientation. A big step forward needs some recognition, though.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Sobering Reality, Uncertain Future

The frustrating thing about our current historical moment is the mixture of fantasy and magical thinking too often accompanying discussions of fiscal policy and the economy. One bit of unreality is the whole idea we are in a recovery. While perhaps technically true, the persistence of high unemployment on the one hand, and the obstinate refusal of incoming Republican Congress members to even consider fiscal stimulus to make up for the lack of private investment capital in the economy means we are stuck in a stagnant high unemployment cycle with little prospect for relief even in the near term. I read somewhere recently - I wish I remembered where - someone musing about the Tea Party. With the deficit expected to remain high, the Republicans see the only answer to fiscal responsibility as tax cuts, particularly for the wealthy. The obvious contradiction here is not even discussed, let alone mocked. The absence of Tea Party outrage - all of whom seemed to insist that fiscal restraint and deficit reduction are the order of the day - shouldn't be surprising.

A review of three books on the economic doldrums and what to do about them in the latest NYRB offers a rundown of the reality we are in that is too often missing from any discussion of the obstacles to real recovery. Among the many nuggets of platinum in this article is the following history lesson:
What is rarely recognized is that even if the US can emerge from a weak economy within a few years, the economic foundation that existed before the cataclysm of 2007 and 2008 may not be adequate to restore the widely shared prosperity the US needs. For more than three decades, economic growth had been largely dependent on rapidly rising levels of debt and on two major speculative bubbles, first in high technology and dot-com stocks in the late 1990s, then in housing in the 2000s. What will now replace them?

Income inequality widened sharply in these years and average wages stagnated for the many while record high fortunes were made by the few. The financial security and access to adequate health care and education for children that had defined the middle class since World War II have eroded rapidly. Meanwhile, investments in infrastructure such as transportation, as well as clean energy and education, have been badly neglected. All this raises doubts about America’s future economic vitality whether or not it balances its budget, and it does so at a time when international competition from Asia and the Southern Hemisphere will pose serious challenges during this century. How will Americans live a decade from now?
With banks much more reticent to extend credit of any kind, consumer or business, with wages falling relative to the needs for consumer activity to help produce economic activity sufficient to grow the economy; with outstanding private debt in the billions, much of which can never be recovered; with all this and so much more, we face far more intractable problems than just "jobs". We face far more bleak prospects than high deficits. The reality is that even should the economy of 2011 begin to chug along at a rate sufficient to begin bringing down the unemployment rate (not counting the millions who have simply stopped looking for work), it will be years before the economy reaches the peaks of the late 1990's, and the bubble years of 2005-2006.

As long as these facts are off the radar, there is no way to have a serious discussion of policy choices. As long as our politicians continue to pretend that the markets work magic, there is little hope of real investment in the public sector to help get people back to work and stimulate consumer demand. As long as tax cuts are the only answer to our largely imaginary fiscal woes, there is little prospect of serious discussion of what would constitute our economic future.

As long as people are not given the facts of our situation, there will be on-going magical thinking and fantastic images of some glorious future awaiting us. The reality, and the prospects for the future, are far different.

Friday, December 17, 2010

What Is And Isn't Rock And Roll

Apparently, the fact that I do not believe Neil Diamond belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (in fact, I don't believe such an institution should exist, but that's another matter) means I do not like Neil Diamond. I thought it was clear that I think he is what he is - a song-writer who sings those songs.

So, here goes, music lesson number one. Neil Diamond, a nice pop song writer, performing his own song, "Forever In Blue Jeans"

Here's my favorite Bruce Springsteen song, which he wrote and recorded for Born to Run. While it seems complex because of the arrangement, it is a simple rock and roll song, with that "shave and a haircut" rhythm, makes you want to get up and dance, it's about a girl, it's about sex, it's a song to be played loud while you drive down a highway with the top down.

I also said that Tom Waits, a performer I dearly love, doesn't belong in the HoF, either. There must be more Neil Diamond fans out there than Tom Waits fans . . .

Is Happiness A Social Good?

The most recent New York Review of Books carries a review of two titles on happiness (subscription required). The authors, Sissela Bok and Derek Bok, are husband and wife. Sissela is a moral philosopher; Derek is the former President of Harvard University. Sissela's book is a non-intrusive survey of philosophical ruminations on happiness as a moral good, an end toward which human beings might or should or do work. Derek's book is on happiness as a goal and measure of political acts. Reviewer Thomas Nagel makes clear throughout his essay that "happiness" as a statistically measurable fact is almost impossible to understand. While there is some correlation between happiness and income level, most people most of the time report that they are "happy" with their lives. There is little difference, across national boundaries, in these self-reports. More socio-economically egalitarian countries are about as happy as those with greater inequality, such as the United States.

So, I have to wonder. Is happiness a social good toward which our politics should strive? Is it, as Nagel makes clear, a good among others, to be weighted with them in the balance of goods sought? The questionable nature of self-reported happiness leaves me scratching my head. For example, my wife and I are, to continue the self-reporting trend, quite happy with our life. One of the reasons we are happy is that our lives are incredibly easier than the lives our parents led, economically and financially speaking. We take a look around at all the gadgets and gizmos in our house, our planned trip to Disney World in the spring, our two well-maintained and serviceable automobiles, our his-and-hers laptop computers, the multiple television sets and DVD/Blu-Ray players, the 600-watt home theater that rattles the windows when the family is away - we'd be crazy not to be happy.

Yet, this doesn't define our happiness, at least when we talk to one another about it. Our happiness is in our shared life together, the sacrifices we make, the time and energy and effort we spend raising our children to be good, hard-working, intelligent, creative members of society. We think of our friends and families, near and far, and the joy others have added to our lives.

All the same, I will admit that while this immediately preceding paragraph is true, it also makes it easier to be happy because of the various physical and material comforts we enjoy. Which means . . . exactly nothing. Happiness, as a definable ethical norm, a moral good toward which we should strive, does not exist. People can be filthy rich and miserable; people can be desperately poor and happy. Folks who live in far more egalitarian societies are not self-reportedly more happy than those in far more stratified societies. Derek Bok makes the odd observation that even though it is a fact that Americans are underpaid, overworked, and that social mobility is far less likely than in other societies, we should not gear social policy toward these ends because there is no correlation between social egalitarianism and self-reported happiness.

I can think of no reason greater than this to ignore the whole concept of happiness as a social good. We don't design policies based upon whether or not folks will tell a researcher they are happy. We design policies because they will make our society a better, more free, more open society where access to goods opportunities are more equitably distributed.

Civil Rights did not make a whole lot of people happy, either. It was necessary to make our country a better place to live.

Designing social and economic policies need to follow the same general principles.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Serious Thoughts, Guilty Pleasures, Moments Of Grace, Raising Hell - Changing Thoughts On Music

Since I commented on the recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, as well as having a link provided to a 1997 interview with Greil Marcus, I've been thinking a lot about how my musical tastes have changed, expanded, and what-not over the past few years. About ten or so years ago, I returned to listening to music in a big way, aided by starting a part-time job as a disc jockey. Along with more exposure to music, the extra cash gave me a chance to indulge as I hadn't in quite a while. Along with listening more and buying more, I was thinking more about what I was listening to, and had listened to. Over the past decade, it has become something of an obsession for me, one my wife indulges because I suppose it's better than a drug addiction or a passion for foreign cars.

It really started with Dream Theater, a band that I told my wife, back in 2002, I would be a part of had I been a musician. I know longer think that. They reached a peak of sorts with Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence and Train of Thought, but by the time Systematic Chaos was released, then last year's Black Clouds and Silver Linings, I realized they had been making the same record again and again for the past seven years.

Musical virtuosity is a trait I admire. Whether it's guitarists like Joe Satriani or keyboardists like Jordan Rudess or bass players like Geddy Lee, I appreciate the skill, honed by hours of practice and years of playing to get to the point where a musician can make the most difficult passage seem effortless. All the same, if that ability is pursued for its own sake, rather than subsumed toward the end of creating something that hangs together - a melody, a harmony, a rhythm - then it is little more than musical masturbation. I can listen to Scale the Summit for a little while, but I would prefer to be awakened when they can actually record a song.

That moment in musical history that so many found life-changing - punk - I really did not connect with, either at the time (I was only 12), or later. I think because it was far more a British phenomenon, overloaded with ideology and, in particular, that Situationist ethic inherited from Malcolm MacLaren (one of the biggest frauds since Col. Tom Parker), to make it palatable to a young kid from small town USA. Oh, I thought "Anarchy in the UK" was a fun song, but it really wasn't much different, to my young ears, from "Johnny B. Goode", which was the point.

In my middle age, I have come to a new appreciation for all sorts of music from my childhood and youth. Soul and funk, that I drank in on Saturday airings of Soul Train, with that Philly sound always present. Groups like P-Funk, The Ohio Players, Curtis Mayfield, Levert - some truly amazing music was happening, and a little white kid like me drank it in. Along with that, some of the better music from the mid-1970's still works for me - the Allman Brothers Band, Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush, Peter Frampton, Rush, the Grateful Dead, Stevie Wonder, the Pretenders, Jeff Beck's solo work are all really quite good, even timely, a reminder that one can be a good, even great musician yet submit that to the greater good of creating good songs.

British progressive rock will always be something I listen to, although I find ELP far too overbearing. It was really King Crimson's Robert Fripp who provided a key for me. His endless pursuit of a new sound, a new collection of songs, in a group format is really part of my own understanding of what drives me to keep listening. It is also why such non-prog bands like Husker Du, Faith No More, Bad Brains, the Sugarcubes, and even Metallica in their prog-phase are among my favorite 80's bands. These were bands who were doing really interesting stuff, new stuff mixing and matching styles and providing listeners with something exciting.

I heard NWA's Straight Outta Compton and realized I was hearing the future. Relegated to the status of a novelty, despite its obvious appeal to the urban African-American youth, and the record industry's insistence that the great hip-hop artists were white, that rage-filled protest against racism and poverty, police abuse and being forgotten by society was a wake-up call for me. While I ignored the whole east coast-west coast contretemps, it was the deaths of Tupak Shakur, and later Biggie Smalls that made me realize some people took this stuff seriously, indeed. All the same, when hip-hop came of age, when Dr. Dre and Ice Cube and Ice T and Snoop Dog landed with both feet, it was all to the good.

Along with taking a renewed appreciation for quite a bit of the music from my dimly remembered childhood, there are moments from other, shall we say less than superb musical moments that I feel it necessary to defend. As I was getting ready to write this post, I was going through YouTube and discovered two things. One, which made me happy, was that I had very little good to say about Journey, other than I am not surprised at their popular or monetary success. The other, which was a pleasant surprise in the midst of much schlock, was that the late hair band Steelheart had in their lead singer an individual with a set of pipes, similar in many ways to Rob Halford of Judas Priest. Their song, "Angel Eyes", while chock full of cliches both musical and lyrical, nevertheless still works for me for one reason alone, lead singer Michael Matijevic manages a stunning range with ease. It is easy enough to make fun of the song - I did for the longest time as the epitome of everything that was wrong with that kind of music - but if you just sit and listen to the voice, I guarantee you will be floored by it.

All the same, I find my tastes running back and forth. The Cure, Joni Mitchell, Ray LaMontagne, Bob Dylan, a new single by singer-songwriter Amos Lee, CSNY - these are staples of my current "repeat" button hits. And two prog bands. Porcupine Tree just constructs awesome songs. It's as simple as that. The Polish band Riverside (and a side project of theirs, called Lunatic Soul), which perhaps began as a PT clone, has developed its own sound, a mix that includes some hard core, as well as that most important factor, strong song-writing.

I realize this is as self-indulgent as a twenty-minute piano solo by Keith Emerson, but it has been a marvelous mind-clearing exercise for me. It also allows me to post this song, without fear or guilt, because I know you're too chicken to check it out for yourself.

Virtual Tin Cup

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