Saturday, January 01, 2011

On Poverty Both Economic And Intellectual

In this comment on another site, I get challenged because I refused to respond to the claim that poverty in the US is in decline, that situation of the poor here in the US is improving, and that the best way to consider our economic situation is within the context of the most free, most open personal space imaginable.

There are multiple layers here. So, to be fair to John, I'm going to deal, first, with the more concrete claim - that poverty in the US is in decline. John, apparently, doesn't know there is this thing called Google that provides access to all sorts of information. In order to use it, one types in the words one wishes to find in context. In my case, I typed "US poverty rate by year", and I received access to 3,870,000 links in under a second. The first couple links, because they have the words I typed in Google most closely associated with them, are from, in turn, Bread for the World, and the United Nations. Then, we come to a report from The Washington Times, from September just passed, that the poverty rate is on the rise. Indeed, right there in the title, it reads that the poverty rate has hit a 15-year high!

So, after glancing through that article, I continue on down the Google results page - having used that "Page Back" key - and I come to a US Bureau Of The Census report on poverty. There are many links on that main page to various Census surveys and summaries (.pdf) and one, a summary of the 2008-2009 Household survey, includes in its sidebar under the "Highlights", in the very first one, the little fact that in 2008-2009, the number of people living in poverty in the United States increased to 42.9 million. Increased. Which, in vernacular English, means went up.

I could go on in this way, but just these two little links provide a pretty clear counter to the claim that poverty in the US is on the decline.

OK. So. Libertarianism.

In the same linked comment, John seems to believe that I have made a claim regarding the Bush Administration that is contrary to fact. In many ways, he is correct. The beginnings of our current socio-economic tragedy began during the Clinton years. They were given a jet-engine during the Bush years, the declaration that home-ownership was now the goal of federal housing policy. Coupled with completely deregulated financial markets, this was a recipe for disaster, as people at the time predicted would happen.

Libertarianism begins with the premise that, with minimal interference from the public sector, individuals pursuing their interests create the conditions for optimum economic efficiency and growth. Many of the arguments made by the Republican Congresses of the Clinton and Bush years, and their supporters in Think Tanks and academia, were adamant on this point - the regulatory regime was stifling economic growth, financial innovation, and our general commonweal. The last tattered vestiges of Depression-era regulatory and legal restrictions ending toward the end of the Clinton years, the path was opened toward a golden age of entrepreneurship, of individual and social betterment with no brakes in the form of artificial legal barriers to economic activity.

What actually happened was, in many ways, akin to Somalia. Individuals, in a state of lawlessness, have no power. They may have rights, in some abstract sense. Absent power, however, in particular the police power of the state to protect those rights in the face of more powerful, organized actors - in this case the large investment banks, insurance companies, and brokers of various financial products - the only real players that mattered were these large institutions. With quite literally no barriers to what constituted a legitimate investment opportunity, the limited mortgage-backed security became a potential goldmine. Except, it relied upon a certain magical thinking whereby a debt actually became an asset. Because of the lack of oversight of the financial markets, and because of the federal policy goal of home ownership, the field seemed wide open. Mortgage default was in a steady state, relatively low and shrinking as the housing market expanded.

The end result, of course, is what we are currently living with. It was predicted at the time, of course, but all those who said that when the bubble burst the wreckage would be enormous were shouted down. They were nay-sayers, maybe even anti-American. The promise of the unfettered market, while benefiting the large corporations at the heart of the bubble, seemed to be helping individuals fulfill that part of the American dream that is most dear - owning their own home. Except, of course, what was really happening was a mixture of massive fraud, the aforementioned magical thinking, and the hubris that comes from unchecked power. Those who are paying the price for this libertarian dream-come-true aren't the criminal banks and investment houses; they got bailed out and continue to enjoy record profits by playing the bond market with the bailout money. Meanwhile, the millions who have lost their homes, the millions more who will lose their homes, the stagnant economy (stagnant in part because, as a recent NPR story reported, businesses don't like hiring the long-term unemployed) are all laid at the feet not of those who created the mess, but its victims.

Every time I hear a libertarian talk, I look around at the wreckage wrought by libertarian practice, and I want to scream. The human damage, the social damage, are incalculable. That it was preventable makes it even more tragic. That there are those who insist the just-rehashed facts of our recent past make no difference is a kind of intellectual cowardice that is breathtaking to behold. Because Bush expanded the federal bureaucracy over here (the growth of the national security state) means that freeing up some sector from any legal framework over there (the financial markets) doesn't count. Except, of course, that was not and has never been the concern of libertarians in practice, no matter how much they claim to the contrary. Rather, their sole concern is the unfettered marketplace. So, libertarianism as a practical matter results in . . . economic collapse. Most observers who are sensitive enough to the sufferings of our recent years understand this.

So, John, there you have it. There are your answers.

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.

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