Saturday, December 03, 2011

Happy Holidays

I blame that politically correct, Baby-Jesus-hating, anti-family, secret commie Bing Crosby.

When did Christians become whiny crybabies? At some point, we started complaining about everything. The business each year about Christmas trees, whether people say "Happy Holidays!" or "Merry Christmas!" has reached the point where I want nothing to do with the holiday itself.

Historically, celebrating Christmas was outlawed for religious reasons.

The lavish cultural celebration the entire season has become is relatively recent. Truth be told, it is also quite annoying. Driven by commerce, pushing back further and further the beginning of celebrating Christmas is far more about filthy lucre than the Prince of Peace.

Quite apart from the ridiculous idea that Christmas trees or saying a phrase to one another has anything at all to do with remembering the birth of the Christ child, one wonders where these same folks are when, say, the same people who carry on about the "War on Christmas" complain about churches participating in sheltering undocumented individuals and families, or participating in Occupy Protests. I would trust their insistence on faith-based whining a little more if they showed even a scintilla of consistency.

Finally, even if the "War of Christmas" were real - which it isn't - it would be a reason for giving thanks, for praise to God that we Christians might actually be doing something right. After all, the world and its rulers are supposed to hate us and persecute us, lie about us and kill us, which is called a blessing, a reason for celebration. Whining about "Happy Holidays" isn't quite the same thing as being tortured and killed because you profess faith in the risen Savior. In fact, it's kind of the exact opposite of it.

So, buck up. Stop complaining about non-existent slights to the faith. Stop getting indignant when someone quite honestly wishes you "Happy Holidays", because they are being thoughtful, polite, and pleasant. Christians shouldn't sound like spoiled children, demanding their own way.

Enjoy the pleasant things the season brings - family and friends gathering together; the soft lights of the decorations that push back the encroaching darkness; the quiet moments as you gather with loved ones - and, for God's sake, stop your bitching.

And Happy Holidays.

Friday, December 02, 2011


What follows is modeled on The Confessions of St. Augustine of Hippo. Written as a series of prayers to God confessing his manifold sins, this marvelous spiritual assay/autobiography is not only a good entry point for understanding this deep and confounding and necessary figure in Church history. It is also a wonderful way of humanizing one who has become larger than life. Even the Penguin edited version is marvelous.

Oh, Lord, Giver of all good things, I come before you now in the full knowledge and understanding that I have in the past, and continue, to hold what is a judgment upon my life as a blessing to be flashed before the world. Rather than accept the reality of grace in my life as final judgment upon my sinful nature, I boast - despite St. Paul! - of the grace that is mine in the Holy Spirit, from the Son, for the sake of the Father. Rather than sit in silence, I stand and shout. Rather than mourn my wretchedness, I celebrate a righteousness that is not mine. Rather than remember that grace is equally condemnation, I forget the judgment upon my manifold sins for my own sake.

Dear Lord, who sent the Son to die for us while we are yet sinners, please forgive my arrogance rooted in a misguided love for your sacrifice. Please forgive my refusal to say before the world the first word - You hate sin. You hate sin even more than you loved your Son who came in the Spirit of Life and Love to bring your wayward children back to you, not for our sakes, but for Your sake. Forgive me for refusing to always - always always always - put Your Love, Your Judgment, Your Purpose first in all things. Forgive me for all the ways, big and small, I have seen in the salvation you bring in Jesus Christ, an adornment for my life, rather than a reminder of how lost, and alone, and broken, and separated from you I am and will continue to be, unless I, at each moment of my life, surrender and die to the wayward heart of my sinful self.

Forgive me, God, not for my sake. Forgive me, God, for the sake of Your Son, whose life bled out even for me. Let me always, in each moment with each breath, recall that this Divine Love, this expression of the Divine Life, which pulls all creation to it, is done not for us, but for You. In your love and grace and mercy, oh, God, I only ask that I can, once again, forget myself so that my living and my dying, my laughter and my tears, my hope and my life, both now and to come - are all for You.

In all things, oh God, please let me give thanks and honor to you. In all things. At each moment.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

A Lesson In Finding Out Stuff

One of the many frustrations of this particular hobby is the presence of folks who consistently say things that boil down to the following: Where do you get your information? This past spring, in a discussion elsewhere, I made the observation that the median household income was around $50,000. A fellow commenter wrote that he did not believe that was the actual figure (I do not remember if he thought it was lower or higher; I just recall that he contested the figure). Now, as someone who pays attention to things like this, I had seen that figure bandied about for a while, but I decided to check it out for myself by going to the Census Bureau's website and looking it up for myself, and sure enough, there it was. So, I provided the link.

In this particular instance, the person in question routinely wonders where I find the information I use, how I go about finding it, questions the sources I use, blah-blah-blah. The last one I cannot help; like the extreme skeptic in Descartes who questions even his own existence, at some point the questioning itself becomes absurd. Matters of fact are just that, and whether they come from The National Review or The Nation, they are what they are.

Today, I had the misfortune of reading a column by George Will. From the headline, I figured it would become a subject of discussion during the next day or so, and reading it now is a good way of preventing me feeling stupid when other people are talking about it. The column, concerning a potential Supreme Court case regarding affirmative action, includes links to two amicus briefs. Will is also kind enough to provide the names of the people who have submitted the briefs. Since I had not heard of these people, I sought to learn who they were, if they'd ever written anything relevant, or otherwise accessible, and check it out for myself.

I opened a new tab in Windows, and pressed the "Home" button on my toolbar. My homepage is a personalized Google search box.

I realize that some people just wonder where all this stuff comes from, all this information, all these facts, all this access to all these crazy things called writings and articles and such. Since Google is so easy to use, and since pretty much anyone can use it, though, continuing in ignorance on any topic, or questioning a factual claim without checking it out for oneself, or seeking background information or past, relevant, information on individuals whose names appear in the news or on the Web is more a sign of laziness than anything else.

Each of these words is a link to the Google search results for the names in Will's article. How anyone wishes to proceed from here is up to them.

I do hope the implications of this lesson are clear. If you have a question about anything, no matter what it is, you can do this, too. Go to Google. Type in the word or phrase that troubles you. Press enter. Voila! The only thing you have to do now is sift through the results for what seems relevant. For that, you need judgment, discernment, and a willingness to be challenged and deal with contradiction and ambiguity as you sift the various matters Google provides for you. Getting going, though . . . that's easy.

I highly recommend this approach for anyone who wishes to find out stuff. You don't believe a claim someone has made, regarding a matter of fact, or a quote from someone? Google. It's that simple.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Learning Something New

Last night's Roman's class introduced something completely new. Studying chapter 7 - as convoluted and odd, yet historically important a part of the Bible as one can think - the author of the study guide, Pamela Eisenbaum introduced the possibility that, in this chapter, St. Paul is not writing in a straightforward first-person voice, but rather using a particular device drawn from the ancient practice of rhetoric. I was intrigued, to say the least, but knowing absolutely nothing about the detailed practice of rhetoric in contemporaneous literature (including sibling epistolary literature, which was quite common), I contacted a blogger and Facebook friend of mine who is a student of rhetorical criticism. He was kind enough to respond with the suggestion I check out the "Rhetoric" tag on his blog.

Talk about an embarrassment of riches! I offer just these two posts as examples of how an understanding of rhetoric, its structure and rules, and the various ways it can be used, can open up the world of the Bible in new and exciting ways. While I read "Rhetoric" years ago as a humble philosophy grad student, and can say that it was something that was used in a formal way in antiquity, with rules and principles that both the speaker/writer and hearer/reader would understand without needing to be prodded, that is the extent of my understanding. So, one of the many projects I am now setting for myself is to re-read Aristotle, peruse some more of Joel's blog posts on this specific matter, and, I hope, come to a more rich, more deep understanding of St. Paul, his writings, and what it can mean for us today.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sully's Problem

I suppose this is one of those "blogger insider" things that most of the rest of humanity cares little about. All the same, when an influential writer in any field removes any pretension of intellectual respectability, it might be time to talk about it.

Andrew Sullivan is an accomplished writer and political commentator. He was editor of The New Republic, once upon a time the most respected liberal political journal out there. He has been writing a column called "The Daily Dish" at The Atlantic for years now. "Sully", as he is known, is also openly gay, a fact he often exploits for sympathy points from his audience.

I first started reading his name, then reading his column, during the 2008 Democratic primaries. While many liberals held a grudge against the Clintons from the 1990's, Sully's venom, spewed only at then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, was not contaminated by the usual liberal complaints regarding welfare reform and other heresies her husband practiced during his Presidency. The reality, as detailed in this 2008 piece from Shakesville, is Sullivan couldn't hide his contempt at the fact that Hillary Clinton is a woman:
Sully calls Hillary's candidacy a "corruption of feminism," and says that ads recorded by Bill to support Hillary are a "sad, final betrayal of feminism."

Certainly, Sullivan shows a great respect for feminism. Looking at his site right now, he's running a letter from an unnamed reader that compares her unfavorably to Eva PerĂ³n. Another correspondent says she's got big balls. Yet another worries that Bill Clinton will be a corrupt freelancer in a Hillary Clinton administration, worries that evidently didn't apply to Hillary, or, for that matter, Laura. Certainly all these correspondents are pro-feminist, right?

But let's not stop there -- let's look at all of King Andrew's fine contributions to women's rights. Sullivan, of course, endorsed the rabidly anti-choice Ron Paul for President. He has referred to differing women's differing opinions on Clinton as "Paglia women vs. Steinem women," in which says he's "long sided with Camille Paglia." He defended Larry Summers from women angry at him for suggesting that women aren't as smart as men, saying "Scientists are finding out more and more about the differences between the male and female brains. One thing that endures across cultures and populations is a male edge at the very top of the bell curve for spatial and mathematical reasoning." And in a 2000 article in the New York Times, Sullivan praised testosterone, and said, "Since most men have at least 10 times as much [testosterone] as most women, it therefore makes sense not to have coed baseball leagues. Equally, it makes sense that women will be under-represented in a high-testosterone environment like military combat or construction. ... [G]ender inequality in these fields is primarily not a function of sexism, merely of common sense."

So clearly, Andrew Sullivan is a feminist, and a strong one.
Folks "in the know" have understood that Sully has issues with women. He is kind enough to flaunt them.

Fast forward three years or so, and we learn that Sully is now raising the tattered banner of race and IQ. Fellow Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisis Coates provides details and some context.
Andrew's ahistorical approach to race and intelligence has always amazed. The contention, for instance, that "research is not about helping people; it's about finding out stuff," may well be true in some limited sense. But it's never been true, in any sense, of race and intelligence. In the 19th century helping out white people (however that is defined) was very much the point of intelligence research. Into the early 20th century, the rise of eugenics was equally linked the field to the advancement of "people." Even the intelligence theorists whom Andrew, himself, has advanced over the years are motivated by a desire to presumably help people, if only in the form of deciding how a society should expend its limited resources.

Advocates of the "p.c. egalitarianism" theory, such as Andrew, evidently believe that the notion that black people are dumber than whites is a cutting edge theory, as opposed to a long-held tenet of slave-holders and white supremacists. They present themselves as bold-truth tellers who will not bow to "liberal creationists." In fact they are espousing firmly established views that date back to the very founding of this country.
A commenter on Coates' piece provides even further context regarding Sullivan's footsie-playing with academic hood-wearers:
My introduction to Andrew Sullivan was some ten years ago. The right wing talking point du jour was that the media was proven to be liberal because it identified conservatives as "conservative" more often than it identified liberals as "liberal". Even apart from the silliness of this argument, an actual linguist used actual academic tools to perform actual research and found not only that the assertion of fact is untrue, but indeed that it had the facts backwards. A minor frenzy followed among the usual commentariat. Sullivan's contribution was that he didn't know the facts, but he knew the correct conclusion so the facts didn't actually matter. I have never for the life of me understood why anyone with any pretension to seriousness has ever taken him seriously.
When Tucker Carlson said of then-Sen. Clinton that "there's just something about her that feels castrating, overbearing, and scary" and " I have often said, when she comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs", he was mocked for his hostility. Sullivan, for some reason, continues to have a certain cache among some liberal commentators, including Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo and Matt Yglesias.

Schlepping for the pseudo-science linking race and intelligence reveals Sully as not only a misogynist, but a bigot as well. This may sound harsh, but the reality is simple enough. The pedigree of the "blacks are dumber than whites" idea is old. And rotten to the core. That The Bell Curve attempted to give it a fine sheen of intellectual respectability doesn't disguise the reality that it is no different than craniometry. As with Sullivan's insistence that evidence regarding naming this or that person liberal or conservative is irrelevant, having made up one's mind about an issue without reference to any facts is the garden variety definition of "prejudice", pre-judging.

It is an important thing to expose this kind of thing, call it what it is. Whether it's some kind of visceral hatred of women, or this or that particular woman; or a long-time expressed support for long-debunked ideas regarding race, Sullivan has a history of antipathy to both women and racial minorities that betrays what lies in his sad little heart.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Practice Of Discipline

John Wesley's great gift to posterity was the practice of mutual accountability within a framework of the disciplined practice of the faith. In the face of an apostate church, Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to understand that the roots of discipleship lie in discipline. Writing in a Lutheran context, there could have been fewer things more shocking than both to discover then to insist that to be a Christian believer means to be a follower, that this following is not this thing or that thing, but quite specific things, rooted in the call and Christ to follow, always knowing the cross lies before us.

The Cost of Discipleship is a marvelous little work to be reading at Advent. Part of preparing our lives for the coming of the Messiah is recalling, and making that memory a living thing in our own daily round, that we, like those folks so long ago, were all waiting. In a world beset by the dual tyrannies of Rome and the apostate King Herod, a world where the slightest whisper of holiness of heart and life was understood as a threat, a time when God seemed silent, the only way to be sure one was being faithful seemed to be a persistent practice of piety not as an end in itself, but as a means toward union with God.

We flail and flutter about, seeking ways to breathe the Spirit in to moribund churches. We mourn the sense of loss, the lack of any direction, the inability to sense any hope in our common life. We rail against the stupidity and corruption of our leaders. We mourn preventable deaths that the powerful insist are necessary; human sacrifice continues to be practiced in the name of economic efficiency, but that doesn't make it any less human sacrifice.

So, our times really aren't that different.

Except for this.

We Christians already know the end of the story.*

If we in the Church are floundering and flailing and moaning and whining and feel hopeless and lost, we are forgetting that this whole Advent season should be reminding us that God is on the Way, because God, in Christ, has already been here. When we recall this together, we are already beginning the process of discipleship. As we move through this season to the celebration of the birth of Jesus, we do it together. In this daily movement, we hold one another up, recall one another to the life of love and service that is the way of he Christ child. As we feel others around us reminding us of our duty to continue to follow even as the world around us seems insistent that such following leads nowhere, we should be thankful to the call to surrender our lives, together with those who have gone before us as witnesses, to those who are with us on the Way, hoping against hope that even now, in the midst of all the troubles, we can see that single candle so we do not have to curse the darkness.

Discipleship exists in the tension between the individual and the community. This Advent season is a nice time to recall that tension, and that it serves us all well through mutual reinforcement. The Way isn't easy. But, we aren't alone. In the midst of the dust and dirt and sense of loss, we should still be able to see the tiny baby who leads us.

*I'm stealing this from Lisa's sermon yesterday. I hope she doesn't mind.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Varieties Of Ignorance

I was recently reminded that it is impossible to argue with ignorance. Why I even made the attempt is beyond me. Yet, ignorance is a sneaky devil, cropping up not only in discussions of religion and politics, where it is like kudzu, spreading almost too fast to control. One can find it most anywhere.

It wears all sorts of masks. On the one hand, of course, we have the fundamentalist, ignorant equally of science and Biblical interpretation, screeching on everything from the age of the Universe to sexual ethics, without any reference at all to anything but their own prejudices, guesses, and poorly informed reading of the Christian scriptures.

My favorite ignorant folks are the New Atheists. These are the people who parade their ignorance like one of those balloons at the Macy's Parade. They know nothing of church history. They know nothing of Christian doctrine, the varieties of expressions of faith - Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical (Lutheran), Reformed, Anglican, Anabaptist. The insist one need not read the Bible, Christian theology, church history, or anything else related to religion to understand it is wrong. Like young earth creationists and other fundamentalist ignoramuses, they say the things they do about religion out of a deep well of ignorance.

They have spawned a kind of weird child who crops up in the weirdest places in comment threads. These are the folks who, for some reason, see the "enemy" in any and every discussion as religious folks who, they insist, believe in something they all call (I have seen this so often over the past five or so years it cannot be a coincidence) "the sky fairy". Like creationists who insist that scientists are secret antinomians, bent on destroying human moral life by convincing us we are "only animals", these folks seem to think they understand what religious folk (and here, religion is conflated with Christianity, an insulting and ignorant position) think without any reference to anything Christians or Jews or Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists or followers of Shinto or Santeria or anything else actually believe.

Duncan features comment threads in Philadelphia papers' on-line editions as a source of humor. Folks making comments on articles regarding various urban issues such as the perennial matter of parking, public transportation, residential density, crime, and so on have a tendency, to be polite, to speak without actually understanding the issue at hand. Freedom of speech surely means that folks who don't know anything can talk about whatever they wish. Prudence and humility would seem to suggest there is a certain virtue to keeping one's yap shut on a matter about which one knows nothing.

Now, I am ignorant about the vast majority of matters in the world around me. Ask me a question about, say, diagnosing a problem with an automobile, and I'd be lost. I can replace the inner workings of a toilet tank, but I can't do plumbing, and wouldn't know where to begin. If my computer were to go on the fritz, I wouldn't dream of taking it apart and trying to fix it myself; I'd either send it off for repairs or buy a new one.

There are discussions on these, and thousands of other topics on the internet. I do not engage them, not because they are stupid topics, or boring, or irrelevant. It would probably be wise for me to learn a few tricks about diagnosing car problems. I've tried and it just doesn't work with me. Which is why I am grateful there are people who can tell, from a certain knocking or shaking or pulling, what, precisely, is the matter with my car and how to go about fixing it.

I have often wondered why it is that people who are as ignorant of religion and politics feel this isn't a barrier to participation in discussions about them. I wouldn't go to the retired machinist across the street if I had a toothache. He's a really great guy, has a sweet dog and a mouthy cockatiel, but he isn't a dentist. If he demonstrated some knowledge of dentistry, I might go to him and ask his advice about a problem - a loose filling, say, or receding gums - and accept the information he gave me. Since I happen to know that, while a nice guy who knows all sorts of things, he doesn't know anything about dentistry, I am wise not to heed suggestions he may have on tooth care.

For some reason, we don't think the same approach applies to matters like religion or politics, or social or cultural discussions. This is not to suggest that "only" "experts" should speak on these matters (God, how I've heard those lines before!). I do not like the word "experts", and most self-proclaimed ones are blowhards. I am saying, however, that if you wish to write about, say, the efficacy of tax cuts and their economic impact, spend ten minutes with Google and read up on what folks who know economics are actually saying. Read a bunch of people, too!

Last week, I read an article in the New York Times that claimed the Pentagon had no contingency in the face of looming, drastic budget cuts. Apart from being a bit of a muddle, something about the article and its central point didn't pass the smell test with me. I did something that makes perfect sense. I emailed someone I know who knows something about budgeting in public agencies, and after a cursory reading, this person let me know the story was, to be generous, really really bad.

For some reason, whether it's a discussion about reading the Bible, or talking about a particular theological position, or the effects of tax cuts on public revenue or the Occupy movement, there are people who think they can say whatever pops in to their minds, type it, send it out on to the internet, and, hey! like magic, they have contributed to public discussion. Instead of thinking, "Man, I just broadcast to the world that I don't know my ass from my elbow."

Simple word of advice: If you're going to write about something, learn something about it. It saves readers headaches from beating their heads against various walls.

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