Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Question For Dan

A peripheral point, I suppose, but before I make my own position clear I do have to ask Dan if he really means what the following sentence seems to indicate he means:
I don't find the Bible, for the most part, to be that hard to understand. I think its teachings are generally consistent, reasonable, understandable and pretty danged obvious (if challenging and hard to live up to, short of God's grace). I don't find the Bible to be a puzzle in the least.
Speaking only for myself, I find understanding the Bible to be a journey full of traps and tricks, a lifetime-long search for understanding that never ceases. I refuse to rest in this journey, because within the dead words on the page, the Spirit constantly urges and whispers, comforts and convicts, binds and frees me. Reading the Bible as a far too comfortable middle-aged man in the second decade of the 21st century is a far different experience than a far too self-enamored young seminarian in the last decade of the 20th century, or a far too earnest and serious youth in the decade prior to that.

In addition, I find myself challenged by new readings, using all sorts of tools of which I was either unaware, or ignorant in their inner workings. It can become bewildering, discovering new meanings, new ways of reading, new questions to ask the text, finding new questions posed by the text.

The Bible is Heraclitus' stream. Which would be frustrating were it not the stream that flows from the Throne, the Living Water that, once tasted, leaves us never thirsting again.

So, Dan, I'm wondering if you really mean what it sounds like you're saying here. I find the Living Word that resurrects the text as surely as the dry bones of the Valley are made to dance by the Spirit of God's grace a challenge both in its whole and its parts. The questions it asks, the challenge it poses, the threat to my self-satisfaction; all these and so much more change not only with each phase of my life, but each passing moment of that life. The only reason I return to it each day is that I believe the sentence passed on my previous sense of success and understanding is a window to the only real Life that matters.

Friday, January 13, 2012

We Are Whole

PLUS Model Magazine has an article, with accompanying photos, concerning models, their bodies, and the effect of images of models on women's perception of their bodies. While generally acknowledged that the manufacturing of an unrealistic potential body image is not a good thing, fashion and pop culture continues to promote the notion that thin is not only the same thing as beauty; with assistance from health care and nutrition, we are told that thin also equates with health. Thus, an image such as the one below is not only considered "not beautiful", but also, should one read the comments to the accompanying article, not healthy.

I want to suggest a couple things. First, the idea that mass-produced images of thin women and beefed-up, defined men (all those six-pack abs, you know) promote unhealthy assumptions and understandings about what is and is not beautiful and healthy rest, I believe, on an underlying consumerist approach to the human body. Our bodies become just another product, to be purchased in a gym, a health food store shelf, through diet plans and exercise regimens. We view our bodies as things, products, whose value can be reduced to the amount of money and work we are willing to invest in making them properly presentable. With the endorsement of doctors and other health care professionals, we have the additional impetus for changing our bodies that comes from a desire to be healthy. Yet again, however, our bodies become a thing, detached from who we see ourselves as being, a means toward an end - health - unrelated to our whole selves.

I would further suggest this ability to understand our bodies as things separate from ourselves rests with the Cartesian division of reality into "thinking substances" and "extended substances". While many folks point to "Greek philosophy" and the ways the Christian Church adapted it for its purposes through its long sojourn as reigning intellectual framework in the west, it was really Decartes, with his radical separation of the physical world from what he understood to be an equally real, supremely better world that, for lack of a better word, we can call mind or soul.

At its heart, Biblical anthropology - the understanding of what it means to be human culled from reading the Christian Scriptures - is almost comically holistic. Not just we human beings, but all existing things, are whole things. Modern science, with its emphasis on the biochemistry of brain function, mapping the ways our brains operate under a variety of stimuli, certainly backs this up. Our bodies are not things, separate from some other thing we call our "selves". There is no ghost in the machine. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible views human beings as beloved creatures in our entirety.

We haven't always been clear in articulating this reality. With the advent of Cartesian dualism and its reign of error for the past four and three-quarter centuries, we speak of "hearts" and "souls" and "minds" as if they were things that could or did or should operate apart from the "gross" functions of the human body. With the rise of consumer capitalism, and the assistance of deeply-rooted transcultural misogyny, as well as bad readings of Genesis 3 that place the blame for the Fall of humanity on the shoulders of the first woman, we have created an entire industry that demands women consider their bodies a thing to be bought and sold, to be repaired or willed to fall in to disrepair, always with the aid both of "beauty" and "health care" and "nutrition" experts who are more than willing to make a buck from people's desire to correct any deficiency in their lives.

As I noted above, it isn't just women. Men, too, are targets for such really bad beliefs. While not nearly as visible, whether it's the size of one's biceps, the conditions of one's abdominal muscles, or penis size, there are literally billions of dollars to be made from men who are convinced their bodies are a thing to be improved, tinkered with like the car in the garage on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

There is no easy way out of this trap. Not only centuries of thinking in the wrong way about what it means to be human, but industries with millions of dollars in potential profits as well as the weight of scientific understandings regarding obesity, body mass indices, and the like are all mixed together to create this superstructure within which we are socialized to think both of beauty and health. With both understood as products, and our bodies reified as separate entities from our "real selves", to be manipulated for goals that exist outside what they actually are, we face a daunting task in clearing this rubble and coming to understand who we are as persons, as beloved sons and daughters of a good God who made us whole beings, creatures with bodies, unique mammals whose brains have evolved to give us self-awareness, the ability to reason, to imagine, to love.

Our bodies are not things. We are not in any way distinct from our bodies. Beauty is not a product to be purchased, either in an image or through the variety of industries that offer their assistance in getting it for us. Health is not a product to be purchased on the open market. Before we do anything else, we need to rid ourselves of these cancerous ideas, these inhuman views of what it means to be human beings.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

State-Sponsored Terrorism

I chuckle when I hear and read the oft-repeated claim of Iranian involvement in and support for international terrorism. Not that I think they are innocent. I just find it fascinating that the abundant evidence linking the United States to a variety of terrorist acts and groups somehow never gets brought up.

I got to thinking about all this after I heard our Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Kissinger, "categorically deny" US involvement in the murder of an Iranian nuclear scientist yesterday. The only difference between these days and back in the good old days of the Cold War is Pres. Obama all but admitted the US has been seeking any means to disrupt Iran's nuclear research. What makes all of this even more funny - well, except for exploding cars and dead bodies, I suppose - is the US has yet to release evidence of the dread Iranian nukes. Over a decade ago, they were five years away from raining atomic death upon us. They are still, according to recent reports from both the CIA and Israel, about a decade away. Are they that incompetent? Have the disruptions in their research program noted in the linked article - three other targeted murders, "mysterious explosions", and a computer virus unleashed on Iran's internal security networks, including the one with their nuclear data - continued to push back the date of the inevitable Iranian bomb?

Or could it be, as the UN continues to say and Iran continues to insist, that Iran is doing peaceful nuclear research?

The US would be more credible if the frothing dogs of so much of our discredited foreign policy establishment hadn't spent the better part of three decades trying to spark a war between the US and Iran (well, except for that one time we sent them weapons so Oliver North could give the proceeds to one of our terrorist clients, the drug-running Nicaraguan Contras; so, I suppose by a circuitous route, that counts as sponsoring terrorism, huh). Just the other day, Max Boot, one of those so-called "establishment scholars" who enjoys imagining other people fighting and killing and dying in wars he dreams up, insisted that the "anti-bombing side" (what a strange construction) had yet to offer any convincing arguments. These folks revel in destruction.

While not insisting that Iran is a blushing bride in the state-sponsored terrorism brothel, I think it fair enough to note that the US is the madame. It may well be there is abundant evidence of Iran's nuclear program being specifically for a weapon for use against Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other regional targets. It may well be that the ongoing low-level conflict in all its variety continues to push back the inevitable development of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

The least all involved could do is be grown ups about this. Not that I expect any US Secretary of State to stand before the press and say, "Sure, we killed 'em. I'm damn proud of it, too!". We could, I should think, understand that we Americans have hands just as bloody as any other state sponsor of terrorism.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Mad Season

With Mitt Romney all but divinely ordained Republican nominee for President after the New Hampshire results last night, I think it is important to wonder at the strangeness of this political season. The Republicans have been trying to convince voters who among them is crazy enough to hold that title - Republican Candidate for President. It isn't enough that some, like Jon Huntsman and the putative nominee, have surrendered every scruple and principle in the dogged pursuit of the nomination. It isn't enough that true oddballs like Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum are spoken about in the deep measured tones one used to hear in reference to McGeorge Bundy and that old war criminal Henry Kissinger (but he's a professor, you know). It isn't enough that Newt Gingrich put even pride on the line, and rather than wait for a public outcry for his presence in the race, has actually campaigned, only to remind people exactly why the whole party got rid of him thirteen years ago.

This whole spectacle has taken place in a bubble tough enough to prevent any reality to penetrate. There have been serious discussions about all sorts of things that have nothing to do with reality. In his speech last evening upon winning New Hampshire, former Gov. Romney proclaimed the President, who began life the peripatetic child of a wandering scholar, then settled for borderline poverty in the care of his grandparents only to rise through hard work and some luck and an acceptance letter from Harvard University to become the President of the United States, to hold "resentment of success".

And none among the normal folks drowned out the cheers with their laughter.

Meanwhile, the silence on the Democratic side due to Pres. Obama cruising to renomination, has been oh-so-briefly broken by a spectacle I have longed for: Glenn Greenwald and Katha Pollitt, two lions of the left, smacking the crap out of one another all because Greenwald made the not-uncontroversial point that the only candidate talking about real issues also happens to be the one candidate who hides his sociopathic tendencies the best - Ron Paul (the part about sociopathy is my addition).

For those not familiar with either, Greenwald is a former civil liberties attorney who rose to prominence in the left-blogosphere in 2006 with searing attacks on the Bush Administration. He jumped from writing a private blog to getting a steady paycheck from Salon with the publication of his first book, How Would A Patriot Act?, and success has made his pomposity and self-righteousness coalesce through some weird personal chemistry to become, in a word, an asshole of the highest water.

Pollitt, a poet and columnist for The Nation, has those qualities so many on the left treasure the most. Not only does she have the ability to speak for whole swaths of the population without blushing, she manages to do so while still publishing a memoir in which she confessed that she considered herself emotionally abused by a man who later dumped her, then spent months semi-stalking him - the whole call-and-hangup routine; driving by his new digs - which only shows that left-feminists can be as creepy as anyone, I guess.

The subject of the dispute, Ron Paul, first gained some lefty attention in 2008, because he was the only Republican candidate for President who talked in negative terms about the Iraq War. It took me about ten minutes of digging to realize that Paul is The Last Bircher, a dogged defender of the ideas of Robert Welch who, sitting in a hotel room late one night, dictated to friends (who dutifully wrote down each word in what has become known as The Blue Notebook, which I used to own but lost in a basement flood) a rambling dissertation on the insidiousness of the Communist Conspiracy, which included, among others, then-Pres. Dwight Eisenhower. While Paul does, indeed, speak on matters from American Imperialism to economic exploitation that need to be addressed, he does so from a deep well of sinister beliefs concerning the myriad conspiracies that control these dangers to the Republic. Worse than a broken clock that may well be right twice a day, Rep. Ron Paul is the street person you meet, take for a cup of coffee at the diner because he starts talking about the family he lost and wishes to get back, only to discover he lost them to aliens who put an implant in him. The coffee you just bought him may well dissolve the chip, or it may well hold more insidious drugs that will make of him even more the slave to the aliens.

In other words, Ron Paul is just bug-shit nuts.

Greenwald noted, with his usual panache and flair for detail, the many ways Paul is the only "mainstream candidate" (doesn't writing that indicate a sickness in our polity) addressing these issues. Ms Pollitt made the not unimportant point that Ron Paul is kinda nuts, and a white supremacist to boot. Had she stopped there, I do believe she would have been fine. She couched her argument, however, in the measured tones of shallow identity politics*, in the process managing to claim to speak for all sorts of people. Not only "lefty women" but "people of color" (God, I really detest that last phrase, reducing the matter of race to pigment), it seems, were forthrightly behind Ms. Pollitt's disdain for Paul and his long-time residency in crazytown.

With that, the fight is on. Since the goal in these things isn't so much "let's find out if Glenn Greenwald made some valid points, while Katha Pollitt reminded the world that Ron Paul is loony", but "I'm right! No, I'm right, and you're a closet-crypto-fascist! Well, you're a hypocritical blowhard who doesn't care about "lefty women" and "people of color" as much as I do!", it has entered the popcorn-popping stage.

In other words, these two are worse than children. My sincere hope, at this point, is they just beat the crap out of one another.

Meanwhile, is it at all possible to ask a question? Is anyone going to make Pres. Obama face up even to one failure? Not the imagined failures and betrayals one reads about in the fever swamps of the right, mind you. I'm just wondering if we can have a thoughtful discussion of Mr. Obama's failings, instead of crazy on the right, and a duel to out-pompous one another on the left.

*I say "shallow identity politics" because all politics are about identity. In Pollitt's case, however, it is identity-as-physiognomy, genetics is destiny politics that are not only shallow, but deeply, deeply troubling.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Finding Beauty In The Oddest Places

I am happy to note an addition to the roll of my usual readings. The blog Per Caritatem offers thoughts on a variety of subjects, much as I wish I could do. The latest offering concerns what could be called, for lack of a better phrase, a sociology of knowledge that refuses to grant pride of place either to the signifier or the thing signified. Rather, each exists in mutual relation to the other by means of a convention that, nevertheless, provides shape and meaning that transcends each.

Moving freely between French post-structuralist understandings of language and an examination of the atonal music of Stravinsky, the post suggests in a far more clear, nuanced, and detailed way something I have long proposed: rather than determine the aesthetic quality of any particular musical experience as something to be judged qua music we need to consider any musical composition in light of all sorts of things within which its significance may lie. This is why I believe it is possible to teach people to hear a variety of musical expressions as beautiful precisely because they fulfill the purposes for which they were intended. Rather than judge any particular piece of music - from Bach to Black Sabbath - by an arbitrary canon created for a particular purposes, it might be better to consider the conventionality of such aesthetic tools.

Traditional western musicology hears non-standard musical styles, from the varieties of indigenous folks musics to non-Western music in its marvelous variety, in ways ill-suited to the task at hand. Which does not render such musicological analytics erroneous in and of itself. Rather, it is a simple case of choosing the wrong tool for the job at hand.

Rather than unlearn what we have learned, as Yoda would insist, we need only consider that our notions of beauty, that arrangement and relationship among parts and the whole that affect us, are not universal. The experience may well be; that which we call beautiful, however, may differ greatly, and some may be unable to appreciate in a visceral way, the beauty that would grasp another immediately, and (perhaps) unmediatedly (to coin a word, apparently).

I consider myself strange for any number of reasons. Not the least of them being that I find myself praising the beauty in each of the following. My guess is most would find, perhaps, one or another, beautiful while dismissing the rest as either pretentious nonsense, noise for noise's sake, or (perhaps the most devastating critique of all) passe, irrelevant to our life hear and now. All I can say to others is simple enough: Hear it as it was intended to be heard, by those for whom it was composed. This is the first lesson in opening up oneself to the variety of beauty that human beings create in the world. Don't judge a work of art. Let the work judge you.

Salvation Be Not Proud

The Faith and Theology blog, includes among many other wonders, occasional epigrammatic posts by one Kim Fabricius. He calls them "Doodlings". His latest offerings include the following:
If Christianity is unique, it is in declaring not the forgiveness of the sinner but the forgiveness of the righteous. The righteous too must repent – precisely of their rectitude.
Obviously, I insist you go read all of them. This one, however, struck me for its roots in the Biblical testimony, its thoroughly theological grounding in the Trinitarian economy of salvation, and its relevance in a world that is awash in phony Christian piety.

My prayer today is that I submit to the judgment that my desire to be righteous, to stand before God and humanity as a good person, is the spear that pierced the side of the suffering Christ. My hope is that I would always prefer to sing that I am without one plea when summoned to judgment by the One who has been judged in my place.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Some Advice From The Psalms

I was pleased to see that one of the Psalms for this morning's Daily Office reading is 146. I offer, with no commentary, this short, sweet, poem:
Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith for ever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

The Lord will reign for ever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord!
Keep this in mind as the endless political season plods on.

Virtual Tin Cup

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