Friday, April 13, 2012

Word Smashing

If you're one of those people who grabs the remote and flicks through all three hundred channels several times while the commercials are playing, you might just want to skip this post. It's a commercial, you see, for me. Specifically, for my fiction.

Since mid-November, when I ended five years of employment and, with my wife's permission, began writing full-time, I've written Lord alone knows how many short stories, completed two novel first-drafts, started a couple more, and generally kept myself occupied through my imagination. I was doing what every aspiring writer does - sending out manuscripts with cover letters, bios, that sort of thing - until a woman at church told me about this e-publishing website called Smashwords. I was wary, but I checked it out. While not completely satisfied with it, it has served as a useful portal for me to offer some things to the public, if for no other reason than to generate feedback, gauge reactions to my work, and (if possible) begin the process of "creating readership", a group of people who will consistently read work written by me.

It's very small, but it's growing, in no small part due to two things: Facebook, and offering some of the stories I've written at no charge.

Yesterday, I uploaded my fifth publication to Smashwords. If you click here, you'll see my little auto-bio. Scrolling down the page, you'll see links to them. Three of them are free. I goofed when I started out; the first two items I published I charged money. I now realize I need to offer free items as a way of enticing people. Those items are still available, and I don't think a buck for one, two bucks for the other (two stories, so a dollar each, isn't really too much to ask, I think) is exorbitant. All the same, I should have made those available for free as well, or at least offered them for free at first.

So. I've offered to the publishing world six stories (that isn't all I've written; they're just the ones I like the best and think other people might like). What are they about? Well, subjects range from death and the afterlife to infidelity to our recent wars. The first three - "From The Other Side", "Drawing Down Dark", "The Witness" - are best categorized as "fantasy", although not the whole elves-named-swords-magic variety. They just have fantastical elements in them.

"Summerland", written, for all intents and purposes, as an exercise I gave myself, is about life after death (the word summerland is something New Agers use to refer to that in-between stage they believe dead people occupy before whatever happens next happens). The exercise was making sure I paid attention to small details, to writing descriptive prose that captured a scene without pulling a reader out of the story's flow. It's very short, which was also part of the point.

The two most recently published, "Something Special" and "A Sort of Homecoming", have no fantastic elements at all. No life after death, no ghosts, no immortals. In fact, the two stories are similar in that both amount to long conversations between two people. "Something Special" is about infidelity. "A Sort of Homecoming" offers readers a fly-on-the-wall perspective of a short reunion between two old Army buddies. If I do so myself, I think I write dialogue pretty well (and that's not an easy thing to do, let me tell you; when I do re-writes and edits, I fiddle more with the dialogue than any single story element), but these exercises in creating conversation were good for me, because when they were done I felt tired. "Something Special" was also an exercise in creating a story with an ambiguous ending. Unlike novels, which usually strive to create a full story arc, short stories are like snapshots. One of my favorite short stories, "All That You Love Will Be Carried Away", ends with the question of whether or not the lead character will commit suicide unresolved. I have always loved that, and "Something Special" was me trying to reach a stopping place without answering all the questions I hope the reader has been asking.

"The Witness" was an idea I originally planned as a full-length novel. I actually had about 15,000 words done when I realized that imitating Dan Brown might not be the best way to go. So, I took one element from that larger manuscript, recast it, and voila! A story that has only one, small, disappointing piece (at least for me) which I'm not sure how to eliminate without making the story both too long and suddenly about something that it isn't.

Only one of the stories came to me in a moment of inspiration. "Drawing Down Dark" began as little more than me coming up with an interesting title and subject for a story written by a character in my first full-length manuscript; if he was a writer, I'd better know what he'd written, right? Except, the whole story came to me, pretty much as it appears (at least in both style and subject; the details, well, that took a bit more work) one evening while I was taking a shower. I liked it too much NOT to write it myself, and ended up giving another story to my character.

"From The Other Side" is my attempt at some humor. I'm a big fan of Ghost Hunters without losing my skepticism both about the investigators as well as their claims of "evidence". Still, I thought it would fun to show what one of those shows might look like from the ghost's perspective. How well it works is up to readers, I guess.

I'm inviting you folks to check these stories out. I encourage you to read the free ones, and if you like them, to toss a couple bucks in the kitty for the rest. The great thing about Smashwords is it even publishes in HTML and PDF, so you don't need a Kindle, Nook, Playbook or any other e-reader. You can upload them to your PC or Mac.

I'm getting ready to settle in for some major work on a longer work, so I'll be too occupied to think up subjects for shorter works. I think five is a nice number; I think the stories, as much as they run the gamut in plot and subject matter, tone, length, and ability (I'm figuring they are pretty obviously from someone who's still feeling his way when it comes to writing fiction; all the same, I think the years I've spent writing pretty much everyday have paid off, if in no other way than I can produce five thousand words a day, and more if I'm on a streak, while many writers settle for around 2,000 to 2,500). I hope you check out the stories. I really hope you like them; my experience with short stories, from Faulkner and Hemingway and Steinbeck through Stephen King has been one of pure enjoyment. Unlike novels, which require a certain level of commitment, short stories are like pleasant little flings. At their best, you finish one and think, "Wow". Even when they're not great, if you've invested even a little emotional energy in the characters, you reach the end with that bittersweet thought that you're not quite ready for it to end.

If you decide to check these out, let me know what you think. You can leave a comment, shoot me an email at, or even, if you feel moved, offer a reader's review at Smashwords. Like everyone who is serious about writing, I'm not looking for PRAISE. I'm interested in what you think, bad and good. There's no way to become better at something if you're not willing to eliminate the persistence of crap in one's work. I don't care whether that's woodworking, plumbing, lawyering, or writing; unless you're willing to hear people say, "When you do x, I run to the bathroom to throw up," you're not really serious about doing what you do well. So, I look forward both to the good and the bad.

One last time. Please, check 'em out. Read 'em, and let me know what you think. Thanks in advance.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Ideology, Bias, & Gamed Refs

I don't know about anyone else, but I'm going to miss having Barney Frank around Congress. I don't always agree with him, but no one can claim he sticks to a certain party-approved script. In an interview with Talking Points Memo, Frank, the long-serving Democratic Congress member from Massachusetts, made clear the muddiness around Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI; Charlie Pierce refers to him as "the zombie-eyed granny-starver", which sounds unfair, but only to zombies):
“It’s not deficit reduction when you increase military spending so that you can make up for that by cutting Medicare and Medicaid. That’s not budget reduction. That’s ideology. That’s the right wing,” Frank told TPM. “The other great scam for Ryan is to say, ‘Oh, I’m not going to help the rich people … I’m going to lower their rates and get rid of loopholes,’ although he doesn’t mention a single loophole that he’ll get rid of.”
Frank continues with a bit of meta-analysis:
“I agree with [Paul] Krugman’s analysis. There is this instinct to be in the middle. People don’t like to think of themselves as some way partisan. There are people who take comfort from the fact that, ‘Oh, I’ve got people on both sides who disagree with me.’ I think you see this in Tom Friedman. You see this in some others,” he said, also referencing a recent article on Ryan by James Stewart of the New York Times.

“Here’s the deal,” Frank told TPM of some political pundits. “They don’t want to consider themselves to be siding with the Democrats. It’s important for their self-image that they be seen as centrist. The problem is the Republican Party has given them fewer and fewer things that they can identify with, because they’ve moved so far to the right. … So they have to find something they can support on the Republican side to maintain this self-image that they’re somehow independent of the parties. And so they pick up the Ryan budget.”
In What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias And The News, historian Eric Alterman calls the long game the right has played against the media "gaming the refs". Since those long-ago days when Vice President Spiro Agnew spoke out against "those nattering nabobs of negativism", the tendency has always been to tack against whatever wind seemed to be blowing from the Democratic Party. Fearful of losing a reputation for objectivity (whatever that may be in politics, no one seems to know), the only complaint that seems to matter is one of preference. Considering the many scandals involving confabulation and plagiarism at major news outlets (beginning in 1981, when the Washignton Post had to hand over a Pulitzer because a series it ran on drug use among youth in the city was a tissue of lies), one would think a far greater danger would be lack of attention to facts and personal intellectual integrity. It seems to be a far worse sin to call a zombie-eyed granny starver what he is than it might be to make up stories, or copy whole pieces of writing and pass them off as one's own.

Political reporting, at least at a national level, has become little more than an exercise in repeating whatever anyone in the game might say. Little is done, immediately, to check whether that a particular pol has said bears any resemblance to reality. Last year, when Ryan released his "Medicare" plan, the sleight-of-hand involved was so stunning, members of the media who claimed Ryan proposed getting rid of Medicare were claimed to have systematically distorted the Congress member's proposal. Why? Because the voucher plan he introduced was called "Medicare".

Was it dishonest to say that Ryan was dismantling and discarding Medicare? Of course not, any more than the failed attempt by Republicans in the 2005 Congressional session to privatize Social Security was an attempt at "reform". The more they used that word, the successful effort by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to push back and call it what it was made clear what was really happening. Much the same was attempted against Ryan's plan to dismantle a successful, popular public health insurance program. Ryan, however, has showed much the same ability Newt Gingrich has displayed over his thirty or so years in the national spotlight. Abject public failure, the revelation that one is not only an intellectual lightweight, but a patsy for big money players seems not to deter some people and their fluffers in the press.

There is nothing bold about Ryan's various submitted plans. On the contrary, Paul Krugman (among many others; he is just the best known) has run the numbers and shows that each time Ryan submits some kind of proposal - a budget, something about Medicare - the numbers do the exact opposite of what Ryan claims. They don't decrease the deficit, they increase it. They don't save Medicare, they destroy it. This kind of simple, analytical work, however, is dismissed as "opinion" by journalists, who go on to claim the math involved is beyond them, so who knows who's right.

The whole game is ridiculous, and it was refreshing to read Frank's comments, their clarity and simplicity. Who wants to be seen taking sides? Well, I suppose if your world view is a species of dualism, that weird non-excluded middle term (the political center) must appear inviting, to say the least. Of course, one should never downplay the role of ego and narcissism, in particular when one nears the top of the pundit food-chain. Once anyone in a position of public prominence begins to believe what other people are saying about their work, we've entered the stage where people whose views seem different - Tom Friedman, David Brooks, George Will, Richard Cohen - seem to converge at this small point, the writers aching to be the latest incarnation of Walter Lippmann (knowing something about Lippmann's life and career, I'm never sure why they would wish to be so). The previous place-holder in that position, the late David Broder, was a master of working hard to make himself look like an outside arbiter both of insider gamesmanship and Real American Opinion.

Yet, he was an admitted confabulator, no less than Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass. In 1972, on the eve of the New Hampshire Democratic primary, Broder reported that Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-ME) broke down in tears as he responded to a planted letter-to-the-editor, known as the "Canuck" letter for its use of that derogatory term. The letter was signed in the name of Muskie's wife, even though she had nothing to do with it. The unfolding story, all rooted in Broder's original report of Muskie "breaking down", destroyed Muskie's campaign.

In 1988, Broder admitted he'd made the whole thing up. He didn't see any tears on Muskie. Muskie's voice didn't break with emotion, except perhaps anger, but even then Broder said the description wasn't accurate. For this admission that he'd been an unwitting stooge in Nixon's plan to prevent the candidacy of the one challenger who consistently beat the President in polls over the previous year, Broder . . . well, nothing happened to David Broder. He went on writing for the Post, despite an admission he had made up a story that was one piece of a huge machine that nearly destroyed the country.

Yesterday, colmnist Kathleen Parker (another Pulitzer winner) whined because a blogger's claim about South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley went viral; these bloggers trafficking in rumor, gossip, and lies is just horrible, she intoned in her usual church-lady tones. She never once seemed to glance down and notice the paper that publishes her column has a long history of professional journalists making stuff up, trafficking in gossip and rumor, and generally being pretty care-free with facts. I am quite sure fellow church ladies and sages nodded, their lips pursed in disapproval at the great unwashed in the world who might say things in public that aren't true.

Things like the fact that Rep. Paul Ryan's latest budget is nonsense, his reputation as a bold, courageous independent thinker neither earned nor even granted for cause. The reputation, which emerged out of nowhere (at least to me), is True. The rest is partisan bias, because the facts and numbers are just too difficult to understand.

The one blessing we have had over the past decade is the explosion of places where news is available, the multiple sources for checking accuracy, and the tools at hand to make sure we are dealing, as best as any of us can know, with the facts of the matter. This isn't a matter of ideology or bias (unless a bias for facts is something only silly, cowardly liberals and leftists have). Those gamed refs of punditry and national political reporting, the brave centrists to whom few listen and even fewer follow outside the echo chambers of the national capital, are being pushed out by folks who couldn't care less if they are nabobs, if as nabobs they are nattering, or if their nattering is negative.

There is nothing ideological or negative in calling a zombie-eyed granny-starver what he is. It might not be nice, but neither is working really hard to put in place policies that . . . starve grannies. There's little room for politesse in some things.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Act Naturally: Resurrection And A Theology Of Science

There are some words I avoid using because I find them vague and unhelpful. Among those most annoying is "nature". The English word has many meanings, from a general reference to anything not artificial through a technical, philosophical understanding of what a thing is. A thing's nature not only defines it, in so doing it sets down its end or goal as well as the means by which it will reach that end. Much of this technical understanding of "nature" is with us in our general discussions of the way the world works. Clarified by contrast, we understand some actions as "not natural". Some people insist there is such a thing as "the supernatural", a word I detest even more than "natural", precisely because it assumes we know what the word "nature" means and to which it refers.

"Supernatural" is often used as an adjective describing God and Divine action. "Miracles" (yet another of those words I would toss out of the English language without looking back) are often defined as Divine interruption of natural processes - water in to wine, walking on water, that kind of thing - that display God's freedom in the face of the laws of nature. The height of Divine supernatural activity is, obviously, the resurrection. When was the last time a person who had been dead for several days not only got up and walked around, but talked with people, and then disappeared? Stuff like that just doesn't happen in nature. Right?

Which was why the 18th century rationalists, in particular David Hume, weren't too keen on the whole concept. Miracles of whatever stripe were more than just oddities; they were offenses against what was thought to be the good and well-ordered running of the Universe. If God could decide, willy-nilly, to intervene whenever God wanted, multiplying loaves and fishes and making blind folks see, how was it possible to come to any understanding of the way the Universe works, which relies on an assumption of regularity, the repetition of certain processes that become so ingrained (Hume's favorite was cause-and-effect; something that didn't actually exist, but was assumed thanks to regularity) they seem to be like laws.

Folks like me who say, "Jesus was raised from the dead!" are more than just weird. We are threatening any attempt to understand the way the world works. Except, of course, this claim rests on the related ideas that (a) science as it has evolved over the centuries is the only sure means for figuring out how the world works; and (b) "how the world works" isn't, itself, subject to the theological condemnation of sin, rendering our understanding limited and flawed not only in the contingent sense, but in an ontological sense as well.

The counter-claim - it isn't original with me; I remember it most vividly in on of N. T. Wright's books - is simple enough. The resurrection, as the inauguration of the fulfillment of Creation as God originally intended it, displays for us the way God created the world to be, before that creation was marred by sin and death. In other words, rather than some violation of the laws of nature, an event so extraordinary it can only be termed "supernatural", it may well be the case that changing water in to wine, ending physical pain and social ostracism through touch, and rising from the dead are how the world is supposed to be. People living together, caring for one another, taking care of one another.

No longer living in fear of death and the threat of non-existence that rides in its wake.

None of this is to suggest that science isn't a marvelous tool for discovering all sorts of things about the Universe. On the contrary, it continues to provide us with all sorts of interesting and useful information about ourselves and the world. It is, however, just a tool. It has its uses, to be sure, but it also has its limits. One of those limits is the assumption that its subject - the physical Universe, including human beings - can be and should be defined only in the terms set by scientific investigation. Those tools work well for science; they don't work quite as well for much else, yet we continue to pretend they do when we talk about miracles and the supernatural and the strangeness of the resurrection.

Nothing could be more natural, it seems to me.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What's The Big Deal?

So Chomsky has two articles out on the decline of American power. The first piece begins with themes and matters that those familiar with his work should recognize. Indeed, my introduction to Chomsky, via Bill Moyers' A World Of Ideas PBS series from 1988, included Chomsky complaining about the utter failure of anyone in any position of authority - political, academic, cultural - to call what the US did in South Vietnam during the Kennedy Administration "an invasion". I distinctly remember thinking as I heard him, then later read the collection of interviews Moyers published, "What in the world is this guy talking about?"

A quarter century later, and my thinking is only slightly different. Recognizing what Chomsky's goal has always been, as well as his hardly naive understanding of the nature of the rhetoric of the powerful, I now wonder why he claims to be puzzled by our lack of discussion of these matters in the terms that, he is correct to point out, describe them. As the premiere linguist of the previous century - a point no one in the field, or related fields, would dispute - Chomsky has to understand that how we use language is dependent upon our preferences, our social location, those whom we choose to serve, the prevailing boundaries of acceptable discussion policed by those in positions of authority, and the like. To continue to complain aloud that we in the United States not only do not recognize what the United States did in South Vietnam in 1962 as an invasion, but have passed the semicentennial without acknowledging its significance for our own recent history seems less like tenacity in the face of overwhelming opposition than it does simple crankiness, with a dash of pouting.

Of course no one in the US is going to point out that the anniversary has just passed of a major milestone in an evolving policy of failure. Of course no one wishing to hold a position of significant authority, prestige, and power is going to say, "From 1962 to 1965, the United States engaged in a military campaign that resulted in massive population dislocation, near-genocidal violence, creating the demand for military counter-measures that fed the Popular Front movement in South Vietnam." Not because the previous statement is contrary to fact; rather, because the previous statement, while accurate, is only one among many possible description of the event. Not to put too fine a point on it, which description we prefer depends an awful lot on that marvelous Latin phrase, Qui bono? Further complicating matters, as Chomsky notes in the first article, is that many who might well describe events in the former South Vietnam in a completely different set of terms do so because they honestly do not believe "invasion" properly describes those events. Laden with so much baggage, calling what happened "invasion" would, to those so inclined, render comprehension impossible. We need to acknowledge this reality before going too much further: Many in positions of power and authority actually believe their description of events is the only possible one; that this description is value- and agenda-neutral; that any other description, regardless of attention to historical fact, renders the event in question incomprehensible.

So much for a relatively minor quibble.

On the larger point of the two articles, I sit here and wonder: So? The American Imperial Project of the second half of the 20th century, rooted in the lucky contingency of our being the only major belligerent of the Second World War not to be invaded was always understood as temporary.

While the post-war planning conceded this was not a position we would hold in perpetuity, as Chomsky rightly states, there was little important dissent from the main thesis: Our position as the dominant global hegemon after 1945 was to be maintained for the benefit of important industrial and corporate interests, which had been the key players in determining our national policy, foreign and domestic, since the last quarter of the 19th century. Remaking the world for the American corporation is neither surprising, nor even all that interesting; such had been the case since the railroad, mining, sugar, and later oil interests had made many states, the United States Senate, and on several occasions the Presidency, wholly-owned subsidiaries of their interests (Ron Chernow's description of the political machinations among the great industrial and financial barons in the Gilded Age, in his biography of John D. Rockefeller, should be required reading for anyone interested in American political history).

When Karl Rove said that, as an Empire, the United States was in a position to create its own reality, he was stating a rather droll truism that had held since Alexander, limping back through the Khyber Pass after his one and only defeat, knew to be the case. At the same time, events in the world had changed to the point where the ability of the American Imperium to dictate the terms of reality were being impinged upon by rising powers, many of which Chomsky discusses in the articles in question. While much of the anger roused by Rove's statement was rooted in some kind of abstract disgust at the idea that reality is rooted in the dictates of power, little of significance was said about the reality of America as Empire, and what that means for us.

America has always been uneasy with any description of itself as an imperial power, except among those who have constructed the various American Empires (there are several). In a book entitled First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country A World Power, former diplomat and historian Warren Zimmerman makes clear that the first American Empire was only an equivocal success with the American people; our trial run for later counter-insurgency wars, in The Philippines, was both horribly managed as well as unpopular at home (much like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan). Much of the rhetoric of American Empire after the Second World War consciously ignored any use of the term, even as, in all practical terms, the US went about remaking the post-war world in its own interests, as well as those who had invested in its success.

It is hardly surprising that Americans are uneasy with ourselves as an Imperial power. It is also unsurprising that the American people usually voice a far more practical, limited use of our military power in defense of our interests; for just one recent example, American support for on-going military operations in southwest Asia, already low, declined even further once Osama bin Laden was killed by American Special Forces in Pakistan. As a people, we see no contradiction between supporting actions that line up with our interests, but having achieved the most important goal - in this case, removing the threat from the leader of the group responsible for the 9/11 attacks - ending our military operations. The American people, having achieved little of benefit from Empire, see no reason either to support it, or invest any emotional (let alone political, financial, or economic) capital in it. That our political leaders continue to act to shore it up even events around the world make it ever more difficult to sustain is yet another sign of our decline. The habit of dictating reality is far too ingrained in our elites to stop, despite the growing mountain of facts to the contrary.

As the American Empire wanes, we here at home - much like our British counterparts in the last century - can breathe a sigh of relief that the burdens of managing an increasingly unmanageable international system is passing to others. While there are significant transnational, even supranational, structures in place that do and will bear some of the burden during this period of transition, their lack of transparency and accountability may limit their effectiveness. I, for one, am quite happy to see America no longer assume the role of planetary hegemon. We have much work to do here at home, and our role in international affairs would benefit from attention to the rumblings for democratic accountability here at home that have manifested themselves across the political spectrum (and here I part company with many on the Left in defending the practice of the Tea Party; while it is true enough it would never have emerged without significant financial sponsorship, the many supporters of its goals and policy preferences were voicing a time-honored American demand for democratic accountability that ideological opponents ignore at their peril).

One can love this country, yet at the same time breathe a little easier at the thought that we are no longer the determinant power around the globe. The American decline is, by and large, something we all should support, and work toward hastening.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Just Do It!

Science confirms what many have long suspected.
“Individuals who identify as straight but in psychological tests show a strong attraction to the same sex may be threatened by gays and lesbians because homosexuals remind them of similar tendencies within themselves,” explains Netta Weinstein, the study’s lead author. “In many cases these are people who are at war with themselves and they are turning this internal conflict outward,” says co-author Richard Ryan.
OK, so it isn't exactly news. Still, I'm so happy what we all knew was the case is out there for all to read.

Oh, and I can't wait to read Art's take on this.

Rick Warren's Babbling (UPDATE)

Here I thought we were through with him. Apparently not.
WARREN: Well, certainly the Bible says we are to care about the poor. There’s over 2,000 versus in the Bible about the poor. And God says that those who care about the poor, God will care about them and God will bless them. But there’s a fundamental question on the meaning of “fairness.” Does fairness mean everybody makes the same amount of money? Or does fairness mean everybody gets the opportunity to make the same amount of money? I do not believe in wealth redistribution, I believe in wealth creation…
WARREN: The only way to get people out of poverty is J-O-B-S. Create jobs. To create wealth, not to subsidize wealth. When you subsidize people, you create the dependency. You — you rob them of dignity. There are a lot of negative things that happen to us. Rather, we should be focusing on wealth creation and job creation, in my opinion…
My most-read post of all time concerns some not-very-nice comments Rick Warren's wife made about people living with HIV/AIDS. For a few minutes, he was a person of some public interest several years ago. I even wrote a few posts about him, especially when I was complaining that Pres. Obama asked him to give the opening prayer at his inauguration.

In all fairness, there are a few lines in the interview with which I agree. I think it is more than fair to say that there are some habits of consumption and competition for social prestige that are in need of criticism; I've made many similar points myself, and would be lying if I denied it. Buried in a context, however, that has Warren spewing partisan talking points rather than well-thought-out ethical positions, including the chestnut regarding "dependence", one can only call crap by its name.

In an interview on or around Easter, this is far worse. The Church is not about endorsing this or that partisan platform, social or economic ideology, or even placing blame for our current troubles. I am not even that impressed with Warren's fake magnanimity in which he insists our current economic woes lie at the feet of "multiple administrations", a failure of moral courage so huge one is almost tempted to laugh at any attempt he seems to make to offer a view on a way out.

I should be clear. I am not denying Warren's credentials as a pastor, as a Christian, or anything of that sort. What I am saying is his words show someone unwilling to begin with the Gospel in his thinking about matters of social, economic, and political ethics. Revealing someone quite willing to spout the rather shallow, hollow babble from one political ideology and party, Warren's words in this interview leave me wondering if he has actually thought about the relationship between the crucified and risen Jesus and our current historical moment, always with the first thought on the Gospel.

UPDATE: Some might call it fate. Some might call it karma. Me? I call it the Holy Spirit smacking Rick Warren around for running his mouth.
Sometimes, I think we should hang the phrase, "much as overlooked critics once warned" in blinding pink neon down one side of the Washington Monument. "Overlooked critics" said Iraq would be a mess. "Overlooked critics" said massive tax cuts for the wealthy would balloon the deficit. "Overlooked critics" said engaging in "welfare reform" based on fanciful theories about "dependency," and fairy tales about young bucks buying steaks and welfare queens with their Cadillacs, and measuring the whole thing by how many people you can trim from government assistance, was asking for the whole problem to come cascading down through the levels of government, from national to local, from Washington to the states to the cities and towns, until it simply buried the people at the very bottom of society. Sometimes, I think we'd actually do better not to "overlook" some critics.
The referenced Times piece can be found by clicking these words.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Tabula Rasa

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and do not forget all his benefits—
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good as long as you live
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

The Lord works vindication
and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses,
his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger for ever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.

As for mortals, their days are like grass;
they flourish like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.
But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting
on those who fear him,
and his righteousness to children’s children,
to those who keep his covenant
and remember to do his commandments.

The Lord has established his throne in the heavens,
and his kingdom rules over all.
Bless the Lord, O you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his bidding,
obedient to his spoken word.
Bless the Lord, all his hosts,
his ministers that do his will.
Bless the Lord, all his works,
in all places of his dominion.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Psalm 103
As we celebrate the reality of the resurrection on this day, so many questions push themselves to the surface. Gathering and proclaiming that Jesus, who was dead, killed by a combination of intrigue and fear, has defied even the final power of death to demonstrate for us that which awaits all of us is nothing to fear now, still wonder. Not for nothing have Christians understood this first day of the week to be the First Day of the New Creation. This New Thing wipes the slate clean. The past, in all its forms, no longer holds us. As God no longer demands an accounting from us, why should we demand one from one another? The dead hand of our old lives was buried in the tomb with the bleeding corpse; our new life, unrecognizable even to those closest to us (see John 20), begins even now.

We are, even now in the midst of the terrors that stalk our world, living in the midst of this new creation. What would it be like to live this way? What would it be like no longer to live in fear of God or one another?

What would it be like to live without the fear that our death is some kind of judgment upon our lives?

Good Friday was the moment when the set-piece drama of Holy Week came to what anyone should have understood was its pre-determined end. As Jesus, his body bleeding and broken, finally dies, the state reasserts itself as the only real arbiter of life and death, pronouncing its judgment that some people do not deserve to live; that their deeds are a threat to good social order; that the monopoly on violence needs to be demonstrated for all to see in order to maintain good social order.

On Sunday, Jesus, walking and talking and laughing with his disciples, put an end to the threat on our lives the state, in its demonstrated unjust power, holds over us. Our life, dictated by this new reality, is one in which the threat even from the state to kill us should we not live as it is demanded no longer holds us.

We in the modern West, in particular, with our much-vaunted, centuries-fought-for freedoms, have trouble understanding the real threat posed to good social order by this resurrected Jesus. If Jesus has been raised from the dead, what tool does the state have left to insure its continued existence? The Church, living out the freedom we have from the Father in the Son through the Holy Spirit, proclaim the reality of the Psalm above in our lives, remembering the words of Jesus as our tool for ordering our life together: Love one another.

Our contemporary western state relies less on the threat of violence than other means of coercion; all the same, the state exercises its understanding of absolute control over our lives no less than the most heinous despotism. Whether or not we love one another is not a concern for the powers that be. Like Pilate's admission that the question of truth is not one of consequence for those in power, we who live in the only Truth that really exists as the living, resurrected Jesus see in and through him the only way to be who we are created to be. We live this out without regard to our past, without fear of the threat posed to us by Power because we believe that in the powerlessness of Jesus' death and the resurrection that brings him to us even here and now the matters that concern the state no longer hold us. Power, an insouciance to truth, the running of the well-ordered machine of the state for its own sake: these are things that, as of this day, are part of that past that no longer hold us.

Each Sunday is a little celebration of this event, a recollection that is deeper than collective memory, a declaration of the coming Final Act that is more than prophetic utterance of "Someday . . ." Yet, on this Easter Sunday, let us recall that death no longer terrorizes us, with its baggage of annihilation, separation from God and all those we have loved, and the end of meaning and purpose. Looking around us at a world that so desperately needs to hear the words, "Christ has risen!", let us be about what we are called to do without fear, with our faith in the Truth of the Person of the Risen Christ always with us, in the love that is our distinctive marker, that which defines who we are.

"Behold, I make all things new!" declares the Voice from the throne, at the end of it all, according to the Revelation to St. John the Divine. God is indeed making all things new, even now, beginning with the Living Christ who shall never die, and who invites us to forget what has past. Our sins, removed as far as the east is from the west, no longer define who we are before God, within as we relate to ourselves, or in our living with one another. This is the First Day of the New Creation. What was is gone. What is, what will be, these are the things that await us as we awake to the new reality inaugurated in and through the Risen Jesus.

Happy Easter. Christ is Risen!

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