"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Monday, September 01, 2014

5 Reasons to suspect Alternet doesn't really know much about Biblical scholarship

No one can bring the stupid (what else can I call it) like Alternet to Salon.  Three topics excite excess commentary at Salon:  Barack Obama; race (esp. "white privilege"), and Jesus.  Not religion; just Jesus.

Case in point:  proof that Jesus never existed and everybody agrees that's so*, based on a documentary by an atheist who has five points to make:

1. No first century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the actuality of Yeshua ben Yosef.  In the words of Bart Ehrman: “What sorts of things do pagan authors from the time of Jesus have to say about him? Nothing. As odd as it may seem, there is no mention of Jesus at all by any of his pagan contemporaries. There are no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates; there are no expressions of interest, no heated slanders, no passing references – nothing. In fact, if we broaden our field of concern to the years after his death – even if we include the entire first century of the Common Era – there is not so much as a solitary reference to Jesus in any non-Christian, non-Jewish source of any kind. I should stress that we do have a large number of documents from the time – the writings of poets, philosophers, historians, scientists, and government officials, for example, not to mention the large collection of surviving inscriptions on stone and private letters and legal documents on papyrus. In none of this vast array of surviving writings is Jesus’ name ever so much as mentioned.” (pp. 56-57)

2. The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life, which become more crystalized in later texts. Paul seems unaware of any virgin birth, for example. No wise men, no star in the east, no miracles. Historians have long puzzled over the “Silence of Paul” on the most basic biographical facts and teachings of Jesus. Paul fails to cite Jesus’ authority precisely when it would make his case. What’s more, he never calls the twelve apostles Jesus’ disciples; in fact, he never says Jesus HAD disciples –or a ministry, or did miracles, or gave teachings. He virtually refuses to disclose any other biographical detail, and the few cryptic hints he offers aren’t just vague, but contradict the gospels. The leaders of the early Christian movement in Jerusalem like Peter and James are supposedly Jesus’ own followers and family; but Paul dismisses them as nobodies and repeatedly opposes them for not being true Christians!

Liberal theologian Marcus Borg suggests that people read the books of the New Testament in chronological order to see how early Christianity unfolded. “Placing the Gospels after Paul makes it clear that as written documents they are not the source of early Christianity but its product. The Gospel — the good news — of and about Jesus existed before the Gospels. They are the products of early Christian communities several decades after Jesus’ historical life and tell us how those communities saw his significance in their historical context.”

3. Even the New Testament stories don’t claim to be first-hand accounts. We now know that the four gospels were assigned the names of the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, not written by them. To make matter sketchier, the name designations happened sometime in second century, around 100 years or more after Christianity supposedly began. For a variety of reasons, the practice of pseudonymous writing was common at the time and many contemporary documents are “signed” by famous figures.  The same is true of the New Testament epistles except for a handful of letters from Paul (6 out of 13) which are broadly thought to be genuine.  But even the gospel stories don’t actually say, “I was there.” Rather, they claim the existence of other witnesses, a phenomenon familiar to anyone who has heard the phrase, my aunt knew someone who . . . .

4. The gospels, our only accounts of a historical Jesus, contradict each other. If you think you know the Jesus story pretty well, I suggest that you pause at this point to test yourself with the  20 question quiz at

The gospel of Mark is thought to be the earliest existing “life of Jesus,” and linguistic analysis suggests that Luke and Matthew both simply reworked Mark and added their own corrections and new material. But they contradict each other and, to an even greater degree contradict the much later gospel of John, because they were written with different objectives for different audiences. The incompatible Easter stories offer one example of how much the stories disagree.

5. Modern scholars who claim to have uncovered the real historical Jesus depict wildly different persons.  They include a cynic philosopher, charismatic Hasid, liberal Pharisee, conservative rabbi, Zealot revolutionary, nonviolent pacifist to borrow from a much longer list assembled by Price. In his words (pp. 15-16), “The historical Jesus (if there was one) might well have been a messianic king, or a progressive Pharisee, or a Galilean shaman, or a magus, or a Hellenistic sage.  But he cannot very well have been all of them at the same time.”  John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar grumbles that “the stunning diversity is an academic embarrassment.”
I wasn't going to include all of that, then I decided:  "What the heck?"  I would point out, to begin with, that last link to Crossan is a reference to his magisterial "The Historical Jesus."  Here the book is reduced to a quote taken out of context.  So much for the "scholarship" of this article or, by association, the film the article discusses.
In other words, it goes on like that.  Yes, there are wildly different versions of Jesus.  After 2000 years, and with so many blind men describing the elephant, what do you expect?  I can give you wildly divergent views on FDR, LBJ, JFK, Harry Truman, J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, or particularly Ronald Reagan.  What that proves is only that beauty and truth are in the eye of the beholder.

Back up to no. 4: yes, the gospel accounts contradict each other.  You cannot reconcile the two nativity stories in Matthew and Luke no matter how hard you try.  So what?  None of them are meant to be history in the Greek/Herodotus sense of the word, since that idea of history didn't take hold in the West for several centuries later.  Josephus, the great historian of the 1st century of Palestine, always knew the Romans buttered his bread, and always made sure his history reflected their preferences.  Today any change in the accepted narrative of Europeans Dominate the World and America is A Shining City on a Hill is despised as "revisionism" by one group or another.  Show me any time when histories didn't disagree, and I'll show you a history to prove you haven't read enough history.

Oh, and it isn't "linguistic analysis" that established the "Q" gospel; it was textual analysis and narrative analysis, and many other kinds of analysis.  Yes, the stories all disagree; as the article says, they were written for different communities.  Do we all have to be literalist fundamentalists in order to be Christians?

No. 3:  no, they don't.  So what?  I learned this in Sunday school.  And Josephus, to name one, says he was in Jerusalem during the sacking by Rome, and the streets were knee deep in blood.  "I was there" is his historical mantra.  But nobody believes Josephus literally waded through rivers of blood in the streets of Jerusalem.  Any lawyer will tell you, eye-witnesses are some of the most unreliable witnesses.

No. 2:  Paul barely mentions the life of Jesus because there's no evidence he knows it.  By his own account Paul becomes a prosecutor of Christians, and then on the road to Damascus has a powerful conversion experience.  This story is re-told long after Paul's death by Luke in Acts.  Paul's conversion makes him a proselytizer of the gospel as he knows it, and what he knows is the soteriology of Jesus and the theology of the Messiah.  What he doesn't know is anything beyond the most rudimentary story of the first eucharist, which he tells more than once (most famously to the Corinthians).  It's no surprised he doesn't know the nativity stories; Matthew and Luke seem to have tacked them on for literary and proselytizing purposes; Mark and John don't bother with them.  Unless you think the wise men and the shepherds (two different gospel accounts) must have been historically true or else the stories fail (and if you do, I pity you), what is the problem that Paul doesn't know them?  No other gospel but Luke tells the story of the woman who washed Jesus' feet with her tears, and the crucifixion stories vary widely in what happened at Golgotha (or that it happened at Golgotha).  THIS IS NOT NEWS!  It has been known for centuries, millennia even.  If some idle reader of Salon/Alternet doesn't know this, it doesn't prove a new insight into world history is born.

It just proves there's a sucker born every minute.  But we knew that, too.

No. 1:  well, that's why you should read Crossan's work instead of just looking at one page on a website:

If no Christian had written anything about Jesus for the first hundred years after his death, we would still have two succinct accounts from those not counted among his followers. One account dates from the last decade of the first century and comes from the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in hisJewish Antiquities 18.63:

"About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man. . . . For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. . . . When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the firstplace come to love him did not give up their affection for him. . . . And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared."

His description is carefully neutral or, at most, mildly critical. The text was both preserved and interpolated by Christian editors, but I cite it without their proposed improvements.

The next account dates from the first decades of the sec-ond century and comes from the pagan historian Cornelius Tacitus. Having told how a rumor blamed Nero for the disastrous fire that swept Rome in 64 C.E., he continues inAnnals 15-44:

"Therefore to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for the moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the wor1d collect and find a vogue."

Despite the differences between the studied impartiality of Josephus and the sneering partiality of Tacitus, they agree on three rather basic facts. First, there was some sort of a movement connected with Jesus. Second, he was executed by official authority presumably to stop the movement. Third, rather than being stopped, the movement continued to spread.

There remain, therefore, these three: movement, execution, continuation. But the greatest of these is continuation.

John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus (HarperSanFrancisco 1994, pp. vi-vii).

Crossan's The Historical Jesus points out how perfectly ordinary a personage Yeshua ben Yosef would have been; a peasant, a complete unknown.  What is remarkable is not that no contemporary made a record of his existence (this presumes, among other things, a level and reach  literacy which simply didn't exist.  Paul was rare in that he could read, but he could not write more than his own name.  This was not an unusual combination); what is remarkable is that, against all odds, we know of the existence of Jesus at all.

Ehrman, who is quoted in No. 1 above, is right; but do you think in all the records of the world any mention of you is going to exist?  But, you object, you aren't a notable person.  True; but who is?  Name the winner of the Academy Award for Best Actor in 2000.  In 2012.  In 1973, without using Google.  All fame, as George C. Scott Patton says at the end of the film, is fleeting, and that which we find important today (the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, for example) are unremarkable during the individual's lifetime.  We have records of Van Gogh because people save such records now; but we only know Samuel Pepys lived because we happened to find his diary.  What of all the people who lived when he did?  Why did no one make a record of them?  As Brueghel pointed out, the world probably went on with its business the night of the birth, too.  Does that prove it didn't happen?

There is a longer discussion to be had on each of these points, but the fact is:  none of them are news. It might shock your sainted grandmother (but probably not) or upset a true-blue fundamentalist, but then the presumption of such critiques is that the only true Xians are the fundies, and if they are wrong, the rest of us are destroyed in our faith, as well.  I learned far more challenging things than this in seminary, and they were trying to prepare me to do ministry, not to turn me into an atheist.

I don't really understand what these points have to do with denying the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth.  They are critical of simplistic, "Sunday School" version of Jesus, more than anything else. There is serious scholarship on the historicity of Jesus, and it is more than 100 years old.  None of that gets mentioned in the article at all.  Most scholars, Christian or atheist (the worst slander of the article is the idea that Christian scholars are blinded by faith and can't recognize any scholarship that proves Jesus never lived), are as interested in the question "Did Jesus exist" as literary scholars are interested in the question "Who wrote Shakespeare's plays?"  In other words, the only people asking such questions are people who don't know what they're talking about.  These are also the people who think their ignorance gives them greater expertise than anyone else.

And they will always be with you, too; though you don't have an obligation toward them that you have toward the poor.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

"There is no safety here."

I read too many ignorant comments about how "progressive" Christians let fundamentalists define Christianity in America and yet with all the coverage Ferguson, Missouri has received, I didn't learn about the role of the churches in that story until I went to Religious Dispatches:

The Greater St. Mark Church was raided today as St. Louis County Police thought that protesters were spending the night in the church, which has been used as a staging area for protestors.  Police have since closed the building and stated that if anyone congregates on the premises at night, there would be arrests. One member of the Dream Defenders said “what [the police] did today is tell us, what? There is no safety here.”

The Pastor of the church, Missouri Representative Tommie Pierson (D), said of the police “they don’t like us too much.”

Oh, no, that's the least of it*:

In contrast, clergy in Ferguson and from around the country have come to show their solidarity and to help the citizens of Ferguson in their quest for justice. Early on, the Rev. Renita Lamkin was shot with a rubber bullet while trying to place herself between protesters and the police.

Yup.  A pastor took a bullet, albeit rubber (but do you want to get hit with one of those things?) for her belief.

Heard about that, have you?  Or this?

Other local clergy have met with the governor and state officials, while pastors from all over have been coming to aid in the efforts, including a group from Philadelphia that includes the pastor of Historic Mother Bethel AME church, Mark Tyler, and Rev. Dr. Leslie Callahan, Pastor of St. Paul Baptist Church. The presence of clergy members is a helpful counterbalance to local and state law enforcement presenting themselves as both religious and civic authority.
Maybe these clergy need better press agents?  After all, if a person engages in protest, and no news outlet reports on it (don't get me started on the hours and hours of empty coverage cable news has devoted to this story without once mentioning these stories), is the protest really worth it?

“They attend with pharisaical strictness to the outward forms of religion, and at the same time neglect the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy and faith."

The Pharisees in this situation are not just the authorities using Christianity to justify their violence and suppression; it's also the people insisting that judgment and law are the only values worth upholding, and mercy and faith are too weak and insignificant to pay attention to.

And yes, I realize the "Pharisees" in that statement includes a large number of people; that's a feature, not a bug.

*Yes, because the church might have engaged in a zoning violation by letting people sleep there overnight.  Apparently in Ferguson zoning violations are enforced by police power.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

In God We Trust (all others pay cash)

I'm interested in this not because of some sense of schadenfreude, but because it shows why the "traditional" church may seem to have been passed by, but really isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

Following the news that 21 ex-Mars Hill Church pastors asked lead pastor Mark Driscoll to step down, he returned from his planned vacation on August 24, 2014 and announced he will be taking at least six weeks off while the charges are being investigated. Mars Hill has retained evangelical PR strategist Mark DeMoss, son of the religious right funders behind the Arthur S. DeMoss Foundation and former advisor to the Romney campaign, to assist the church during this time.

Earlier this month Driscoll suffered a major career blow when the Acts 29 Network, the all-male coalition of over 500 Reformed evangelical church planters that he co-founded, removed him and his Seattle based Mars Hill Church from the organization’s membership, and asked him to step down as a pastor.

I would also note that there are two scandals that will ruin a ministry faster than anything, and they are the two most often seen when a ministry is in trouble:  money, and sex.  Driscoll isn't accused of any sexual improprieties (aside from harassment, perhaps; which is bad enough), but he has messed with the money:

Mars Hill’s growing controversies remained hidden, due in large part to a drastic change to the church’s bylaws in 2007 that shifted oversight from 24 male elders to a select group of executive elders, with Driscoll as the lead pastor. Those few who protested the change, or any subsequent decisions made by the executive elders, found themselves fired and shunned. Also, many employees are prevented from speaking publicly about Mars Hill due to a non-disclosure agreement they had signed as a condition of their employment.
As the article says, Driscoll was a rising star who, in less than 20 years, seems to have fallen back to earth.  I don't wish that upon him, but simply point out it takes a community to make a church, and no one is above that community.  Driscoll wanted to place himself apart, with his cronies supporting his actions and his hand in the till because, well...that's where the money is.

When I had a church, I left all the money concerns to the church treasurer and the church council.  I knew what the church budget was, and what my compensation was; but who even pledged what amount was something I never paid attention to, and what it took to pay the bills was not something I worried about.  Small churches are achingly transparent anyway; the books are simple, the accounts few, the balances easy to determine by anyone who keeps a checkbook or a savings account.  But I knew pastors who got in trouble, and one of the "go to" charges, even if it was spurious, was about abuse of funds and misuse of church money.  I never let myself get anywhere near that, just to be sure I wouldn't be fighting a charge of misusing church funds.

Whither Mars Hill?  I don't know, but I don't think the prognosis is good.  Every major scandal with a public church figure has effectively ended that ministry and left the church in disarray.  Despite appearances people don't go to church to fight, and they don't give money to the church to see it disappear.   And Mars Hill knows this, and they also fear it:

Now that a former employee has gone public with proof that funds donated to the Mars Hill Global Fund were allocated elsewhere, perhaps others will come forward to unearth documents Mars Hill refuses to release despite repeated requests.

The Vatican Bank may have been corrupt and scandal-ridden, but the church institution protects the local parish from too many repercussions of that kind of problem.  Most Protestant denominations can separate themselves easily from a pastor with sticky fingers, and the institution will survive.

But when one man is effectively the institution, what then?  Mars Hill won't collapse overnight, won't necessarily go the way of Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral or Oral Robert's ministry in Tulsa; but it's best days are behind it now.  It will either settle into being a mini-denomination, with all the institutional trappings thereof; or it will fade away.

And would it surprise you to know that some of the scandal engulfing Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill involves soteriology?  Because apparently all is fair when it comes to saving souls:

"Mars Hill has made marketing investments for book releases and sermon series, along with album releases, events, and church plants, much like many other churches, authors, and publishers who want to reach a large audience. We will explore any opportunity that helps us to get that message out, while striving to remain above reproach in the process. Whether we’re talking about technology, music, marketing, or whatever, we want to tell lots of people about Jesus by every means available."
But apparently "every means available" wasn't limited to technology; it involved marketing as well, such as making a false claim that Driscoll had authored a best selling book.  It's a curious evangelism that says unethical behavior is appropriate when the purpose is to save souls.  It isn't just the urgency there, it's also the question:  save them for what?  Do unethical means achieve ethical ends if the saving of a soul is understood as the greater purpose than all others?  And is that the teaching of Christ and of Christianity:  that salvation is above all and over all and trumps all?

Or is it to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God, and to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and your neighbor as yourself?

Yeah, I'm not a big fan of Driscoll's "evangelical" theology; and that's pretty much why.  I think it puts the emphasis on the wrong person.  If my efforts to save your soul are more important than my efforts to live according to God's ethic, then what am I saving souls for?  In fact, how am I saving them?  By getting people to repeat a simple mantra, but not otherwise changing their lives?  This is the same problem I had with all the fervent Southern Baptists I grew up with, all anxious to  know if I was "saved", if I had "let Jesus into my heart"?  What did that mean, and if it meant only a "Get out of Hell Free" card, what kind of weird moral universe was I being invited to live in?

What is the purpose of this life?  To accumulate souls for some cosmic redemption of mine?  And to accumulate them by whatever means necessary, because it will redeem my evil?

No, thank you.  That theology I need no part of.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Texas: It's like a whole 'nother country

Because when I was a kid, I thought this map was pretty damned accurate....

When the issue is Texas I'm more than a bit of a home-town boy, and I have to admit what I felt about the reaction to the Perry indictment can be fairly described as a mild anger that "Yankees" (all non-Texans who don't hale from Oklahoma, Arkansas, or Louisiana.  We got other names for them.) seem to think they understand the Texas legal system better than Texans do.  To wit (as they say in Harvard Yard):

Jeff Cohen, Chronicle executive editor for opinions & editorials, said the local press cannot just brush off the legal proceeding as political, adding, "we've been following him for a number of years ... we respect what the grand jury has done here, we respect the process, and we believe it ought to run its course."

Keven Ann Willey, Morning News editorial page editor, said journalists may not know all of the evidence, but "we do know that a grand jury who viewed evidence thinks that there's enough there to have a trial and that is not nothing." She later said of the Beltway pundits: "From afar sometimes it's hard to appreciate the background in detail."

Mike Norman, editorial director of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, said local media "want to see the case laid out."

"The indictment is not the case and the national analysis is attacking the indictment and they don't seem to see how this can be anything other than politics," Norman said. "He's been our governor for more than 13 years now, we watch him more closely. We want to see the case laid out, there's going to be all sorts of opportunities for his attorneys to go after this."

He also defended the local legal process: "If you're saying that that process which our legal system set up produced only a political result, then you are saying the whole justice system is corrupt and I don't believe that is the case.

Bob Ray Sanders, Star-Telegram associate editor and senior columnist, echoed that view.
"I think the national press took off very early on the idea that this was a vague law or that the governor has a right to do almost anything he wants to do," he said, later adding, "Sadly, the national press has to react so quickly with so little information sometimes and some of them on the liberal side feel some guilt because they have criticized him so much ... they want to give him the benefit of the doubt, and by doing that they left their journalism on the side."

I have absolutely no problem opining that Rick Perry is as crooked as a dog's hind leg.  He has enough money he'll never have to work another day in his life, and he's grown accustomed to a style of living he didn't learn in west Texas.  How that can be when he's never held anything other than a government job in his adult life is a mystery that apparently doesn't bear looking into, especially since only the Governor's job included housing.

I also have no problem pointing out that the national press, much as they did in Whitewater, has no problem assuming they know more about local political and criminal stories than the residents of that area do, and perhaps having been taken in by Whitewater they now all lean the other way to exonerate a public figure like Perry.

And besides, the Texas criminal justice system isn't nearly as screwed up as Rick Perry is.

Read between the lines up there, and you'll find a lot of Texas journalists agreeing with my assessment:  Perry is crooked, and it may have finally caught up with him.  Maybe it's Al Capone going to jail for tax evasion, but you take the charges you can prove in court.  And, of course, executives are supposed to be able to do whatever they want to do, unless it's the Speaker of the House trying to sue the President of the United States, and then no legal opinion is assessed as to what a fool John Boehner is.

So it's not just in Texas that the national press leaves its journalism on the side.  After all, Boehner simply filed a civil suit, something anyone can do simply by paying the filing fee.  Rick Perry was indicted after a complaint was brought which a judge decided merited investigation, and so appointed a special prosecutor, who investigated and then convened a grand jury.  Down here, we call that "due process."

The Engines of our Epistemology

I wonder sometimes if Dr. Lienhardt is trying slip a little subversion past us.

Consider this episode of "Engines of our Ingenuity," which played on the local Houston NPR station twice on Friday.  It argues that the best teachers are not the ones who reduce everything to a thorough and easily digested explanation, but rather the ones who make us see the subject in all its glorious complexity, and struggle ourselves to understand.

Not, in itself, an absolutely challenging idea, but an engaging one, and a method I've used more often than not.  It's an approach guaranteed to annoy the hell out of at least some of your students, especially the ones used to being educated to pass a standardized test.

So think about that in the context of the current debate over education reform and standardized testing and "teaching to the test" and "teacher assessment" based solely on tests which only test retention of data and do nothing to test "ability to think critically" or to reason, because those things don't fit in the bubbles of a scannable answer sheet.

And think about what Dr. Lienhardt is saying about the real value of real teaching.  Well, maybe you just have to think about it to get the point.  Maybe you have to set up his argument against the argument of, say, Michelle Rhee; and then you start thinking.....

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Awesome Power of Technology

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.

So Richard Dawkins tweeted this:
During a discussion with followers over the recent case of a suicidal woman in Ireland who was denied an abortion and forced to undergo a C-section at 25 weeks, Dawkins noted that “screening [for fetal abnormalities] offers a humane moral choice.” But instead of leaving it at that, Dawkins also suggested that only one choice a woman could make in response to a Down syndrome diagnosis would be morally just:

@InYourFaceNYer Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) 
So screening offers a moral, humane choice which, if you don't take it, makes you immoral.  But then he said:  aw, you all just misunderstood me, and I blame Twitter:

Here is what I would have said in my reply to this woman, given more than 140 characters:

“Obviously the choice would be yours. For what it’s worth, my own choice would be to abort the Down fetus and, assuming you want a baby at all, try again. Given a free choice of having an early abortion or deliberately bringing a Down child into the world, I think the moral and sensible choice would be to abort. And, indeed, that is what the great majority of women, in America and especially in Europe, actually do.  I personally would go further and say that, if your morality is based, as mine is, on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down baby, when you have the choice to abort it early in the pregnancy, might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child’s own welfare. I agree that that personal opinion is contentious and needs to be argued further, possibly to be withdrawn. In any case, you would probably be condemning yourself as a mother (or yourselves as a couple) to a lifetime of caring for an adult with the needs of a child. Your child would probably have a short life expectancy but, if she did outlive you, you would have the worry of who would care for her after you are gone. No wonder most people choose abortion when offered the choice. Having said that, the choice would be entirely yours and I would never dream of trying to impose my views on you or anyone else.”

Which gives rise to this hypothetical:  a friend asks you whether she should abort her Down's Syndrome fetus, and you have no objection to abortion generally.  Do you tell her it would be immoral not to, that she's only "condemning [her]self as a mother" if she doesn't, but hey, it's her choice?

Is that moral?  Under what system of morality?

I think Dawkins made his position quite clear in his tweet.

"Everybody look at what's goin' down...."

Part of the conversation on Diane Rehm's show this morning got around to the claim the Obama, being our first African-American President, is our explainer-of-race-in-America-in-Chief.  Obama must address race in America so the rest of us can address race in America.

And absolutely nothing was said about this:

For Obama to aggressively insert himself into the Ferguson story now is to invite a right-wing media hurricane that would likely rage for weeks. How do we know? Because again and again we’ve seen President Obama’s attempts to engage on similar issues act as a lightning rod for these angry voices, quickly making it impossible to focus on the pressing issue at hand.
Eric Boehlert's argument is that Obama can't discuss race precisely because it always engenders "a right-wing media hurricane...making it impossible to focus on the pressing issue at hand."

Right now, this is how we discuss race in America.  Obama can't transcend that discussion; he can only pour kerosene on the fire; and Boehlert makes a solid point:  a part of the problem is the media that won't acknowledge this:

I’m not suggesting right-wing media hate and the fevered, irrational Obama loathing it tries to generate should stop the president from advancing his agenda. But to pretend the dark force doesn’t exist today in American politics is to miss one of the hallmarks of the Obama presidency.
Part of the problem with discussing race in this country is that the discussion involves us, and our attitudes toward race; our tendency to notice the black man on the street, in the store, walking behind us.  Our tendency to overlook black deaths and notice only white deaths, to give the white officer the benefit of the doubt especially when the criminal is a person of color; to deem an assault by a person of color on a white as more serious, an assault by a white person on a person of color as less serious.    What is keeping us from addressing these issues?  The silence of the President?


And if he adds his voice, does the conversation suddenly take on more gravitas?  Or is the subject shifted to what's wrong with talking about race?  Yes, I would rather ignore Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh; in terms of absolute numbers, their audiences are a tiny portion of the U.S. population.  But it's only a tiny portion of the U.S. population that bothers to vote consistently, and there's a lot of overlap between those two groups.  And ignoring racist buffoons like O'Reilly and Limbaugh is why people get to say that if only Obama would address racism in America, the rest of us could, and the conversation would get away from the rantings of FoxNews and other right-wing media outlets.

Except it wouldn't, of course; and that's the point where ignoring them won't make them go away.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Tellin' me I got to beware....

Enough of Rick Perry; the weekend is over.  We re-start the week with one of Bill Moyers' favorite stories:

One of my favorite stories is of the fellow who was about to jump off a bridge, when another fellow ran up to him crying, "Stop, stop, don't do it."
The man on the bridge looks down and asks, "Why not?"
"Well, there's much to live for."
"What for?"
"Well, your faith. Your religion."
"Are you religious?"
"Me, too. Christian or Buddhist?"
"Me, too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?"
"Me, too. Methodist, Baptist or Presbyterian?"
"Me, too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Savior?"
"Baptist Church of God."
"Me, too. Are you Original Baptist Church of God or Reformed Baptist Church of God?"
"Reformed Baptist Church of God."
"Me, too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God Reformation of 1917?"
Whereupon, the second fellow turned red in the face and yelled, "Die, you heretic scum," and pushed him off the bridge.
Keep that in mind because we'll come back to it.  I use it to introduce a discussion of a discussion Lawrence linked me to in comments below.  The discussion I mean is here.  Taking bits and pieces of it (you can read the post at the link if you want the context), we start with this:

From what I’ve seen in my own experience, individual evangelical churches that start closely examining and questioning themselves and making attempts at reform tend to either split or come apart entirely. It seems like we evangelicals can make cosmetic alterations (worship music style, incorporating electronic media, etc.) more easily and quickly than more traditional mainliners. But when it comes to making essential adjustments in the way we see and think about things (like the church, scriptural interpretation, the world around us), we have a real hard time going there. Of course, changes of that sort have and continue to occurr within evangelicalism, but, as far as I can see, it’s mostly an unconscious process. What we can’t seem to do is examine ourselves critically in the present tense. And those few churches that do start looking at themselves through a critical lens tend to come apart from the strain and shock — and from the inevitable conflict between those who want to look even deeper and those who want to change the subject, continue with business as usual, and stick their heads back in the sand.
So, the Church of Meaning and Belonging v. the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging; that paradigm crosses all faith traditions.  The problem is not just the reluctance to sacrifice, but who gets to determine what must be sacrificed.  To be honest the usual request is that you give up something dear to you, while I give up something not quite as dear to me.  It's easier for me to point out you are sticking your head in the sand, than it is for me to accept I'm doing that, too.  Those "essential adjustments in the way we see and think about things" aren't essential unless they go to what each one of us thinks is essential.  And that's when the fur flies.

Overall, I think the analysis of that long quote is pretty sound, but it fails to take into account the distinction in polity between most Protestant denominations and more "evangelical" churches.  The latter tend to be congregationalist in polity, which means each congregation determines for itself what it's practices and doctrines are.  It's never that loose, of course; the Southern Baptist Convention and the UCC are both congregationalist in polity, but congregations from either polity would hardly be welcome in the other, no matter how fiercely independent those congregations might insist they are.  But polity plays a role here:  if evangelicals can make cosmetic alterations more easily and quickly than "traditional mainliners," it's because the two polities uphold very different traditions.  And the congregational polity is precisely why evangelical churches have trouble making essential adjustments.  The Roman church is probably the best at this, although it still allows a few congregations to hold the Mass in Latin (I attended one such service in St. Louis in my seminary days).  But it is far better at imposing order on its churches than the Episcopal church, or the Presbyterians, or the Methodists, etc., etc.

And frankly, no denomination I know of, certainly no congregation, is any good at examining themselves "critically in the present tense."  You want to get good that that, you need to go to a seminary where they make you do it whether you want to or not.  Self-examination is very, very hard to do, and even those of us who submit to it willingly, sure of the value of the process, find it painful and even impossible to complete.

Put a few of these comments together, and you come up with something really interesting:

I have had a particular conversation with my wife so many times that I tremble to reproduce it here. She grew up Catholic but says “she wasn’t a Christian”. She was converted to Pentecostalism in 1978 by a Puerto Rican evangelist who was basically Oral Roberts in a guayabera, but who thankfully remained particularly free of grandstanding and scandal. At any rate, one of the first questions she asks me when we discuss any historical figure is “was he/she a Christian?” I know what she means by this. In her mind, second-wave Pentecostalism was what Paul and Barnabas were preaching on Cyprus in 55AD, and everyone in Church History who Matters, from Augustine down through Gregory Palamas to Friedrich Schleiermacher “Gave Their Lives To Jesus and Was Born Again”.

When I try to explain to her that that model doesn’t fit Christians very well prior to the Cane Ridge meetings (1802?). Previously, Christians were born and baptized into a communion and remained there their whole lives. This was especially true prior to the Non-Conformist acts in the UK in the 18th Century (?). If they were “born again”, it usually meant that they were a particularly good or pious example of their communion. If not, they were just part of the ur-Christian Blodgettry that existed at that time.

What I also try to explain is that what occurred in Protestantism on the American frontier at the cusp of the 19th Century was a “democraticization” and “Enlightenmentization” of Christianity as significant as its “imperialization” and “Hellenization” under Constantine. The difference is that in the 4th Century you were dealing with a mostly intact Church, so that the developments were digested universally [the whole Church as organ of interpretation], whereas in the 19th Century the innovations were restricted to American Protestantism. As the Enlightenment project and its democratic subproject extended their reach, Americanized Protestantism found itself uniquely poised to take advantage of this.

Hold on to that, because I want to connect it to this:

The US is becoming unchurched. That’s the current trend. If that trend continues, eventually most Americans will no longer identify themselves as Christian. We can leave aside the question of what constitutes a true Christian, or if the nation could ever legitimately have been called a Christian nation, because the answer to those questions will no longer be germane. Christians by any measure will be a minority among a national aggregate no longer Christian, and most likely inoculated by cultural experience and memory against the blandishments that formerly swept their ancestors into the Church, and kept them there.

This is the future of the Church in the US and a few other places, and the present of the Church in western Europe. If trends change, all bets are off and nobody here has any idea what will replace the current landscape. There is nothing in any of this for the churches to be sanguine about. Our hope must be beyond optimism, even if it’s only optimism for only our own branches of the Church, which we fondly believe have special qualities to recommend them to future; if our hope is not beyond even this kind of optimism, then it’s nowhere.

I think that's right, but I think that trend is not due to some recent turn of events, but to the "democraticization" and "Enlightenmentization" coming out of the 19th century.  "Unchurched," though, is a term fraught with meaning.  It partly means never having grown up in a church, and so being unfamiliar with the culture of church (be that "church" a synagogue, a temple, a Catholic sanctuary or a Protestant congregation).    That, in turn, can mean children like I encounter regularly, who have no knowledge of even "basic" Biblical stories like Noah, or Daniel in the lion's den, or Jonah and the whale, even David and Goliath.  But it also means when people do come to church, they don't understand what to expect or how to behave; and I don't mean how they conduct themselves during a worship service.

Being a church member has been as much as part of American culture as being an American has been; and yet that portion of the culture is fading, mostly due to the emphasis on personal experience and the importance of the individual uber alles.  Even the concept of "ur-Christian Blodgettry" is one that comes from the 19th century, from post-Romantic Europe.  Kierkegaard (esp.  The Attack Upon 'Christendom') doesn't champion the individual because he is so righteously opposed to Hegel's philosophy of history; he does it because that is the cri de coeur of 19th century Europe, where Young Werther was the ideal figure of the individual against society, where Byron was lionized for his challenge to social mores (no, that wasn't invented by the Beats, or the Hippies, or Rock 'n' Roll singers).  Kierkegaard has good grounds for his emphasis on the person, not the community; but it is not an idea sui generis with Kierkegaard.  But just as Augustine shifted the way we think of ourselves so that we cannot fully appreciate Paul's "robust conscience" today and too easily misread the few personal statements Paul made, so the Romantic movement shifted our attention to the point it's hard not to be critical of Christian communities before the present, and to see all traditions that emphasize the group over the individual as either oppressive or lax (demanding conformity, or allowing just anybody in).

Admittedly, the bias at the article is toward evangelicals; it is concerned with predicting a collapse in that broad movement.  Such collapses are inevitable:  whatever passions stoke the original impulse don't carry long into the next generation.  William Bradford started his history of Plymouth Plantation in Holland, but it ended in America with the community he envisioned falling apart as people became less and less interested in the founding ideal.  The passion for that vision had run out, and a new one commenced with the Great Awakening, which came along about 80 years later.  Of course, that "awakening" was such a seminal moment there have been efforts to describe three others, the most recent from 1960 to 1980 (although having lived through those decades, I have to say it escaped me altogether.  But then, I'm not so sure there was ever a Second and a Third.).  "Awakenings" and "revivals" are not singular events, then, but almost cyclical, because the fruits of the Spirit are always passion and exuberance.

Except when they aren't.

I mention that to put the quotes above in perspective.  Has America ever truly been a "Christian nation"?  And if so, is that only because of the efforts of evangelicals, a term with two distinctly different, almost opposed, meanings, one of which is almost entirely lost to history?  It is clear the "current landscape" has been disappearing since the early 20th century, but it refuses to be entirely swept away even yet.   Small churches are the same way; they are as resilient as cockroaches, which is a carefully chosen metaphor.  The most interesting thing is that, as I think Evelyn Waugh predicted (I read it somewhere, but finding it now would be impossible), the next wave of Christianity may well come to these shores from Africa.  As America becomes even more "unchurched," we may be seen as a mission field.

And it might take hold, too.  One never know, do one?

But I also mention "evangelical" because that word really no longer means what it is supposed to mean:

Her strengths and flaws stemmed from the same evangelical core: she brought conviction and passion and stubbornness and unapologetic focus, all of which worked to build and destroy her public capital.
The "her" there is Michelle Rhee; and the subject is education.  There is nothing in that article that has anything to do with religion or Christianity at all.  And yet "evangelical" has now become a synonym for "zeal."  It no longer refers to the euangelion, the messenger of the good news.  Now it means single-mindedness and solidarity of purpose; now it means determination and conviction and passion and stubbornness.  Which may be good things; but they are not the "good news," and don't have to be the characteristics of the messenger of the good news.

Except when you separate the good news from the messenger, all that's left are the qualities of the messenger; and now any message can make you an evangel.  And make you the problem, as well as the solution.

Is that right?

"Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."  That's the point of the Moyers' story:  if your treasure is in your group, your identity, your boundaries, the closer someone gets to you the further away they actually are.  Your "evangelical core," which is supposedly purity of heart (because purity of heart is to will one thing) is the problem, because "evangelical" no longer means "messenger of the good news," it means "messenger of what motivates you."

Which, yes, has always been the problem; but at the same time, "evangelical" has slipped the surly bonds of Christianity, and escaped into the larger culture.*  And to the extent Protestantism continues to take its cues from the larger culture, that is a foundational problem.  What Protestantism really needs to do is to reclaim some concepts for itself, and treat them again as wholly religious ones.  And we might start doing that by reclaiming concepts of "evangelical."  Because it's not a label, or a denomination, or a group identity; it's a claim.

There is something to be said for Christianity making certain claims; but those claims need to be directed toward Christians.   That is one of the hardest claims of Christianity:  that its claims should be directed toward oneself, and not toward others.

*A patch of ice doth not a winter make, but then I come across this example, also from this morning:

They’re evangelizing faith in the political system and encouraging people to act within established political norms.
It's a little closer to the religious roots because the word "faith" is tossed in there, but again the meaning is "zealous advocacy," not euangelion.   I wonder if this usage is about to break out as a secular meme.

It's not about the guns; it's always about the guns

I wasn't going to do this, but:

One of the interesting issues with the Rick Perry indictment is the reaction to it.  There's a remarkable amount of skepticism about the indictment, a lot of condemnation of the special prosecutor which is really interesting because the evidence given to the grand jury is largely unknown at this point.  We know what the Perry camp says; I know what one of Perry's lawyers now says (he's a Houston lawyer, he's been on the local news this morning); but we don't know what the evidence is that the grand jury relied on.

What we do know is that no guns were involved; this is a "white collar" crime, which by it's very nature is harder to prosecute.  There was a political science professor on a local radio program yesterday opining that the criminal statutes Perry has been indicted under are "vague."  Well, of course they are; if they were specific, no one could be charged under them, because the facts of the case would never precisely track the language of a "specific" statute.  There's a lot of complaining that this indictment criminalizes political behavior.  But that's the problem of "white collar" crimes:  they turn less on actions, like armed robbery or a rape by a stranger jumping out of the bushes, and more on how you define behavior, how you decide what is "business as usual" and what is "criminal."

Which brings us to the problems in Ferguson.

It is very likely the officer who shot Michael Brown won't be charged and, if he is, won't be convicted.  This is a shooting, something we think should clearly be a crime.  But when the gunman is a police officer, suddenly the criminality is less clear again.  I mean, do we want to criminalize ordinary police work?  And even if it seems extraordinary, as in the shooting of Michael Brown, do we want to second guess an officer in the field who might have faced physical danger, or who might have "reasonably" thought he did?

Doesn't the police officer deserve the same presumption of innocence as Rick Perry?

This, of course, is not a question the people of Ferguson want to answer.  It is not the question people like Jonathan Chait are asking, curiously enough.  Which is not to say the protestors in Ferguson are a lynch mob; but "justice" to them clearly means an arrest, and preferably a conviction.  Justice for Rick Perry seems to mean dismissing the indictment before any evidence is heard.  On the one hand, we consider the officer guilty; on the other, we want Rick Perry declared innocent.  But these are two sides of the same coin.

Few of us will be police officers, even fewer of us will ever shoot someone; so we're quite comfortable pronouncing who is right and who is wrong in shooting incidents.  But we might find our actions criminalized; and that's what worries us.  I can tell you, as a minister and now a teacher, there are certain innocent actions I might take, such as talking to a female student (or, formerly, a female church member), and that conversation would easily be construed against me.  I have sat through many training sessions on how to conduct myself so as not to be accused of improper conduct, sexual harassment, etc.  I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but the idea that an action you think normal could be construed as improper, or even a violation of law (although not of criminal law) can be daunting.  It's easy to think you'd never do anything wrong with a gun, especially if you don't own one; it's tricker to think you might be accused based on actions you perform every day.

There are actions that are proper, and actions that are improper; it may seem the line is a thin one between them, but there is a line nonetheless.  No one doubts the officer in the Ferguson shooting should be investigated to see if his actions were proper; but many seem to think investigating Rick Perry's actions in a court of law, where the outcome could be conviction or acquittal, is highly improper.  Some even think the investigation by the grand jury was improper, because we all know a grand jury will indict a ham sandwich, which just proves grand juries are worthless; unless they aren't.  Such complaints raise the question:  if a grand jury indicts the Ferguson police officer, will the critics of the Perry indictment equally complain? It's interesting the people saying the Perry indictment is wrong are all, themselves, "white collar" professionals who might see their ordinary actions come under scrutiny.

Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander; and that's what's worrisome.

It is clear Michael Brown was shot to death; and there is a presumption, at the moment, that the motive for that shooting can be clearly and easily established, and justice done.  Is that motive any easier to prove than proving Rick Perry violated Texas criminal law?  Apparently it is, because shooting someone is easier to analyze than considering what someone did that didn't involve shooting someone.

As I say, that's the problem with "white collar" crime; it's almost always about definition, not just about what happened.  But it's also about whose ox is being gored; or is likely to get gored.

Monday, August 18, 2014

What it is, ain't exactly clear....

If you look:

 at the pictures:

what you notice:

is a distinct lack of military equipment:

Dogs, yes; but no camouflage, no high powered automatic weapons:
Just good old fashioned sticks and brute force:

And yet nothing all that different from the scenes in Ferguson:

Pretty much all that has changed is the hardware.

But, to quote Andrea Mitchell, "a lot of people are shocked by the militarization" that they saw in Ferguson; and my question is:  why?

Why aren't we shocked that in nearly 50 years, after we turned Martin Luther King, Jr. into a plaster saint, and put racism behind us by electing a black President, that nothing has changed except the equipment?

One last thing

Because the facts about the Rick Perry indictment matter, and Rick Perry and his supporters/apologists won't mention these facts anytime soon:

First, he used the veto to threaten a public officeholder. This is abuse of the power of his office. Presidents and governors frequently use the possibility of vetoes to change the course of legislation. But that is considerably different than trying to force an elected officeholder to resign. What Perry did, if true, can be politely called blackmail, and, when he sent emissaries to urge Lehmberg to quit even after his veto, he may have indulged in bribery. According to sources close to the grand jury, Perry dispatched two of his staffers and one high-profile Democrat to tell Lehmberg if she left her office the governor would reinstate the PIU budget. One report indicates there may have been a quid pro quo of a new, more lucrative job for the DA, which is why this case has nothing to do with his right to use the veto.

But that's where Perry will focus his public defense.
It's the meeting with Lehmberg by Perry emissaries that's the most interesting part of this.  This case will depend on the facts and legal arguments presented to the jury and the court by the prosecuting attorney.  Many a slip 'twixt cup and lip, and all that.  But the facts are certainly more interesting than Perry wants everyone to think they are.

And please note these facts up the ante on the more serious of the two felony charges; both look far more credible than they did before, although that doesn't mean Perry is already convicted before he's even been brought before a judge.

Like my Torts professor drummed into my head:  "Change the facts, change the outcome."  We're just gonna have to wait for the facts in this case.