"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

Saturday, August 01, 2015

I'm only sorry I'm not surprised

New and improved!  Now with more self-awareness!

And I have to say yes, we are; going to fail to respond, that is.

Because I see absolutely no impetus, now or on the horizon, to make us change our ways.  It has a lot to do with sociology not trumping theology; and theology not really being all that important after all, except as a topic of esoteric discussion.

And no, I'm not even surprised that Catholics and evangelicals look very much the same on this issue.

We are, quite simply, prisoners of our past.  We are what we were formed to be; and nothing will mar our mood.

Onward, thru the fog.

UPDATE:  I should have learned from the Ta-Nehisi Coates "quote" I posted earlier. I could say the link to this article was not working when I read the post at Religion Dispatches, but the truth is I never looked.  I gotta quit taking other people's words for things, because the impression I got (and gave) from the post was that white Protestants had a particular problem.

And nothing is as simple as that:

In a multiethnic church in Columbus, Ohio, white members addressed their minister by his first name. Black members viewed that as disrespectful, believing he should be addressed as “Pastor.” Conflict also broke out over disciplining children during worship services. Black parents tended to discipline their children when they were being disruptive, while white parents tended to let their kids move around.

Another multiethnic church, one located in Los Angeles whose core members were mainly Filipino Americans, faced similar discord. The whites and the blacks in the congregation were frustrated that they could not forge the deep friendships shared by Filipino American members. Conversely, some Filipino American members didn’t want to change their worship style to the hymns or gospel music that the black and white congregants preferred.

One church in Chicago selected both a white and a black pastor. They clashed over preaching styles until the church shut down.
It's funny how I recognize some of this.  In my first church, fresh out of seminary, I was criticized (well, for a lot of things, as it turned out) for not rebuking the children and forcing them to call me "Pastor."  Truth be told, I didn't care much for the title (I don't like titles.  Call it false humility, or real humility, or what have you.).  I didn't tell people to call me by my first name (and I don't remember what the kids were calling me), but some elderly members of the congregation were upset I didn't insist the children show me the respect of using a title.

Not that insisting on a title would have saved my role in that congregation; but I digress.

I've also preached in a  black church:  once.  It was a pulpit exchange among UCC churches, and it was exhilarating.   But they wouldn't have liked my pulpit style in the long run, and while I enjoy "black" preaching, I'm still more a "smells and bells" kinda guy (which keeps me out of most Protestant churches, but that's another matter.)

I also didn't mind children being noisy (or rather, not still as bumps on a log) in worship.  Older worshippers and even the parents of children didn't always agree with me.  These things can easily lead to the friction that causes members to leave, or pastors to be handed their walking papers.  And don't get me started on changing the hymns or worship style of congregations to suit the congregants; or, for that matter, the pastor (who does make choices to suit her/his preferences).

So, do we welcome people to our churches?  At this point I have to rely on the RD article, since I don't have a subscription to CT.  But it's safe to say that, if we don't, we aren't really alone in that.  Catholics tend to think hierarchically:  the church is a bit less "theirs" than a Protestant church is (I'm mindful of how dangerous that generalization is.  I have a 20th century story of an Anglican church pastor besieged by parishioners concerned with the "proper" decoration of the worship space for Christmas.  I lived that comic story, and the Anglican church is not only hierarchical, it's official.  So....).  Let's leave aside the distinction and note that most congregants think of the church as "theirs."  And most people want a worship experience that is fulfilling, if not familiar (familiar is often fulfilling; it's why I prefer the familiarity of liturgy to the "familiarity" of the standard Protestant 3-hymns/3 prayers/sermon and pass-the-plate style of worship).  But that experience is ultimately a personal one, and you want to share it with people who are persons like you.

Persons, that is, who want to worship the way you do.  As I said, it has a lot to do with sociology; and that applies to all of us.  The problem is, still, getting our theology to override our sociology.  If we put hospitality at the heart of our gospel; well, what would that look like?

Monday, July 27, 2015

Thank G*d it's the InfoRmatiON Age Now!

Don't know anything about Gawker, don't wanna know.  But remember when the internet was gonna save us all?

"I hate to be hyperbolic, but want to understand ISIS or the Tea Party or Occupy or Charleston or Dylan?" Arkin wrote in the email. "Look no further than Gawker and its ilk, which means look no further than twitter or your own so-called smartphone: We are making the world a miserable place. I’m glad I can withdraw and think about it."

Yeah.  I think the best that can be said is that we seem determined to reinvent the wheel, over and over and over again.  Except there were benefits to the wheel.

Must have something to do with never, EVER learning from history.  Or a strangely modern obsession with being sure nobody could get it right until "we" came along.

Maybe we should all withdraw and think about it.

The Red Wheelbarrow

There are men who struggle for a day and they are good.
There are men who struggle for a year and they are better.
There are men who struggle many years, and they are better still.
But there are those who struggle all their lives:
These are the indispensable ones.

I took this from Thought Criminal, who says it comes from Bertolt Brecht (I'm neither arguing nor denying it; just saying I haven't verified that myself, and I try to be careful about these things).  It put me in mind of my trip through the East Texas countryside this weekend.

The Lovely Wife and I saw two Confederate battle flags flying brazenly in very rural settings (contrary to popular opinion there are still some rural parts of Texas.  After all, we have more major metropolitan areas than any state outside of California.  You could look it up).  They weren't flying because the owners wanted to recover the losses of the Lost Cause, or even declare their independence from Washington, D.C.  They were simply being flown in defiance, in proof that "You can't make me NOT do it!"

A childish and petulant gesture, in other words.

How do I know?  I've lived among these people for 60 years.  I know them.  To some degree, I admire them.  They are "good people," because I've learned that when you get to know people, most of them are good.  Not perfect, not ideal, not in complete conformity with your most cherished beliefs; but good.

May the same be said of you, and may you have the wisdom to be content with it.

Back to Brecht, then.  The sentiment sounds good:  ennobling, inspiring, uplifting.

But it all depends on what you struggle for, doesn't it?  Part of the defiance I saw this weekend, pitiful as it was, is because those people don't want to be thought of as the "dispensable ones."  It's not so simple as either/or, as dispensable or indispensable.

So much depends, indeed.....

Of the making of books there is no end....

I was going to say I misunderstood Ta-Nehisi Coates because I didn't look at his statement to Jon Stewart in context (a sin of omission I feel very keenly; I like to be careful about context, lest I turn into Alex Jones without the notoriety.  What fresh hell would that be!)

And then I read this:

It was somewhere around the middle of the first chapter of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, “Between the World and Me,” where I began to realize that the quintessential atheist and humanist text of my generation, if there could be such a thing, was neither “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins nor “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris, nor any number of other worthy contenders by astrophysicists or cognitive scientists or philosophers or by humanist chaplains like me, but this shit right here.

"This shit" being Coates' new book.  What struck me was that the bar for being a "humanist chaplain" at Harvard University is a very low one, as once again we have an atheist obsessed with religious practice ("Ten years ago I gladly signed a contract committing to never pray in public, not even as a metaphor.") and a worshipper at the altar of the dark god "Nollij:" "Yes, as a humanist I like to consider myself a person of knowledge and consciousness."

Gotta say, "consciousness" sounds pretty New Age-y religious-y to me, but then I'm an old guy, my memory stretches back a long way.

Still, the irony is that, while this "humanist chaplain" (chaplain is a religious word, right?) argues that:

Coates was writing of good intentions, at the point where I began to recognize. Americans have good intentions. Few of us see ourselves as wanting to oppress anyone. Most of us pride ourselves on not being racist. But in an era where we are trying to do better than simply not kill people like Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin or Eric Garner, Coates writes, good intention “is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.”

He gives no evidence of having done the self-reflective work of any pastor (seminary is nothing if not a challenge to your assumptions, whatever they are.  A good seminary roots them out the way boot camp roots out your individuality and makes you think of your brothers in arms first and foremost.) or, for that matter, any laudable Christian.  Not that all Christians have to do such hard work, but it's the first step if you want to hold yourself out as a chaplain; which is still a religious word, right?

Funny, that.

He also gives no evidence of the slightest awareness of Neibuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society, which is not the only Christian work on society and morality, but it's probably the one most accessible to atheists (and one that has provided insights valuable to sociology, not a field notable for its religious foundations)*.  So I'm forced to ask:  what knowledge does this guy have, except an awareness of avoiding anything that appears to be religious (except his title/office at Harvard)?

I can think of any number of Christian writers, including black liberation theologians, writing about the ease with which we all overlook our ability to oppress others with a whitewash of how good our intentions are.  It's a standard Christian critique going back to 1st century Palestine (or at least to 4th century Augustine).  And frankly with a great deal more internal coherence.

Of course, if the "essential atheist text" of this generation is a work by Dawkins, Harris, or, frankly. Coates; this generation of atheists is in serious intellectual trouble.  The funny thing is, they don't seem to know enough to know that.

*That second quote just sounds to me like kinder, gentler Niebuhr.  And for the record, it was seminary that "woke me up."  I had an excellent professor, an African American, who was passionate about black liberation theology and his own personal stories of being shadowed in department stores and pulled over for DWB; and one of my peers was a black woman with a painful history of racism she made clear to the rest of us, who soon learned how much privilege we had as whites, and didn't even know it.  She learned from us (eventually) that not all whites were as hateful as she wanted to believe (she had her reasons, and her pains); we learned from her how much about being white we took for granted.  I didn't read it in a book; I experienced it.

Experience is a much better teacher of some things.

Where does one go to train as an atheist chaplain?  What educational experience is equivalent to what I learned from my professors and my student peers that wasn't in any book?

Sunday, July 26, 2015

"Violence. Is there nothing it can't do?"

If you are still interested in the crying child in the Portland diner, Rebecca Schuman has absolutely the last word on it* (the comments are as twitter-pated as comments are anywhere on the web, an irony lost on the commenters).

I'm shocked to find out the pancakes at the diner are 14 inches across and 1 inch thick.  I agree with Schuman:  if you can't fix three small pancakes in 10 minutes for one crying (screaming?  Howling?  Again, everyone assumes their worst nightmare to accommodate their conclusion in this story, when nobody knows how obnoxious, or not, the child was) baby you need to get out of the business.  I mean, hell, this is a diner, not a 5 star Michelin restaurant known for its resplendent American breakfasts!  And even then, what kind of restaurant can't bend to serve its customers?


Schuman sums up nicely (no, the parent shouldn't have ranted on Facebook because, yes, a nameless rabble is reading EVERYTHING on the Internet, and "going viral" has a connotation of "diseased and out of control" for a reason!):

Everyone in the interminable debate about children in public is right enough—everyone except the Internet. For every parent who lets the kid jump up and down on ketchup packets and shove recently-shorn fish skin into unsuspecting diners’ faces (this happened to me when I was seven months pregnant, and boy did I judge), there are 10 who are really and sincerely doing their goddamned best. But the Internet doesn’t care. The Internet, and everyone on it (myself included), wants to pounce on teeny-tiny tyrants and their torrents of terror, and then use those moments—arguably low points in the lives of everyone involved—to invoke yet another dumb conversation that has no détente and goes on for time immemorial.
Actually, the internet wants to pounce on anything to invoke not conversation but screaming, where detente isn't even an option and nothing ever dies because it is in a timeless present until the next viral thing comes along and becomes the present.

A cautionary tale for us all, I suppose.

*I think she sums up the known facts a bit too much in favor of the diner owner but call me Rumpole.

Friday, July 24, 2015

“I feel like [the arc of history] bends toward chaos"

Ta-Nehisi Coates, to Jon Stewart.

I don't agree with the sentiment, but I wanted to point out it's not just a clever variant on the phrase made famous by Dr. King (and not original to him).  It's also a fine summation of the ancient Greek view of existence.

Nothing wrong with that, either; but it points up a sharp difference between Mr. Coates and Dr. King, probably sharper than Mr. Coates meant.  That difference is Christianity, not to put too fine a point on it.  One of the confessions of Christianity is that the God of Abraham is active in history, and therefore we have hope for the future.

Remove that, and you get a view of history that tends only towards chaos.  It's not an illegitimate view; but it is one predicted by Nietzsche and Sartre, to name two atheists.  If you want to face it that way:  face it.  If you want to argue it that way:  argue it.  Mr. Coates supports it, at least in part, this way:  “And I think the record of history — and human history — is behind me.”

Well, history certainly doesn't show an inexorable movement toward perfection; but towards chaos?

I'm left wondering what history he's talking about; and glad I have at least a different lens through which I see that history.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The times they are a-changin'

Speaking of the importance of narrative, this intrigues me.

The newest "Fantastic Four" movie is due out soon.  Reed Richards has been transformed (it started in the comic books, apparently; movies are notoriously conservative, no matter what you've heard) from a wise elder to a precocious youngster.  In the comics Richards was always a bit of an outlier:  the graying at the temples scientific genius who was a steady anchor for the younger siblings of Sue and Johnny Storm, the calm and reflective opposite of the pugnacious and willing-to-punch Ben Grimm, a/k/a The Thing.

Many of Marvel's superheroes were adults:  Tony Stark, Thor (a/k/a Dr. Donald Blake), Captain America, etc.  Some were teenagers:  Peter Parker/Spiderman, Johnny Storm/The Human Torch.  It was a mixed bag, but it was anchored by adults.  Reed was the eldest of the adults, the guy with the graying temples and some accumulated wisdom; but mostly accumulated knowledge.

That's really the only way you get knowledge:  to accumulate it.  You can recover it, a la Plato; you can accumulate it, a la Locke; but nobody is just born with it.

Prodigies seem to be, but prodigies are always limited to highly systemized subjects:  music and math, for example.  Not too many prodigies writing great novels at the age of 5, or turning a scientific field on its head.  That requires knowledge no one can be born with.  Obviously people can be born with an ability to follow a system, like music or mathematics, more rapidly and easily than the rest of us.  But still, there's an exposure; a child old enough to sit at a keyboard and play (physical development) is also a child who has been exposed to music enough to have caught on (never doubt the learning capacity of children; they come out of the womb paying attention, of this I am convinced).

So a scientific prodigy is someone with a strong ability to engage a field of science; but not born knowing all that science knows now.

In the trailers for the "Fantastic Four" movie, Reed Richards is described as knowing "the answers to question we don't even know to ask yet."  Why?  Because he's young, and he's "disruptive."  No, that isn't part of the ad campaign; it's an assumed part of the premise.  The '60's cry of "never trust anyone over 30!" has become the working assumption of our age.  If Reed were the old man of the comic books, he'd be locked into old man thinking, and thus incapable of doing the disruptive, innovative work necessary to fuel a breakthrough that creates, well, four superheroes.

Reed, of course, was always on the cutting edge of science.  The Fantastic Four originally gained their powers by flying through "cosmic rays" in a space ship of Richards' design.  Now they need a new excuse; but what's most interesting is, they need a much younger Reed to get that excuse.

The latest trailer plays the Jobs/Wozniak card, to no surprise.  Reed as a child with friend Ben Grim is in Reed's garage, trying to build a device that will transport living things to other dimensions.  Despite the spitzensparken und blinkenlights in his garage (it's a movie, after all), he fails.  But the clear implication is:  he was born to do this, and just give him time and enough technology, and he will do it.

And, of course, he does.

Which draws a straight line to the heart of this origin story, making it oddly simplistic (Reed was always a genius in many scientific fields, not just obsessed with one goal; but anyway.....), but instructive.  Genius is now wholly born, not at all made; and it just needs a big enough garage to achieve fulfillment.  Never mind that it seems Richards' efforts create Ultron (in the form of Dr. Doom), and so the abilities of the Fantastic Four are needed to defeat what Reed Richards has unleashed (at least I think that's the way it's going to go), if you're gonna be disruptive you gotta break a few eggs, amirite?  Maybe even destroy the world in order to recreate a better one?  Hey, creative destruction, right?  That's disruptive!

The narrative shifts to meet our new assumptions.  The old story of the Fantastic Four's origins is too old:  "cosmic rays," pffft!  We need a new explanation, and we need new wineskins for this new wine.  Maybe knowledge was once something accumulated and useful (in the comics Richards did plenty to expose the world to dangers, that's not really new), but tempered with wisdom (we can build an atomic bomb, but we're wise enough to never use it.  Well, once; okay, twice; but not after that!).  Johnny was the hothead who ran to trouble rather than tried to figure out a strategy; Ben was the guy who relied on brute strength in all situations.  Both were useful, but without the reflective Reed to organize them, they seldom succeeded alone.  And now it's young people who "think outside the box" and aren't limited by "knowledge" or "experience," and who invent from whole cloth in their garages (not what Wozniak and Jobs did, by the way; not by a long shot).  And they only need old people for their money and their government connections, because the really good stuff only comes from using technology, and blinkenlights und spitzensparken don't come cheap.

But once we've used 'em for that, we leave 'em behind on the dustheap of history!

I'm catching a whiff of this just now, in the determination to see the internet and smart phones as harbingers of a break with a sordid past.  Racism, rape, poverty, war, economic turbulence:  all problems foisted on Millenials by lazy and selfish and greedy Boomers.  The only solution (as Boomers themselves thought, for a few minutes sometime in the '60's) is to make a clean break with the generation before, the one still old enough to be running things, or to be role models.*  After all, now we have smart phones!

I saw a PBS show just last night that discussed the pervasive nature of the internet and the smart phone, but then took the whole "revolution" back to Gutenberg's innovation of type cast from lead, rather than carved from wood.  He reduced printing time to one week for a book, where before it had taken nearly a year.  Now THAT'S revolutionary! That small change led to near universal literacy.  The internet and video seem to be leading us in the opposite direction.

I still think Andrew Carnegie had more impact on American intellectual life than the internet, which has only made cranks and crazies and yahoos more accessible to all.  As Bart Ehrman observed:

I am finding, now that I am becoming active on the Internet, that engaging in discussion here can mean entering into a black hole: there is no way out once you hit the event horizon. Many critics of my work have boundless energy and, seemingly, endless time. I myself have lots of energy, but not lots of time. I have had my say now, in an attempt to show my scholarly competence. I do not plan on pursuing the matter time and time again in this medium. My main energies – and my limited time – need to be devoted to the two ultimate goals of my career: to advance scholarship among scholars and to explain scholarship to popular audiences. That requires me to write books, and that takes massive amounts of time. That is where I will be putting the bulk of my energies, not to writing lengthy responses defending myself against unfounded charges of incompetence.
Of the making of books there is no end, and much study is a vexation, the Preacher observed.  But the internet has dissolved books in the acid of NOW, and abjures study in favor of strongly held (and held to) opinions.  The "Information Age" is more and more shaping up as the "Mis-Information Age."

And our vanguard seems to be in danger of becoming children who can't possibly know anything; which is where Reed Richards begins to look a lot like Donald Trump.

*as if on cue....

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Welcome to Jurassic World.....

Narrative is powerful, especially when it tells us what we want to hear.  Take this as an example:

“I had the worst experience at this establishment. The owner is an absolute lunatic and screamed in the face of my almost 2 year old child bc she was crying. Who in their right mind would behave like this unless you are deranged. You have a problem with a child crying then you are not suitable to run a business. If it bothered you so much you should have spoke to me and not traumatized my child by screaming in her face.”

But owner Darla Neugebauer fired back with a swift rebuttal. “Iit [sic] all started because YOUR PARTY NEEDED 3 full size pancakes for this 2 year old! 3 f__king pancakes at Marcy’s! I believe right here should have told me you were ignorant!… After your 4th attempt to shut her up I asked you to pack up either your rotten child or take the so important pancakes to go….. but NNNNOOOOOOO you just sit there & let your f__king screaming kid go! & piss off my staff & patrons! F__k you! And guess what? She shut the f__k up after I yelled from 5 feet away! I was in your stupid husband’s face I was in! the without any balls! I have a business to run & yes I am f__king crazy & you are lucky I didn’t get really f__king nuts because being physical is not something I cower from.” In another post, she added that the crying had gone on for 40 minutes and added, “Good luck lady with that monster! Good thing I thrive on hate!”
That's the full story as recounted in an article at Salon.  The comments to the article reflect what is probably the most common reaction to this set of facts:  the parents should have either controlled their child, or removed it from the premises.  This story probably engenders precious little sympathy for the parents.

Now you might also almost immediately say, with the author of the Salon article, that the diner owner had no cause to be so belligerent as to yell at a two year old.  Fair enough.  Examine the story as presented here and look at what the stories agree on:

1) There was a 2 year old child involved.
2) The diner owner yelled at the child.

Those are the facts not in dispute.

The parent says the child was "crying."  The diner owner says the child was "screaming" and "piss[ed] off my staff and patrons."  She goes on to insist "being physical is not something I cower from," a notoriously brave statement on the Internet, and even braver in the face of admitting she screamed at a 2 year old child.

Was the child having a temper tantrum ("screaming")?  Was the child "crying"?  One of those two things were happening, but we don't know which.  It makes a difference as to who was unreasonable here, who is at fault.  But we can't resolve it; we have two different narratives.  How do we reconcile them?

Well, screaming/crying children in public places are annoying, and we all wish the parents would either remove them from the building or yell back at them to shut up!  Or something.  So maybe the parents are to blame.

Still, how long did this go on?  The diner owner says it lasted 40 minutes.  Long enough to make her seem tolerant, not so precise as to make it look like she was watching a clock until some arbitrary time limit had been reached.  The mother says the diner owner "screamed in the face of my almost 2 year old child."  The diner owner says she she yelled at the child "from 5 feet away!"  She also says the parents made "40" attempts (she likes that number) to silence the child, and that she did speak to the parents first, although the mother denies that fact.

Again, who is right?  Was the owner in the child's face?  Or 5 feet away?

I'm really not interested in the answer to those questions; I'm interested in the questions.  How do we know who is right, here?  With whom should our sympathies legitimately lie?  Parents may sympathize with the parents; or may pride themselves in never having let their child behave that way in public.  Restaurant patrons may applaud the owner, thinking of the times a restaurant full of children (or seemingly so; a few children can seem to fill a lot of space) made their meal memorable for all the wrong reasons.  No, what interests me is the narrative, and who quickly we accept one.

Which do you accept?  The mother's?  Or the owner's?  And why?  The owner blames the problem on  the family ordering pancakes for the child.  Was that the problem?  In what world does it take 40 minutes to make pancakes?  I can crank out, from scratch, a stack of 8 or 10 pancakes in under 30 minutes, and that includes getting the bowls and griddle out.  I would expect a diner that serves pancakes to have the batter ready made, or nearly so, and in a "crisis" to spit them out quickly, in hopes of placating a hungry 2 year old.

Or was that not the problem?  I would also expect the parents not to subject a restaurant to the screams of their child for 40 minutes.  But was the child screaming?  And did it go on for 40 minutes?  It may have seemed like it; but 40 minutes by the clock is an epic meltdown, I think even the most determined child would exhaust themselves long before then.

So what happened?  Again, it's not what happened that's interesting.  It's our willingness to decide something must have happened, and this is what it was!, that's of interest here.  Almost every comment at Salon (taken merely as representative responses of the general public) has an opinion about what went wrong and what should have been done to make it right, from removing the child to never entering the diner (most sympathize with the owner, one way or another).  None stop to consider they don't know what happened, or what could have been done about a situation they have so little, and so much conflicting, information about.

The family was in the diner; the child was creating some kind of disturbance (who wants to even hear a child sobbing softly?).  That's what we know.  Oh, and the owner screamed at a 2 year old.  We know that, too.

But everyone who reads that story is convinced they KNOW WHAT HAPPENED!  And knowing what happened, they know who was RIGHT and, more importantly, who was WRONG!!

Narratives are powerful things.  They're like the imaginary dinosaurs of Jurassic Park:  we don't have enough information (DNA) to reproduce the whole story, so we fill in with what's available (our experience/opinions, or, in my analogy, frog DNA) to make a story that runs on two legs.

And then tries to devour us. Narratives are powerful things.  And it's not the content of them that matters; it's what we make of the content, that matters.

UPDATE:  I want to add this, from the comments at Salon, furthering my point about the power of narrative (especially in culture):

When my daughter was 8 months, we (my husband and I and my parents) took her to Ghana to meet her father's side of the family. As soon as we boarded the plane in Chicago, we were greeted with a wall of glares, like we'd brought a skunk on board or something. She was even smiling and laughing as we boarded. She did fuss for most of take-off (it was rough, I wanted to fuss too; and, yes, I did give her a bottle to help with her ears) and then again later in the flight for a minute or so. But for the rest of the seven hours, she was very quiet. As we deplaned, some of the people who had been glaring told us what a "beautiful baby" she was. Others still glared. One thanked us for ruining his flight (as if 10 minutes of crying is what ruined 7 hours in an airborne sardine can).

On the leg from Heathrow to Accra, when my daughter was a lot more tired and fussy and, in fact, screaming her head off as we boarded, the African people (especially the women) on board lit up like we'd brought a Christmas present. They were practically lining up to play with her, and they told us what a beautiful baby she was even as she screamed her head off.

In America when you're among friends and family with a baby everyone wants to hold the baby - until she poops or cries, then it's right back to mama. In Ghana they just wave you away - "No, no, mama, relax. It's fine. Sit. Have a drink." It's just understood that babies and little kids cry and no one goes into screaming rants about it, most especially not in the baby's face.
That comment came just before a comment pointing out that "evolution" had made us all respond negatively to a child's crying, so we really can't help ourselves when we find it annoying.  Science, right?  Culture, actually.

Culture is the story we tell ourselves about how we are supposed to behave.  We are supposed to react negatively to a crying child, so that's the way everybody does it.  Except, of course, culture is not that kind of universal.  Nor, it turns out, are stories.

But we want them to be.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

"How long...before we get the fourth wall-TV put in?"

This makes me think I should re-investigate Ricouer on narrative:

It’s unfortunate that Black Cindy’s narrative is unique, but in the world of prestige dramas and comedies, religion or acts of worship are usually presented as things outside of intellectuality or artistic expression. “The Good Wife” has done an excellent job of critiquing the public perception of atheism with Julianna Margulies’ Alicia Florrick. In Season 6, although she does not struggle with her beliefs, there are some interesting complications along the way (especially because she’s running for public office). Alicia’s atheism fits well with her character—she’s analytical, smart and a realist.
She believes in the law and is concerned primarily with its execution, as opposed to issues of faith.

Although religion was never a topic that became a major part of the series (which is telling in and of itself), we saw similar oppositions between faith and intellect (or faith and work) on “Mad Men.”

Peggy Olson’s character (played by Elisabeth Moss) was responsible for the few storylines concerned with religion, and she was set in direct opposition against her Catholic mother and sister. Her relationship with Father Gill in Season 2 seemed to work against these oppositions at times, but for the duration of the series they mostly stayed in place. In Season 3 “Mad Men” also gave us this memorable exchange between Sally Draper and Betty:

Sally: Why don’t we go to church?

Betty: We go to church.

Sally: On Christmas. Carla goes every Sunday.

Betty: We don’t need to go every week.

The issue of class not-so-subtly creeps into the dialogue here, as Sally is asking about their black nanny and maid. It’s implied that she’s someone who needs church, while the Draper family can afford to attend just once a year.

Perhaps the best “Mad Men” example might be the [failed] relationship between Don Draper and Rachel Menken. One of the most emotional scenes of the final season saw Draper attending her shiva. Her Jewish background was always a point of interest, but because the character was not a series regular, we saw her more as Don’s lover—the one who got away—rather than a character for whom religion was important.

If the thesis isn't clear there, it was stated explicitly a bit earlier:

Bob Dylan would say we’re all gonna have to serve somebody, but Black Cindy’s storyline suggests that how we worship and believe is as important as what or whom we worship. And when her Afro Puffs went kosher, so to speak, “OITNB” brought us the type of religious conversion narrative rarely, if ever, seen on television.

I suppose we could focus on the irony that Bob Dylan is a Jew who converted to Christianity (a long time back, if the stories are true), but for the article, the thesis is that "issues of religion" are matters of worship and belief.  Religion is about how you spend some portion of your week (in worship) and what you believe in.

Black Cindy: Honestly? I think I found my people. I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell. If I was good, I’d go to heaven. If I asked Jesus, he’d forgive me, and that was that. And here, y’all sayin’ it ain’t no hell. Ain’t sure about heaven. And if you do something wrong, you got to figure it out yourself. And as far as God is concerned, it’s yo’ job to keep askin’ questions, and to keep learnin’ and to keep arguing. It’s like a verb. It’s like—you do God. And it’s a lot of work, but I think I’m in.
There's something of Kathleen Norris in there, and of religious people taking their religion seriously enough to devote their lives to it, as nuns and monks and priests; but then again, not really.  The point of religious belief is not to center your life on arguing with God, either, even if you meditate deeply on the idea that "Israel" means "struggles with God."  If that's all you're doing, you're still a non-believer struggling with some very simplistic idea of the notion of "belief."  Which is not what the Drapers do; or Peggy Olson; or Alicia Florrick.

But it's the narrative of what believers are supposed to be doing.  On the other hand, does anybody have a narrative where they imagine Pope Francis doing this all day? Or Sr. Simone Campbell? Or should we better start with Ricouer?

On the other hand, the relation between these two hermenuetics begins to reverse itself once we begin to consider the other side of the narrative, namely, the confession of faith. But this other dimension remains inseperable from the structure of the story. Not just any theology whatsoever can be tied to the narrative form, but only a theology that proclaims Yahweh to be the grand actor of a history of deliverance. Without a doubt it is this point that forms the greatest contrast between the God of Israel and the God of Greek philosophy. The theology of traditions knows nothing of concepts of cause, foundation, or essence. It speaks of God in accord with the historical drama, instituted by the acts of deliverance reported in the story. This manner of speaking of God is no less meaningful than that of the Greeks. It is a theology homogenous with the narrative structure itself, a theology in the form of Heilsgeschicte.
Paul Ricouer, "Philosophy and Religion," Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination, tr. David Pellauer, ed. Mark I. Wallace (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress 1995), 40.

The narrative of the confession of faith is not a narrative of how religious believers explain themselves to non-believers.  The frame of the narrative presumed in the Salon article is that all believers are deeply concerned with the question of belief, with the validity of belief, with even the facticity of God.  But that's a modern obsession, a non-believer's obsession, even an atheist's obsession (whose source of identity, as an atheist, is in being opposed to the belief of the theist, a curious attempt to be yang to their yin; the atheist thus needs the believer; the believer doesn't need the atheist.).  But the confession of faith is not a confession of a proof of God's existence, or a conclusion as to all the important questions of life (that much Black Cindy and I can already agree on).

To the world, the accepted narrative of faith is that only atheists are concerned with matters like the law and its execution; which surprises at least this Christian lawyer, and many other Christian and Jewish and Muslim lawyers I've known.  The stories Ricouer speaks of are the powerful stories often encountered in spirituals (Thought Criminal has run a series on spirituals; you should look at them), or in both the abolitionist movement and the Civil Rights movement.  Those stories are still the backbone of the "black church" experience in America.  They don't have a lot to do with the validity of worship or the existence of God; they have a lot more to do with issues related to the law and its execution.

Consult the writings of Dr. King, for more information.

This is the box popular culture wants to squeeze religion into; squeeze it in and declare it defined and relegated.  Not that evangelicalism and fundamentalism haven't worked hard to make that narrative the dominant narrative of religion in America.  In an excellent article at Religion Dispatches the reduction of Christianity to a never ending cycle of sin, repentance, forgiveness, and redemption is discussed in terms of Billy Graham's grandson, who confessed to an extra-marital affair.  If you're old enough to remember Jimmy Swaggart sobbing out his confession, you know the routine.  If you grew up around the "revivalist" culture of the South, you know this is the backbone of southern Christianity in almost all it's varied forms.  And yes, it's pretty thin gruel and a pretty shallow pool, and the reason I saw, 20 years ago now, such pastors announcing to each other they'd discovered something new to revive worship in December:  Advent.

Maybe Christianity really is just all about worship.  One can be forgiven for thinking so when revivals are a central part of one's worship life; when altar calls are the central ceremony of public confession, repentance, forgiveness, and redemption.  I didn't grow up in that church culture, even among my grandparents and their friends in the Primitive Baptist church, but I grew up amongst it and I know its contours fairly well.  The old joke was that we got all the Baptists sobered up enough of Sunday morning to get 'em to church to ask forgiveness for what they did on Saturday night; and that was pretty much what being a Southern Baptist meant.  My grandparents, on the other hand, were poor people among poor people who brought food every Sunday, sang from shaped-note hymnals because they wouldn't use even a piano, listened to lay preachers like my grandfather, shared a generous meal after every worship service, and called each other "Brother Madison" and Sister Lenore," and it meant they were family because they were one in the spirit and one in the Lord.  And if they struggled, they struggled with how to live up to what God meant to them, and what God's word meant.  They didn't go to church every Sunday because they needed to; they went because they wanted to.  They went because that's where the family would be, and they wanted to be among them.

I attended a black church once, in seminary.  It was an assignment, a push to expose us to as many forms of Christian worship as we could find.  It was the only church service I've ever attended where the pastor had to take the microphone and urge people to leave, so the next group of worshippers could get in, and the next service start on time.  Nobody watched the clock during worship, and nobody was anxious to leave the company of the others when it was done.

Neither of those narratives show up in the stories of the Drapers or the Catholic church of Peggy Olson, or even in the Judaism of Rachel Mencken or Black Cindy.  That's all right, of course, they don't have to.  But we take literary representations as either distillations of a hard-found truth (the initial comments at Salon disparage the author's opening linking a mere "TV show" to the literary efforts of James Joyce or John Milton, as if one can only sully the purity, the holiness, of the other), or as fair representations of how the world "really is."  And much as I enjoy "Mad Men" and admire Matthew Weiner's use of religion in his story-telling (especially the episode that focusses on Holy Week and Easter at Peggy's church), "Mad Men" doesn't represent anything beyond the stories of those characters.

There is a narrative we cannot, dare not, challenge.  Once it is settled upon (and it is settled upon quickly, in almost any new story that comes along), it is assumed as true and solid as the ground we walk on, as the houses we live in, and not even flood and fire and wind can destroy it fully.  But the narratives about faith don't even begin to consider the narrative of the confession of faith (except as a confession to never think again).  And that is, at the least, a disservice to the world we live in, even as we become more and more determined to live in it through the lens (!) of the narratives we see on screens, the constantly flickering screens that are making the future more and more like the one Ray Bradbury imagined in Fahrenheit 451 and "The Pedestrian," every day.