Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Both/And: How Jazz Taught Me I was Wrong About Christianity

Soren Kierkegaard is a difficult person on whom to pin a label, and for good reason. Some Christians call him a theologian, but he theology is quirky, to be generous. Some people call him a Christian philosopher; I would accept that label if I did not find it, at best, a contradiction in terms. Some have called him a brialliant psychologist. Coming from an age that wanted to categorize all things, including knowledge and those who were purveyors of knowledge, Kierkegaard stubbornly stuck outside any easy categorization.
There can be no doubt, however, that some of what he wrote has been influential among Christian thinkers. Just consider the "Preface" to the second edition of Barth's Romberbrief in which he says that his only system comes from Kierkegaard. That endorsement alone speaks volumes. In an age that wanted to show the interconnectedness of all things, including all knowledge, whether revealed or natural, Kierkegaard wanted to insist that there was a mysterious element to human life, and that Christianity involved surrendering the illusion of totality from our attempts at understanding and living in the world.
His most famous "Christian" work, Either/Or, posits the nature of living as choosing - between what Kierkegaard calls "the aesthetic life" and "the moral life". In the end, our life comes down to this. Do we live for beauty, pleasure, worldly pursuits, or do we sacrifice our own interests for the good of others? The important thing is, we must choose - living involves mutually exclusive choices, mutually exclusive ways of being in the world. Understanding, too, involves choosing, mutually exclusive ways of viewing the world.
This way of thinking did not originate with Kierkegaard, but he is the most articulate spokesperson of it. Dostoevsky, Camus, Sartre, the other existentialists - they, too, saw life as involving choices, and these choices brought consequences we must accept even if we do not like them. Living, showing the world that we are, that we are not not, we must choose. Such a view filters down even to our popular culture. At the climax of the story arc of Queen Sybilla in Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, Sybilla says to Balian, "For Muslims it is easy. The prophet says 'obey'. For Christians, Jesus says, 'choose'."
Unfortunately, if one considers very carefully, prayerfully, and thoughtfully - and "in Christ", in the words of one theologian - being a Christian, recognizing oneself as free from sin and living under God's grace revealed in Christ through the Holy Spirit, one will see that we are free from the burden of choice. More than any verse of Scripture, more than any theological tract, more than any sermon or even prayerful realization, I learned this from listening to jazz.
One could argue that the same lesson could be learned by listening to Beethoven or Jimi Hendrix or the Grateful Dead, but I really learned it from jazz because jazz is less muddy, it is non-ideological in the way rock-n-roll is VERY ideological - it is much more concerned with the music first. Attitude is something that follows, unlike rock where it is the attitude that gives us the music. Classical music, on the other hand, is also non-ideological, but it has other connotations, at least for me, that make it difficult to learn life lessons from it. No, it was jazz that taught me why Kierkegaard was wrong about Christianity, and taught me I was free from the burden of choice.
Listening to Charlie Parker, or Miles Davis, or Lester Young, or Billie Holiday, or Gerry Mulligan one is transported beyond the humdrum - and at the same time placed very firmly within the day-to-day. We are confronted by this conundrum within the music itself - transcendence and immanence, something we thought only Christianity provides us. We are confronted by troubled individuals, alcoholics, drug addicts, individuals so hurt by life and their own weaknesses and demons they hurt themselves and others, driving a wedge between themselves and the world that can only be overcome by the music. We are confronted by the image summed up best by Wynton Marsalis: "We see that junkie nodding in the corner, and we not know that it's Charlie Parker. He may get up from that corner and play something that will blow your mind. This is what jazz does, it brings us all of life and says, 'Here I am, I do that [shoot heroin], but I also do this [create beautiful music]." We are not to judge - the music or the musicians - by their failings or weaknesses or powerful grace given by God to produce beauty on the fly. We are not to separate the music from the musicians, precisely because the music is so specific to the musician who is playing it. In forcing us not to decide, not to choose, jazz frees us from the burden of categories, the burden of saying "This is good, but this is bad." We are confronted by this beautiful music, and we must take it all in, all the pain and horror that may lie behind that beauty as well as the beauty and passion and joy that exists both in and with the music as well. It is both/and, not either/or.
I am convinced this is what Jesus meant by "Do not judge others,"; once we start down the path of judgement - of "discernment" as some people like to rephrase it - we are inevitably led to choices, some of them dire. If we understand God's grace and love in humility and faith, however, we see that we no longer have to choose. We no longer have to separate the piece of music from the musician. We no longer have to live either "aesthetically" or morally", for the latter is a false choice. We are, all of us, living lives as both aesthetes and moralizers. This is another way of saying, with Martin Luther, "We are both saved and sinful at the same time." We live between two worlds, and must make our accomodations to that reality. It is really that simple. Like listening to jazz, we are opened to both beauty and horror, and we take it in, just like God did in Jesus Christ, and we say, "Yes!"

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

No Guilt in Real Pleasure

My feelings about my own preferences for music and books have fluctuated a lot over the years. For many years, I felt very defensive about the fact that I liked bands few others liked, or had even heard of. I recently purchased an early release by the British progressive rock band VanDerGraff Generator, and I was quite excited about it. My wife did not even realize I had two other recordings of theirs. Another example was the wonderful discovery this past winter of a German band, Sieges Even, and their latest CD, Learning to Navigate By the Stars. It is one of the most beautiful albums I have ever heard - spare, almost stingy musically, with lyrics that point to multiple interpretations - yet the overall effect is one of passion and power. I have since learned this is a reformation of a well-known band from the late-1980's to mid-1990's, with a new lead singer (I have not heard earlier material, but there are few to match this Dutchman's ability to sing powerfully, with emotion, never scream, almost cry). Along with Ozric Tentacles, another recent discovery (although I had heard of them years ago, I only recently came across a "Best of..." compilation), and Porcupine Tree, I find myself happily in the position of learning much about new progressive rock. Yet, like a decade and a half ago, when I was trying to defend my preference to King Crimson and early Genesis over Motley Crue and Metallica, I still find myself, on occasion, feeling defensive, as if there is something for which I should apologize.
At the same time, to other oficionados of prog, neo-prog, prog-metal, I hide the fact that one of my favorite CDs to listen to is Drops of Jupiter by Train. I find the songs succinct, toe-tapping, with arrangements that occasionally surprise and never bore, even when the band tips more than its collective hat to the Beatles, as it does on more than one song. One song in particular, "I Wish You Would", I find surpasses pretty much anything else on the album ("Getaway" comes a close second). Yet, why should I feel apologetic or defensive about either preference? Why should I say to most people, "See, these are the reasons I like Dream Theater," when trying to explain music is like trying to paint a novel. Music speaks to us, or it doesn't. As we listen to it, it resonates with us, or it doesn't. I have resolved to feel guilty no longer over any of my musical choices.
At the same time, I often feel guilty because, until fairly recently, my taste in fiction was almost non-existent. I have spent three years in a Masters program, two years in a Doctoral program, and until fairly recently, I was proudest of owning, but not yet reading, Love in the Time of Cholera. In fact, the collected works of Stephen King, The Lord of the Rings, this was the limit of my fictional endeavors. The same books over and over and over . . . Until late winter, 2005. First, I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, followed by A Suitable Boy. This past winter, I binged - Love in the Time of Cholera, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Lovely Bones, The Brief History of the Dead, and Gideon. last summer I finally broke down and read Moby Dick; this spring it was two collections of Ralph Ellison's essays and The Souls of Black Folks, by W. E. B. DuBois. This last I feel quite guilty about coming to so late in life. I wish I had read it twenty years ago.
Why the sudden burst of reading literature, rather than just popular fiction? I think I discovered something beautiful in these works - definitely so in Garcia Marquez, whose other works I wish to read as well - something about language, the playfulness of language that does not, cannot, exist in non-fiction, and is too often missing in popular fiction. Also, I think I have simply grown up and out of an earlier complacency. I always felt "someday" I would take the time to read novels and essay collections that "an educated person should read", never thinking someday would actually arrive. Well, it has arrived, and I must say, along with the fiction, I am enjoying discovering Walter Benjamin, and hope to turn to his contemporary, Ernst Bloch (unless, of course, some other interesting reading intervenes) before the summer is over.
Yet, I have not surrendered popular fiction completely. In the midst of reading Walter Benjamin, I am taking a break to re-read the Harry Potter series. Juvenalia, it is called; something as popular as J. K. Rowlings' books couldn't be as good as the critics say. Actually, the truth is, they are better, and, except for certain elements of structure and style of the first book in the series (and to a certain extent the second; perhaps I shall do a review piece on them once I have finished) these books are literature of the highest caliber, popular precisely because they are that good.
Yet, I felt a flicker of guilt as I set aside the brooding yet beautiful Benjamin for the excitement of Rowling's world of Muggles and magic, of dragons and droll humor, of life and death in a world both fantastic and so very, very real. Why should I, though? Both are of equal worth; I am not setting aside Benjamin for Jackie Collins, for crying out loud! Thus, the title of this piece and the musings in here. I resolve to feel guilty no longer over pleasures I find, whether in books or music, that others find inexplicable. If they miss the beauty of Harry's struggle with Voldemort, or the high-volume polyrhythms of Dream Theater, then their life is the poorer for it. I am enriched by the variety of my entertainments, and I refuse to settle for what other people find enjoyable precisely because others find it enjoyable.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Some initial thoughts on Walter Benjamin:On why I prefer essays to journalism

[T]he founder of Le Figaro characterized the nature of information in a famous formulation, "To my readers," he used to say, "an attic fire in the Latin quarter is more important than a revolution in Madrid." This makes strikingly clear that it is no longer intelligence coming from afar, but the information which supplies a handle for what is nearest that gets the readiest hearing. The intelligence that comes from afar - whether the spatial kind from foreign countries or the temporal kind of tradition - possessed an authority which gave it validity, even when it was not subject to verification. Information, however, lays claim to prompt verifiability. The prime requirement is that it appear "undersantable in itself." Often it is no more exact than the intelligence of earlier centuries was. But while the latter was inclined to borrow from the miraculous, it is indispensable for information to sound plausible. Because of this it proves incompatible with the spirit of storytelling. Of the art of storytelling has become rare, the dissemination of information has had a decisive share in this state of affairs.
"The Storyteller:Reflections on the works of Nikolai Leskov"

While this comment comes in a reflection on the difference between a storyteller and writer, with the benefit accruing to the former, the larger implication is important for an understanding of Benjamin's aesthetic and approach to understanding. Most of what passes for knowledge in the world is only the conveying of information, useless trivia that has little to do with our lives, and has no authority for us in our decision making. "Intelligence", stories both true and fictional, has authority precisely because it presents something to us that effects us. We are confronted by something that forces a decision, a choice. To use Benjamin's example - perfect because it encapsulates the difference between "journalism" and "essay writing" - the attic fire is useless, meaningless information precisely because it has had and will nave no immediate or long term effect on the vast majority of people reading about it. On the other hand, a revolution in Spain, to a person living in France, coulld very well have very drastic implications for how people live their lives, from where they take their vacations to the possibility of armed conflict.
This same distinction survives today, and our journalists actually insist that "news you can use" - an attic fire in the Fourth Arrondisment - is more important than a revolution in Spain because it is closer to home, and . . . That is it. Our journalists, their editors, their managing editors and publishers, inculcate a tremendous ignorance of the world precisely because they believe that people care more about relatively meaningless local events than they do potentially life changing events on the other side of the globe.
While Benjamin is using this point to highlight the power of storytellers (in this case over novelists), the same can be said of the difference between journalists and essayists. The essay is, in many ways, the perfect format for introducing the reader to what Benjamin calls "intelligence". Journalists provide us with "information" - a phrase popular today, showing their lack of reflection and understanding of just how vacuous they are - while an essayist takes time, and thought, and considers the implications of what is happening for his or her readers. The rules of journalism - who/what/where/when/how/sometimes why - indicate precisely why is fails to provide us with intelligence; it is stenography, the quick, unreflective putting into words of events with no connection ot other events, with no past, no present, no future. The essay draws a picture of the past, places the events of which it writes in a larger present, and asks questions about the future of these events and what they might mean for readers.
This encapsulates everything I have felt, but not been able to articulate clearly, concerning journalism and its myriad problems. Discovering Walter Benjamin, the consummate essay writer and purveyor of Intelligence, has been a joy, and I recommend highly Illuminations, edited and with an Introduction by Hannah Arendt (the same essay can be found in her collection Men in Dark Times); and Reflections. Both books were published by Schoken Books. As I delve deeper into Benjamin, I am sure over the next few weeks you shall be hearing more about him.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

The trouble with theology: Douglas John Hall and the tragedy of specialization

I have many gripes about the current state of theology as practiced in North American mainline seminaries. I believe that the "professional academic" model, borrowed from the secular university has failed both theology and the Church because theology has, to a large extent, become detached from its roots in the Church, and its branches - the clergy and laity - are deprived of what is most necessary, reflective thought on the faith. Karl Barth was right (except when he turned it into a dogmatic formula in I/1) - theology is nothing more than sermon preparation.
Bringing Karl Barth's name into the mix leads to my next gripe. It is a generation away from Barth's death, two away from when he was at his peak, and almost a century away from when he exploded liberal theology in Europe with his Romerbrief. In all that time, we have yet to have a theologian, in Europe, North America, or anywhere else it is practiced, who had the depth and breadth of knowledge, not just of theology, but of history and culture in general to match him. And there are those who think we should move beyond him, when we have yet to fully integrate what he said into our thinking about the faith.
This brings me to Douglas John Hall. In a quote endorsing the first volume of his Christian Theology in a North American Context, Walter Brueggemann notes as significant Hall's "futuring beyond Barth and Tillich". I will grant that there is a certain datedness and foreignness to Barth's theology in North America. I will also grant that if the North American church is to come into its own, it must wrestle with its own, specific angels and demons. At the same time, Barth's vision, Barth's wide-ranging excursuses in his Church Dogmatics, the opening chapter of Protestant Thought: From Rousseau to Ritschl are tours-de-force for which there is no equal in contemporary theology in North America. The one exception is Miroslav Volf, who seems to be quite well read in contemporary North American and Continental philosophy. Volf, however, is a native Croatian who received his degree at Tubingen, so to call him a "North American theologian" is disingenuous.
The theologian who has done the most work to draw attention to the specificity of our theological predicament is Douglas John Hall. My problem with Hall's work, however, is the opposite of most people's complaint concerning Barth - it is too short, it doesn't range far enough from theology, and his readings of non-theological works are dated, superficial, and not critical enough. Also, in trying to tie Canada and the United States into one, large "North American context", he misses the fact that the two countries are very, very different, Canada being essentially a Continental European country transplanted to our hemisphere, while the US is, like it or not, sui generis.
My biggest complaint with Hall, and the thing that prevents me from being able to read him without putting down his works for long intervals, is that, in trying to be self-consciously reflective upon our current context, he ignores the truth that there are an abundance of reflective theologies in North America. Unfortunately for Hall, they are a generation old, and most are militant - the black theology of James Cone, the feminist theology of Rosemary Radford Reuther - or attempting to do theology without reference to the church, viz., Langdon Gilkey and Gordon Kaufman. The first do not fit what Hall is attempting - essentially Americanized, white-European theology, and the second do not fit in with his (or my) understanding of the place of theology. His biggest dialogue partner is the Dutch Reformed, and non-Trinitarian, Hendrikus Berkhof; how does this fit in with doing theology in a North American context? In other words, there is something artificial about Hall's intention, his method, and the results.
Hall, then, is part and parcel of a certain limited vision, a lack of understanding, a refusal to see beyond the boundaries of the cultural wall around the Church. His vision, like most theologians, is narrow; his work is predictable, mouthing contemporary liberal platitudes rather than wrestling with real problems of faith and life. The anti-intellectualism that no amount of publications can mask that exist within the United States in general, and our churches in particular, is a cancer, a sin eating away at our ability to live the faith as we are called to live it.
The trouble with theology, in other words, is that it is too theological!

Immigration, Schmimmigration! It's all about Changing the Subject!

This is another political rant, although I promise to keep it within the limits of what I consider proper discourse for this site. I save my real ranting for home. I am tired, OH SO VERY TIRED, of the "debate" over immigration we are currently having. Do I think a pause is necessary - just as it was in the 1920's - to allow our society and the new immigrants from Mexico and Latin America to come together? I think so. While the way immigration was halted during the 1920's was wrong, socially and culturally it was necessary so the United States could integrate the new immigrants, and the new immigrants could introduce the United States to new ways of living. I think it might be time for some of the same things to happen with the current influx of Mexican and other Latin immigrants. The problem, for me, is the tone and the timing of the debate.
First the tone. Calling human beings in search of a better life "aliens", while perhaps legally correct, is nonetheless belittling and dehumanizing. If they are aliens, they are, by definition, not human, and thus we need not have compassion for them, nor extend courtesy nor assitance to them. If they are ILLEGAL aliens, why then, they are outside the law as well. No wonder the Minutemen organizations feel justified in "hunting" them. They are animals who have broken the law! Does any of this strike anyone besides me as, well, simply awful? They are not "aliens"; they are human beings. They are not illegal; no human being is, simply because he or she is alive, living against the law. We have seen other nations slide down this slope before; a good book to read - if you can find it, it's out of print I think, but Amazon might have a copy or two - is The Age of Triage by Richard Rubenstein. It chronicles the history of redefining human beings as, first, without property, then later, without a state, and thus, in the end, not legally a human being at all and prey to whatever actions one could wish. Stateless persons have no protection, indeed they are not even people by any legal definition of the word. We are sliding down this same slope here, and we need to climb back up and walk to some more flat land, where there are no slopes to slide down.
Second, I am firmly convinced that the entire debate over immigration (and please do not claim this isn't about immigration, just about enforcing our laws; what laws are these people suppose to be breaking? OUR IMMIGRATION LAWS!) is part and parcel of a larger plan to slowly rehabilitate the President. I know that sounds like a conspiracy theory, but it really isn't, and I will tell you why. First, consider the timing. The President's poll numbers are Nixonian, they are no longer in the toilet, but sliding down the pipe to the sewer. There are almost daily revelations of abuse of power, potential indictments of members of the Adminsitration, and even members of the President's Party in Congress are willing to stand up to him. Suddenly, first on May Day, then Cinco de Mayo, Mexicans do what they do - they celelbrate their heritage (kind of like the Irish having parades on St. Patrick's Day) and lo and behold, suddenly we have a problem with immigrants sneaking over the border! Suddenly it is at crisis level!
Remember the summer of 2002, when the Enron scandal was breaking? Suddenly, Iraq became a threat. I even remember a panelist on a mumbling voice show on NPR saying, in answer to the question on Iraq "Why now?", "You don't hear any more talk of Enron do you?" I have always remembered that. Do I think the war was simply a diversion from problems at home? Not simply, no. I believe this Administration had it in for Sadaam Hussein since they entered office; the combination of September 11th, slipping poll numbers, the possibility the President could be implicated in corporate malfeasance - all of these played into more the timing of the build-up to war than to the question of the war itself.
Flash forward four years, and you have an Administration spinning violently out of control. Certain chickens are coming home to roost, and they aren't friendly chicken, either. With support evaporating like water in the desert, the Bush Administration tries desparately to find a "wedge issue", something key to divide the American people over, but divide them in such a way that there is a rally to support the President. Everyone knows the border with Mexico is porous; it has been for decades. Now, however, the influx of Mexicans, and other Latin Americans, has reached a point where it is effecting the politics and socity of certain states in the south and southwest. Not surprsingly, some of these states are either states the Republican Party needs to control the Pesidency and Congress, and the new Latin voters tend to vote (when they vote) Democrat. Trying to entice them into the Republican Party hasn't worked. So, let's try something else.
The current brouhaha has all the marks of a Karl Rove program. This man is a master tactician. I wouldn't want to play chess against him; he is not just one or two moves ahead, but ten, perhaps even fifteen. You get a goofball groupo like the Minutemen to start appearing all over the country, warning people about the "Mexican invasion", you get the screamers on talk radio and their frothing guests to whine about Mexican flags at rallies (but not Irish, Italian, Israeli, Confederate flags at these and simmilar events) and, then you roll out a carefully constructed piece of legislation that purports to deal with a problem that does not need "fixing" in the legislative sense. The press, to everyone's glee, ignores the fact the Administration has cut funding for the border patrol every year, even more drastically AFTER 9/11 than before. In other words, all it would take to "fix" the "problem" would be proper funding from the President and Congress to fulfill the mandate given them. This is the real "crisis" at the border - not Mexicans wading across the Rio Grande in the dead of night.
The President took a hit with his speech, I know. The point is, however, he spoke on national television, appeareing Presidential, above the fray, the debate being something others take part in. Soon, as the summer rolls along, and barring any serious scandals/indictments or incidents, the President can continue to proclaim the message that his solution is a great compromise between the two pieces of legislation before Congress that are irreconcilable in their present form. His numbers start to creep up as people say, "You know, the Prez might have something there." Actually, he does have something. He has America by the scruff of its collective neck. Make no mistake, people. WE ARE BEING PLAYED!

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Memorial Day Weekend

By the way, if you happen to pass this site on May 27, 28, or 29, and you are an American, make sure you plant a flag at the grave of a fallen vet, or send an e-mail to a service person somewhere in the world, just to remind them that we appreciate their sacrifice. God Bless America!

What is Politics? I

This very general question is the beginning of the search for understanding what it means to be truly humn, living together in society. "Politics" has become such a pejorative term in our society - "he is too political", "she is a political junkie", "those people got their positions because of politics, not ability" - that we forget how vital a practice it is in shaping the way we live together. While finding much of Aristotle's social theory irrelevant to the modern world in its detail, some of what he said over two millenia ago is still important, not the least of which comes at the very beginning of that collection fo treatises called Politics, viz., that human beings are poltical animals, we live together in societies guided by rules and laws that are of our own creation for very certain, concrete ends. There are no mysteries here, no ordination by God (unless from a theological point of view we want to say, "God has made us this way"; this is meaningless, however, because it explains nothing). There is just the constantly shifting reality of human beings searching out the best ways of being together to ensure our common security and benefit.
The most basic assumption of political theory is that politics involves power. Political scientists have a great definition of power - A has power over B to the extent that A can get B to do something B would not normally do. This is simplpe and generic, referring to all sorts of situations in which power can be used, and all sorts of ways power can be used. Historians and political scientists, philosophers and moralizers both sacred and secular have considered the question of power, have harangued against its abuses, have exulted in the possibilities in herent in its proper uses, but all have assumed that, at any given point in time in any given society, a person or a group of people have power over others. "Politics" in general does not exist; we must always discuss political acts as they occur in very concrete circumstances - in America, in Rome, in China, in Pennsylvania, in the city of Hattiesburg, MI.
Having said all that, the question then becomes, just what is the end toward which political action tends. Cynics say it is just the maintenance in power of those who already have power; political theorists have usually said that, in fact that is an abuse of political power (certainly a commonly occurring abuse, but an abue nonetheless). In truth, the end of politics is just this, the maintenance of the viability and security of the community in which those in power have authority. This is the primary function of politics - it is power used for the common welfare and defense (in the words of the Constitution of the United States). Where we go from here, the actual look of the political structure used, its success or failure at achieveing the ends for which it exists, well that becomes more complicated, as we start to ask the much more difficult, extremely specific question, "How?" We shall return to this topic to figure out how to start to answer that question.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Reading the Bible II

If you've paid attention, at this point you might notice a convergence of several threads we have started but left to dangle for the moment. We have discussed the Trinity, reading the Bible, Tom Wright, the doctrine of original sin all in very preliminary ways. As we come now to discuss the question of reading the Bible, you will see, if I have done my job correctly, a certain coming together - not completely, but the connections will start to be visible - of these and as yet mentioned ideas. Onward, then.
Once we have decided to treat the texts with respect, that is, to accept them in their printed form as relics from the ancient world doing the jobs these types of literature performed in the past, the next task is toplace them in a larger historical context. One does not need to be a historian, or an expert in Hebrew or koine Greek to understand that these texts come from very specific times and places; while these can never be determined with the kind of accuracy that more modern texts can be dated, we can look for clues within the texts themselves for approximations (never more than that). There are also an abundance of research materials we can consult - one could spend a lifetime researching the dating of Biblical manuscripts - to determine the accuracy of our approximations. One point it is important to remember: an entire generation can do research, make a claim concerning the daiting or placement of a text, have this accepted by the vast majority of scholars, and have that verdict overturned by other evidence. Thus, again, caution is always the key when venturing guesses as to the dates of certain texts.
Placing them within a larger temporal context is a beginning. Coming to an understanding of the ideological background of the language employed is also important. Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and to a lesser extent Stanley Fish and Richard Rorty have all been great guides into the labyrinth of language, unpacking its playfulness (Barthes), its contingency (Rorty), its potential meaninglessness (Fish), and its rootedness in structures of power (Foucault). Taking as our guides contemporary understandings of the different ways language is used is important, but it is also important to remember that these contgemporary analyses are just that,contemporary, and may have limited applicability to ancient texts. Keeping that in mind, we can still see how these texts might operate, either oppressively or subversively within their own contexts, telling the stories of kings and princes, or raped women and nomads in search of a place of rest, of humble teachers and their followers.
Using these contemporary philosophers of language is also important because through them we recognize that language can be used in a variety of ways, to reveal and conceal, to demand and to implore, to tear down and build up (as the LORD said to Jeremiah). To claim that we must take the "literal" meaning of the text as our guide is not only heretical from a theological point of view, it is nonsensical from an intellectual point of view. After all, who reads anything literally? of what would such a reading consist? As Justice Anotonin Scalia has said of the United States Constitution, are we left with a dead piece of paper with words whose meaning is accessible through dictionaries as our sole guide to understanding? Is this the way we communicate with each other today?
The answer to all these question, of course, is that language is a multi-layered phenomenon, with meaning occurring somewhere between and among those involved in its use. Words are vehicles that often crash against walls, disappear into pits, are like clown cars - small but packed to overflowing - or like limousines - over large but almost completely empty - but rarely reaching their intended destination. Sometimes they are only a block or two away; sometimes they get lost and never find their way. The point of this extended metaphor is that meaings are inexact things, and looking for it, even between contemporaries, is often a difficult task. Attempting to get any literal understanding of the Bible founders on the reality of communication's and understanding's incomplete, contingent nature.
To respect the text, then, is not just to treat it as a whole, as an historical document serving certain ends, but as a linguistic artifact, thus part and parcel of the ongoing human adventure of communication. As such, it is incomplete, imperfect, playful, dominant, metaphorical, as exact as possible, and never reaching its intended goal of perfect communication with an exact flow of information and communication from itself to the world. Learning to read the Bible is no different from learning to read anything else - we need to wrestle meaning from it, and never expect our understanding to be final, because like the angle wrestling with Jacob, that wrestling goes on all night. We must continually return to Scipture, because there might be more waiting for us the next time, more than we ever imagined.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

N. T. Wright and the question of God

(With apologies for the length)

When Rudolf Bultmann published his two-volume The Theology of the New Testament, it was the high-water mark for an entire school of thought that extended back to the 19th century in Germany. This school believed and operated on the assumption that the New Testament, thrown together as it was from disparate writings over a couple centuries, needed an editor to put everything in order, giving the text a cohesiveness. The problem, of course, was that all the exigent documetary evidence - the still-extant manuscripts - varied so little (except in a couple of famous instances) that the problem then became, who did the editing and why; most important was how do we get behind these edits to find the original text?
Thus was form criticism born and grew. It was not a new idea; St. Thomas in the 13th century used a similar technique to show that St. Dionysius (the French national St. Denis) was not the author of certain mystical tracts from the late Dark Ages, thus the Pseudo-Dionysius. The critical method takes a familiarity with style and form and uses this to determine whether something is part and parcel of a whole or perhaps added later, by another hand.
By the time Bultmann published his monumental work - and whatever flaws it contains, there is no doubt it is a great achievement, yet to be completely duplicated - there were serious questions concerning form criticism, its methodology, and its assumptions about transparency of texts. One of the most important points concerning form criticism is that the documents were seen not as integral wholes, but rather transparent windows to Matthean communities, Johannine communities, Markan communities, Pauline communities, and so on. With the end of structuralism in literary and social theory came a questioning of the basis of form criticism.
By the early 1970's, New Testament studies were, in a sense, in a disarray compared to a generation earlier. The assumption was that there should be no assumptions. The text itself was a question that would seem to be impenetrable. All we could glean would be - what? Reflections of ourselves reading. From a window, the text became a mirror, and a fogged mirror at that. Thus, all sorts of theories having no basis in evidence or theology or history or anything else arose, and refutation was impossible because no one saw the text the same way. No one stands in front of a mirror from the exact same place at the exact same moment, do they?
Into this mess of un-reading, of not just deconstruction but destruction, comes Anglican New Testament scholar, now Bishop of Durham, Nicholas Thomas Wright. He has done excellent work on St. Paul and Paul's treatment of Jesus in his theology, attempting to address a century-old bugaboo in NT studies, viz., that Paul was not concerned with the historical Jesus. Starting almost 20 years ago, Wright turned his attention to a much larger, more ambitious, and potentially unfinishable project, which he calls "Christian Origins and the Question of God". He is attempting to address a question most scholars thought was laid aside a generation ago, and revive it in a new way that is fruitful both for scholarship and for faith. His success can best be marked by the controversy that swirls around him; go on and enter his name (N. T. Wright) into a search engine and you will discover all sorts of people saying all sorts of things, most having little to do with what it is Wright is about.
First, it would be sheer hubris to attempt, or even claim to attempt, any kind of decent summary of three massive volumes of detailed scholarship in a short space. The first volume, The New Testament and the People of God (hereinafter NTPG) clocks in at four-and-a-half-hundred or so pages of text, not including appendices and indices. The second volume, Jesus and the Victory of God (JVG) is over six hundred pages of text. The third, an unplanned volume entitled The Resurrection of the Son of God (RSG) is close to eight hundred pages of text. Obviously, any review will be partial and miss important points, but as Inigo Montoya says, "Let me explain. . . Is too much, let me sum up.":
- Jesus and the earliest Christians were Jews; this is and has been non-controversial for centuries. Wright, however, takes a step few have attempted, and sought to understand first century Jewish political, religious, and social thought in its own terms as the background against which understanding who Jesus was and what Jesus is possible.
- A century ago, Albert Schweitzer said that Jesus is accessible to modern scholars, but we won't like what Jesus really was, because he failed; Bultmann and others said that, in fact, Jesus is completely opaque to modern scholarship (seeing as the Gospels are not biography) and the only thing we can learn is what early Christianity was like as it told stories about Jesus. Wright says, in essence, you are both wrong, as neither position takes the Gospels seriously as texts, assuming before we even pick them up what it is they say and how they say it. If we are going to be serious about this, we must take the texts seriously.
- Jesus no more envisioned an end to the space-time continuum than he envisioned Mice from Mars taking over planet Earth. Rather, using apocalyptic language, familiar enough to Jews of the first century, Jesus spoke of, and enacted, the history of Israel and Israel's relationship with its God, and its fulfillment in his ministry.
- In most criticisms of the resurrection narratives, we encounter the assumption that Jesus was not really raised from the dead in the manner described in the text thus we are reading, in fact, about early Christianity. The mirror becomes a window again and we glimpse early Christianity and its preaching and its hope, couched in symbolic terms, of course. Wright says this is dishonest and wrong. The only test is to discuss the whole phenomoenon of resuscitation, rising from the grave, and resurrection in the ancient world, and see how the stories of Jesus fit into these ideas. The conclusion, after close to eight hundred pages, is that the only answer that fits all the evidence - including the tenacity of the early Christian communities in the face of mounting persecution and ridicule - is that Jesus really did rise from the dead.
Needless to say, these are only the barest summaries of the central theses of Wright's work. There are many questions and criticisms that can be levelled at Wright, not the least of which concerns the attempt itself; how is it possible to ascertain a central theme of texts disparate in time and geographic origin? How is it possible to say with any certainty what happened two thousand years ago when we are arguing about things that occurred two years ago? As to the first question, Wright's answer is simple: the unifying theme is Jesus, his life, his death, and his reported resurrection. As to the second question, once the context for understanding the primary sources is grasped in its fullness, the sources themselves seem very clear both in terms of what it is they say and how they say it.
My own impressions of Wright and his work are as follows:
1) I think Wright has grasped the nettle by the thorns, and despite much bleeding and pain, refuses to let go. There is something intuitively, essentially correct about his method, something that make me, for one, slap my forehead and say, "Of course, why didn't I think of that?" The answer is that the simplest answers, the mostdirect answers are too often the most obscure because they run up against latent or overt prejudice.
2) I must confess I read the books in reverse order, starting with RSG, and would not recommend it to others, because there are multiple references in later volumes to work done in earlier volumes. Start at the beginning is always good advice when reading anything. Having said that, it was the ending of Wright's third book that made me stop, open my eyes, set the book down, and breathe a bit more deeply. The first quote is from p. 713:
"What if the moratorium on speaking of Jesus' bodily resurrection which has been kept in place until recently more by the critics' tone of voice than by sustained historical argument . . . should itself turn out to be part of that intellectual and cultural hegemony against which much of the world is now doing its best to react? What if the resurrection, instead of . . . legitimating a cozy, comfortable, socially and culturally conservative form of Christianity, should turn out to be, in the 21st Century as in the first, the most socially, culturally, and politically explosive force imaginable, blasting its way through the sealed tombs and locked doors of modernist epistemology and the (now) deeply conservative social and political order which it sustains?"
The following is from pp. 730-731 of the same text:
"To imply that Jesus 'went to heaven when he died', or that he is now simply a spiritual presence, and to suppose that such ideas exhaust the referential meaning of 'Jesus was raised from the dead', is to miss the point, to cut the nerve of the social, cultural, and political critique. Death is the ultimate weapon of the tyrant; . . . No tyrant is threatened by Jesus going to heaven, leaving his body in a tomb. No governments face the authentic Christian challenge when the church's social preaching tries to base itself on Jesus' teaching, detached from the central and energizing fact of his resurrection. . . ."
And from p. 737, in a summary not just of the text at hand, but also, I believe, of Wright's own view of the role of Christian faith in the world today:
"History matters because human beings matter; human beings matter because creation matters; creation matters because the creator matters. And the creator, according to some on the most ancient Jewish beliefs, grieved so much over creation gone wrong, over humankind in rebellion, over thorns and thistles and dust and death, that he planned from the beginning the way by which he would rescue his world, his creation, his history from its tragic corruption and decay; the way therefore, by which he would rescue his image-bearing creatures, the muddled and rebellious human beings, from their double tragic fate; the way, therefore by which he would be most truly himself, would become most truly himself. The story of Jesus of Nazareth which we find in the New Testament offers itself, as Jesus himself has offered his public works and words, his body and blood, as the answer to this multiple problem: the arrival of God's Kingdom precisely in the world of space, time, and matter, the world of injustice and tyranny, of empire and crucifixions. This world is where the kingdom must come, on earth as it is in heaven. What view of creation, what view of justice, would be served by the offer merely of a new spirituality and a one-way ticket out of trouble, an escape from the real world?
"No wonder the Herod's, the Caesars and the Sadducees of this world, ancient and modern, were and are eager to rule out all possibility of actual resurrection. They are, after all, staking a counter-claim on the real world. It is the real world the tyrants and bullies (including intellectual and cultural tyrants and bullies) try to rule by force, only to discover that in order to do so they have to quash all rumours of resurrection, rumours that imply that their greatest weapons, death and deconstruction, are not after all omnipotent. . . ."
I have yet to hear a cry for Christian renewal, and such renewal not based on transient political goals, but upon the depths of Scripture and God's acts in and for the world, that is more powerful, more stirring, and more indicative of the reality Christians have faced in the past and will face in the future that is more true in the sense of being rooted in the Truth of Christ. Whatever criticisms one can lay at Wright's feet, timidity is not one of them.
I shall withhold judgement on his success or failure until either (a) he finishes the entire series, or (b) he dies. So far, I find his work compelling (if a bit pedantic and repetitive in places) and await very much the next expected volume, on St. Paul.

Religion, Science, Rationality, and Cultural Imperialism

Boy, I just looked at that title, and it seems too big to get through in a relatively short time. The truth is, however, that the title relates to provoked thoughts of mine from encounters on another website with those who have, shall we say, a certain hostility towards what they call "religion", and whay I would insist is simply a caricature of Christianity. I would refer you back to an earlier posting in which I talked about a certain confusion concerning the whole question of "God" and "religion", as if the one were a universally understood noun, and the second was a phenomenon reducible to certain universal categories. Actually, for the second point, Joseph Campbell and his watered-down Jungianism bear much of the blame, a point I shall not follow to far today. Let us just say that while "religion" is a universal human phenomenon, one cannot boil down all religions into universals that are equal, or even equivalent.
First, those who direct hostility towards God and/or religion are often actually speaking about a certain caricature of Christianity. They too often portray Christians are mindless, easily duped, ignorant masses, thoughtlessly mouthing words that they either do not understand or do not truly believe. The idea of God as either some big magician who could, with a wave of his (and, yes, too often the god these folks talk about is a man) hand, make the whole world better instantly, or some huge cruel fiend ready to whisk away the bulk of humanity to the fires of hell for jot following every jot and tittle of Biblical wording - this is all nonsense and bears no relationship to Christianity. It is like me saying, "Boy, I really hate science, you know, because they are all a bunch of Frankensteins who care nothing about what their creations do to the world, all they want is fame, and recognition for their work. Also, most of what they produce is toxic and dangerous anyway. Besides, they are controlled either by the government or evil corporations who steal their ideas." Or some such nonsense.
Most of those wo claim to reject Christianity, or as they call it, "religion", claim that "science" and "rationality" have disproved religion. Again, I find them to be working with a caricature of both. Their understanding of science is usually crude and superficial, and Their claims for rationality ignore the fact that, until the mid-19th Century, most rationalists used a certain way of thinking - called, oddly enough, rationalism - to prove the existence of God. That they failed is hardly the point here. My point is, rather, that rationality, at least as I understand the way these folks use the term, was in fact a way of thinking about God. The critics are as intellectually ignorant as they are historically ignorant.
Finally, I must insist that their views on science and religion too often b etray a certain cultural imperialism I find appaling, assuming (a) that their ideas of religion have any relevance to non-Western thought forms; (b) that their (incorrect) ideas about rationality (never defined and poorly explicated) are exportable, universally applicable; and (c) that non-Western cultures are straining against all these ideas, be they religious, political, technocratic, and philosophical, that eradicate local, traditional thought forms. Those who claim to reject "religion" in the name of "rationality" are part and parcel of the biggest struggle in the world today, between those who insist that Western Culture is, in fact, supreme and by its very nature and must be triumphant if the world is to survive, and those who find Western Culture to be a contingent animal, constantly changing, barely exportable to South America and Eastern Europe, let alone nations and cultures far outside the traditional boundaries of the West.
So, in the end, the irony is that those who would reject "religion" for the danger it represents to humanity (so they say) because of its intolerance, its demand for unthinking subjection to authority, and its adherence to outmoded forms of thought and action are in fact the biggest, most dangerous cultural imperialists of them all. I wonder if they have a sense of humor large enough to understand the irony here/

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Trinity I

I swear I will pick up previous threads soon, but first I need to set up certain threads and ideas and topics that will take much time to work through. This is necessary if wwe are to be serious about exploring these issues in a thoughtful manner. We have time; the Church has been around for roughly 2,000 years and most of these things are still argued about, and will be long after all of us - and our great-grandchildren - are distant memories. Having said that, by way of introduction, let me begin by saying that there is no doctrine of the Church more confusing, more difficult to grasp in its essentials, more misunderstood and prone to error than the notion of the Trinity. There is also no idea more central, more indicative of the uniqueness of Christianity, and more descriptive of the essence of the faith than the doctrine of the Trinity. Karl Barth once said of Christology that if was right here, no matter what else he got wrong was irrelevant; if he was wrong, no matter how right he was everywhere else, it would also be meaningless. I would only say that this is less true of Christology than its presupposition in the Trinity. Get this right, and the rest of Christian theology unfolds; get the doctrine wrong, and its pretty rough sailing, to say the least.
Historically, the doctrine was seen as a way of encapsulating revelation, the incarnation, and saying something about who this God is that Jesus called Father. The doctrine developed over time as an answer to a question: How was jesus related to the God of Israel? In what was was that relationship efficacious for humanity? There is no doubt that, as it developed and grew, certain ideas were tried and then discarded as the nuances and subtleties, the demands of one part of the ntion combatted with demands of others, became felt. That the doctrine of the Trinity took roughly three hundred years to work out in its initial state was evidence enough for Swiss theologian Emil Brunner to make it not necessary for faith, but only for preaching. Not strictly Biblical, it was not necessary to grasp the nettle, as it were, for salvation.
Except, there is evidence that within a generation of Jesus' death and resurrection, believers were already wrestling with the implications of saying, with the earliest creed of the Church, "Jesus is Lord." There are primitive, proto-Trinitarian formulas in the Bible, including Matthew and 2 Corinthians. But already in Paul there is a clear equation of Jesus the man and the God and LORD of Israel; that being said, how do we move from these strange formulas, without any notion of the arguments made for or against them, to the rather stilted and awkward formula of Nicaea? We shall turn to that the next time we discuss the Trinity.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Sin, Original and Otherwise I

A few years ago, I started an adult Sunday School class on St. Augustine's Confessions and we ground to a halt after the third week because of Augsustine's honesty about his propensity to sinfulness as an infant and child. The various comments I remember came down to these, "Babies aren't sinful, they're just babies"; "Stealing an apple from an orchard isn't sinful, it's just boys being boys." In the end the whole experiment foundered on the rocks of Original Sin.
Reinhild Niebuhr used to joke that it was the only Christian dogma for which there was objective evidence. It is one of the reasons we baptize infants. It is one of the reasons we include a prayer of confession in every service, and probably should in every prayer we say.
It is the reason for the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus.
Yet, to think through the logic of original sin fearlessly is to confront certain cherished ideas of our modern idea, one of which is that babies and small children are "innocent". This is a crude reduction of certain romantic ideas, especially from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and ignores certain realities, not the least of which is that babies in fact are selfish, demanding, Darwinian creatures. That they have to be to survive does not neglect the truth that, from a moral standpoint, there is very little to recomend in infant behavior. Does this mean that they are, in fact, morally responsible creatures, in need of the grace of God in Christ in the same way adults are? If we are consistent and honest, the answer of course is yes. It was an innovation - and not a very good one - of the modern era (somewhere in the 16th or 17th century) that moral responsibility arrives with intellectual adulthood. How this equation came about I still don't know, but it exists.
The idea of Sin, with the capital, gave way to "sins", free acts of morally responsible individuals that need to be adjudicated and removed through the acts of a legal representative, Jesus. The problem with these ideas, of course, is not their innovation - there is nothing wrong with new ideas - is that, since Paul, the whole idea of freedom could be understood not in a moral or ontological sense, but only in a Christian sense. There is no way to get to the individual, both free and responsible, without going through the cross and resurrection of Christ. Saying this, of course, points us back, not to intellectual or moral maturity, but to original sin, that is, that we are part and parcel of an order fundamentally and absolutely separated from the source of life and truth and goodness.
This is part of the fun and enjoyment of Christian theology - at least for me. One idea connects to others, can only be understood in the light of others. It isn't "systematic" by any means, but it is reflective of the underlying truth of the reliance we all have, our connection to, whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we feel we need it or not, upon Jesu Christ.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Talking Points

We have heard it all before, the consistent message from Republicans and conservatives, whether in Congress, the Executive branch, or talk radio, the same words, the same emphases, the same thing over and over - these are talking points. There is nothing sneaky or conspiratorial about this; the Rpublicans are and have been for a generation better disciplined about their message, and insistent on a unified vision. Since the days of FDR and before, the Democrats have lived with a political schizophrenia that is manifested today with the general plit between progressives (McGovern Democrats) and moderate/mainstream Democrats (Bill Clinton/DLC Democrats). Republican talking points very often sound reasonable, seem to appeal to common sense and patriotism, the sense of unease since September 11, 2001, and a simplicity of thought and action that appeals to many Americans.
The problem with these talking points, however, is that they in fact are not commonsensical, they appeal to fear, whether of the unknown, of foreigners, of other religions or races, or of anothe terrorist attack. The patriotism to which they appeal - often with invocations of our troops - are hollow because of the reality our soldiers face "on the ground" as the saying goes, and once they return home. Simplicity of thought an d action are fine, except too often the simplicity is in fact fake, because there has been no thought, just reaction within an ideological framework where the answers already exist, it is the questions that need to be drawn up correctly. So, for a start, here are some general talking points. Try them out, next chance you get, see what happens.

1)September 11, 2001 changed nothing. What possible change, other than the immediate horror and grief, occurred because of the terrorist attacks? How have we as a nation changed? In what way were the rules of life and law changed because of September 11?

2)Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals, right-wingers, progressives, libertarians, communitarians - we are all Americans, we are all patriots, we are all concerned that no one perpetrate an attack on our soil ever again. We all want to do what is in the best interests of the whole country, acting within the traditions, laws and Constitution of the United States to achieve the goal of maximum security. It is only methods that differ; we should be able to disagree respectfully without resort to name-calling, questioning the motives or integrity of each other, or silencing the other.

3)It is not "giving aid and comfort to the enemey" (part of the COnstitutional definition of treason) to discuss in public (a)the fact that the NSA monitors international phone calls, because everyone knows that is what they do; (b) the fact that the NSA collects phone records of American citizens, because that is illegal and should be stopped immediately, with those responsible brought to trial after a thorough investigation; or (c) to disparage the work of the President, the Secretary of Defense, or military leaders past or present; NO ONE, not even the soldiers in the field are above and beyond criticism, unless we suddenly have a holy caste that is the source and point of all wisdom and knowledge.

4)Cutting taxes has not now, nor has it ever, increased federal revenue for the simple reason that it decreases the flow of money into the federal treasury. If you receive a pay cut, does your pay check become larger over time? Both the operational deficit and the accumulated debt of the country are increasing not becasue of contingent economic forces (the recession of the first two years of the Bush years) or bad economic policy (the previous, Democratic administration) but because of massive tax cuts to those who contribute the most in taxes, and an increase in non-transfer payments within the federal budget (For those who don't know, transfer payments, like welfare, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, SSI are all moneis that never leave the economy or are not transformed into capital assets in the possession of private individuals. In a sdense, transfer payments stay money from point A through opint Z, while other parts of the federal budget - fighter planes, bridges to nowhere or everywhere, fruit bat studies, highway projects - become economic only in a relative sense).

5)On a related point, the idea that taxation is theft, that politicains are, in one of the stupider phrases of contemporary politics, "spending other people's money", is just nonsense. The nation as a whole is not separate from the government, and all that goes on within the physical and legal borders of the state occurs because of the state's legal protection. We exist as we are because we have surrendered certain personal, individual powers to the state for the collective good. In return for this protection, the state asks that we all pay - as we are able - for the maintenance of the services that exist for the protection and fostering of social and economic good. Taxation is not spending other people's money. It is the debt we owe to the state for providing the free space to live the way we do. We can grumble the burden is too heavy, or the money is spent in ways of which we disapprove, but it does not change the fundamental truth that taxation is a necessary evil to continue to live free.

These are jsut a few talking points, and perhaps more may follow. As I said, try them out on your friends, and watch what happens.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Reading the Bible I

The difficulty with reading anything - James Joyce, Stephen King, Ayn Rand, David McCullough - is knowing before you even pick up the book what in the world you're reading. Is it fiction? History? Poetry? Philosophy? Is it some strange combination, such as Ayn Rand's "philosophical" novels, or James Joyce's poetic novels? How do we trust authors claiming to give us historical fact? What if we run across an egregious error of fact; does that then throw the entire work in question?
It isn't enough to say, with Christians through the centuries, that the Bible is the Word of God. That, in fact, is an empty phrase, and can be as enslaving as it is freeing. Are we, then, to take as fact what is written on the page? Actually, this question is a recent - in historical terms - innovation in Biblical studies; the idea that as "the Word of God" the Bible therefore contains no errors of either fact or piety or morality is a creation of rationalist Christians working against rationalist critics in the 18th century. Biblical literalism and inerrancy is hardly an option for us if we are to treat the text with respect; as a recent innovation it dehistoricizes the text, making it something it is not.
Do we treat the Bible as allegory, seeing in its history, its poetry, its apocalyptic visions, and its letters of admonition and love lessons to be learned rather than words to follow? Do we seek the hard center, as it were, hidden beneath the soft and chewy outer part, like a piece of candy? This was, in essence, the view of the late medieval period, especially Martin Luther, who saw Jesus Christ lurking beneath each and every passage of scripture. Not to denigrate either Jesus or Martin Luther, but such a view hardly does justice to the reality of the Biblical witness.
My first thought on reading the Bible is this: we respect the variety within its pages for what it is, and seek to understand the Bible (as much as possible) on its own terms. We would do no less for a novel of Garcia Marquez, or the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. We should attempt to treat the text almost like a living thing, with a past that has added layer upon layer of depth and meaning to it; a present in which it lives and to which it proposes to speak authoritatively; and a future not only in which it hopes to continue its work but also to which, in its essence, it points with faith and hope.
Part of this respect we owe to the Bible (no less than to any other piece of literature) is to seek to learn its objective history. Who wrote it, and why? Who decided what books to uinclude? What were the criteria for inclusion? What books were excluded? Why was the Bible compiled (not to say written) in the first place? THe nice thing is that there is a pretty well documented history of the development and acceptance of the canon, as well as survivors of texts not to be included in the canon, the so-called pseudepigrapha (false writings). Non-Christians and anti-Christians love to point to the political wrangling over the canon as proof positive that the Bible could not be a "Holy" book, because it wa, in the end compiled and edited by human beings for very contingent political ends. My answer to this criticism is the same as it has always been: So? Somehow, those who toss around such historical facts seem to think they've proven something, when in fact they have only recounted history. Do they not think that God can use even the most contingent of historical acts, the most compromised of individuals and motives to achieve certain holy and sacred ends? Is that not one of the lessons of the story of David and Bathsheba?
I call this Reading the Bible I because I fully intend for there to be multiple entries on reading the Bible; suffice it to say that a summary of this is: Respect the text.

As an aside, I wish to apologize for my unfocused and rather sprawling political rant yesterday. I do not apologize for its content, although I do for its poor construction. What I apologize for is its style. The whole purpose of this blog was for there to be a place for thoughtful discussion, even heated disagreement and argument, but always with respect. I violated that, and for that I am sorry. In the future, I hope to present a bit more reeasoned view of politics.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

My First Political Post

I've spent the week writing about my faith, in somewhat vague and very general terms. I think it is time to write about my politics in very clear and specific terms. I shall be clear, succinct, and to the point: I think our current administration is a criminal conspiracy of gross incompetence, whose one virtue, internal loyalty, has prevented the complete collapse of national authority. There is nothing of value the presidency of George W Bush has added, and much that it has destroyed, perhaps irrevocably. We are diminished internally, as the class divide increases and we borrow from our great-grandchildren to pay for tax breaks for corporations that are teetering on the brink of collapse. We are a menace internationally, with the world's breath held to see if, despite our current Iraqi debacle, we may claim justification for an attack on Iran. We find ourselves as a nation incapable of voicing the outrage at the current group of less-than-mediocrities that run our federal government, because the press has become, as John Ralston Saul pointed out over a decade ago, not so much a part of the power structure, but courtiers to those in power. Like all such in the past, their virtue disappeared as they were taken into the confidence of those in power.
Both the economy and the administration are in danger of collapse; just today there was the third day of seriously distressing economic news in a row, plus a stock market in free-slide, gaining momentum downward. . . . Neither the Republicans in Congress nor the President and his administration have any credibility left with the American people. The press, however, compromised as all those of reduced virtue are, sell their birthright for a mass of pottage, thinking it power, while those who understand scoff at the "wisdom" of the anointed, such as Joe Klein, Thomas Friedman, Judith Miller, and on and on and on.
This does not excuse the left from criticism. Part of perusing news sites is finding that criticism has degenerated from hammering home certain points again and again until, like a nail through thick wood, it might actually penetrate, we try to break through by calling the President "chimp" (actually my favorite is Chimpy McFlightsuit, a reference to the third anniversary of the disastrous carrier landing/"Mission Accomplished" photo-op), disparaging the First Lady, and using foul and scatological language rather than serious, concentrated, consistent hammering of certain truths. I am as frustrated as anyone with the current failed presidency, but nothing is to be gained by acting like high school sophomores. We must be grown-ups to their childishness.
I have no doubt that Michael Hayden, after being "grilled" by the Senate Intelligence Committee (chaired by Pat Roberts, R-KS, who I heard break into tears during confirmation hearings for then nominee John Roberts to be Chief Justice of the United States over the millions of fetuses aborted in this country; I have yet to hear him - or see him - shed a single tear for the 2500 hundred once real live Americans now dead in a war he supported, or the tens of thousands of Iraqis; see, it's only potential life that these pro-lifers are for, once you're out of the womb it's every man [women aren't included] for himself) will be confirmed to head the CIA. That he is supremely unqualified to do so, for a variety of reasons the committee will never touch upon, is abundantly clear simply by visiting This only shows the impotence of public opinion in the age of the Royal Presidency.
I realize I have held back here, been tempered in my opinions, but perhaps later on I shall be more forthcoming in my views.

The Church and Christians

One of my favorite things to hear is "I believe in God, but I have a problem with the church." Another is, "I don't need the church to feel close to God." Finally, of course, is "I don't think you need church to be a Christian." All wonderful American sentiments. Only in America would church attendance and memberhsip be seen as optional for actually being a Christian. It is Constantinianism - the idea of automatic membership in the Christian fellowship via memberhsip in society - taken to a ridiculous extreme. As I said, wonderfully American.
Except it isn't true. It hasn't been true for two thousand years, and it needs to be repeated both in its original Latin and in more recent languages: "Outside the Church there is no salvation." The Church is the place where the grace of God is preached and presented in the sacraments, where Christians gather to renew their strength, to sustain each other, and to be sent into the world again. Christians are "made" in a sense at church through baptism. There is no other way to become a Christian that I am aware of. Claiming to "believe in God", "being spiritual", "worshiping God in one's own way," have nothing to do with being a Christian.
In our age of radio, television, internet, ipod, and whatever else is happening, this would seem a quaint, old fashioned notion. Sadly, technology is not a substitute for the fellowship of like-minded persons. IMing others is not sharing and upholding one another in the faith. Email is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Sitting and listening/watching a sermon, singing a hymn along with a congregation on television, praying along with the the preacher on the screen - this may suffice for a week or two, but it does not, cannot, replace the necessity of being with others that is part and parcel of the calling of Christians.
Part of the problem with much of the "religious" talk in our country today is this idea that (a) all religions are essentially the same, only using different stories and ideas to convey the same essential message; and its corollary (b) the ideas are out there for everybody to cherry pick as they like and don't like, kind of a marketplace of religious ideas. The problem with this view is that both (a) and (b) are not true. We need to be baptized into the faith, we need to learn what it means to be a Christian, we need to be fed at the Lord's table, we need to hear the Word preached and sung, we need to pray together to help one another. These are specifically Christian ideas and can only apply in and come from participation in Church.
Christians are not isolated individuals floating around with "beliefs" in their heads, unconnected from other Christians, unconnected from the great ebb and flow of the history of the Church, accepting this part, rejecting that part, making peace with God and ourselves. Christians are the community of believer, baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, fed by Word preached, the flesh and blood of the crucified and risen Lord at a common table. We are those hold one another up when we stumble and hold one another accountable for and in the faith. We are those who sing together, mourn together, pray together, laugh together, eat together, and remember together the truth of God's grace manifest in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
To say that outside the Church there is no salvation is not, as was perhaps intended by those who originated the phrase in the Middle Ages, a political declaration of the hegemony of ecclesiatical power, but rather the statement that it is in and as the Church, not as individuals or members of secular communities, that we are Christians. There is no other way.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Joining the Conversation

When I started seminary all those years ago, it occurred to me very early on, that learning theology was, in a way, like joining a conversation in the middle. Have you ever been at a party, mingling, feeling awkward because no one is stopping to talk to you, and you find yourself stranded by a small group of people who are in the midst of a conversation, and you just don't know what in the world they're talking about? Then, as you listen, you realize you can pick up the thread; you start to get it. Your confidence soars! You say something to join in, and several of them look at you, some smiling that polite condescending smile, and one says, in a sense, "We've already covered that part of the topic." They turn away from you, hoping you will discover another conversation to eavesdrop on.
Learning theology is like that, except for the end, because ALL are invited to participate. There were times, as I was learning both the terminology and the history of theology that I felt confident enough to say something I felt was at least marginally interesting - not to say original - and was instructed, as politely as possible, where to go to look up the reference for who said it first, and better. Over time, I realized that if Iwere to add anything to this conversation (and I so wanted to!), I had a whole lot of catching up to do. The conversation has been going on for two thousand years (longer, if one includes the Old Testament), been carried on in a variety of langauges, only one of which I knew, and ranged over more territory than any one person can possibly imagine.
First, of course, were the New Testament writers. Then there were the earliest Christian witnesses of the post-Biblical era of which we have evidence, Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Alexandria, and Justin Martyr. The 2nd century saw the rise of the apologists, Christians bent upon translating Jewish ideas (see a later posting on N T Wright for further explanation) into the pagan, Greco-Roman world. Among them was the most subtle Christian thinker between St. Paul and St. Augustine, Tertullian, who unfortunately ended up surrendering to the Monstanists towards the end of his life.
St. Augustine marked a turning point even more important that Constantine's Edict of Nantes; few thinkers have left as indelible a mark upon Christianity as has the Bishop of Hippo. It was Augustine who recognized the role of grace; it was Augustine who reminded a Christian world becoming jaded and triumphant that God's Kingdom was not of this world; it was Augustine, more than any theologian who returned love to a central place in Christian thought. The neglect of these aspects of Augsutine's thought is a scandal. A world more interested in the prurient aspects of Augustine's private life has forgotten that, far from the "narrow, fanatical, bigoted" man I once read about, Augustine was a man of tremendous intellectual and emotional power, introducing the West to the individual in a new and deeper way with his Confessions, and giving the world a new way to understand the trinitarian imago dei with his De Trinitate.
There were the Cappadocian Fathers, all but neglected in the West because of the ridiculous split over the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed, but whose thought, and liturgy, are alive and well in the Orthodox churches. Peter Abelard developed an innovative way of studying questions of faith in his Sic et No that would be transformed by St. Thomas into the great Scholastic tradition. My favorite medieval theologian, William of Ockham, the subtle doctor, pushed the boundaries of thought and faith and politics like no one before or since.
Martin Luther, Huldrich Zwingli, John Calvin, Jan Hus, John Wyclife - the great Reformers - put faith before life, reminding us of the power of Christianity to change the world (among other achievements). John Wesley taught the Englis-speaking world how to listen, how to pray, and with the help of his brother, how to sing.
My favorite modern theologians, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Karl Barth started an argument we are still trying to untangle, and the various sides to which different people are still running a generation after the latter's death. Political theology, liberation theology, the new Evnagelical theology, emerging Pentecostal theology - all part and parcel of the conversation that is theology.
Of course, all this is very limited in scope. There are hundreds of names I have left off, and I have completely neglected very lively debates among Orthodox, Coptic, Syriac, and Nestorian Christians, separated from the West by politics and theology for over a millenium, but nonetheless vital and scrapping.
Yes, the conversation is sprawling, over time and space and languages, enhanced by beer and ale and wine and mead and vodka and whisky and good food and fine cigars and pipes and hookahs full of hashish. Christian theology is multi-cultural, multi-lingual, boisterous, sometimes shrill, sometimes profound, never dull, and always, in the end, about a life and love so powerful it can rescue creation from permamnent separation from the loving creator of all that is.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

No apology necessary

I thought it might be important to specify some things about my Christian faith, in order to get some dialogue going. Believe me, there is much to discuss - from my politics to my favorite rock bands - but I thought I'd take baby steps at first. It's easier that way for all of us. That being said, I can sum up my approach to my faith by saying I am unapologetically Christian.
First, and trivially, this means that I make no apologies for my own adherence to a faith that gives shape to my life, that sustains me in times of trouble, that opens up the whole Universe to the possibility of redemption, and through which I have come to understand the connection between all of us, and all we do.
Second, by "unapologetic" I mean I refuse to get into debates over the reality of "God", over the seeming incongruousness of the doctrine of the Trinity, over the status of miracles, or any other of the myriad issues Christian apologists have attempted to address over the past two millenium. The Christian faith stands or falls on its own merits, on the truth to which it gives witness, and as it lives out as faithfully as it can (through grace) the commission given it by God, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.
To take just one hardly unimportant example, the question of God's existence has been much discussed, debated, proved and disproved, accepted, rejected, argued over, killed for, died for, and generally been a source of discomfort. I neither deny that, nor do I deny the questions that many people have over the whole question. My problems with the apologetic stance - i.e., it is incumbent upon Christians to prove the existence of God, ontologically, morally, and historiclaly - are several and will be listed below.
First, to start with the Bible (where else?), we must examine the story of Moses encounter with the LORD in the burning bush (just a quick note, in some future post I will deal with the whole name of God thing). after getting his marching orders, Moses still hesitates, and says, "Whom shall I say has sent me?" In other words, give me a tool to make me sound less crazy. What Moses gets in response is a pluperfect verb. No help there. Then Moses asks for a sign; the LORD's answer is, your sign is you will have succeeded in what I have sent you to do. In other words, stop sitting around trying to figure out if this is true and do what you have been called to do.
Second, I often find peole discussing "God" as if it were a univocal word. When you say I God, the people around you all understand the same thing. Indeed, because Judaism and Islam are both Abrahamic faiths, we all worship the same God, so what's the reaons for argument? The problem with this view - and it is the biggest trap apologists fall into - is that "God" is not univocal; the question, indeed, is not "Does God exist?" but rather, "Is your god, God?" There is no argument, logical, moral, historical, existential, one can use to move from the emptiness of the word "god", to the fullness of the living God of Christian faith. Rather than apologetics, we can only rest - and here hardly rest, but rather just pause briefly - at confession.
And this is where we return, in the end; our task, as Christians, one of those things to which we are called, is not to defend either God or the faith of God in Jesus Christ before some fake objective court of reason, but rather to confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Welcome, welcome, welcome

Welcome to the Progressive Christian Web Log. My hope is, over the ensuing days and weeks, to create a forum for serious, thoughtful discussion of matters Christian and political. I suppose, however, before we get the discussion started, it would be important for me to introduce myself. I am a forty-year-old married man; my wife is an ordained minister in a mainline denomination. I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science, a Master of Theological Studies degree with an emphasis on systematic theology (my master's thesis was on the Christology of Jurgen Moltmann), and I studied philosophy at the PhD level for two years, giving up academia when my first daughter was born.
Politically I find myself drifting farther to the left as I get older. Theologically I am within the wide mainstream of Christianity, at least as far as I understand that term. I am trinitarian, I accept the bodily resurrection of Christ, the efficacy of God's grace to overcome human sin. I deny the reality of Christian existence, salvation, and truth, outside the Church Universal. Within these bounds, I find wide latitude for discussion of a whole host of issues, from the history of the Church, to our present political predicament. My hope is that serious people, both those who are Christian and those who are not, will discuss topics without rancor, ad hominem attacks, with the common goal of learning from one another. This is a thin hope, from my experience on other places on the web, but a hope it is nonetheless.
I shall begin by saying that part of the impetus for this whole thing was a discussion at another website, and the realization that there was a tremendous animus against Christianity, but so much of it was either nonsensical or based on a lack of knowledge of Christian history. I was surprised (perhaps I shouldn't have been) that those who called "religion" a "fraud" or "delusion" were (a) too often angry at a caricature of Christianity, rather than at Christianity itself; (b) conflating two very different things, viz., religion as a general human phenomenon and Christianity as a particular manifestation of that phenomenon; (c) relying on arguments that had very little to do with the way millioins of Christians live their lives and practice their faith.
I am as disgusted by the Christian fundamentalists and their prostituting their faith with the current administration as are most people. Their actions, however, are no more indicative of true Christianity than the acts of the 9/11 hijackers are indicative of true Islam. These people, whom I refer to as rationalist fundamentalists, or sometimes scientific fundamentalists, are as rigid as the religious fundamentlaists they deride. There is no use attempting a discussion with them, for no argument can persuade them that they are fundamentally (pun intended) flawed. To insist, without argument or evidence, that people of faioth are delusional, even irrational, and should be ignored, even silenced due to some perceived threat they pose to the rest of humanity, indicates a serious problem that has little to do with the practice of religion, Christianity in particular.
I hope this is the beginning of an interesting time for all of us.