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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The New Christianity, La Iglesia Nueva

Much of what I have lately posted has to do with a general criticism of the current state of the Christian church. I have criticized it for its dogma and doctrinalism, its closed-mindedness, and its adherence to anti-scientific principles.

It's all well and good to point out the weaknesses within a movement or organization; but without a perspective on what might replace it or at least remedy it, then what good has been done?

If the Church is now dead or dying, if it is a mere matter of a generation or two from disappearing, it would be well to begin the work of the New Church, la iglesia nueva (I've recently begun to learn Spanish, and here I thought a different language might underline the near complete break with the past that I see as necessary: queria destacar una ruptura completa!).

Although I've only just begun to formulate these ideas, I think that the New Church must have within it certain descriptors:

1) "There is no religion higher than Truth." This, some will remember, is the motto on the emblem of the Theosophical Society. The watchword should be: Is it true?

2) Jesus is many things to many people: Doctrine does not inform, it limits.

3) The Bible is among the great books of the world and it should be read and studied, but it is not any different in kind than other great epics, such as the Odyssey, the Iliad, the Aeneid, or The Brothers Karamazov or Don Quixote for that matter. All works are equally to be studied, all religions can teach. The Bible is not The Holy Word.

4) Art and Science are the chief means for spiritual inquiry.

5) The New Christian Church tears down walls, it does not build them. If an idea of a Temple is desired, it can be thought that the Earth or the Universe is that temple.

6) The New Christian Church is not a church of miracles, but of community. Prayer is not to be thought of as somehow influencing a theistic God, but is useful for meditation and influencing those that pray.

7) Questions are more important than answers; poetry greater than creed. All language is metaphor and translation.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Explaining Anomalies Biblically or Otherwise


I of late have attended, much to my dismay, a Bible study. Not a mere discussion of the Bible but one formed around fundamentalist doctrine. Of a sort. The study was basically independent of leadership, which is to say it had no church leader leading the group around some central theme or book (other than The Holy Bible itself), as is the norm in such things. I was intrigued because the instigator of the group titled it An Inquiry into the Bible.

That was intriguing since I welcome such inquiries. There are, to my mind, too many "certainties" around the biblical Word. Some questioning is very much welcome in my world.

We began with Genesis. It began quite slowly. We could not make a lot of headway past the first two verses. The idea of a "Gap Theory" loomed and this lead to a discussion on how old the earth was (between 5,000 and 8,000 years old). Evolution crept in, but only to be dismissed as an example of what is wrong with the teaching within our public schools.

Though I attempted to correct certain misinformed opinions regarding evolutionary science and geology, I was outnumbered. Was it surprising to me that everyone could so easily disavow modern science? Though I was aware that there were fundamentalists holding these beliefs, yes, it was still surprising to me.

Still, this was nothing compared to the next meeting when we somehow touched on the infallibility of the Word itself. Now, I hold a mostly progressive opinion of the Bible. It is my opinion that the Bible is not the Word of God, though I do find some sections "inspired." But I must also say that I find The Brothers Karamazov inspired, and Don Quixote and Turner's paintings also inspired. The fundamentalist finds things oddly different than in my biblical worldview. I tend to agree with Bishop Shelby Sprong when he says that the Bible is an epic, created to give the early Jews a story to better explain their history.

I attempted to turn the argument to a different standard, something other than the Bible as foundational. If there were some other process, or experience, or something that we could all agree on as being a touchstone--something much like the cogito ergo sum--some Archimedean lever point, then we could start to form a consensus.

So I threw out this: We need to ask the question, But is it true? Of everything. Even the Bible. Unfortunately fundamentalists will not give up the idea of the inerrant Word of God. Their reasoning is circular: The Bible says it is the Word of God, therefore it is the Word of God. Inconsistencies are nonexistent. Why? Because there could not be any errors or inconsistencies since...there cannot be errors or inconsistencies in the Bible. It is the Word of God...get it?

But is it true?

I was given an essay by R. C. Sproul entitled, Explaining Anomalies. Sproul is a Reformed Christian, which basically means he is a fundamentalist of the Calvinist sort. He famously disavowed any friendliness with the Catholic Church by Chuck Colson and Fr. Richard Neuhaus and others by denouncing the Evangelicals and Catholics Together document of 1994. (As an aside, the more contact with conservative fundamentalism I have, the more I notice an extreme anti-Catholic sentiment, verging on hate.)

Sproul's argument, or excuse really, is that the more we discover concerning the Bible the less divergencies will arise. Sproul explains, "Other discrepancies in the biblical account have yet to be resolved, but that doesn’t mean we should doubt Scripture’s truthfulness." Sproul compares the paradigm of Bible scholarship and archaeology with science, with the theories of Ptolemy giving way to Copernicus only when "too many anomalies were discovered" within the Ptolemaic system. Well, one has to ask oneself, are there too many discrepancies within the Bible to ascribe them to God, and shouldn't we begin to reconsider the divine nature of the Word? Not according to Sproul who sees each and every one of these pesky anomalies being cleared up one after the other. I am not so confident, especially after spending a few hours discussing creationism with a bunch of fundamentalists. (Here is a list of the more commonly seen discrepancies/anomolies within the Bible, the sort that fundamentalists like Sproul easily explain away as being merely differences of perspective and emphasis:  http://infidels.org/library/modern/jim_meritt/bible-contradictions.html )

This is of course just begging the question, since it supposes the Bible's inerrancy within the premise. If the Bible is not true, does all of Christianity need to be plowed under, compost for some future belief? What could our new touchstone be, if not the Bible? But it must be Truth, and Experience. Do we experience the Spirit? Well, do we? Is it true? Do we truly need doctrine to tell us our experience, to show us if we have given the correct answer on some spiritual quiz? Is there even a correct answer? 

So many questions arise when we give up this touchstone, this box of God, which is the Bible. And once we give up this box, we seem to have to live with these questions. 

I have another question which I feel is analogous to this other one concerning the Bible and Truth: Why do so many Americans (and other people too but Americans especially) dislike poetry? Isn't it because Americans dislike questions? And living with questions? Americans want answers, they want clarity. They hate mysterious fuzziness and mysticism and living within the question. They seem to crave the security of The Answer. Better: They seem to crave the security of The Right Answer. 

Poetry is a question; the Bible is, truly, a question. 

When people read the Bible as if it were The Answer they have placed themselves and God into a box, a box of answers that they have chosen as a refuge against all those pesky doubts that accrue in life. 

But the young are beginning to embrace questions, so I have noticed. They are questioning all sorts of things, what it means to be a male, a female; what it means to be a married couple; what it means to be a success. 

Fundamentalists are consistent in their cry for Revival. The young may well be creating that revival now, or very soon, but I doubt it will be recognizable as one to a conservative Christian. It will be one of a slow unwinding of doctrine and a slow acceptance of a spiritual awakening, but one that does not cut off one from the body of believers, but envelops many in a loving, but poetically questioning spirit. 

I append below the full answer to the Sproul essay: 

FulI disclosure: I saw that the author of this piece was R. C. Sproul. I have to say that I hold some bias against the man. As a longtime supporter of Chuck Colson, I take Sproul to be of a lesser light. He denounced Colson’s efforts (when Colson was working with Richard Niehaus) with Catholics and Evangelicals Together. Ever since then I have held a low opinion of the man.


Sproul’s argument is intellectually dishonest. He argues through two methods, each dishonest in its own way.
I. Sproul: Due to individual personalities the content varies in perspective, but this fact somehow does not create untruthful information. I take it that this explanation is supposed to counter the variants of the resurrection stories (differing accounts, who was present at the rising?), and the two Genesis accounts [Man/woman created simultaneously or one then the other; animals first or animals second?). Now if we send two people to a road and ask them to come back after a half hour and relate to us what they have witnessed, and one tells us that they saw 10 cars and 20 trucks, but then the other person relates to us that they saw 20 trucks and 10 blue whales… Well, we can be assured that the second person is most likely telling a falsehood or is mentally disabled. This does not change if the person relates that he is a prophet of God and speaks what he is ordered to speak by the Lord Himself. If the second person instead relates that he saw the opposite of the first person (10 trucks, 20 cars) then we have to choose: which is telling the truth (if either...both could be wrong). What we do not do--well, Sproul apparently does--is say both are true due to “personality differences.” No; what we always do is assume that there is a Truth and that we can investigate to find out whether one is true or both are false. We investigate. We take our touchstone--TRUTH--and we work till we come as close to the truth as we can. What we don’t do is issue silly pronouncements about truth being dependent on personality differences. Although you could argue that all truth is relative. But Sproul does not take that tack. He would argue that truth is in fact absolute. So this argument is unavailable to him.

II. Sproul: Due to incomplete science, we gradually find out biblical truth as the science becomes more complete. And so as we do archaeological studies we find out more information, for example: Perhaps we find some evidence for the Jewish enslavement in Egypt. This is almost correct to do; what isn’t correct is that this uses the Bible as touchstone, instead of science. But as long as the Bible follows the evidence then there really isn’t a problem. But what happens when the two diverge? Now what do you do? Well, you either use the Bible as touchstone, or you use Truth/science/evidence as touchstone. Using the Bible as touchstone produces one glaring problem: All you have is a literary form which might well be an ancient people’s epic, or myth. What you are trying to do is prove the form, but how do you do that when all you have is the form’s word for it (and after all, the Vedas, the Book of Mormon, the Koran all claim divine origination)? Well, you compare it to...the touchstone. But if your touchstone is, again, the literary form, you have done nothing but practice circular reasoning, or to have produced a fine example of “begging the question.” So you are left with the second choice: using science to prove the literary form. OK, but what if science then says your earth is 4.6 billion years old and the literary form says it is 6000 years old? What if the science says man--actually, all life--evolved from some single-celled algal cell or protozoal cell or something but that the literary form states was created as whole humans by a theistic being all of one piece? Well, you have to choose: is your touchstone the literary form or science?
But there is one thing that you cannot do, because it is intellectually dishonest: you cannot choose only the science that fulfills your literary form’s consistency but ignore the science that disproves it. You don’t get to take some science (let’s say, archaeological evidence for an ancient Jewish well in Samaria) as proof of the Bible yet reject other science (archaeological evidence stating Noah’s flood never happened). Either you take all the science and see where it leads or you live merely within the covers of the Book. Sproul tries to have his cake and eat it too.

What is necessary, and what is intellectually honest, is to take as one’s touchstone Truth, and to say of everything: Is it True? But when you do that you have to take whatever comes as “gospel.” It may well prove that the Bible is to be seen not as the Word of God, but as some epic, some tale that was constructed in order to convey a truth (a literary truth) about the Jewish people, say. You have to let the pieces fall where they may. Otherwise you are not being intellectually honest.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Cuban American Cha-Cha


Today President Obama gave a historic speech from Havana, Cuba, outlining his vision for a rapprochement between Cuba and the USA. I found it inspiring but a little disingenuous, especially at the end. These types of speeches, meant to demark some historical significance, are writ large, with sonorous phrases and appeals to “our better angels.” But we cannot let it lie there, shining like some fable from the George Washington cherry tree notebook; it needs to be examined for its true nature.

I have left the first half of the speech to history. It was a wonderful display of reconciliation, a reaching out to the Cuban people in a way that might well soften their hearts to American interests.

The last half, however, tended to twist the narrative toward fantasy, in a way that Reagan would have been proud. Here are the more unsettling paragraphs:

So let me tell you what I believe. I can't force you to agree, but you should know what I think. I believe that every person should be equal under the law. (Applause.) Every child deserves the dignity that comes with education, and health care and food on the table and a roof over their heads. (Applause.) I believe citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear -- (applause) -- to organize, and to criticize their government, and to protest peacefully, and that the rule of law should not include arbitrary detentions of people who exercise those rights. (Applause.) I believe that every person should have the freedom to practice their faith peacefully and publicly. (Applause.) And, yes, I believe voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections. (Applause.)

Now as to what Obama really thinks for himself we don’t know, but here we can simply take him at his word. He doesn’t say explicitly that he feels that in the US these beliefs, these ideals, have been achieved, but it does sound to me that he is comparing a despotic government which lacks these ideals (Cuba) with one that has indeed achieved them (USA).

But in the USA every child has not achieved the dignity that comes with education. Far from it. We are a nation of classes, and if you are wealthy you can achieve great things. If you are poor you likely endure a system of unequal education. As for health care and food on the table, and shelter, the US is the exemplar of inequality. People go bankrupt because they get diabetes or have a stroke or heart attack. The US was quick to bail out banks that took the roof quite literally away from those in the poorer levels of society, and even the middle classes.

When speaking their minds workers within the US government had better fear for their livelihood and in some cases for their freedom, as Robert McCarthy, Joshua Wilson, Chelsea Manning, Carmen Segarra, Edward Snowden, David P. Weber, Ben Strickland, J. Kirk McGill, John Bitterman, and others have recently experienced. Are they not political prisoners of a kind? Those who have wished to protest peacefully have often been met with force and tear gas and pepper spray.


And in the USA do we choose our governments in free democratic elections, or do the officials choose their voters with corrupt gerrymandering techniques? And do they ignore the constituency in favor of big monied interests? Don’t they simply vote on bills that lobbyists have placed in front of them? Is this what we want to call democracy?

Not everybody agrees with me on this. Not everybody agrees with the American people on this. But I believe those human rights are universal. (Applause.) I believe they are the rights of the American people, the Cuban people, and people around the world.
Now, there’s no secret that our governments disagree on many of these issues. I’ve had frank conversations with President Castro. For many years, he has pointed out the flaws in the American system -- economic inequality; the death penalty; racial discrimination; wars abroad. That’s just a sample. He has a much longer list. (Laughter.) But here’s what the Cuban people need to understand: I welcome this open debate and dialogue. It’s good. It’s healthy. I’m not afraid of it.

I’m sure he does have a longer list. It probably includes the waging of an illegal, immoral war in Nicaragua and El Salvador and he might have mentioned the genocide in Guatemala that Reagan helped perpetuate. As well, he probably remembers the US making Central and South America the playground for Kissinger’s political games, games which cost the lives of countless people.


We do have too much money in American politics. But, in America, it's still possible for somebody like me -- a child who was raised by a single mom, a child of mixed race who did not have a lot of money -- to pursue and achieve the highest office in the land. That's what’s possible in America. (Applause.)

It’s possible, yes. But is it possible for someone like Obama, raised by a single mother, with dark skin, with a history of living in a Muslim country to achieve such high rank without the support of big money in Wall Street and elsewhere? No, I don’t think so.

We do have challenges with racial bias -- in our communities, in our criminal justice system, in our society -- the legacy of slavery and segregation. But the fact that we have open debates within America’s own democracy is what allows us to get better. In 1959, the year that my father moved to America, it was illegal for him to marry my mother, who was white, in many American states. When I first started school, we were still struggling to desegregate schools across the American South. But people organized; they protested; they debated these issues; they challenged government officials. And because of those protests, and because of those debates, and because of popular mobilization, I’m able to stand here today as an African-American and as President of the United States. That was because of the freedoms that were afforded in the United States that we were able to bring about change.

I think he would have been better to emphasize the great cost that has accrued from those changes, changes that killed so many, changes that cost people their futures. Debate and protest in the US are not met with kindness; they are met with fury.


I’m not saying this is easy. There’s still enormous problems in our society. But democracy is the way that we solve them. That's how we got health care for more of our people. That's how we made enormous gains in women’s rights and gay rights. That's how we address the inequality that concentrates so much wealth at the top of our society. Because workers can organize and ordinary people have a voice, American democracy has given our people the opportunity to pursue their dreams and enjoy a high standard of living. (Applause.)

It has to be emphasized that in the US we still have tens of millions without any health care. Obama uses the ACA as a point of pride. It is nothing but a slight sliver of hope. And if we truly are not a real democracy --and we are not-- his argument that this is how we address our inequality is nothing but blather. Worker unions  in the US are being decimated. Corporations have won the right to rule their laborers by legislation, twisting the arms of their politician minions to pass so-called “Right to Work” laws, which are nothing but an excuse to fire at will anyone who does not toe the corporate line.

Now, there are still some tough fights. It isn’t always pretty, the process of democracy. It's often frustrating. You can see that in the election going on back home. But just stop and consider this fact about the American campaign that's taking place right now. You had two Cuban Americans in the Republican Party, running against the legacy of a black man who is President, while arguing that they’re the best person to beat the Democratic nominee who will either be a woman or a Democratic Socialist. (Laughter and applause.) Who would have believed that back in 1959? That's a measure of our progress as a democracy. (Applause.)
So here’s my message to the Cuban government and the Cuban people: The ideals that are the starting point for every revolution -- America’s revolution, Cuba’s revolution, the liberation movements around the world -- those ideals find their truest expression, I believe, in democracy. Not because American democracy is perfect, but precisely because we’re not. And we -- like every country -- need the space that democracy gives us to change. It gives individuals the capacity to be catalysts to think in new ways, and to reimagine how our society should be, and to make them better.
There’s already an evolution taking place inside of Cuba, a generational change. Many suggested that I come here and ask the people of Cuba to tear something down -- but I’m appealing to the young people of Cuba who will lift something up, build something new. (Applause.) El future de Cuba tiene que estar en las manos del pueblo Cubano. (Applause.)

The future of Cuba must be in the hands of Cubans and the future of America must be likewise in the hands of Americans...which is to say the future is bleak, since American democracy is an illusion, and the Cuban dictatorship is statist.

And to President Castro -- who I appreciate being here today -- I want you to know, I believe my visit here demonstrates you do not need to fear a threat from the United States. And given your commitment to Cuba’s sovereignty and self-determination, I am also confident that you need not fear the different voices of the Cuban people -- and their capacity to speak, and assemble, and vote for their leaders. In fact, I’m hopeful for the future because I trust that the Cuban people will make the right decisions.
And as you do, I’m also confident that Cuba can continue to play an important role in the hemisphere and around the globe -- and my hope is, is that you can do so as a partner with the United States.
We’ve played very different roles in the world. But no one should deny the service that thousands of Cuban doctors have delivered for the poor and suffering. (Applause.) Last year, American health care workers -- and the U.S. military -- worked side-by-side with Cubans to save lives and stamp out Ebola in West Africa. I believe that we should continue that kind of cooperation in other countries.
We’ve been on the different side of so many conflicts in the Americas. But today, Americans and Cubans are sitting together at the negotiating table, and we are helping the Colombian people resolve a civil war that’s dragged on for decades. (Applause.) That kind of cooperation is good for everybody. It gives everyone in this hemisphere hope.

It is not the American government that Castro needs to fear; it is the corporate junta behind that government, writing its laws, forming its future.


We took different journeys to our support for the people of South Africa in ending apartheid. But President Castro and I could both be there in Johannesburg to pay tribute to the legacy of the great Nelson Mandela. (Applause.) And in examining his life and his words, I'm sure we both realize we have more work to do to promote equality in our own countries -- to reduce discrimination based on race in our own countries. And in Cuba, we want our engagement to help lift up the Cubans who are of African descent -- (applause) -- who’ve proven that there’s nothing they cannot achieve when given the chance.
We’ve been a part of different blocs of nations in the hemisphere, and we will continue to have profound differences about how to promote peace, security, opportunity, and human rights. But as we normalize our relations, I believe it can help foster a greater sense of unity in the Americas -- todos somos Americanos. (Applause.)
...
There is more than just “more work to do to promote equality.” America is accelerating its inequality, veering into uncharted territory. The work this nation is doing is not to undo inequality, but to make that inequality permanent. A Cuba that enters into a relationship with this behemoth of corporate mis-union has much to fear. Promotion of peace has not been a hallmark of this nation, not even from the presidents who have managed to win Nobel Peace prizes. Human rights have been discounted by those committing torture and by the bombing of civilians, by the constant waging of war. By imprisonment without just cause and without the rule of law.


These two countries have danced a little like children trying to be adults, pretending to know how the music is played. But when the lives of so many are at stake, when everyone depends so much on the telling of truths, now it is better to remember the How of our history, and the real Why. We should not pretend anymore. A new song may well be played next, but we don’t need to hear it to know how dangerous it is to pretend.

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Literal Lie of Fundamentalism


"Give up your good Christian life and follow Jesus." --Garrison Keillor
                                                                "The only container for truth is a lie."--JM Lloyd 

My position is that the Holy Bible is not holy, nor inerrant, nor consistent, nor is it God’s purpose that we view it as if it were an idol, as if it were perfect. It is the greatest work of literature ever written down, but is similar to how the Greeks viewed Homer’s epics, how the Romans viewed the Aeneid, or the Mesopotamian epic Gilgamesh or the Hindu Vedas. It is how a people came to view their history and how they answered certain ontological and epistemological questions. To put it in that company does not degrade the Bible; it elevates it. It is how humans have recorded our search for meaning and truth, for God.


The Bible is not history (except in the sense of a mythic history). There was no Eden, no flood, there may not have been even a captivity in Egypt (there is virtually no evidence for it). To pretend that we should believe the Bible instead of science is ridiculous, and does much harm. No one should be pointing to Genesis as our model for creation and belittling evolution.


The Bible contains much that is not holy: slavery, anti-homosexuality, violence toward women and babies and even animals, and a patriarchy that is still with us to this day. These need to be spoken against, not pointed to with holy fervor.


Inconsistencies abound but we pretend they are not there. Inconsistencies have been noticed since the early church Fathers (Origen for instance). Some get around this by pretending that the Bible is inerrant only as far as salvation is concerned. I put myself more in that camp, but I don’t pretend that this isn’t a very large loophole. Some use the term “inspired” but carefully avoid defining the term. I can use the term too; have used it in the past. And to me the Bible is very much inspired, but I doubt that I mean what others might mean.


The Bible--including the New Testament--show a people’s experience of God translated into language, a language that can only employ metaphor (that is all a language can do), and when we try and turn that language back into experiencing God we err if we train our ears literally. This is a great error for it misses the experience of God in humanity: this is what the Bible is for, this is its purpose (other than showing a people’s mythic history). To see the Bible as a box holding God is to limit God, and to substitute an answer where there should only be a question. Biblical inerrancy is about power and doctrine and dogma. When belief in the Holy Bible as inerrant Word of God keeps people from Christ/God, then it is time to cast aside that belief.


Literalists and other fundamentalists create a barrier, a wall, to knowing the experience of Christ. They create this wall of words that show magic miracles, that portrays a world totally unknown to us (prayers that heal, heavens that open up to angels singing, hell fire and damnation), an experience that is walled off to us because of an ignorance of language and of how humans tell stories to convey truth. Only when you see how the story is made, and ask what happened to cause a people to create such stories, do you begin to see the truth. Christ can only be known when you experience him; belief in a literal language masks this experience. It is time to cast it off.

Christ was so unusual to people that they needed to create a myth to surround him; this does not reduce his godliness; it enhances it! Why did they need to reach to such lengths? Because Jesus was so holy and good as to need this epic language, this form of literature that only the rare individuals of history get to have wrapped around them. It means he was truly different, truly of God. The proof of Jesus’ holiness is in the fiction of the mythology! Calling that fiction a literal truth is akin to labeling Jesus merely a man needing propping up, needing a mask of pretense. Call him holy by rejecting the literal lie.

[Written with the thoughts of Bishop Spong in mind. His book The Sins of Scripture is highly recommended.]

Thursday, March 03, 2016

To Trump or Not to Trump? That is the Question.

photo by Daniel Horacio Agostini

Amanda Taub, in a recent Vox article (The rise of American authoritarianism) details an interesting theory regarding the popularity of Trump. It dovetails very nicely with something I've often said (to myself, as one never quite knows to whom one is speaking nowadays), that is to say that it is not Trump we all should be so concerned about, but rather it is the people who are supporting Trump who should demand our attention.

[An aside: I do love Vox, but why, Oh why must nearly every paragraph be two sentences or less? Is this the norm now in digitized articles? Can we not handle large paragraphs with a development of  a thesis? Perhaps I am merely too Faulknerian...or persnickety.]

I've read an article or two, or three, from the odd reporter who dared to visit a Trump rally. The reports are a bit on the scary side. How can people act this way? What way? Well, picture a convention in 1968 and you'll get a fairly nice portrait. It will be full of sound and fury, signifying not much of anything other than racism, xenophobia, and AUTHORITY!

And that leads me to this Vox article. What Taub does is gather research from a nascent field of study concerning the rise of authoritarianism from the point of view of psychology: how we can study the relative placement of any given person or society within a scale running from non-authoritarian to authoritarian. I'm not going to get into the actual theory but it does seem adequately thought out. The idea is that it isn't Trump that is leading people on, so much as the people are choosing Trump...and if there wasn't a Trump around for them to find, well, they would have found someone darn close enough.

The researchers seem to have found a magic formulae to identify Trump/Demagogue/Fascist-at-large: Fear. They respond to a perceived threat (physical such as 9/11 and bombings, or social such as gay marriage, racism, xenophobia, feminism) which triggers a response to lessen that threat with a powerful figure who vows action against that threat. The outsider will be quashed! Gays will be fixed! The Bible will be taught in school! Women will be ostracized for working! Build that wall! Ban those Muslims! And so on.

The article points out that though this drift to the fascist dark side had begun with the GOP's southern strategy in the '60s it has gathered momentum, probably due to the arrival of a perfect storm of threats: social change within the gay movement, physical threats from 9/11 to ISIS, and I would put the economic cartwheel that happened in 2008-9 alongside those. The Tea Party was not so much a political movement that brought conservatives into power so much as there was a sea-change of authoritarianism which produced the Tea Party.

We do not see its like on the left. Yes, there is a substantial movement which can be described as anti-establishment, but this is nothing like the movement on the right. The progressive left wants less authoritarianism, more fairness, more equity, less corruption. It is a rational movement, not an emotional movement as that of the right. It is a movement that clarifies, distills. The fascist movement of Trump is one that muddies and tosses up hatred out of fear. That fear results in a willingness to support anything and anyone that promises action. I was thinking as I read this piece of Dostoevsky's The Grand Inquisitor. There is something about that promise of mere bread, of mere security that can lead great numbers of people to support anything alleviating the threat of hunger or insecurity. And not only to support them, but they need them.

Another thing which I have also stated (also almost exclusively to myself): we are at the opportune time for a split in the parties, not just into three, as the Vox article suggests, but into four, with the remaining party the result of extreme dissatisfaction on the part of the Democratic Party. The Green Party could play a role here, or there could be another Bull Moose type or Progressive Party. Taube writes that "authoritarians are their own constituency." Therefore they are their own party, at least in theory. I do wonder if there are enough moderates within the GOP to even constitute another party, though. There simply are not enough old white males (the chief constituents of this "authoritarian party") to fear them taking over the presidency. For that we are thankful.

One might suggest, as in a recent New Yorker article, that the leftist Sanders supporters join forces with moderate establishment Republicans in order to foil any small chance Trump would have of victory; this is what happened when Le Pen threatened victory in France not too long ago. I doubt if we've come to that. There just isn't any chance of a GOP victory now. The numbers of old white men diminish with every year. Adam Gopnik, author of the New Yorker article, suggests also that Trump is merely, or might be merely the resurrection of the Rockefeller Republican wing. He does have some similarities (another Sun King of the wealthy masses) but the comparison falters when looking at his constituency. Rockefeller Republicans do not go to these rallies.

But it does produce one additional, scary, thought: When you examine Trump and his "policies" such as they are, and then compare him against others within the party including fellow candidates, you can come up with the conclusion that Trump may well be the least dangerous of these people. Trump compared to Cruz can indeed be said to be "marginally sane." What then can we do? Work for sanity, point out that fear produces no good thing politically, and vote Democratic, or Green, or Progressive. And thank God we do not have too many angry old white men around.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The War Room: musings on Christian Entertainment

Last night I viewed The War Room, a film produced by the Kendrick brothers, directed by Alex Kendrick (who also has a bit part in the movie). This is the latest production from them, others being Courageous, Facing the Giants, and Fireproof. The only other film of theirs that I have seen is Fireproof, and I cannot recommend it for its horrendous acting, and tendentious storyline. The viewing for The War Room contained the trailer for Courageous, which apparently fits neatly into the high school mythology of football in America. How football, with its history of violence and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, fits into a Christian lifestyle--all of these are Christian movies--I cannot fathom. I won't be seeing Courageous anytime soon. [Photo by Matthias Karlsson.]

The movie is possibly slightly better acted than in Fireproof, but that isn't saying much (the ever-present Kirk Cameron, king of evangelist acting, is thankfully absent). The direction is ham-handed and the writing is atrocious (at least for its plot; the dialogue actually has some redeeming value). There isn't any point in the movie where anybody has trouble forecasting coming events. The movie takes place in a village that bears little semblance with any reality I know of, and deeper issues of race and poverty--actually any deeper issue you care to pick--are simply not evident.

But, there are many awful movies produced; I don't want to waste time discussing the relative demerits of this one. The deeper issue at hand is the problem of prayer and the place of commerce within the greater Christian community.

The War Room in question is an elderly woman's closet, where she prays. She takes another troubled soul under her wing and this younger woman--her acolyte, disciple, what have you--then strips her own closet of clothes and converts it too into a prayer War Room in order to save her marriage. You can imagine the rest for yourself. Guess what? God wins, Satan loses, and everyone is happy ever after. Just like in real life!

Prayer is a divisive topic in today's Christian world due to many holding onto an idea that prayer influences the cosmos, influences God, and so becomes a magician's trick. Prayer is seen as the most important play within the Christian's playbook (football metaphors come in handy within Christian examples despite its violence). We have to read the Bible and pray over our families, pray for our country, and for the missionaries in the field. Churches hold prayer meetings seemingly forgetful of Jesus' admonition not to pray in public, but to go into your closet in prayer (and yes, kudos for the actual closet within the film). 

The other side of prayer is the non-magical sort, and this too is within the film. The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.--Kierkegaard. The character of Elizabeth, the woman experiencing a life crisis within the movie, does pray in this manner, as well as the former, in that she recognizes that she must submit to God's will, that she cannot force the hand of her husband, that she is not in control. Her attitude thus changes and also her interactions with others, in particular, with her husband.

But then the magic hand of God also makes an appearance. At the assignation of Tony (the husband) and Veronica, a woman who took an interest in him at work, there is a sudden illness that overtakes Tony, and he is unable to go back to the woman's apartment. This was after or perhaps during a prayer session of Elizabeth, Tony's wife.

We also see Elizabeth's frantic shouting at the devil to remove itself from her home and family; the scene is straight out of a healing ceremony at a Pentecostal revival. This is supposed to represent the power of Christ, power that faithful Christians can use in their lives. What it reminded me most of was the Vampire movies where someone would hold up a cross to chase the creatures away.

Prayer as magic is not a recipe for a fulfilling faith. Crises come and prayer will not magically cure anything. Even Christian Science churches no longer preaches this anymore (I hope). But the attitude of Kierkegaard, which regards prayer as more of a kind of meditation-slash-psychology can better one's life, can make one more attuned to the place of self within society and one's environment. It can quiet, it can focus, and it can clear one of extraneous possessiveness. It can do some good, in other words.

Donna Compton, a hospital chaplain, in a recent article from ProgressiveChristianity.org, has a phrase to describe how she views prayer:  "Leaning into the good.’ That’s what prayer is to me-mentally, spiritually, and even sometimes physically, leaning into the good."

She cites Romans 8:26 “In the same way the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what prayer to offer or how to offer it as we should, but the Spirit knows our need and at the right time intercedes on our behalf with sighs and groans too deep for words.”

Notice it doesn't say here in Romans that the intercession will be to magically do some work, change someone's behavior, or alter some world event. It merely states the Spirit knows our need and that we will get intercession with sighs and groanings which are so deep that they cannot be contained in language.

The other thing I wanted to discuss was the element of commerce within Christian films and books and whatnot. Christian business is a big industry, very profitable. Rupert Murdoch has bought up a large chunk, perhaps as much as half, of the Christian publication industry. One questions the motivation of a business that profits this much from Christ's teachings. Is it to evangelize? Or is it to profit? Some might say both, but since Christ's teachings pretty much are against personal aggrandizement, we can safely eliminate that. 

American Christianity is full of examples of pastors making themselves quite wealthy from the sales of Christian self-help type books (for example, look at the millions made from John MacDonald's books and John Hagee and a hundred others) and from television broadcasts. The Kendrick brothers seem to have one-upped them all. The War Room, as of the time of this post, has grossed almost $70 million dollars with a budget of only $3 million. That is some serious profit. Fireproof grossed over $33 million on a budget one-sixth that of The War Room. Alex Kendrick has a list of five director credits, and three as producer, on IMDB.com. We are talking some serious dinero here.

None of these movies can be said to be an artistic success. Simply look up the general reaction from critics on a site such as Rotten Tomatoes. These are not movies for the general audience, but are finely tuned to appeal to a particular type of evangelical, usually protestant, Christian. An audience that might have some willingness to spend money in order to hear their own echo--or their pastor's echo--back at them. 

It is a kind of manipulation, an emotional manipulation, that by-passes any rational discussion of theology, any questioning of normative values. It does not want to prick anyone overmuch; it does not want to probe for answers that do not come too quickly, if at all. It is a falsity; it is truly something that is against Christ, against honesty and truth. It is against the human proposition of true creativity, and isn't that what we are? Creative beings, made in God's image? 






Sunday, October 04, 2015

The Idolatry of Bible Worship

[Know that I do not mean to inspect the idolatry within the Bible, but speak of the sola scriptura within the five solae (others being sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria). Photo by Freaktography]

The Church is ossified. I believe that the mass exodus from the church in our contemporary western world is due to this scaling over of the eyes of the Church. Is it not a bony, skeletal, stiff thing compared to its bright cousin, the Spirit Church? And so this is what I label as the Church's successor: the spirit church, the church which casts off the stiff structure of doctrinal worship (ie, worship of doctrine) and replaces this with an experiential, spiritual commune of those willing to put Christ's passion for us over all other things. Over even the Bible, which seems to be the last object left to the Church, the last relic which it clings to with long, sharpened, clinging claws.

But I do not cast the Bible out entirely--only the worship of the Bible. And make no mistake: the fundamentalist churches do worship the Bible. They claim it inerrant, despite the asymmetry between different versions (Sinai Bible vs others), despite the obvious textual problems (contradictions, later insertions, stylistic asymmetries). They claim its literalness, despite language's inherent sloughing off of literality (language is not mathematics). They claim its "divine inspiration," while discounting the "divine" inspiration of other art forms (why cannot Shakespeare and Chaucer and Cervantes be considered divinely inspired through their genius? And that is only within the literal arts. What of Raphael? Goya? What of Balanchine? Bach?)

The fundamentalist understanding of the Bible is constricted, small-minded, and wrong. If they wished--they decidedly do not--to expand their understanding of the Bible they would peer into translation theory, and broaden their scope with the understanding of comparative literature.

Giambattista Vico, an Italian philosopher of the 18th C., asserted that people understand the lowly and the humble, not the highest reaches of heaven. That we relate to the real world treatments of literature, not the high-born depictions of the gods. We understand humanity, not God. [cf Echevaria's "Cervantes' Don Quixote" pp 202-203.] A Bible class that treats the Bible as inviolate word of God, forever to be separated from the mind of man by some superstitious treatment of the book as Holy Word instead of an example of men attempting some mythic understanding of God's place in their world, worthy of high praise but also worthy of the honest appraisal of its failure--as any treatment of God is doomed to fail within literature. (As an aside, I think Hafiz' poem "Someone Should Start Laughing" contains at least some effort to understand the weakness of language when confronted with the divine: "If you think that the Truth can be known/from words/If you think that the sun and the ocean/can pass through that tiny opening/called the mouth/Oh someone should start laughing.")

What the fundamentalists do is take the high-minded fantastical Bible (who could say it was not fantastical? Noah and the Ark? Moses' and the 40-year trek along with the dividing of the Red Sea? The Virgin Birth?) and coat it with such gilding that it lacks approachability, all understanding, setting it up for the only thing left for it: indoctrination. Dogma comes from our attempt to bring the inapproachable into our hearts.

I think the figures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are instructive here. Our effort to assimilate the heavenly, the fantastical --the fantasy-- can be compared to Don Quixote's madness. We cannot understand his world of chivalry and romance. It has no comparison to our real world. The real world of our experience is more like Sancho Panza, with his concentration on eating and real-world concerns. Don Quixote's preoccupation with fantasy has value--there is beauty there and morality of a kind--as does Sancho's world, the world that we all really live in. But it is when we combine them that we get to the real point. That the real world of everyday, the world of experience, when overlaid with the fantasy of the heavenly (which is not approachable or understandable by us), is our path to a spiritual understanding.

We cannot treat Don Q. like God. That is madness. But that is what we do when we make the Bible our God (is that not what we do when we treat the Bible as the very inerrant Word...In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word equated with Christ. 

The Word--Christ--is more Sancho than Quixote, more humble than lofty, more of society than heavenly kingdom. The following of a madman (Don Q) leaves us thirsty for more, like Sancho found himself, but it leads us into an unknowable cave, a dream, like the Cave of Montesino. 

So where is the real Bible, the real Word of God? It must be found where Christ found it, in the "kingdom of heaven" of the woman making her dough, of the family with the new-found prodigal son, found among us, experiencing the real world. It is not so much Sancho Panza as our new Bible, as both Sancho and the Don experiencing life together, the highs and the lows, the fantastical imaginings of art along with the everyday happenings around us coalescing into a new experience, a new birth of a spiritual awakening, something that will never happen with us dreamily contemplating the madness of a false god.

The Bible is a pointer, a sign that tells us where we can find Truth, where we can start a journey to God. It is not that path itself, a path we guild with gold and dare not step on for defiling God himself. We should walk on it, study it, use it. But do not idolize it. That is madness, no better than Don Quixote's infatuation with romance.