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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.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Religion of Poetry

After some deliberation, when I wondered if I actually meant The Poetry of Religion, I've settled on things as they currently rest. "The Poetry of Religion" would emphasize the endpoint of religion, presumably with its different categorizes of doctrine and spiritual subjectivity, even myth. It states that poetry is a way of seeing religion, a way of describing it, experiencing it. That isn't the way that I think religion works at all. Rather, it is the poetry that we experience, not the religion. It is more correct to say that we form our religions out of poetry, not the poetry from the our religion.

Poetry has, at least within the English-speaking world where I reside, hit upon tough times. Virtually no one reads poetry anymore, other than a few serious practitioners (it is true, though, that many do write poetry but few of them take it so seriously as to study it, revere it, and take it into themselves as mental food). It isn't strange then to conclude that few understand how to read poetry, even what poetry is.

If I say to some other Christians, that the Bible is poetry, no doubt they will nod in agreement. They might add that yes, there is much good poetry in the Bible, and perhaps they will example The Song of Solomon, and Psalms. If I then go on to explain that no, I meant that the entire Bible is poetry, even the dry Leviticus and the historical Chronicles and Kings and the parables of Jesus (especially, I would add, the parables of Jesus). That is when I will get the blank stare of confoundment.

Look, I will say. You are a woman (or man). How do you experience life? As a woman, you say. I conclude, then, that you understand the things of the feminine life--you feel the commonality of other women. Also, you have in common other things--things such as being a wife, or mother, or sister, or daughter, or grandmother. You understand what it is to be a small girl, and a grown woman. But you also have the ability to look at your husband and comprehend at least something of what he goes through as well. Men aren't different species, after all. You can look about you and reference what it is to be a person in your own community, your own culture; but also you have the ability to reference something that others in the wider world experience, too. So many different classifications, and references, all bouncing off one another to create the wide ocean of human understanding. That is poetry.

Poetry is the cloud of meaning that hovers above us, through us, and down below us. It is the algorithm of meaning and referents that occur in our day-to-day lives, and also the bird's-eye view, the novelist's perspective that can take it all in, our entire lives or portions of it. Poetry as a subclass of literature, or what we can call verse, is this in a focused view (whether telescopic or microscopic) with an emphasis on sound (though some modernists eschew the sound in hopes of finding a poetics of image upon a page...I believe they fail). But it is not only this; to think it is will cause you to be blind to the larger implications of poetry as a language of poetics. Language, you see, is poetry. And poetry, as verse, is the meat and potatoes of language. The Bible, then, is poetry. And anyone who wishes to think theologically, spiritually, to seek within the Bible some larger spiritual meaning, should spend a great deal of thought on poetry.

I do not know any theologian, pastor, priest, who does so. (Not that there isn't one out there; just never met the man/woman.)

As an example of the poetry of religion I can think of few better illustrations than that of the prodigal son, or any of the parables of Jesus for that matter (and there is a wonderful reference which I highly recommend, and on from which I draw from, Amy-Jill Levine's book Short Stories by Jesus). The prodigal son (and the prodigal father as well for he foolishly gave his estate away, as a forerunner of Lear one might say) brings to mind the referents of other younger sons in the Bible, Jacob and Esau, Isaac and Ishmael, Cain and Abel. As Jesus told the story, listeners must have held in their minds those very referents and noted how Jesus overturned their preconceptions.

That many in the fundamentalist camp read this, and other parables of Jesus, as allegory misses the poetic reading entirely. So many wish there to be a reading that allows for a one-to-one correspondence (or allegorical) with some idea or other spiritual force. They see in the father figure of this parable the figure of our Heavenly Father. It does not match up with the reading of Jesus, but they see that this is a father and so there must be a correspondence with the Father God. A poetical reading disavows this. (Note that the father is also prodigal, and would not have received the approval of his peers.)

As Amy-Jill Levine notes, the prodigal, once he becomes famished, seeks a rapprochement with his father (his words echo the hollow statement of Pharaoh indicating, poetically, that there is no real remorse). The son is thinking selfishly.

Coming back home, the younger son gets a ring and robe for his troubles (a referent of Joseph?), his speech preempted by a father who is only concerned that here was his son, who he might have supposed was lost to him for good, perhaps even perishing in the famine. Here is the son back, "resurrected" as it were. I don't see this as a resurrection story, per se, but a poetical reading must include this. The point here is that it not be allegorical. The meaning lies in the "cloud" of referents.

The son comes back, pleading for forgiveness (unremorsefully), gets a nice reception, but the story ends with the older son, who was left out and feeling quite alone and forgotten by his father. His father, who had forgotten the older son, tries to make amends and explains in soothing tones that he was always with him, never lost. But the older son did not feel this way. It is left unsaid if the entire family comes together as one. It is a question, not an answer, as is all of poetry.

It is here, at the end of the story, where the meaning of the poem --that is truly what this is-- hovers: looking and remembering at all the history of the Lord's peoples, holding the anguish and difficulty of their lives at once, and in the end we face the ultimate question of relationship.

A poetical reading is what is necessary to hold this meaning of relationship. Allegory spins out an answer much like plugging in the solved factors of an algebraic equation. Poetry is the hovering quantum cloud of an electron, whose position is unknown for the trying of its momentum (complementarity). If a physicist measures the momentum of an electron its position is unknowable, and vice-versa. A fundamentalist takes the "position" of a reading as allegorical, where he should allow the position to hover in a cloud of meanings. Taking the position "unclouds" the meaning, as it were; he thus misses other possibilities, some of which are only connotated by sound and rhythmic arrangements (I think here of Keats, Ode to Autumn with its easy sibilants and assonances that might refer one to autumn's decadent ease).

We like to think of truth as a prize, something that can be sought after, worked for and finally attained. Something we can point to, like some trophy placed on a mantle. I see truth as experience. Truth can have lies within it even; truth can have contradictions kind of like how physics teaches us that waves and particles are simultaneously true ("There is nothing more beautiful than a well-constructed lie."--Syrian proverb). This might be what Keats referred to when he said Beauty is truth; truth beauty--that is all.

The truth of a poem is the truth of life: the experience of life. The more we can experience of life the more truth we can feel and know. We can go around living our lives as a selfish existence, where our experience is limited to our surroundings and our own passions and desires; or we can widen our point of view, encompassing others into a larger community, a spiritual community. Here our referents are other points of view, other experiences--our truth becomes wider, larger, grander. It encompasses more and more experiences, we become not just ourselves, but a bit of the others as well. Our referents go from us outwards. We uncloud our meaning until we see ourselves not as ourselves, but as others, as all, poetically, truthfully.



Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Fundamentalist's Bible

In the early part of the twentieth century protestantism came up with a declaration of sorts, actually a twelve volume work titled The Fundamentals, the core of which was a statement of beliefs centering around five key positions that have since come to be considered the tenets of fundamentalism (the Christian variety, of course).

These are:

  1. The inerrancy (and literal interpretation) and full authority of the Bible;
  2. The virgin birth and full divinity of Christ
  3. The bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead;
  4. Christ's atonement, through his sacrifice, for our sins;
  5. The second coming of Christ.

I am not a fundamentalist Christian, merely a Christian. The five fundamentals have within them either non-rational ideas (point 1) or ideas that may be considered as problematic (points 3-5), agreed upon or not; and disagreement with these five points do not necessarily discard one's allegiance to Christ in the least. It can be debated whether point 2 belongs in either camp.

And so with that the reader can readily guess which point that I readily spurn: The inerrancy of the Bible with a literal interpretation.

The belief in some kind of a literal interpretation lends a showiness to one's ignorance of language and linguistics that tends to the theatrical. You might suppose that a theologian's faithful adherence to The Word, who imparts a holy sanctity to this language of the Book, would nudge that person into a constant, detailed study of what language actually is, what it can do, and more importantly, what it cannot do.

You would suppose wrongly.

A theologian's love affair with the Word does not allow for the study of language; it does, rather, cut off all ideas of the possible ramifications of linguistics. It cuts it off due to linguistic's focus on all that language might be able to do--what it in fact does do. A theologian (I mean here a fundamentalist theologian) wishes that words--grammars, discourse, concepts--can be simplified into an arithmetic, a one-to-one correspondence easily disposed of, easily understood.

Fundamentalists often speak of the Holy Book as if it were written in English. I wish I knew what percentage of pastors of the fundamentalist variety have taken course work in translation theory. My personal guess is that the percentage would be tiny. And if they did have a smattering, I would also hazard a guess that it involved another kind of arithmetic, a picking and choosing of the right corresponding word to that of the original. Translation is quite other than this. It is, as the word's etymology suggests, a kind of filling of a vessel with meaning (our original word) and a consequent carrying over, and re-filling of another vessel with that meaning, much as if we were taking a pail of water and carrying it over to fill another pail. Somewhere in the transaction we are going to spill some of that original meaning. In fact, we might spill an awful lot of it. Sometimes the second pail is too small, sometimes too large. Never is it just right. Never is this a transaction of literalness; of righteous correspondence. [Not that it isn't possible, theoretically, to verge onto an original's meaning; but this is a tricky art, an art that is always doomed from the beginning to never reach perfection.]

Language is like a large lake, with feeding streams from far and wide. A fundamentalist looks at the lake like a painter painting its surface. He thinks he has painted the lake--its entirety by focusing on its surface. Yet nothing, virtually, has been painted. Nothing is known of the lake's sunken depths, the ships lying there wrecked, the fish within, the rocks, the logs, the hidden forests that were drowned eons since. The water therein, too, is not well-understood; the water comes from other places, down streams and rivers, carrying silted meaning with it, being transformed when finally it comes to a final rest. Rest! But the waters roil and whelm, they surge in storms and in tranquility sink and rise, breathing a lake's breath. And all the while the fundamentalist looks on the scene, paints some brushstrokes, sighs, and proclaims victory.

A translator understands the complexities of language and he understands something else, too: that the original also has an original. Someone translating from the text needs to grasp at a prior beginning, attempting to siphon something from whatever genius and inspiration caused the poem or text to begin with. Unless the translator touches on this prior meaning, this prior understanding and experience, the translation will wilt, and be deficient. The fundamentalist regards the translation as if it were the original, and seems to have no regard for the a priori experience whatsoever. Otherwise, he wouldn't idolized the printed word overmuch.

There are other disagreements with the fundamentalist take on things. If it were possible to be a literalist--again, it is not possible for the aforementioned reasons, but for now let us pretend it is--then why offer up literalist interpretation here and there, but not everywhere? The fundamentalist likes to take as literal fact one of the variants of Noah's Ark (there are two variations, one of which is completely ignored), yet treats as entirely metaphorical the portion of Corinthians where Paul has Christ offering up is body and blood: And when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." --1 Corinthians 11:24. [emphasis mine]

There is also the matter of the many different Bibles out there. The fundamentalist ignores these, and pretends there is but one. How then is there such a non-correspondence between the Sinai Bible and that of, say, the King James? It is said that there are 14,800 differences between the two. But the real problem lies in the bibles of the early centuries, the problem being that we simply don't have any of these lying around to compare anything to. What we know as "The Bible" may well be a relic of a political decision by Constantine to formulate his state religion's texts into one book. The translations that must have been made from Aramaic and Hebrew to Greek to Latin and later on the modern tongues, are lost to us; all we know is that choices were made, choices that we may well disagree with at our present point in history. 

The Bible, then, is in some ways an illusion. Not that there isn't real value therein, even sanctity. But that value is not in the printed word. It is in the original--the original. What we have now is idol worship, the worship of a text that others have made, a text that history may well have hidden, a text that betrays political decision-making and hides as much as it reveals. Is there a way to reveal the original original? Well, if a translator wishes to make a translation of a poem what does he do? He reads the original in the original language. He learns as much as he can about the poet, about the time and culture of the poet, what he might have been thinking, what he might have thought to say. Then he makes his choice, out of the experience of the poem and the poet, out of all that he can know. [The reader should, if interested, read Ben Belitt's work on translation, Adam's Dream.] It is out of the experience of God, of the Spirit, that we can access the original, the real and only Bible. The Bible of the Spirit, which, really, is the only one that exists, the only one that matters.

The idea here is to jettison the fundamentalist idea of The Bible as the idol it has become for many, as if it were some kind of direct-to-God telecommunication. The Bible as Holy Script simply does not exist. It can, and has, done much harm to regard it this way. The African slave trade had its Christian adherents, citing the story of Noah and Ham and Canaan (Canaan, whose skin was not of the African, but why quibble?) as well as some of Paul, but also it had its Evangelical Protestant critics, like Wilberforce and his Clapham Sect. Both could us the Bible as proof of their position. The Bible it seems, is a multi-functional tool. 

How then, could slavery be ousted? Only by the experience of conscience, the experience of spirit, acting on one's soul. People knew it to be wrong to own another person; felt it so, and, eventually, made enough excuses--using the Holy Word as a bludgeon--to confound those who would use the Bible as a shackle.

 Enough. Treat it as a book, as a very great book, as a book that has taught much to many, and influenced history many times over, but as merely a book written by men, put together by men, for men. A book. A mere book. 


Monday, May 18, 2015

The Buddha and The Christ

I really wanted to title this The Buddha, The Christ, Anatta, Mindfulness, and the Illusion of Self. Kind of long, though.

The Christian tradition is a long treatise on the saving grace for the individual. Not saying that it is solely that. My guess is that there were plenty of individuals who have practiced a Buddhistic principle within Christianity, but my own ignorance of this history prevents me from elaborating. I doubt that there will be many who would criticize the statement I just made though, that Christians have from the beginning been focused on the saving of the soul, the individual soul, the individual self.

Now, in the Buddhist tradition this is a bit problematic, since the sense of self is called into question. Mindfulness--anatta--achieved through meditation and the noticing of the mind upon thoughts and sensations which then come together in a sense of self, treats the individual "I" as an illusion; the "I" that is put together through sensations and the mindplay of the brain is different than the higher plane of how we see ourselves. We put these sensations and thoughts--our stream of consciousness--together and they become glued together into the furniture of our seen self. (Cf. Ronald Siegel's article "'You' Don't Exist".)

[As a short aside, I could also bring up the modern physicist's thoughts about the possible illusory nature of Time and Space--all creation being a possible hologram even. If that doesn't destroy one's sense of self, then I don't know what will.]

In her wonderful book, Short Stories by Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine picks apart some of the better known parables of Jesus as a contemporary of Jesus might have understood him. She finds evidence--justly I believe--that Jesus' chief message was one of inclusion, that the kingdom was not of the self or for the self but inclusive of many selves, that of a community.

Now, coming back to Mindfulness and the illusion that we even have a self, what are we to make of Christianity if indeed there is no self? That is a big if to those not familiar to the Buddhist philosophy (and I do treat Buddhism as a philosophy not a religion and hence I feel perfectly at ease in conflating at least some of Buddhist ideas with Christianity), but let's just try it. If there is no true "I," no ego, no homunculus sitting in our skulls but rather only an illusory complex of sensations and reactions to sensations creating a kind of "meta-self" then what can a Christian do in order to "save" his or any other's "soul"? If there is no self to save then what is Christianity really up to?

Ping-ponging back to our Christ, let us review some of the red-letter Bible. Matthew 5, for instance. Here we have the sermon on the mount, and some rather incredible statements from Jesus that basically tell the Jews of his day, Hey--you think following the Law is enough? No--I say that you need to follow the Law AND the spirit of the Law.

He goes on to exaggerate the Law's implications. Love your neighbor? Oh you have to love your enemy as well. Anyone who even looks lustfully at a woman has committed adultery. Anyone speaking angrily is compared to the murderer. Walk a mile with someone? Nope. Walk two. Eye for an eye? No, again. Turn the other cheek and let him hit you again. Finally, he says, "You are to be perfect, like your Heavenly Father."

Gee, that all?

He is speaking of a new life. He goes on to describe the true actions of a genuine believer, someone who eschews the outward show of religion for inner genuineness. Then the Pater Noster with its "yours" and "us's" and without one single "me."

This, it seems to me, points to a religion devoid of self-importance, focusing on the other. Maybe he is even saying that there is no self but only an us. He tells us not to worry about making a living, comparing us to the birds who seem to always have enough. In Buddhist thought, worry and sorrow come from desire and the sense of self. If we can alter our focus from ourselves, and see the theater of thought play out upon our mind's projection, we also can alter the pain and other feelings we feel. Feeling pain and sorrow, the meditative mind sees the mind's play on those sensations, but does not treat them as if they belonged to any one self. Similarly, when feeling happy and even joyful, the mind can then look, when in meditation, at those thoughts almost as if they were someone else's. For it is just as true, to a practitioner of Buddhism, to say that those are indeed the thoughts of someone else--since no one really has any thoughts of self. The self, they say, is an illusion.

The birds seeking their food--do they all find it? The way we read that verse, is almost rhetorical. "Oh, yeah; they always get their fill," we say in our minds. Except when pressed, we would have to point out that, no; indeed, there on the ground is a bird that must have starved to death in the winter. But the birds in their flocks? There, there they are still. The individual bird has starved, but the birds are still on the wing. The kingdom of God, Christ may be telling us, is like that flock of birds, winging it on the wind, some faltering, but together flying as a flock.

So there is to my mind a great tension that exists between Christ and Christianity. The tension goes back to this idea of self and non-self. I can find within the Red Letter Bible verses that would oppose my reading of non-self: but at almost every turn I can at the same time attribute those reading to the envelopment of self into language itself. Although Christ could, theoretically, have said statements along the lines of a non-self philosophy, the tradition within which he worked (Judaism)  as well as language itself would have twisted the statements into a self-directed focus. Or at least I am trying to convince myself of that. I do firmly see that language has embedded within it a sense of time. If time itself is illusory then time still will be seen and felt within language. That does not alter the point that time is illusory (I am being theoretical here). The sense of self may be something similar within the structure of language. At least, I do wonder about that.



Saturday, March 07, 2015

Healthcare, Degrees, and Creative Destruction


Health care is expensive, as Steven Brill sometimes writes, because scans, labs, doctors, pills, etc cost too much. As simple as that sounds, it is surprisingly akin to what ails university training in today’s America. Kevin Carey writes in his new book, “The End of College,” that we have astronomical projections of future college costs due to the place that university training occupies in today’s market, that of a monopoly. Want a degree in Bioengineering so that you can get an entry level job at the NIH? Well, you’re likely--very likely--to need a degree at some university, and the more elite (more expensive) the university the better, in order to make yourself stand out from your peers. There is only one place to get a degree: a college. Likewise, in our health care system, there are only certain providers that are able to provide a diagnosis (apart from Google and WebMD). It is likely--highly likely--that a hospital will be involved. Just like in our university model, there is but one provider for a given desire/need, that of universities for degrees/jobs, that of hospitals for illnesses/treatments.


Creative destruction is an economic idea that has been described as a "process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one." (Schumpeter) Carey believes that now is a ripe time for creatively exploding the monopoly of colleges over degree programs. As more universities are participating in e-learning (EdX, Coursera) programs which Carey calls the University of Everywhere, degrees can now become obsolete. There would need to be a certificate program of some sort that qualifies a person for a given job, but one can easily envision companies and governments posting the necessary qualifications for positions. One would then merely need to meet those expectations (or alternatively, bargain for the future completion of some necessary component). Alternatively, one can also envision new consulting businesses offering their services to simplify and verify the course offerings necessary for a given goal.


The point here is that within our university system we have extreme costs, much as in health care, and that these costs are due to monopoly systems (and transparency issues). I am wondering if health care costs can be similarly treated by a revolution such as that which Carey calls for in the university degree area.


One can see a further parallel: Health care suffers from a lack of transparency. This is well documented. Anyone who has ever needed to find out the ultimate costs for an illness or procedure, well knows they trod through a Slough of Despond. Similarly, if you have offered your expertise to your children, filling out FAFSA forms, university entrance papers and so forth, comparing college A to college B can be a very much a non-transparent process. We know that the retail pricing of colleges is a fiction. You have to do a lot of work to end up with a final price. And by the time you know the final price it is too late to apply to others (kind of like that knee replacement you just got). You have to send out multiple offers to colleges (with multiple fees) and in the end so much is guesswork. What will the experience of your Jonny or Jane be? No one knows. And to a point this is merely pointing out that life contains a surprise or two. Much like the treatment of your asthma or diabetes or your knee replacement. What if there was a way to decrease the un-knowability?


Carey’s University of Everywhere does this by giving the user/learner ultimate responsibility for the classes taken. He might take a class (likely to be free, by the by) at MIT, one at Harvard, another at Stanford. He might take another at his local public university. The choice is his. Costs go down as knowability go up. He decides what classes to take, not some mid-level administrator at some particular college.


In health care what if we constructed a parallel model, one that explodes the current model of insurance company constructed “degrees” at local hospitals? Right now a company approves, or more likely denies, a mode of treatment. It selects the pricing but also the allowed method of treatment, the devices, the doctors, the pills. The hospital. It will allow this hospital, not that one. It is somewhat like if we said that our college president and board were the insurance company, and the campus of our university system were the various hospitals and providers that the company permitted within it. At the end of our pilgrim’s progress it is hoped he ends up with a degree/cure; it is likely he ends up in bankruptcy/morgue.


The parallel, I have to immediately say, falls apart in that we will always need our hospitals; they are not going to vanish into the electronic ether. But then, neither will all colleges. Though we certainly don’t need the numbers of campuses that we currently have, there will always be a version of Harvard and MIT and Stanford. We can however construct something akin to this individual-oriented scheme.


Exploding the insurance-governed model that currently exists, and replacing it with a government-centered model would simplify billing, saving costs at both the provider level and the overall administration of health, allowing for transparency. To give more power to the consumer of health care, what if we also had a central clearinghouse for scientifically proven health models of illnesses? Well, we actually have one: the NGC, the National Guideline Clearinghouse (initiated by the Dept. of Health and Human Services). This would allow a patient--much as in our student model--to put him/her-self at the center of the process, giving themselves more control; the patient can then access a central, and therefore simplified, site in order to inform themselves to possible treatments, even local specialists who have availed themselves of similar procedures in the past. Links could be set up showing experience and a rating system for a given specialist and hospital system. Hospitals could be arranged by district, districts by regions. Within a given region their might be dozens of choices, districts might have but a few.


The model would work as follows: Someone has an illness. Their doctor provides a diagnosis (perhaps the person also gets a second, confirming, opinion). The patient or their caregiver researches the clearinghouse and sees that certain specialists must be involved in their treatment (the primary provider most likely has already mentioned this), sees the specialists available in their region and also sees what that treatment will likely entail. (This is a simplification: medical terminology as well as medical knowledge requires advanced learning; what needs to emphasized is transparency and the promotion of the possibility of further explanation at the primary provider level.) What then might appear is an algorithm of choices. Given certain parameters (sex, age, illness, lab results) the algorithm would narrow the choices to certain areas, certain doctors, certain treatments. The experience of Peter Drier had, when confronted with a six-figure bill for a surgical procedure, would not happen if within that algorithm all consults would have appeared, all participating surgeons (not necessarily by name, but by position and allowable billing), all extraneous fees including operating room fees, and if anything would be considered out-of-network (cf. http://lowninstitute.org/news/hit-with-a-6-figure-surgical-bill-patient-challenges-insurer-system/) .



The patient then takes their electronic record (yes, now readily available) and sends requests via the Internet to several specialists (they might be anywhere in the world, might be only those available within a district) who then make remarks which the patient reads, with costs verified via the clearinghouse or the government agency involved (Medicare, say). A treatment selection is made with the help of the primary provider. Once the treatment is selected, the specialists necessary for the actual procedure(s) are then selected. It is the treatment that is selected, then the provider, just as in the university model we selected the desired certificate, the classes necessary for that certificate, then the specific university, which, again might be in multiple places, just as our doctors might be in multiple districts.


Costs and confusion in both models decrease, I would guess by quite a substantial amount. But here I’d like to further pose that this would also allow for equitable treatment, as the e-University would be open up not just to wealthy white alumnae anymore but to a general gathering of mixed ethnic groups (from around the world), our health care would be more open to everyone, rich and poor, employed and unemployed (though the Internet would have to be treated as much as a right as electricity). The wealthy would be competing alongside the poor at the MIT courses online; the guy who was just fired but now needs back surgery can have the same opportunity for the procedures that are scientifically proven at that point in time. Fair. Just. And much easier.


There are a few points along the “algorithm of care” (my name for this network of health care) which can produce cost savings. First, having a Medicare For All plan would allow the government to force prices downward (as in all other industrial nations). Second, administration costs would be reduced (saving upwards of 31% of total current costs: according to the New England Journal of Medicine that is what we currently spend on administrative costs in the US). Thirdly, transparency would force downward pressures on similar treatments and providers. Fourthly, providers competing for patient services would create lower costs and greater attention to quality (providers will compete in areas of quality and costs).

The health care system can hardly be labeled as such in America. There is now pressure within it that is rapidly causing destruction of itself, through political divisiveness and spiraling costs. If and when the public becomes aware of the number of deaths caused by our insurance-focused system (upwards of 60,000 in the most recent Harvard study) citizens may well find the need not to tinker, but to blow up the existing structure. Out of that destruction can come a more efficient and fair system.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

A Checklist

So, this morning I've been thinking about my own relationship to the Christian Church. The Church, as I've written about in recent posts, now has a split personality, mimicking the political divide. Across the board people are siding with a left-leaning, spiritual Church or a right-leaning dogmatic Church. Let's create a list and see what side we come down on.


  1. Evolution/Creationism. I definitely come down on the side of Francis Collins and John Polkinghorne.  Fossil evidence is clear, having established intermediate stages in multiple species (whales, for one). There is nothing that states (except an extremely literal reading of Genesis) that God does not act through evolution, nor that the universe did not begin as a singularity. Far from it, Let there be light! as a certain unambiguity to it.
  2. Age of the universe. See above. You have to simply eliminate science from your life to date the earth, or universe to about 5,000 years ago. The speed of light, the rate of decay for radioactive elements, would have to be different, drastically different. Placing humans alongside dinosaurs is a jumbled misreading of geological science.
  3. The Nature of Time. Time is a basic belief for Christians. We place ourselves into a certain stage along a continuum. Personally, I think time an illusion, and that we all exist in a Providential (Boethian sense here) Now. Quite Buddhist, yes; but I don't see any contradiction with Christianity and Buddhism (not Buddhism as often practised, but Buddhism as taught by Gautama/Siddhartha). 
  4. Homosexuality. I've investigated the verses on homosexuality in the Bible and have found them wanting. Wanting of absolutism, wanting of any humility that might state that we, as Christians, do not have a definite, unambiguous text that states that Jesus, or anyone else (other than the Hebrews of Leviticus), was categorically against gay love. Now, as for gay lust, that is another matter--but no different than heterosexual lust. Sin is sin, as they say. [Addendum: the typical translations are quite definite in their statements, but I would urge the reader to look closely at the original koine Greek text for any definite judgements. Cf. http://christianstudies.wordpress.com/2011/05/14/230/#_ftn10 and note the various definitions of the relevant terms. Whether you come down on the side of "homosexuals" or "homosexual acts" or "pederasts" or others you have to see that there is diverse opinion on the meanings of these verses. Now, given that there is diverse opinions, then there cannot be any definitive judgement one way or the other...other than to reveal one's own prejudices. [For another nice summation of these "clobber" verses see http://www.believeoutloud.com/latest/clobbering-biblical-gay-bashing] The attitudes and beliefs of increasingly more fundamentalists have been leaning towards allowance of homosexuality within marriage, that the sin is in the judging of others who have no ability to change their fundamental sexual makeup. For a take on a recent forum, The Faith Angle Forum, cf http://marker.to/SjR6hf .
  5. One Man, One Woman/Marriage. Please. The Bible isn't a marriage manual, nor a sex manual. This is obvious, as there are so many different applications of "marriage" within the covers.
  6. Revelation/Second Coming. I believe in what Christ said: namely, that only our Father in heaven knows the date of the end times (as noted above, since I do not believe in time as a continuum, I would place the End Times as...Now.) Any Christian who states that we are living in the end times (often appended with the statement: obviously) would then have to be going against what Christ said and believed. Is this not blasphemous? Why then do we hear so much of this stuff from the Christian Right? 
  7. Ecology/Climate Change/Global Warming/Environmental Movement. The Christian Right is firmly digging in their heels on this one. Denial of global warming is a given for them. This despite numerous Biblical injunctions siding with the progressive movements for environmental consciousness (Cf Ps 8, Rom 8, Ps 121, 130, 136, 137 taken from the Evangelical Environmental Network site, also a useful reference), and the plethora of scientific data (often ridiculed) detailing human causation of climate change. Conservative Christians will still side with the oil industry which is employing the same tactics as the tobacco industry did decades ago to instill doubt in science for the sake of corporate profit. Thing is, the Bible is crystal clear on this. Even Exxon has admitted to the science of global warming (within its business plan!) as has the U.S. Navy--rebuilding ports to account for rising seas--and various municipalities, such as Washington D.C. and Miami and New York City. But FOX News says it's all a bogus liberal conspiracy led by Al Gore, so I guess it is!
  8. Literalism. I do not believe in the literal truth of the Bible...since language is not "literally" true. That is, language is fuzzy and symbolic, filled with metaphor and trope. There simply is no meaning to the phrase, "Is the Bible literally true"? Well, no , since nothing in language is "literally true." Language is wonderfully vague, filled with a fog of ideas. Deal with it. Anyone stating that they believe in the literal truth of the Bible simply doesn't understand what language is.
  9. Female pastors/Feminism. I have a daughter, therefore I am a feminist--I believe that she should have every right and opportunity that my son has. Can a female pastor speak with authority? Of course. But men have to learn to listen. Truth, out of the mouth of a female is just as true as from a male. Respect, mutual respect, is the key ingredient for both sexes.
  10. Translation. I suspect that not every pastor or church leader has taken a course on translation theory, or even that they've given it much thought. They should. The Bible that they like to profess via sola scriptura simply isn't the Bible that they are talking about. First, there is the original, and the question of What is the original? Is the original merely the texts that we have in the original Hebrew and Greek? Or is there another, further, spiritual original that we, as humans, can just touch on with the tool of language, a tool that can do wonderful things, but a tool that is also limited. And further, what happens to that "original" when we go from language to language? Translation is like filling a pail with water to the very brim. Pick it up and carry it over to another pail, and then spill the contents into that second, almost identical pail. Do you still have exactly what you had in the "original"? No. You've lost some of the contents. You find out later that the second pail isn't even the same size. Close, but not the same. Nothing in language translation comes out the same. Isn't language great? Again, deal with it.
  11. The Catholic Question. I've heard pastors denounce the Catholic Church as a cult. You can find sites on the internet devoted to the cause of unmasking the "Whore of Babylon." Sheesh. I question if these pastors ever bother to read the Catholic Catechism to see what the Catholic Church actually teaches--and its reasoning for believing the way they do. I've read what Catholics think concerning soteriology, Mary "worship," the infallibility of the Pope, the Eucharist, honoring the saints, the Mass, etc. and I find the explanations quite descriptive and logical. And consistent. Not that I agree on all points; but to label Catholics as a cult, as not even belonging to the Christian religion, is not merely incorrect, but is to my mind a moral sin. And it speaks of a laziness of mind that is downright embarrassing. Not to bother to take the time to read what is plainly there--a few minutes to find the appropriate passage is all that it would take--is inexcusable.
  12. Prayer. This is a difficult one for me. Has prayer helped me? Definitely--it took me out of the slough of despond. It was really a miracle, allowing me to live a normal life with OCD and depression. Yet... I feel as Kierkegaard felt, when he said The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays. I do not view prayer as magic; I don't think my prayers for someone else influences their lives. Still, I do pray for others, and think others should as well. Theoretically a creator God can change the lives of others and so I pray for those in need. But secretly I hear God telling me that You want to better their lives? Go--and just do it, just go and help them yourself! I think we are God's instrument of influence--but we like to pray and say that we did something.