Saturday, December 31, 2011

On the Occasion of the End of Iraq

Well, with the American military presence in Iraq winding down--as much as American military presence in the world every really winds down--we can officially say this war is over. As we prepare to begin a new year, which will most certainly bring us new wars, it seems especially appropriate to share the words of Mr. Dooley, the satirical voice of nineteenth century humorist Finley Peter Dunne, as he offers up his conversational wisdom on another, similar American imperialistic endeavor in the Philippines. (The following has been edited from the original for readability.)

"I know what I'd do if I was Mack," said Mr. Hennessy. "I'd hoist a flag over th' Ph'lippeens, an' I'd take in th' whole lot of them."

"An' yet," said Mr. Dooley, "tis not more then two months since ye learned whether they were islands or canned goods. Your back yard is so small that your cow can't turn round without buttin' th' woodshed off th' premises, an' ye wouldn’t go out to th' stock yards without takin' out a policy on your life. Suppose ye was standin' at th' corner of State Street an' Archy Road, wud ye know what car to take to get to th' Ph'lippeens? If your son Packy was to ask ye where th' Ph'lippeens is, could ye give him any good idea whether they was in Rooshia or jus' west of th' tracks?"

"Maybe I couldn’t," said Mr. Hennessy, haughtily, "but I'm f'r takin' them in, anyhow."

"So might I be," said Mr. Dooley, "if I could on'y get me mind on it. One of the worst things about this here war is th' way it's makin' puzzles f'r our poor, tired heads. When I went into it, I thought all I'd have to do was to set up here behind th' bar with a good tin-cent cigar in me teeth, an' toss dynamite bombs into th' hated city of Havana. But look at me now. Th' war is still goin' on; an' every night, when I'm countin' up the cash, I'm askin' myself will I annex Cubia or leave it to the Cubians? Will I take Porther Ricky or put it by? An' what should I do with the Ph'lippeens? Oh, what should I do with them? I can't annex them because I don't know where they are. I can't let go of them because some one else'll take them if I do. They are eight thousan' of them islands, with a population of one hundred million naked savages; an' me bedroom's crowded now with me an' th' bed. How can I take them in, an' how on earth am I goin' to cover th' nakedness of them savages with me one suit of clothes? An' yet 'twud break me heart to think of givin’ people I never see or heard tell of back to other people I don't know. An', if I don't take them, Schwartzmeister down th' street, that has half me trade already, will grab them sure.

"It ain't that I'm afraid of not doin' th' right thing in th' end, Hinnissy. Some mornin' I'll wake up an' know jus' what to do, an' that I'll do. But 'tis th' annoyance in th' meantime. I've been readin' about th' country. 'Tis over beyond your left shoulder when you’re facin' east. Jus' throw your thumb back, an' ye have it as accurate as any man in town. 'Tis farther then Boohlgahrya an' not so far as Blewchoochoo. It's near Chiny, an' it's not so near; an', if a man was to bore a well through fr'm Goshen, Indiana, he might strike it, an' then again he might not. It's a poverty-stricken country, full of gold an' precious stones, where th' people can pick dinner off th' trees an' are starvin' because they have no step-ladders. Th' inhabitants is mostly naygurs an' Chinnymen, peaceful, industrious, an' law-abidin', but savage an' bloodthirsty in their methods. They wear no clothes except what they have on, an' each woman has five husbands an' each man has five wives. Th' rest goes into th' discard, th' same as here. Th' islands has been owned be Spain since before th' fire; an' she's treated them so well they're now up in arms again her, except a majority of them which is thoroughly loyal. Th' natives seldom fight, but when they get mad at one another they run-a-muck. When a man r-runs-a-muck, sometimes they hang him an' sometimes they discharge him an' hire a new motorman. Th' women are beautiful, with languishin' black eyes, an' they smoke cigars, but are hurried an' incomplete in their dress. I see a picture of one th' other day with nawthin' on her but a basket of coconuts an' a hoop-skirt. They're no prudes. We import juke, hemp, cigar wrappers, sugar, an' fairy tales from th' Ph'lippeens, an' export six-inch shells an' th' like. Of late th' Ph'lippeens has awaked to th' fact that they're behind th' times, an' has received much American amminition in their midst. They say th' Spanyards is all tore up about it.

"I learned all this fr'm th' papers, an' I know 'tis straight. An' yet, Hinnissy, I dunno what to do about th' Ph'lippeens. An' I'm all alone in th' world. Everybody else has made up his mind. Ye ask any conductor on Archy Road, an' he'll tell ye. Ye can find out fr'm the papers; an', if ye really want to know, all ye have to do is to ask a prominent citizen who can mow all th' lawn he owns with a safety razor. But I don't know."

"Hang on to them," said Mr. Hennessy, stoutly. "What we've got we must hold."

"Well," said Mr. Dooley, "if I was Mack, I'd leave it to George. I'd say: 'George,' I'd say, 'if you’re for hangin' on, hang on it is. If ye say, lave go, I drop them.' 'Twas George won them with th' shells, an' th' question's up to him."

Friday, December 30, 2011

Preists Let Their Brooms Do the Talking

Two priests and a Palestinian policeman walk into a church. Want to know the punchline? (Pardon the pun.)

"It was a trivial problem that ... occurs every year," said police Lieutenant-Colonel Khaled al-Tamimi. "Everything is all right and things have returned to normal," he said. "No one was arrested because all those involved were men of God."

The Palestinian police spokesman is referring to a violent brawl which erupted in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The combatants on both sides were priests, Orthodox and Armenian, who share the holy site. The perennial squabble occurred over jurisdictional issues. The video below shows the priests throwing brooms and punches (and at least one priest recording with his smart phone for posterity) before the Palestinian police broke up the melee with their batons.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Innocent Until Proven Proximate

The name "JoePa" used to evoke feelings of warmth and nostalgia, almost of filial affection for the man who stood as the grandfather figure for all college athletics. Now, it seems to warrant nothing but scorn. Consider one particularly heinous example from Dan Bernstein, a writer for CBS Chicago. Upon reading a letter of support for Penn State and Paterno signed by hundreds of former Penn State athletes, Bernstein had this interpretation of their motives: "Apparently because you don’t mind child-rape. And because Paterno is almost dead, thankfully." Fortunately, there are still some who are willing to take a more reasoned approach to examining the Penn State scandal, Paterno's role in it, and the coach's legacy to the university and the sport now that, having turned 85, he is plagued by more trivial matters like pelvic fractures and cancer. Even better, there appears to be evidence to support a more measured assessment of JoePa's "guilt." Thomas L. Day--a graduate of 2003 Penn State University, a native of State College, Pa., and a former student and volunteer in the Second Mile program--is by no means a JoePa fanatic, but he thinks it is important to get one thing straight:

Read these words carefully: Joe Paterno, in March of 2002, after being told by a graduate assistant coach that he had witnessed longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky allegedly raping a young boy in the football team's facility the night before, notified the police. In fact, Paterno discussed what he learned with the man, Gary Schultz, who had administrative control of the Penn State police.

The point people are missing is that the Penn State police are different than most campus police forces. They are a real police force. They carry guns. They aren't rent-a-cops. They have jurisdiction over the campus, which includes the Penn State football offices.

In 1953, Penn State President Milton Eisenhower (brother of Dwight D.) changed the name of the campus to "University Park," and created a separate unincorporated community within the campus. When Paterno notified Schultz of what he had been told, he was notifying an appropriate authority.

Day's article is not the kind of unqualified exoneration that one might expect from a JoePa devotee. Day believes that Paterno should have been fired--not because he did anything wrong but because, in spite of doing things right, other people nearby did bad things. That is, of course, my less-than-detached restatement of his argument. Day preferred to word it like this: "When something goes horribly wrong under the purview of leaders, the leaders should be held accountable, even though they may not be directly at fault. This is something many Penn Staters have failed to understand." Maybe, like myself, "Penn Staters" have a funny aversion to the innocent being punished for the crimes of the guilty. Or maybe they have grave objections to the way the desperate, scrambling, self-conscious powers-that-be decided to execute (and that word is so pointedly appropriate) their plan to rid themselves of JoePa, or to the low, personal PR potshots that have been taken, such as removing his name from the Big Ten trophy or refusing to sell JoePa merchandise in campus stores. Regardless, Day does make a point to give a balanced assessment of what actually happened (as far as we know) and to evaluate Paterno's behavior with a more measured demeanor than, for example, Jemele Hill. Wrote Day:

The truth is that there isn't much more Joe Paterno could have done to prevent the alleged assaults that happened after March of 2002. I have no doubt that there are points along the eight-year timeline of this scandal where Paterno could have, and should have, acted differently -- Paterno himself has acknowledged as such. But nobody bats 1.000 in these situations...

The question is did Joe Paterno act in good faith, especially in March of 2002? Yes, Joe Paterno did. Paterno's actions were generally in line with how most reasonable people would act if put in the same situation. Paterno could not have made a citizen's arrest. At some point in 2002, Paterno was likely told that there would be no further action against Sandusky; after that point, Paterno appears to have ended association with his longtime friend and assistant.

So why the far flung institutional, media, and public pillorying of a man who six months ago received nothing but universal quasi-religious reverence from all of the above? Day asks the same question to conclude his article: "Before we say goodbye to Paterno, let's rationally reassess his legacy, and explore why exactly we rushed to an uninformed judgment of this man." For my part, I hope we reassess quickly, or else we may not have time, as a society, to apologize to the cancer-ridden octogenarian for stripping everything away from him--his career, his legacy, and, most importantly, a national love and respect--all, it would appear, because he is guilty by mere proximity to a crime.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christ's Church in Nigeria

In case you have not already heard, while most of the world was celebrating Christ's birth (or Santa's materialistic bacchanalia), Christians in Nigeria were being slaughtered by an Islamic organization attempting to establish an Islamic theocracy. Some three dozen were killed and many more injured in coordinated attacks. This is the second time in as many years when Christians have been targeted while celebrating the Nativity. While Muslims worldwide have condemned the attacks and insisted the attackers are not "true Muslims," Boko Haram, the responsible group, has proudly taken credit for the murders:

After the bombings, a Boko Haram spokesman using the nom de guerre Abul-Qaqa claimed responsibility for the attacks in an interview with The Daily Trust, the newspaper of record across Nigeria's Muslim north. The sect has used the newspaper in the past to communicate with public.

"There will never be peace until our demands are met," the newspaper quoted the spokesman as saying. "We want all our brothers who have been incarcerated to be released; we want full implementation of the Sharia system and we want democracy and the constitution to be suspended."

Boko Haram has carried out increasingly sophisticated and bloody attacks in its campaign to implement strict Shariah law across Nigeria. The group, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the local Hausa language, is responsible for at least 504 killings this year alone, according to an Associated Press count.

Last year, a series of Christmas Eve bombings in Jos claimed by the militants left at least 32 dead and 74 wounded. The group also claimed responsibility for the Aug. 26 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Nigeria's capital Abuja that killed 24 people and wounded 116 others.

In other news, analogous incidents of coordinated Christian bombings of mosques appear to be non-existent.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

On the Feast of the Nativity

Today is the Feast of the Nativity, when every year Christians gather around a cedar of Lebanon to remember that touching tale of joy coming into the world. We recall that there was no room at the inn for Santa and Mrs. Claus, and so they had to give birth to Jesus in a stable, surrounded by cows and donkeys and sheep and flying reindeer. We remember the three wise men who followed the festive lights display to Bethlehem so that they could worship the new king with iPads, fruitcakes, and Tickle-Me-Elmos. We offer hymns about the shepherds in the field who looked up and saw heaven unfurled before them, ten thousands cheery elves singing "Eight maids-a-milking, seven swans-a-swimming, six something something, FIVE GOLDEN RINGS!" We hear about how the Savior was spirited away from his manger as his parents fled to the North Pole to escape secular humanism's War on Christmas. It is there that he remains, until this day, coming out once a year to distribute blessings in a works-based system of righteousness provided, of course, you have been thoughtful enough to leave him a chocolate chip offering, like meat on a pagan altar.

Just in case, however, that isn't how you observe the Feast of the Nativity, here is a selection from Gregory the Theologian's oration for the Feast. Much like his oration for Easter, Gregory's focus is less on remembering (or misremembering) and more on reexperiencing the Nativity. We are not observers of the worshiping angels or the adoring magi but participants with them. We seize on their joy and make it our own, because the manifestation of God among men is an eternal reality with never ending consequences, a perpetual outpouring of blessing on God's people. Watch how seamlessly Gregory moves from the birth into the rest of the Gospel narrative, because we know that the Nativity is nothing without the ministry, the ministry nothing without the Passion, the Passion nothing without the resurrection. That is where our joy comes from; the moment's of Christ's birth is the moment of our eternal hopes breaking open into the world. The fullness of the great climactic act of our salvation is inaugurated in this moment, relived every year in our observation of it.

Christ is born, glorify ye Him. Christ from heaven, go ye out to meet Him. Christ on earth; be ye exalted. Sing unto the Lord all the whole earth; and that I may join both in one word, Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad, for Him Who is of heaven and then of earth. Christ in the flesh, rejoice with trembling and with joy; with trembling because of your sins, with joy because of your hope…Who doth not worship Him That is from the beginning? Who doth not glorify Him That is the Last?

Again the darkness is past; again Light is made; again Egypt is punished with darkness; again Israel is enlightened by a pillar. The people that sat in the darkness of ignorance, let it see the Great Light of full knowledge. Old things are passed away, behold all things are become new…O clap your hands together all ye people, because unto us a Child is born, and a Son given unto us, Whose Government is upon His shoulder (for with the Cross it is raised up), and His Name is called The Angel of the Great Counsel of the Father. Let John cry, Prepare ye the way of the Lord: I too will cry the power of this Day. He Who is not carnal is Incarnate; the Son of God becomes the Son of Man, Jesus Christ the Same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever. Let the Jews be offended, let the Greeks deride; let heretics talk till their tongues ache. Then shall they believe, when they see Him ascending up into heaven; and if not then, yet when they see Him coming out of heaven and sitting as Judge.

Of these on a future occasion…This is our present Festival; it is this which we are celebrating to-day, the Coming of God to Man, that we might go forth, or3rather (for this is the more proper expression) that we might go back to God—that putting off the old man, we might put on the New; and that as we died in Adam, so we might live in Christ, being born with Christ and crucified with Him and buried with Him and rising with Him. For I must undergo the beautiful conversion, and as the painful succeeded the more blissful, so must the more blissful come out of the painful. For where sin abounded Grace did much more abound; and if a taste condemned us, how much more doth the Passion of Christ justify us?

Therefore let us keep the Feast, not after the manner of a heathen festival, but after a godly sort; not after the way of the world, but in a fashion above the world; not as our own but as belonging to Him Who is ours, or rather as our Master’s; not as of weakness, but as of healing; not as of creation, but of re-creation. And how shall this be? Let us not adorn our porches, nor arrange dances, nor decorate the streets; let us not feast the eye, nor enchant the ear with music, nor enervate the nostrils with perfume, nor prostitute the taste, nor indulge the touch, those roads that are so prone to evil and entrances for sin; let us not be effeminate in clothing soft and flowing, whose beauty consists in its uselessness, nor with the glittering of gems or the sheen of gold or the tricks of colour, belying the beauty of nature, and invented to do despite unto the image of God; Not in rioting and drunkenness, with which are mingled, I know well, chambering and wantonness, since the lessons which evil teachers give are evil; or rather the harvests of worthless seeds are worthless. Let us not set up high beds of leaves, making tabernacles for the belly of what belongs to debauchery. Let us not appraise the bouquet of wines, the kickshaws of cooks, the great expense of unguents. Let not sea and land bring us as a gift their precious dung, for it is thus that I have learnt to estimate luxury; and let us not strive to outdo each other in intemperance (for to my mind every superfluity is intemperance, and all which is beyond absolute need),—and this while others are hungry and in want, who are made of the same clay and in the same manner.

Let us leave all these to the Greeks and to the pomps and festivals of the Greeks, who call by the name of gods beings who rejoice in the reek of sacrifices, and who consistently worship with their belly; evil inventors and worshippers of evil demons. But we, the Object of whose adoration is the Word, if we must in some way have luxury, let us seek it in word, and in the Divine Law, and in histories; especially such as are the origin of this Feast; that our luxury may be akin to and not far removed from Him Who hath called us together.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christ, Jain, and the Perennial Allure of Vomit

I confess a strange amusement with the way certain idioms transcend time and space, keeping their relevance throughout history and across cultures. Though it is by no means the first time, I found one such saying while reading through one of the sacred discourses of Jain, a teaching by Indrabhuti Gautama entitled Uttaradhyayana (which, curiously, is a word too often neglected at spelling bees). In this passage, Indrabhuti Gautama is recording the deathbed discourse of his master, Mahavira, who is concerned that Gautama loves him too much. After musing for a time on the nature of reincarnation, Mahavira gives this curious advice:

Give up your wealth and your wife; you have entered the state of the houseless; do not, as it were, return to your vomit; Gautama, be careful all the while!

The regular reader of Scripture--or for that matter, anyone familiar with Western culture which has been so influenced by the language of the Bible--should immediately think of the famous biblical proverb: "Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool that repeats his folly." The parallel is striking and not at all, as it might first appear, entirely superficial. There is a strong sense in both Jain and Christianity of progress and of the profound sense of loss that comes from moving backward. Especially telling is that in both instances there is a sense in which it is better to have never been purified than to have been once cleansed and then again defiled. This is particularly pronounced when Peter takes up the proverb in his epistle, but first let us examine more deeply how the image functions in the Jain text.

Perhaps the crucial purpose of Mahavira's speech is to convey to Gautama the rarity (though not the singularity) of human life. Mahavira explains in protracted detail just how fortunate one is to exist on earth at all, even as a speck of dust, a state in which the soul may remain "as long as an aeon." And if it is fortunate, it may someday be reborn into a drop of water, where it can stay "as long as an aeon." Mahavira continues this formula through rebirth into a flame, the wind, a vegetable, and various forms of advancing life until finally he speaks of the great fortune of being born as a human and then as an Aryan (as opposed to a barbarian). Mahavira even observes that not all are fortunate enough to ascend directly up this path, as "the soul which suffers for its carelessness is driven about in the round of rebirth by its good and bad karma." But Gautama is even more fortunate still, because not only is he a human but a human who has had the karmic good fortune to be instructed in the sacred teachings and to believe the sacred teachings.

All this building of tension toward the climax is intended to indicate to Gautama just how blessed he is to be in a position where he literally stands on the cusp of enlightenment if only he would seize it. His existence--this particular life in this particular body with its nearness toward perfection--has been aeons in the making, the result of countless previous lives of karmic struggle toward this precise moment when he finally has the opportunity to break the vicious cycle of reincarnation and ascend into the eternal heavens. Given that this is true, how can Gautama still be distracted by inconsequential illusions. Mahavira insists, "Cast aside from you all attachments...Give up your wealth and your wife; you have entered the state of the houseless...Leave your friends and relations, the large fortune you have amassed; do not desire the a second time." It would be worse to squander the opportunity for perfection so nearly grasped than to have never crawled up out of the mire to begin with. Or, in biblical parlance, "to whom much was given, of him much will be required."

Peter will make the concept even clearer in his second epistle in a rant about the presence of false teachers leading Christians astray:

They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved. For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. What the true proverb says has happened to them: "The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire."

The passage offers a very similar message to that of the Jain text. In both, those who have made that all important progress on the path toward perfection are being tempted by a host of apparent pleasures when the true goal lies just ahead of them. Peter exhorts them to fight on because "the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials," and to remember that those sins to which they are now drawn are the very things which they have labored so hard in Christ to be freed from. Having known the truth that freedom comes in Christ, how much more foolish would it be for them to return to slavery because it appeared to them to be liberty? Paul will make much the same point about the new life versus the old in Ephesians.

This is not to say that Christian and Jain ideas of progress, regress, salvation, and apostasy are in any sense the same, though clearly they have affinities which converse well with one another. The Jain concept of perfection is intimately tied to a much more extreme rejection of the world than Christ ever advocated, which is a matter for another text on another day. A greater difference still is the way Christianity relates the goal to progress. There is a sense, in Christ, in which we are truly liberated first and then are expected to progress and be sanctified. In Jain liberation is an end which precludes the possibility of further progress. The most interesting point of contrast, however, also bears the richest fruits for thought about Christianity. In spite of startling statistics that suggest this is changing, Christians do not traditionally believe in reincarnation, an idea which is central to the Jain understanding of progress. Mahavira's aim, as already established, is to instill in his pupil a sense of the enormity of the task before him based on the aeons of karmic labor which led him to his current life and the prospect of ages more in the eternal cycle of rebirth should he fail. The importance of this life and this chance for liberation is based on the great struggle represented in reincarnation.

It strikes me then that Christianity should have an even greater sense of urgency than Mahavira does when we speak about the prospect of what we are to achieve in this life. Quite unlike the Jain system, there is no opportunity to struggle through the aeons to achieve a second shot at salvation in Christ. We are given this one life--of which Mahavira says "As the fallow leaf of the tree falls to the ground when its days are gone, even so the life of men" and of which Peter writes "All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls." As earnest as Mahavira's pleas are to Gautama that he should get it right now while the opportunity is before him, how much more intense ought our own resolve be as Christians, when we know that we are given but one life and one opportunity to turn ourselves away from the world, to put off the old, and to clothe ourselves in Christ for all eternity?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

2011 Patriarchal Christmas Encyclical

The Ecumenical Patriarch has issued his 2011 encyclical for the Feast of the Nativity. While the whole letter merits reading, here is a brief segment to whet the appetite:

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among all."
(Luke 2.14-15)

Beloved brothers and sisters, children in the Lord,

The angels chant these three majestic proclamations and yet the great majority of human beings, although celebrating the feast of Christmas, cannot perceive the significance of the angelic song, instead asking themselves whether God is truly glorified today or why God should even be glorified; where can one discern on earth the peace that is announced, and why should contemporary humanity live with good will?

...How can we speak of peace on earth when almost half of the planet finds itself either in the act of or in preparation for war? The sweet tone of the angelic proclamation regarding “peace on earth” is of course primarily a divine pledge that, if people adhere to the way indicated by the new-born Child, they will acquire internal peace and peaceful coexistence. But, alas, most people are moved and drawn by the cymbals of war, ignoring the sound of the pledge for peace on earth. We are not referring here to those who passionately support the use of weapons, but especially to those who transform gentle competition to unequal conflict, seeking the annihilation of any opposition. In this respect, war is experienced as reality among members of rival social groups and parties of all kinds – whether racial, political, partisan, financial, ideological, religious, athletic or any other kind, where the intense mindset of members is converted into militant rather than peaceful. However, this does not refute the truth proclaimed by the Angels, that – through the Nativity of Christ and the acceptance of His teachings – peace will indeed prevail on earth. Christ came bearing peace; and if His peace does not prevail in the world, then responsibility lies with those who fail to accept and embrace this peace, not with the God who grants it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

On Christ and Jain

Jain has always fascinated me, no doubt in large part because of the peculiar intensity with which its practitioners pursue its principles. Islam, for example, has won my admiration for the popular level of its devotion. While in Christianity, we must constantly hear sermons about the value of daily prayer, the Muslim knows instinctively to pray no less than five times a day. Jain takes this kind of meticulous devotion to another level, with serious practitioners being so committed to total non-violence that they wear masks to keep from inhaling tiny organisms and sweep the ground in front of them wherever they go in order to brush aside unsuspecting insects. Even the Jain laity take strict vows of vegetarianism as part of a broader programme of non-violence. It is precisely this mixture of definite belief and assiduous application that has made Jain one of the smallest and yet one of the most influential world religions, relative to its size.

It is this fascination with Jain which recently led me to undertake studies in a reader of world religions and to listen to a series of lectures on Eastern religions by Stephen Prothero (who, unfortunately, elected to skip Jain altogether). Over the coming weeks, I would like to share some of the insights into Jain that these very cursory studies have brought, particularly those musings which may help challenge and deepen Christian faith and which might enlighten the curious outsider looking at Jain.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Robert E. Lee on War

I became aquainted with this relatively famous quote of Lee's while reading Stout's Moral History of the Civil War:

It is well that war is so terrible—we should grow too fond of it.

Unfortunately, history seems to have taught us that the more terrible war becomes, the more fond of it we to grow.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Some Elephants Forget

I have already addressed the ironic history of government attempts to legislate marriage and divorce, so--though tempting--I will not rehash my previous thoughts in their entirety. I would, however, like to share another interesting quote from Foster's Moral Reconstruction which is illustrative of just how far the Republican Party has come in terms of changing its social policies (emphasis added):
The Roberts case revived interest in a constitutional amendment against polygamy and polygamous cohabitation; the later provision would have outlawed living with plural wives married before the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints presumed reversal on polygamy. Over the next few years, many resolutions or bills in behalf of a broad antipolygamy amendment were entered; none ever passed. Frank J. Cannon, son of a high Mormon official who broke with his father and became an anti-Mormon agitator, claimed that in 1900 a representative of the Republican Party reached an agreement with Mormon leaders in which they promised to support William McKinley's reelection in return for the party's pledge to block a constitutional amendment that would give the federal government power over marriage and divorce. Such a deal, if in fact it was made, would surely have applied to an antipolygamy amendment.
Interestingly, contemporary Republicans are running on precisely the opposite platform. This is a particularly intriguing position for Mitt Romney, given the way historical amendments of this nature were specifically designed to discriminate against marriage practices in his faith and to disenfranchise Mormons as a people.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Wisdom of Peter of Damascus

In his Treasury of Divine Knowledge, Peter of Damascus presents a more perfect way of reading the Scripture by reminding us that true hermeneutics is moral rather than theoretical and that understanding and application are so paradoxically intertwined as to never be possible in isolation:

For this reason the fathers say that we ought to search the Scriptures assiduously, in humility and with the counsel of experienced men, learning not merely theoretically but by putting into practice what we read; and that we ought not to inquire at all about what is passed over in silence by Holy Scripture...For the Lord commands that we should search the Scriptures above all by means of bodily and moral actions, and in this way find eternal life.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Angel at the Ford of Jabbok (Pt. 4)

After spending days parsing my thoughts on Jenson, Hart, and Hart on Jenson, all that remains is to share with you the memorable wisdom David Bentley Hart imparted:

Well, theology is a particularly savage business (at least when it is done right), and one that it is never too early to discourage one's children from entering.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Angel at the Ford of Jabbok (Pt. 3)

As is inevitably the case when the conversation turns to classical descriptors for God (e.g. impassible, immutable, eternal), the question of whether or not true faith was corrupted by the evil of Hellenistic philosophy arises. It is a the common calumny of almost every contemporary Protestant theologian that at some point during its development, Christian doctrine sold its soul to "Hellenism." During the course of his discussion of this belief, in which he gladly embraces the early Christian conversation with Platonism as "the special work of the Holy Spirit," Hart uses an illuminating term to characterize this Protestant understanding of God: "Teutonism." There seems to be a common delusion among Protestant scholars--and I encountered this most recently in Paul Hinlicky's Divine Complexity--that if they can only reject the corrupting influences of Hellenism, they will automatically return to an authentic Biblical (sometimes termed "Semetic") worldview. What Hart deftly points out with this term is that this new brand of thinking is not some genuinely detached return to unblemished biblical thought (which incidentally arose in a Hellenistic context); it is deeply dependent on another extrabiblical philosophical paradigm, German Idealism. It was German historical and systematic theologians who reconstructed an early Christian narrative in which a simple faith gradually gave way to a philosophical one, who declared that this acquiescence was fundamentally unsound, and who devised a philosophically "independent" theology of God in response. (It is strange that this had never occurred to me before, especially given how much time I spend thinking about the Restorationist delusion that they were reconstruction authentic biblical Christianity rather than formulating a new Baconian Christianity.)

Without declaring either "Hellenism" or "Teutonism" superior (though it ought to be obvious from my previous posts where I fall), it seems that Hart's disposition toward philosophical "intrusion" into one's worldview is the only honest one. We must be aware of, admit, and embrace our philosophical heritage rather than laboring under the pretense that we attempt theology in a void.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Perilous Life of Southpaws

Most, I assume, are familiar with the statistic that floats around out there in the popular consciousness that (depending on who you hear it from) 2,500 left-handed people die every year from using products designed specifically for right-handed people. Whether you choose to believe that or not, the travails of the left-handed are real and serious, moreso than I ever realized. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal suggests that left-handed people are more susceptible to dyslexia, schizophrenia, and ADHD, and that is only the short list:

Left-handedness appears to be associated with a greater risk for a number of psychiatric and developmental disorders. While lefties make up about 10% of the overall population, about 20% of people with schizophrenia are lefties, for example. Links between left-handedness and dyslexia, ADHD and some mood disorders have also been reported in research studies.

What is scarier still, especially for me, is that those of us who are cross-dominant, what the article calls "mixed-handed," represent only 1% of the population but a disproportionately high percentage of those suffering from serious psychological disorders. (Please, no one tell Occupiers that I am part of the 1%.)

Setting aside, reluctantly, the impulse of every left-handed or cross-dominant person to read this article and go on a paranoid journey of self-diagnosis, the studies cited in the Wall Street Journal offer a number of interesting areas for further thought. The first is in the suggestion that handedness may actually have more to do with environment (particularly the pre-natal environment) than genetics. This undermines the default excuse, fed to me as a child, that some people are just born left-handed or that it makes someone "special." In fact, only about 25% of the matter of handedness is decided by genetics. In reality, left-handedness is more likely to be the result of a hostile pre-natal environment. "Babies born to older mothers or at a lower birth weight are more likely to be lefties, for example. And mothers who were exposed to unusually high levels of stress during pregnancy are more likely to give birth to a left-handed child." Far from being "special," a more honest rhetoric might describe southpaws as "defective" (not that "special" hasn't already become societies euphemism for that anyway). Being left-handed is less a pleasant genetic rarity like being born with hazel eyes and more like being born with a lazy eye (or, in the case of us poor, unfortunate cross-dominants, being born cross-eyed).

Related to this, and more nearly related to my earlier point about personality theories, the relationship between handedness and mental disorders speaks to the actual relevance of brain lateralization. As has long been suspected, left-handed people show a greater tendency toward right-brain dominance, with some 30% of left-handed people being either right-brain dominant or "distributed." It is this deviation from the standard pattern of lateralization which many scientists believe may contribute to higher incidences of schizophrenia and other disorders, in addition to more mundane problems like difficulty in school (which may explain why left-handed people are paid 10% less than their right-handed colleagues).

This is obviously not intended to endorse some kind of fatalism about left-handedness or mixed-handedness. The article points out that many highly successful people have been left-handed, including six of the last twelve United States presidents. These facts should, however, affect the way that we understand handedness and, as the article specifically suggests, should make parents of left-handed or cross-dominant children more aware of potential risk factors associated with being left-handed.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Goodbye, Harry Morgan

At the ripe old age of 96, actor Harry Morgan died today. Most, including myself, knew Morgan as Col. Sherman Potter from M*A*S*H, though he could be found as a supporting character in countless films and television shows.

It happens that last night I was watching an episode of M*A*S*H which centered on Morgan, whose character was struggling to deal with the loss of the last of his old friends to death. Through the course of the episode, we walk with him through anger and grief and finally joy in what still lives on. It strikes me how apropos it was that I should have watched this particularly fitting episode. There is an especially poingant scene, long one of my favorites from the series, in the middle where Morgan takes a young, tattered, and bruised little Korean refugee onto his lap and begins to speak to him about life. The moment represents one of those rare gems in film narrative that has all the genuine complexity of real life: the old man imparting his wisdom to a child, the absurdity of the surroundings, the faint noise of human drama linger just beneath the surface, and the irony that we know Morgan's wisdom will never reach the boy not, as expected, because children never listen but because the boy speaks no English. Nevertheless, Morgan offers his wisdom to the child and to viewers, and there is in it the appropriate voice of mourning and of hope that should accompany us in the face of death. In that wry, folksy style that characterized all his performances, he shows the boy a picture of himself as a youth and explains, "Yep, life is a kind of now you see it, now you don't proposition. It was all in front of me then, though, like it is now for you. You're off to kind of a rough start, but I bet you've got some glorious times ahead of you."

Harry Morgan, you will be missed but not forgotten.

The Angel at the Ford of Jabbok (Pt. 2)

It is so rare that I disagree with David Bentley Hart, and when I feel compelled to do so it is always with the utmost trepidation. Nevertheless--in spite of the fact that, as Stanley Hauerwas put it, "The sheer delight that David Bentley's turns of phrase invite tempts me to agree with anything he writes--almost"--in reading his endorsement of Robert Jenson's Christology, which stresses the inseparability of the Son and Jesus, I wonder if Hart does not go too far.

Jesus is not an avatar of the Logos, a mask the Son assumes in a transient or extrinsic fashion, or a part he plays in some grand cosmic charade. When God becomes man, this is the man he becomes--and there can be no other. That is why it is silly to ask the questions that bad theologians, or casual catechists, or well-meaning Sunday School teachers have sometimes felt moved to ask: whether the Son might have been incarnate as someone else-as a Viking, or a Nigerian, or a woman, or simply another first-century Jew. The Logos, when he divests himself of his divine glory, is this man: between this finite historical individual and the eternal and infinite Son of God, there is no caesura. Jesus is not a manifestation of the Son, but the Son in his only true human form.

I certainly sympathize with Hart's general point, that the person of Jesus was not a triviality in the divine plan. There is no person of Jesus apart from the Incarnate Word (and, as far as both Jenson and Hart are concerned, no Word apart from its incarnation in Jesus). I even agree with the rejection of trivial musings like "could Jesus have been a Viking" or the more common "could he have been a she"--though this is more because I think they are unproductive than fundamentally unsound.

Where I find myself forced to dissent, however, is in tying every particular of Jesus to the eternal Son. Hart seems to insist that the Son could not have come as a different ethnicity or a different gender not for pragmatic reasons but for essential ones. This leads to other trivial (but I imagine damning) questions, like "if Jesus were an inch taller, would he cease to be divine" or "if he were balding" (instead of having a full head of flowing chestnut hair, as we all know he had) "would he no longer be the Son?" There is of course a sense in which it is true that the Son became incarnate as he did, the way he did, because that was the perfect time and the perfect manifestation for the perfect purpose of God. At the same time, to tie those contingent realities to the eternality of the Son seems to contradict Hart's normally strong rejection of any limitation or finitude in God.

Perhaps he wouldn't disagree with this (though there is nothing in the above quote to make me think he wouldn't), but I would think it safer to say that the Son could have come in any way he chose but, being perfectly obedient to the will of the Father, chose freely to come as he did, when he did, for the purpose he did. That does not, I think, mean that I believe Jesus was merely an "avatar of the Logos."

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Angel at the Ford of Jabbok (Pt. 1)

Perhaps my favorite thing about David Bentley Hart is that it hardly matters about what he is writing. If he puts ink on paper it is more or less certain to be witty, engaging, and intellectually provocative. I was reminded of this recently when I realized that it had been months since I dusted off the large section of my bookshelf dedicated to Hart and allowed myself to be immersed in his prose. To correct this, I picked an article at random to read: "The Angel at the Ford of Jabbok: On the Theology of Robert Jenson." The essay took the form of a response to criticisms--which Hart considered legitimate--about his hasty treatment of Jenson's work in a recent publication. In response, he made an effort to summarise, praise, and disagree with Jenson in the matter of a few short pages.

Most of Hart's disagreements with Jenson are philosophical and theological in nature, and they are criticisms I certainly found compelling. There was one area in which, in my estimation, Jenson's theology went uncritiqued, perhaps because Hart lacked space or perhaps because he doesn't give the line of argument much currency. There is, however, a degree to which Jenson's anthropology is unconvincing because it is emotionally unsatisfying. This does not, of course, preclude the logical possibility that Jenson is correct, but inasmuch as theology is an encounter with the divine and, in the words of Vladimir Lossky, it is impossible to totally separate "personal experience of the divine mysteries and the dogma affirmed by the Church" it is impossible to affirm teachings which are so existentially destructive as to nullify any positive experience of God.

Hart himself recongizes that "summary is usually invidious," and I admit that to make a critique based solely on someone else's summary is even more odious. With that said, however, here is what Hart has to say about Jenson which has so disturbed me:

Who God is, therefore, subsists in the Father's loving concern for the Son and the Son's loving obedience to the Father, and in the freedom of the Spirit who--as unending divine futurity--makes this relation eternal. In Jenson's rather daring formulation, the Spirit "frees" the Father and the Son for the adventure of this love, and for the infinite possibility that is this love's perfection. As for us, our place in this drama is that of the compaions of the Son: we are included in the story of God's freedom because Christ is the man who is for all men, and so for the Father to have Christ as his Son he must ahve us as well; for there is no Son apart from him who said "Father, forgive them."

Hart will object that Jenson's construction removes any Logos asarkos (a Word apart from the incarnation in Jesus) and that Jenson's admirable focus on Christ's uniqueness is meaningless without a classical understanding of transcendence which Jenson rejects. For my part, what struck me is just how trivial I become in this narrative and not just me but you too. All of humanity becomes incidental, the happenstance of this eternal love and becoming. That the Son happened to be man for all men, that he should happen to need or desire or will companions, that he would be predestined to say "Father, forgive them" means that there must be an object for that being, that desire, that phrase. God does not create us out of love or out of an ontological impulse to create or out of a desire to share the beauty of otherness (which, as best I recall, approaches ideas expressed by Hart himself), but merely so that the Son who was always determined to the Son incarnate needed a place and a body and a community into which to incarnate. We are all no more than the industrial by-product of God's mechanism of becoming, and I for one find that thought deeply disatisfying. Perhaps it is theologically naive of me, but I have always been inclined to believe that the Incarnation was for the sake of creation and not creation for the sake of the Incarnation (which Jenson's systems seems to suggest).

In the course of a few short pages, Hart gave me innumerable quotes worth sharing and provoked a wealth of theological thought, but in the interest of not being any more longwinded than I already have, I will save those thoughts for another entry.

Friday, December 2, 2011

In Other News

Animals appear to be running amok in the news recently. Having recently shared the story of the dozens of beagles rescued from experimentation in Spain, it was nice to see this morning that some animals are taking the fight to people:

Dogs are man's best friend. Except, you know, when they're shooting a gun at you.

And strangely enough, that's what really happened to a hapless dog owner in Brigham City, Utah. The man in question--a 46-year-old hunting enthusiast who is not named in local news reports on the incident--got a behind-full of birdshot courtesy of his loyal canine companion when he was out duck hunting over the weekend. reports the man and his dog were traveling in a canoe-like boat when the man stepped out into a shallow marsh to set up some decoys...Apparently excited to join his owner in the marsh, the dog jumped up on the boat's bow and stepped on the gun. The gun was fired, hitting the man in the buttocks with 27 pellets of birdshot.

You'll be relieved to know that the man was able to contact emergency services on his own and is now recovering nicely in the hospital. While there, he may receive an unusual visitor. Not once but twice now in the course of a few weeks, the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital has reported an unusual intruder in its emergency room:

At around 10 pm on Tuesday night, a flying squirrel managed to trap itself inside the emergency room at New Jersey's Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital...this gifted flying rodent repeatedly launched itself from an 8-foot-high wall-mounted lamp, in order to avoid firefighters from the Rahway Fire Department.

"It would climb up on a light and would jump off and glide," said fire department spokesman Capt. Ted Padavano. "It looked just like a little squirrel, but once it jumped into the air, it had like a glider, or like a bat, skin under its arms, like a little square glider."

Eventually, a pair of firefighters managed to throw a blanket over the squirrel and safely release it unharmed into a wooded area outside the hospital.

The clever and articulate Captain Padavana has proposed the the squirrels continue to return because they have a nest somewhere in the hospital. I'm not sure why it hasn't occurred to him that the squirrels may be there seeking emergency medical help. After all, the military is now having to treat service dogs with antidepressants for their canine PTSD. Far from the Onion-style spoof news that this would first appear, one in twenty military service dogs now apparently suffers from the condition:

Since the patient cannot explain what is wrong, veterinarians and handlers must make educated guesses about the traumatizing events. Care can be as simple as taking a dog off patrol and giving it lots of exercise, play time and gentle obedience training.

More serious cases will receive what Dr. Burghardt calls "desensitization counter-conditioning," which entails exposing the dog at a safe distance to a sight or sound that might trigger a reaction—a gunshot, a loud bang or a vehicle, for instance. If the dog does not react, it is rewarded, and the trigger—"the spider in a glass box," Dr. Burghardt calls it—is moved progressively closer until the dog is comfortable with it.

The story, in one moment, elicits both an eye-roll and a sigh of despair, as if the human toll of war was not a clear enough sign of its unnaturalness, God had to let us know that it even screws up animal psyches. But if these dogs think they have it bad, the clearly have not met Ge Ximping's tortured and talented pig. Residing in the Anhui Province of China, this poor creature was born without any back legs. It has adapted to life as a paraplegic, not by scooting pitifully across the ground with its rear end dragging behind, but by teaching itself to walk upright on its front too legs. Unbelievable, you say? Believe it:

More unbelievable still is that this skillful swine is not the most unusual animal making headlines. Not long ago, there was an interesting video floating around of some German rabbits who thought they were thoroughbred horses. Now, it seems, there is a Finnish bunny who thinks it is a chicken. Reuters reports that Otto, the confused pet in question, came as part of a package deal with a brood of hens bought by his owners. Kept in the coop with his adoptive feathered family, Otto was quickly adopted into the group and began to exhibit many chicken-esque characteristics: "When I went to the hen house, I noticed he was sitting on the eggs. Later I watched through the window how he jumped on the beam, failed, tried again and with a lot of practice eventually he stayed up there." In addition, he prefers to spend his time eating chicken feed (and the occasional raisin bun) and playing leap frog with his chicken friends. Isn't it wonderful how God has chosen to populate His creation with so diverse and spectacular a set of creatures: rich in their personal complexity, inspiring in their conquest of adversity, comic even in their routine endeavors, and, on occasion (as with a dog who gives a sport hunter a taste of his own medicine), biting in their sense of irony.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Pope Takes a Stand

The pope is making the news again, but it is at least for something good this time:

Pope Benedict XVI voiced support Wednesday for political actions around the world aimed at eliminating the death penalty, reflecting his stance as an opponent of capital punishment.

He said he hopes "your deliberations will encourage the political and legislative initiatives being promoted in a growing number of countries to eliminate the death penalty."

This stance is not only a continuation of the philosophy of Benedict's predecessor, the much beloved John Paul II, but is an extension of the historical Catholic disposition toward capital punishment. Contrary to the prevailing popular mythos, the Catholic Church has never been in the business of executing people. In its very darkest days, it would collaborate with civil authorities in investigations of capital crimes before turning the accused over to the state for punishment, but the prevailing belief and practice for the Catholic clergy has been that the death penalty is something less than holy, inimical to true Christian faith. While I certainly don't see political activism as an appropriate means for pursuing Christian ethics, I do applaud the papacy for publicly continuing this historic position of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately for the pope, it appears that the majority of Catholics in America still support the death penalty and only a marginal number of them cite religion as the most important factor in shaping their opinions.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Secularization: Asking the Right Questions

Perhaps my favorite quote of all time, which curiously has not appeared here before, is from Hans van Campenhausen: "It is the wrong question to ask, and therefore, as one might expect, has no right answer." This is the approach that Stephen Prothero took to questions raised by secularization theory. Secularization theory, which very broadly stated, is the belief that society is marching progressively on toward irreligion, raised questions about the anomaly of a developed Western society like America which was curiously still so religious. This, shockingly, turned out to be the wrong question, given that--in Prothero's words--"Secularization theory has run aground, as grand theories often do, on the shoals of historical facts."

Instead, Prothero offers this thought-provoking question which may turn out to have been the right one all along:

Today what needs explaining is not the persistence of religion in modern societies but the emergence of unbelief in Europe and among American leaders in media, law, and higher education.

Welcome to the World, Beagles

Here is a bit of heart-wrenching, heart warming news about a group of Beagles rescued from a Spanish laboratory.

Unfortunately, beagles’ notoriously obedient dispositions makes them ideal for experimentation. According to the Beagle Freedom Project’s website, they are the breed of choice for lab testing of pharmaceutical, household, and cosmetic products due to their ability to adapt to life in a cage and the fact that they are relatively inexpensive to feed.

When the beagles are no longer needed for research, some labs contact organizations such as ARME, who then work to find good homes for the dogs.

This heartbreaking (that soundtrack!) video was filmed back in June, when the organization gave nine lab beagles a second chance at life. We dare you not to be moved by that first beagle’s initial tentative steps and soulful eyes.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Nonsense of Choice

In a recent discussion with a proponent of the "let them choose" philosophy of religious child-rearing, my conversation partner was shocked by my suggestion that such a proposition was functionally impossible to achieve. It boggled his mind that I would suggest that the very act of raising a child at all is a process of "indoctrination" (his term, and a favorite of those who oppose parents passing on religion to children). In fact, I had the audacity to claim that all parents indoctrinate their children with their own ideology, even if that ideology happens to be religious apathy, religious pluralism, or positive irreligion. Your children will take their cues from you and develop in response (either positively or negatively) to the ways in which you behave. In the words of J. C. Ryle: "Imitation is a far stronger principle with children than memory. What they see has a much stronger effect on their minds than what they are told." The "let them choose" advocate was unconvinced, I suspect in part because of a contemporary anthropological fallacy that irreligion is a biological or psychological default, a neutral rather than a positive state.

More recently still, I was delighted to discover that Stephen Prothero had apparently read our conversation and retroactively written my thoughts back into his 2007 book:

Some friends tell me that they don’t bring their sons and daughters to worship services or talk with them about their faith because they want their children to be free to choose a religion for themselves. This is foolhardy, not unlike saying that you will not read anything to your daughter because you don’t want to enslave her to any one language. The fact of the matter is that you cannot avoid teaching religion to your kids; if you offer them nothing, you are telling them that religion counts for nothing.

Sure, I would have liked a citation, but I suppose I will settle for the tacit affirmation of my highly original argument that irreligion is a positive position and, consequently, an attitude of "let them choose" is self-defeating.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Knowledge and Franchise

Attention Americans: you are disenfranchised by your own ignorance. Sure, technically everyone (well, almost everyone) in America has the right to vote, but the idea that this vote belongs to you and is cast by you as a free exercise of your will is an illusion. The very fact of Americans collective ignorance is a de facto relinquishing of the vote to people who have, whether themselves ignorant or not, purport to be the possessors of authoritative knowledge. In the words of Stephen Prothero:

Few Americans are able to challenge claims made by politicians or pundits about Islam’s place in the war on terrorism or what the Bible says about homosexuality. This ignorance imperils our public life, putting citizens in the thrall of talking heads and effectively transferring power from the third estate (the people) to the fourth (the press).

Prothero writes here specifically of religious ignorance, but medical and economic ignorance play their part as well. In accepting ignorance as a necessary evil in our busy pursuit of the American dream, we defer judgement to those who we assume are more knowledgable than we. In reality, the electoral process boils down to little more than a contest between various groups of talking heads to see who can convince the largest mass of ignorant viewers that they are best informed. In the words of E. D. Hirsch, "the right to vote is meaningless if a citizen is disenfranchised by illiteracy or semiliteracy.”

For Christians, my advice is always simply not to vote, not because you are ignorant but because you are keenly aware that there is no participation in the political process which does not involve gross violations of the Christian ethos. To those who are not Christians, or to those Christians who insist on voting, I can only hope that you will make an effort to learn your religion from theologians, your economics from economists, and your medicine from doctors (and not, might I add, from Dr. Ron Paul or Dr. Sanjay Gupta, but from less obviously partisan physicians). Or, as James Madison put it, "A people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Missouri Man, Angry About Bigotry, Apologizes

Controversy erupts in Springfield, MO:

A businessman has apologized for briefly posting a sign in the window of his Springfield gelato shop informing those in town for a convention of religious skeptics that they were not welcome at his Christian business.

Andy Drennen apologized in a letter posted Monday on the website Reddit. He said he posted the hastily drawn sign in his shop, Gelato Mio, on Saturday after seeing someone attending Skepticon delivering a mock sermon and cursing the Bible.

It is telling, as always, to see the way that the irreligious react to the offenses of the religious and ignore their own. After all, all the Pastafarians did was hold an entire convention themed around publicly degrading religion generally and Christianity specifically. That certainly doesn't warrant so heinous a response by a Christian as considering, for ten whole minutes, denying these faithful few their gelato. It is nice that Christians, unlike skeptics apparently, do not feel the need to swarm and combat with overwhelming force any perceived offense. I'd like to believe it is some healthy mixture of turning the other cheek and shaking the dust off our feet.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Episcopal Church Wins, Still Manages to Lose

Following the 2003 appointment of Gene Robinson by the Episcopal Church as its first openly gay bishop, there was understandable distress among congregants causing some to "flee" the jurisdiction of the American Episcopals for more conservative climes. To the congregation occupying the oldest Episcopal church building in Georgia, the church says "good riddance" and offers this legally upheld eviction notice as a parting gift:

An historic church building in the city of Savannah belongs to the national Episcopal Church, not a breakaway congregation that left the national church following the naming of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire, the Georgia Supreme Court said on Monday.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution "allows (the local congregation) and its members to leave the Episcopal Church and worship as they please, like all other Americans. But it does not allow them to take with them property that has for generations been accumulated and held by a constituent church of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America," the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in a 6-1 vote.

In other news, the national leadership of the Epsicopal Church has also officially ordered all the faithful to cut 1 Corinthians 6 out of their Bibles.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Thanksgiving Family Forum

I track American politics in part because I think they are the most entertaining form of reality television and in part because, as someone who happens to live on American soil, they have a certain pragmatic relevance for me. Naturally, I have been watching the bevy of Republican debates and can honestly say that the Thanksgiving Family Forum, held in a church by a Christian organization, was by far the most painful to watch. For me, at least, the worst part isn't even difficult to isolate. It wasn't Rick Perry talking about the values "this country was based upon in Judeo-Christian founding fathers" (you remember, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Rabbi Goldberg). It wasn't even the extremely unsettling attempt by Rick Santorum to convert his infant daughter's struggle with almost certainly terminal Edwards Syndrome into politcal currency. It was this theologically disasterous thought by Michelle Bachmann:

I have a biblical worldview. And I think, going back to the Declaration of Independence, the fact that it’s God who created us—if He created us, He created government.

Let's forget for a moment that she claims a "biblical worldview" and immediately directs us to the Declaration of Independence and not the Bible and focus on what it means for theology to suggest that if God created us then He necessarily created human government. There are certainly theological systems (dreary, Calvinistic systems) which insist that it is appropriate to speak of God as the creator of everything we create because He created us. I wonder if Bachmann would be ready to endorse the implications of that theology (as so many of its more honest adherents are), that this makes God not only the author of civil government but also the author of various other sins like abortion, rape, nuclear war, and any other human malevolance imaginable. That logic paints a very scary picture, which is why so many of the rest of us are willing to accept a moral disconnect between what God has created and what we create as His creations.

The one bright moment in the whole affair is when Ron Paul contrasted the decentralized post-Exodus Israel and the centralized Israel of the kings, with the shift to the latter being (consistent with explicit biblical statements) perhaps the most destructive turn in Israelite history. His point, of course, was that human governments are nasty things that should be limited or avoided altogether when possible. The whole hermeneutical exercise had profound Lipscomb overtones--as Lipscomb would make a similar point in his works with the story of Samuel and Saul about the folly of civil government--though the two men arrive at very different ultimate conclusions. Delightfully, though Paul also endorsed the Augustinian view of just war (citing the saint by name), he admitted that just war theory is in tension with the experience of the early church and Christ's own emphasis on peace. For his own betterment (though perhaps not that of the American political landscape), I cannot help but hope that Paul will take that final ideological step and realize that government is so nasty that, as a Christian, he ought to just wash his hands of the whole endeavor.

Of course, then what would everyone be left with? Newt Gingrich and his profound answer to the worldwide Occupy Movement: "Go get a job, right after you take a bath."

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Skeleton of Christian Literacy

In his work Religious Literacy, Stephen Prothero offers what he calls a "Dictionary of Religious Literacy." It represents his attempt to ennumerate the bare minimum of what an American needs to know to qualify as religiously literate. What it amounts to in practice is a relatively short list of terms from the world religions and their definitions which are most relevant to civic life in the United States. It was interesting for me to peruse through that list, in part to learn new things that I supposedly should have known all along but also to evaluate just how well I stacked up against his minimum of religious knowledge.

My interest in religious literacy is somewhat different, however, from Prothero's. His concern is primarily with religious knowledge as a civic duty, as a way for all people to adequately navigate the social and political landscape of Christian-dominant but highly pluralistic America. For my part, I lament religious ignorance because it leads to religious excesses and abberations. To be a Christian and to not understand basic truths about the Bible or about the main contours of Christian theology is to invite disaster into your own thinking. The proliferation of ever more ridiculous sects and abominable ethical systems in American Christianity is, I believe, a direct result of the ongoing biblical and theological illiteracy of most American adherents.

With that in mind, I would like to offer what I believe are the core Christian facts which every American Christian ought to know by adulthood in order to successfully navigate the social, political, and theological landscape of America's Christian pluralism. I will divide my list into two fifty point sections: a primary literacy and a secondary literacy. They correspond roughly to what I believe a person should learn in from their earliest childhood and what should be built onto this base knowledge later, perhaps in high school. Let it be noted that some of these concepts may appear at first glance to be quite deep and complex. For example, if I list "Synoptic Gospels" as an area of knowledge of a literate Christian, I do not expect every Christian to be able to navigate the intricacies of two source theory versus four source theory versus the Farrer hypothesis or even to know what those are. It is enough to simply know what the term "Synoptic Gospels" means, i.e. which are the Synoptic Gospels and why, so as to know it if it should appear in an adult conversation about inspiration, canon, or higher criticism. With that disclaimer out of the way, here is my own skeletal outline of a literate Christian:

Primary Literacy

1) Name the books of the Bible in order.
2) Distinguish the Torah.
3) Distinguish the Gospels.
4) Distinguish the Epistles.
5) Identify Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel,
6) Noah,
7) Abraham,
8) Isaac,
9) Jacob,
10) Joseph,
11) Moses,
12) Joshua,
13) David,
14) Solomon,
15) Esther,
16) Daniel,
17) Jonah,
18) Mary and Joseph,
19) John the Baptist,
20) Jesus,
21) Peter, James, and John,
22) Judas Iscariot,
23) Pontius Pilate,
24) Stephen,
25) and Saul/Paul of Tarsus.
26) List the 7 days of creation,
27) the 10 plagues,
28) and the 10 Commandments.
29) Be familiar with the story of the Tower of Babel,
30) Sacrifice of Isaac,
31) Parting of the sea,
32) Giving of the Law and the golden calf,
33) Fall of Jericho,
34) Slaying of Goliath,
35) Fall of Jerusalem and exile,
36) Nativity,
37) Baptism of Jesus,
38) Temptation in the wilderness,
39) Feeding of the 5,000,
40) Clearing of the temple,
41) Passion, resurrection, and ascension,
42) Conversion of Saul,
43) and the conversion of Cornelius.
44) Be able to recite the Shema,
45) Psalm 23,
46) Lord's Prayer,
47) Golden Rule,
48) John 3:16,
49) Great Comission,
50) and either the Apostle's or the Nicene Creed.

Secondary Literacy

1) Name the Deuterocanonical books.
2) Distinguish the Prophets (Major and Minor).
3) Distinguish the Pauline and Johanine Epistles.
4) Distinguish Synoptic Gospels.
5) Identify Seth,
6) Ham, Shem, and Japheth,
7) Ishmael,
8) Aaron,
9) Gideon,
10) Samson,
11) Ruth,
12) Samuel,
13) Saul, King of Israel,
14) Jeroboam and Rehoboam,
15) Hezekiah,
16) Josiah,
17) Elijah and Elisha,
18) Isaiah,
19) Jeremiah,
20) Ezra and Nehemiah,
21) Job,
22) Lazarus,
23) Mary Magdalene,
24) Matthais,
25) Phillip,
26) and Barnabas, Silas, and Timothy.
27) Be able to list the Twelve Apostles.
28) Be familiar with some of the distinctive beliefs of Catholics,
29) Lutherans,
30) Presbyterians,
31) Baptists,
32) Methodists,
33) Pentecostals,
34) and Mormons.
35) Be able to identify Augustine,
36) Thomas Aquinas,
37) Martin Luther,
38) and John Calvin.
39) Distinguish between Pharisees and Sadducees.
40) Be familiar with Matthew 5-7,
41) John 1,
42) Acts 2,
43) Romans 1-6,
44) 1 Corinthians 15,
45) Ephesians 2:8-9 and James 2:14-26,
46) and the broad strokes of Revelation.
47) Be able to roughly explain a Christian understanding of Trinity,
48) Divinity of Jesus,
49) and sin and salvation.
50) Define the term "evangelical."

A Little Note About a Big Issue

The following represents the fortuitous collision of a personal pet peeve of mine with an ongoing discussion among a very limited circle of friends and family. For most, the information within will seem a little like reinventing the wheel or, perhaps more damningly, like toppling a strawman. For those of this mindset, let me just encourage you to ignore this or, at the very least, trust that it is necessary (if not to vindicate a theory that by no means needs my meager defense than at least as a means of personal, public catharsis).

It is tragic to me that certain outmoded theories of personality still exist, particularly those binary understandings of personality that want to lump large segments of society into one category or another. I have in mind particularly left-brain/right-brain (from here on, "LB-RB") theories of personality, though my calumny can be just as easily applied to other once serious psychological theories that now only persist in the bloated lexicon of pop psychology (e.g. type-A/type-B personalities). Rather than mounting an exhaustive critique of LB-RB theory, I think a more constructive approach might be to offer a positive alternative. Thus, I give you the Five Factor Model, a theory which attempt to measure personality along five personality continua: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Here are the reasons why I think the Five Factor Model is superior to other models, especially the LB-RB theory:

The Five Factor Model is grounded in serious, ongoing scientific research. Notably, so many of the theories which dominate in pop psychology are no longer current in the psychological or neuroscientific communities. LB-RB, for example, was a product of research in the 1960s on split brain patients, and its formulation was tied social theories about breaking away from "oppressive" traditional (linear, left-brain) ways of thinking. Similarly, type-A/type-B theory was part of medical research going on the in 1950s which has also since been exceeded. The Five Factor Model, in contrast, is the subject of ongoing psychological and scientific debate to determine its strengths and its limits. As one example, consider ongoing attempts to translate the theory into languages and culture other than English to test its universal applicability.

The Five Factor Model allows for a balance between heredity and environment. There is no denying that there is some genetics involved in personality. One need only look at children who grew up estranged from a parent but who nevertheless express many of his or her characteristic personality traits (i.e. sons of divorced parents who grow up just like their father's anyway). The LB-RB model, however, doesn't allow for much of anything beyond heredity to play a role. By claiming to tie personality directly to the anatomical make up of one's brain, it makes personality something static and intrinsic. In reality, our personalities are shaped by our experiences as much as our genetics; who you are is more than your DNA. Testing of the five traits that make up the Five Factor Model shows that each trait is influenced roughly equally by heredity and environment, reflecting a more balanced approach to the nature-nurture debate than you receive in LB-RB theories.

The Five Factor Model is first and foremost descriptive, not predictive. There is a temptation when we classify anything, but particularly something as abstract as personality, to take that classification and apply it like a hard-and-fast rule. This temptation is particularly pronounced with LB-RB theory because it so neatly claims to predict modes of thinking and therefore types of behavior. "Person X will never be an artist. He's too left-brained." That sort of thinking limits not only the ability of people to explore and excel and grow, but it limits the thinkers ability to interact authentically with people who are so surgically sorted into artificial categories. Proponents debate the degree to which the Five Factor Model can be used to predict behavior, but all agree that the five traits it offers are a useful tool in describing and understanding behaviors. It is more open to the question "why do you think you did that" than the prediction that, inescapably, "you will do that."

Finally, the Five Factor Model gives a more complex and thus more believable picture of human personalty. The biggest flaw in most forms of binary thinking is precisely that they are binary. As with Hegel's view of history and Zoroaster's view of deity, collapsing a complex reality into two broad categories is almost always erroneous. LB-RB theory tries to simplify reality and convince us that there are essentially only two kind of people. It is a tantalizing prospect, but our experience teaches us that there are millions of kinds of people. The Five Factor Model harmonizes better with our experience of people because it makes personality a combination of any number of five variables, each of which a given person can possess to varying degrees on a continuum. For example, why do we have two supremely organized women, both friendly toward people, thirsty for new ideas, and generally unfazed by problems in the world, one of whom becomes a big-time defense attorney and the other a mild-mannered suburban librarian. The LB-RB model has no answer for why two people who manifest the same kind of thinking would have radically different life paths. The Five Factor Model recognizes that people can be almost identical in numerous personality categories (four of the five in this example) and still have very different personalities and different paths in life based on small differences in certain personality features (in this case, degree of extraversion). That is only one rough analogy, but the point is simple: personality is a complex reality that requires a complex understanding that binary modes of thinking simply cannot satisfy.

Obviously, any attempt to quantify personality and to put people into categories (even five factored categories) is going to suffer from the same pitfall of oversimplifying and artificially labeling realities which we fundamentally do not understanding. Just because no theory is perfect, however, does not mean that all theories were created equal. It is time for serious-minded people to cast aside antiquated modes of thinking and convenient tools for ordering their world and advance into the messier but more useful methods presently endorsed by the psychological and scientific communities. Anyone interested in the Five Factor Model might consider a wonderful little book, very accessible in its writing style, written by a professor at the University of Newcastle and published by Oxford University: Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Pope Kisses Man and Sues

When I read the other day about the new Benetton ads featuring manipulated images of world leaders kissing, I cannot say I was shocked. After all, this is the same company that brought us bloody babies and people dying of AIDS. Shock imagery is their standard operating procedure. So the picture of Obama kissing Chinese President Hu Jintao, which was the big controversy when I first saw the articles, was nauseating but not surprising. (Amusingly, the White House is pretending to be upset because of a "policy disapproving of the use of the president's name and likeness for commercial purposes" and not for the more obvious reason, that it looks like the Chinese president is totally dominating him in that picture.)

I apparently missed that, in addition to a host of political world leaders, the clothing company had included a pair of religious figures in its repertoire: the pope and Egyptian imam Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb. The Vatican sprung into legal action almost immediately, claiming (rightly) that the advertisement was "offensive not only to the dignity of the pope and the Catholic Church, but also to the sensibilities of believers."

It didn't take long for Benetton to remove the ad from its website, but what's the point? The image (which I won't share here) has already gone viral. In fact, searching for the above image of Obama, you are likely to get more results featuring the pope's picture than the president's. The company's purpose was, as always, to generate controversy; it has done so with tremendous success. In an era so jaded that very little shocks us anymore, you have to credit Benetton for having the genius to imagine giant pictures of the pope kissing a Muslim man and the chutzpah to make that imagination a reality.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Reading Recommendation for the Illiterate

Stephen Prothero's Religious Literacy undertakes in a brief span to quantify, explain, and propose corrections for the rampant religious illiteracy of Americans. In simpler terms, Prothero attempts to unravel the paradox that, while Europeans tend to be religiously knowledgeable and irreligious, Americans are pious and religiously ignorant. Religious Literacy is too short a work, at just under 150 pages of actual exposition, to argue any of its points substantially, but this is just as well because Prothero is not covering any radically new ground. Instead, the work functions as an interesting resource both as an introduction for those who, as part of their general religious ignorance, are unaware that there is a problem and as a synthesis for those who are already plagued by worry about our collective idiocy. The book is carefully organized along three lines of thought:

What is the problem?

This is by far the most gripping section of Prothero's work, not because he uncovers a problem which we are all startled to find exists but because he quantifies it in ways that highlight its embarrassing severity. It is here that Prothero shocks the reader with a rapid succession of ever more embarrassing facts: one in five evangelicals believes in reincarnation, most American adults cannot name even one of the four Gospels, most American adults cannot name the first book of the Bible, a significant percentage of high school seniors believe Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife, only one in three Americans can correctly identify Jesus as the person who delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and one in ten Americans believes that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. These facts, gathered from scientific surveys, are interspersed with more anecdotal tributes to American religious ignorance: a woman who believes God created Eve out of an apple, another who thinks Matthew was swallowed by a whale, most Americans cannot name more than five of the Ten Commandments, and more. Worst of all, there are not statistically significant discrepancies between religious groups. Evangelical Protestants do marginally better in surveys than Catholics, for example, but they are nearer to one another than they are to getting right. In some cases, evangelicals do even worse, as with the 60% of evangelicals who believe that Jesus was born in Jerusalem compared to only 51% of Jews. The real force of all these statistics is to re-sensitize the reader to the claim that the religious ignorance in America is no trifling matter. It is easy to say that we should know more about the faith claimed by some 80% of Americans; it is something else to come face-to-face with the cold, hard statistical reality of our own shortcomings.

Why is there a problem?

Unless you suffer under the delusion, as is the case with much of the institutional religious right, that the ongoing march of aggressive secularity is the cause of religious illiteracy, Prothero's answer to the question of "why" will not be shocking. The rise of widespread religious ignorance, especially Christian ignorance, is tied by Prothero to the American process of religious democratization, à la Nathan Hatch. It was the anti-institutional, anti-clerical, anti-intellectual impulse of distinctively American revivalism--particularly in the Second Great Awakening, but also, according to Prothero, in the post-war revival of the fifties--that began the deemphasizing of religious knowledge. The unlikely and unwitting alliance of liberal Protestantism and evangelicalism resulted in a subordination of religious knowledge to religious feeling and of orthodoxy to orthopraxy. The onus of responsibility and thus of guilt falls not the deliberate atheist but on the amnesiac Christian who has forgotten his or her duty for pedagogy.

Notably, in a justifiable effort to stop Christians from shirking their guilt in the rise of a the religiously ignorant, I believe Prothero goes to far in exonerating secularity as such. I agree, certainly, that the religious right's attempt to blame active and self-aware secular pressure is misguided, perhaps even destructive as it encourages Christians to continue to ignore their need to be the front line in resurrecting religious knowledge. It is worth remembering, however, that democratization--with its anti-institutionalism and anti-clericalism--is itself a secular impulse of Western culture. It is a more pernicious form of secularity in so far as it has been quietly accepted as if a religious truth and erodes religious knowledge, among other things, from within. In Prothero's defense, however, his work is perhaps not the place to make such a subtle argument.

How do we fix the problem?

Here, Prothero's proposal is as bold as it is unlikely. He insists that, as a civic duty, every high school student should take a mandatory course in the Bible and world religions. He reasons, quoting Warren Nord: "How can anyone believe that a collegebound student should take twelve years of mathematics and no religion rather than eleven years of mathematics and one year of religion Why require the study of trigonometry or calculus, which the great majority of students will never use or need, and ignore religion, a matter of profound and universal significance?" While some might suggest that having a course dedicated to the Bible is somehow giving preferential treatment to one religion, Prothero insists that having such a specialized course is a logical, educational, and civic necessity. Without commenting on the validity of any religion or religion at all, he correctly notes that the Bible--not the Vedas or the Tao Te Ching or even the Quran--has been the most influential work in the history of Western culture. It is the Bible and the Christian religion which dominate the American political and social landscape like nothing else. Those ignorant of Christianity in America are intellectually anemic in ways they would not be if similarly ignorant of Sikhism. In Prothero's own words:

Some have argued against Bible courses in the public schools on the grounds that they somehow “establish” Judeo-Christianity. For these courses to be fair, this argument goes, teachers need to give equal time to all the world’s scriptures, treating the Bible as one sacred text among many. This is absurd and impractical. Of course, students can learn much from reading the Quran and the Tao Te Ching. But the Bible, which the Supreme Court has described as “the world’s all-time best seller,” is of sufficient importance in Western civilization to merit its own course. Treating it no differently from, say, the Zend Avesta of the Zoroastrians or Scientology’s Dianetics makes no educational sense. (And what teacher has the hours—or the training—to give “equal time” to all the world’s scriptures?)

The most intriguing part of his proposal is his examination of its legality. Showing a surprisingly broad knowledge of legal decisions regarding religious curricula, Prothero helps the reader to navigate constitutional issues surrounding his proposal (which, I should note, is by no mean peculiar to him but is being taken up in various forms on all sides of the political spectrum). His conclusion, which one struggles to disagree with, "Supreme Court justices are all but begging public schools to teach about religion."

In short, Religious Literacy is an intriguing little work which marches us through the morass of our own benightedness and, perhaps overly optimistically, proposes a way out for Americans. While I struggle to imagine a world in which Prothero's national proposals become a reality, his work has forced me to think about what might be done on a more local level, particularly by parents and churches. Many of the hallmarks of literacy according to Prothero I did not learn until I began formal education in religion. Looking back, I realize that they are facts that all Christians should know, not the least of which those of us who come from religious traditions which purport to give special place to the Scriptures.