Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Question of Diversity

With the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, I'm seriously stoked. Who'd have thought my 200-to-one bet would come in? I mean, dang. I had to argue a bit with my bookie about her cat's name, but Puddles Q. Puddleton still counts.

Given this potential new addition to the Supremes, there's a great deal of chatter in the media and the blogosphere about the role of diversity on the court. The whole event is highly charged, crackling with allegations on both sides of racial bias. Racism is, in the strange spin calculus of America's binary political system, the primary charge being leveled against Sotomayor by her opponents. Given the rather tenuous and troubled linkage between the conservative movement and Latino culture, this seems a rather foolish approach. The most effective counterspin seems pretty straightforward: "So she's proud of her culture and her heritage, and that makes her racist? Being proud to be a Latina makes you racist?" I guess the Latina vote in Florida and Texas just aren't important any more. The GOP seems so deafened by the din in it's increasingly small echo-chamber that it's walking right into that one.

The charges that she's an "intellectual lightweight" aren't going to help them much either. So...she's a Latina, ergo she could only have gotten where she is with the help of bleeding heart liberals, ergo she must be una muchacha estúpida. Again, I'm not sure that conservatives grasp the whole concept of getting la gente to vote for your candidates.

The piece that most interests me in this whole media maelstrom, though, is the rather odd spin this puts on the religious makeup of the Court. If Sotomayor is confirmed, the Supreme Court will have a Catholic supermajority. Of the nine justices, six will be Catholic, two Jewish, and one Protestant. This little oddment hasn't really made it past the radar of the faith-blogosphere into the broader media, but it's interesting. There was a time when the idea of having a Catholic in a position of leadership was a radical thing. Now, people seem utterly unphased by the idea that one of the three branches of government...the one in which people have lifelong appointments....is two-thirds Catholic in a nation that is majority Protestant.

As my tinfoil hat is quite effective in keeping the transmissions from the Illuminati at bay, I don't worry too much about some great Catholic conspiracy to take over the nation. What I do find myself wondering is what factors have lead to this seemingly random and utterly disproportionate weighting.

This seems mostly a construct of interesting dynamics within the conservative movement. Given that two of the last three administrations have been conservative, and that the conservative wing of the Court (Roberts/Scalia/Alito/Thomas) is entirely Catholic, I find myself wondering: is there something about conservative Protestants that makes them steer away from careers in law and government?

In stark contrast to the vigorous intellectual life that is encouraged in certain quarters of the Catholic church and Catholic systems of education, the American evangelical movement has been typically charged with a strong anti-intellectualism, favoring instead an emotive approach to faith. I'm not sure that this is all that is at work here, as within fundamentalism in particular the life of the mind can be surprisingly active. It is constrained within presuppositions about Biblical inerrancy, sure. But it's amazing how much intellectual capital one can expend defending that worldview.

What I think is more significant is the conservative Protestant understanding of the role of the state. Moving in step with cultural conservatism, the evangelical movement has woven into itself a deep distrust of government and the federal government in particular. This doesn't mean that evangelical Conservative Protestants are averse to practicing law. Some of the most intensely fundamentalist souls I've interacted with have been lawyers. Folks who get off on the structures of the law can find the legalism of a literalist faith deeply affirming. Even Jesus noted that tendency on occasion.

But given the deep distrust of government that defines Protestant conservatism, finding evangelicals whose calling is to federal civil service might be something of a challenge.

Friday, May 22, 2009

I Am More Conservative Than Dick Cheney

As we inside-the-Beltway folks thrill to the duel of words between the current President and the former Vice President over the issue of "enhanced interrogation techniques," what strikes me as most interesting about the debate is the inversion of the usual liberal/conservative moral divide.

According to the pattern as it's generally expressed within conservative culture, liberals are consequentialists. That means that we progressives are morally relativistic, adapting ourselves to the needs of the moment rather than sticking to a set of clear moral principles that permit no wiggle room. Under such an ethical system, there are no absolutes. We basically do whatever the heck we want. Gay marriage, cats and dogs living together, that sort of thing.

Conservatives, by that same metric, are generally assumed by other conservatives to hew to what is known as a deontological morality. That means that ethics are duty based. There are laws and governing rules by which one lives, and they cannot be bent or broken. You must adhere to them, no matter what happens. Morality is not determined by context. It is an absolute, and as such it bears great resemblance to faith, which also orients itself towards an absolute. That, within the self-understanding of conservatism, is what gives an individual or a nation integrity. It's what imbues us with nobility.

What is most striking about Cheney's recent defense of the use of torture is how eloquently he articulates a consequentialist ethic. When he describes the actions of his administration towards detainees as “..legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do,” that rightness is not measured against any other standard than that of perceived efficacy.

When he says engaging in these acts was "essential," he is describing torture as necessary for maintaining the security of the populace. When he says it was justified, he does so for the same reason. It maintained security. We would not have been safe without the use of torture. It was "successful" because it purportedly generated actionable intelligence. Finally, it was the "right thing to do" because, in Cheney's eyes and in those of his fellow conservatives, it had the desired effect. We were made safe. We were protected. That is proof, in and of itself, that it was the correct course of action. It worked.

Even in the unlikely circumstance that all of those things are true, and if that policy of sustained and systematic physical abuse of prisoners yielded actionable intelligence, what Cheney is articulating at best is a morality of expediency. We'll do whatever it takes to protect ourselves.

To counter this, some conservatives have argued that the legal opinions written to justify this approach were a sign that those actions were being held against a higher standard. What they were, though, was a tacit admission that what for many was a core value within a democratic society was being violated. In seeking wiggle room around the issue of torture, and in endeavoring to redefine it, the former administration moved away from the idea that there are some inviolable values that define our society and make it both noble and worth defending.

Measured against the standards of faith, particularly Christian faith, Cheney's defense fails. Measured against the unchanging values that are supposedly the bedrock foundation of a conservative morality, such actions cannot be justified. They are fundamentally ignoble, and that a significant portion of American conservatism has risen up to defend them is a sign of a movement that has lost sight of its moral integrity.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Fragile Things

Having read the entirety of Jack London's Call of the Wild last night on a whim, I marveled at just how much it was a product of its era. It was...as I'd remembered...the furthest thing from a romantic image of the Wilderness. It was brutish, bloody and deeply steeped in an ethic that seemed two parts Darwin, one part Nietzsche, and a little smidgen of Ayn Rand the way she used to get after she'd downed her second 40 of Colt 45. Dang, that grrl could get MEAN. It was all about the noble futility of the struggle of life in the face of a vast and uncaring universe.

Today, despite the best efforts of both of my lads, the little caterpillar they rescued off of the sidewalk a week and a half ago finally stopped noodling around its jar. Fuzzy Munch Munch, which was apparently the tiny beastie's name, had been barely moving when found. It perked up a bit in the house, and briefly went back to it's task of eating and eating and eating some more. For those ten days, this little critter didn't drown during the storms, or gradually stop functioning in the face of near freezing temperatures. It was warm and surrounded with a constant supply of fresh leaves...and despite that, it just couldn't make it. 'Twas not to be.


This afternoon after school, there was a small impromptu burial and service. A headstone was prepared. Prayers were said. Taps was played on the recorder, and one of the billions of caterpillars to die this season was laid to rest with full human honors.

I found myself wondering what possible place this sort of overflowing abundance of compassion can have in the stark creation that Jack London describes. Where is the evolutionary value in it? Where in the implacable calculus of life's desperate struggle against a cold and cruel universe does such a gentle moment fall?

It seems not to compute, somehow. Perhaps it's childish. Perhaps it's foolishness. But it is, nonetheless, real.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Middle Way: Choosing Life and Preserving Choice

While I'm on the subject of arguments that never seem to quite get resolved, the recent commencement speech by President Obama at Notre Dame seems to have stirred up the abortion cauldron again.

This is an issue within which many can admit to no common ground at all. If the responses of pro-lifers to Obama's speech are any measure, there is nothing at all to be said. There is no conversation or dialog. Within that community, abortion is simply murder. For them, describing abortion as a choice is like describing genocide as a "choice."

Within the highly charged rhetorical framework of the pro-life movement, even the goal of reducing the number of abortions in our society is not acceptable. If those who disagree with you are committing genocide, how can you possibly accept a lower percentage? Many conservatives are offended at even suggesting that conversation on the issue is possible. There is only one option, and that is the zero option. No abortions ever for any reason.

Unfortunately for our nation, this absolutist position is disastrously counterproductive. It paralyzes the nation, and prevents us from making any forward progress on the issue. Assuming, as I do, that reducing abortion rates should be a clear goal in our society, we have two possible ways forward. If we look cross-culturally at our options, two different societal approaches seem to have worked in reducing abortion.

The first is the Saudi approach: the complete ban. That essentially mirrors the absolutist position of American conservatism, and would require us to criminalize abortion at the federal level. This does achieve the goal of reducing abortion through the coercive power of government. It drives it underground for the poor, or drives it across national boundaries for the rich. That, in essence, is the Saudi approach. Under the Wahabist form of Islamic sharia law that governs Saudi Arabia, abortion is considered premeditated murder, and can only be considered if the mother's life is threatened. This is essentially the same position as that held by the American pro-life movement, and in Saudi Arabia, it means that abortion is quite rare. Unfortunately for the pro-life movement, the only reason that works in the Saudi context is that the country is not a democracy. It's legal frameworks are those of a theocratic monarchy, in which the boundaries between faith and the power of the state are very different from those established in our Constitution.

The second is the approach taken by liberal social democracies. This is the Western European model, which has produced abortion rates that are half that of those in the United States. That approach involves progressive sex education, easily available contraception, and significant "nanny state" benefits provided to those who choose to bring a child to term. Despite the ideological resistance many conservatives have to this approach, the numbers are clear: it works. Given that the U.S. sees between 1.2 and 1.5 million abortions annually now, if we could reduce our abortion rate to that of the Netherlands, we'd...in the language of the pro-life movement...save 600,000 preborn lives a year. The challenge for conservatives is that their absolutism and resistance to this middle way may be, by their own metric, costing two thousand lives a day.

As we are a democracy and not a theocratic state, the latter approach seems far and away the more viable one. We have a model that works. Why doctrinal and ideological purity should trump the possibility of real, practical and measurable improvement on an issue that for many is a matter of life and death is beyond me.

Abortion

Abortion, Abortion, Abortion. I've kinda sorta already presented my greyscale view on the issue in a variety of posts, but it's better to go at it in a systematic way. Here, I'll flagrantly repost from my old blog, and present you with my operating assumptions:

1) Abortion is Horrible. Unless you're a doctrinaire Soviet, a current member in good standing of the Chinese Communist Party, or a pathologically obsessive academic "feminist", there's nothing positive about it. It's not a joyful thing, in any way shape or form. In a best case scenario, it's a symptom of dysfunctional sexuality. It's a sign that somewhere, something has gone wrong. I'm talking here not moralistically, but biologically.

A male and a female homo sapiens have copulated. For whatever reason, the individuals involved are neither prepared nor willing to support the potential life that has unexpectantly come from their liaison. As a result, an invasive and emotionally traumatic surgical procedure is undertaken. Even if you're a full-gospel libertine, or believe that human sexuality does not need to be contained within the bounds of a covenant union between a man and a woman...and even if those words make you feel inadequately free to be you and me...abortion is still a narsty, bloody, emotionally trying and horrible thing.

2) There Are No Plain-Text Biblical Grounds for Opposing Abortion. Yeah, I know. Life, life, life. Many tighty-righties are monomanaically on about it, and in the midst of those arguments there are some interesting and significant points raised. But the most potent of the arguments have little or nothing to do with with a bible-based faith. When folks gather to protest abortion, there's a reason they don't have signs with scripture on 'em. The arguments to be made from scripture are far too abstracted and convoluted to fit on a sign or a bumpersticker. Why?

Because Christian Scripture read in it's objectively plain meaning is really quite noncommittal on the subject.

Where Torah speaks to causing an abortion, and it does directly, it straight up doesn't consider a fetus the equivalent of a fully gestated human being. If you kill one, recompense is financial and not a matter of blood-debt. In the Torah, life in utero is at best property.

Where the Prophets and the Writings speak directly of life in utero, they evoke that stage of being as something in which awareness...and thus essential humanity...is not fully developed or even present at all.

Where the Gospels and Epistles speak to it...oh. Wait. They don't. Not really, not in that blessed plain sense of the text.

For all of the sound and fury from those who claim to argue from the plain text of God's inerrant Word, there is not really a sound case to be made from that perspective. Folks try to make it anyway, because the level of heat and the intensity of focus on this issue has tended to make every single thing in the world yet another piece of evidence in that struggle.

That doesn't mean you can't make a nuanced case from the foundations of Christ's teachings, from abortion's impact on our agape ethos. But that's an argument that must admit to some greyscale shading. And if there's greyscale, it's harder to get in a righteous froth about it. And if people aren't in a righteous froth about it...well...it becomes less compelling as a wedge issue.

3) The Strongest Arguments Against Abortion are Scientific and Humanistic. In all of the civil discussions I've had with folks in the blogosphere and elsewhere around this issue, I've been most moved by those who argue the case in terms of the danger to how and who we consider human. The argument...and it is an essentially humanistic one...is that the sacrifice of a genetically unique potential human being represents a significant loss, and one that should give us moral pause. This argument should be self-evident to anyone who has children, or knows anyone who has children. That would be pretty much all of us, I hope.

That a fetus at a certain stage of development has levels of awareness that can not be externally perceived is another contribution of science. As we've learned more about the processes underlying the formation of a child in the womb, it should give anyone halfway sentient some qualms about something that terminates that process. Reference point 1), above.

These humanistic and scientific arguments are certainly bolstered, and in some instances founded, in the Judeo-Christian love ethic. But if you're going to make the case in the public sphere and to non-Christians, that's got to be the emphasis.

4) Abortion Should Be Reduced. For all of the shrieking, posturing and poo-flinging from the far right and far left, as a culture we should be able to commit to the idea that abortion is both horrible and an evidence of societal dysfunction. It is not in any way desirable. That common ground is attainable, and allows us to work towards policies that will decrease abortion rates in this country, which are now nearly twice that of the more secular social democracies of Western Europe. The problem is that rigid absolutism does not contribute to that end...and is ultimately counterproductive.

If we don't get past our doctrinal rigidity on this issue, that end will never be attained.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Nature of the Gods

We Presbyterians are supposed to stay on top of religious literature. We're supposed to read constantly, and be informed about all the latest and greatest theobabble. Given the busyness of life, it's a bit a of a struggle. I recently read my way through a significant proportion of Cicero's The Nature of the Gods. I'm..um..a little behind. At this rate, I'll be getting to Tony Jones sometime in the year 3127. Sigh. He won't even be relevant then.

The Nature of the Gods is not the greatest work of philosophy. Cicero was a legendary speaker and master of rhetoric, but one thing he was not was an original thinker. What he did strikes me as analogous to most bloggery today: he summarized and editorialized based on the original thinking of others.

This book was his effort to...through a fictional conversation between three friends...present the array of different theological arguments of his day on 1) whether gods existed and 2) what they were like.

What was perhaps most striking was just how familiar the conversation was. Sure, it was coming out of a polytheistic context. But the arguments between the functionally atheistic Epicurian and the faithful traditionalist Academic were utterly familiar. The landscape of the argument about faith seemed basically the same.

There were literalist believers in the gods. There were those who founded their belief on a heady fusion of faith and Roman nationalism. There were folks who'd swear up and down the gods had appeared to them, or at least tell you this story about this friend whose uncle knew a guy who once ran into Dionysius at a party. There were even "liberal" interpreters of the Roman pantheon, who understood the gods as metaphors.

I'm not sure this is 1) a heartening reinforcement of the humanity we share with the ancients or 2) kind of depressing.

Friday, May 15, 2009

A Plate Full of Gravy

Every once in a while, I'll get brochures coming across my desk presenting me with opportunities for continuing education. We Presbyterian-types are supposed to take advantage of this sort of thing regularly, but I've been pretty remiss on that front. Having dug my way through four years of undergraduate religious education and seven years of part-time seminary, I'd rather just read on my own or explore whatever happens to be interesting to me this week. Eventually, sure, I might bother with more. But for the time being, I'll stick with the autodidact thing. Why?

I was reminded of why when a continuing ed pitch from a local seminary showed up this week. It was full of professional development classes for pastors. Here's a seminar helping you assess the health of a small church. Here's a course training you for providing support to churches that need interim ministers. Here's a seminar on using technology to further the mission of your church.

All of these are useful pastoral skills. But how many are necessary pastoral skills? The most essential thing for a pastor is 1) that they be deeply grounded in their understanding of Torah, Prophets, Writings, Gospels, and Epistles and 2) that they be good at sharing that knowledge with others. We have to know our Jesus-stuff backwards and forwards, and have that good story so woven up into our own personal narrative that relevant teachings rooted in that ancient sacred tradition spring to mind almost without bidding.

The other stuff is gravy, but it isn't the meal.

Looking over the listing of stuff pastors should go learn more about, I found myself thinking that much of it was tangential to what matters. I say this as a pastor who 1) sets parameters for website design for his church 2) takes point on the annual budget, down to the planning and spreadsheet development 3) does strategic planning and 4) has a series of specific metrics for assessing the health of my little church. All of those things, unfortunately, aren't totally necessary for a pastor to know. That's what a congregation's lay leadership is for. What they want from you, if you're a pastor, are the skills needed to teach more about the faith.

No matter how competent a manager you might be, if your little corner of the beloved community doesn't look to you for an understanding of scripture and a deeply informed sense of purpose...well...you're not serving a pastoral role.

That, I think, is where progressive Christians tend to stumble. It isn't that we don't know our Jesus stuff. It's that we get so woven up into knowing so much other stuff that we kinda forget to focus on the stuff that counts. We focus on being church managers or experts in some particular subroutine of the institutional church, and are surprised when people seeking spiritual growth seem to be wandering off.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Judgment and Empathy

As I mused over the recent charges leveled by American conservatism against "empathy" as a judicial virtue, I found myself wondering how that played off against specific Biblical instances of justice. Two came to mind:

The first is perhaps one of the most famous stories of jurisprudential skill from scripture: Solomon and the Bisected Baby. It's a classic tale, in which two women both claim to be the mother of a child. Solomon suggests that the baby be cut in half, thus giving each woman what she wants. The real mom refuses, relinquishing her claim so that the child might be spared. At that point, Solomon gives the child to the one who clearly loves it more. This sort of story is common in the wisdom traditions of the Ancient Near East, as a way of evidencing the benevolence and discernment of a worthy ruler.

What's the Biblical metric here? It's not a knowledge of the law. It's a willingness to apply it gracefully. What makes Solomon's decision in this story worthy is not that it meets the standards of precedent, but rather that it comes from a deeper and more powerful understanding of the role of the law. It's driven by discernment of the human heart. In other words, by empathy.

The second instance is the story of Christ before Pilate. Presented with someone he knew he could free, and who he suspected was not guilty of any significant charge, Pilate yielded to to two things. First, to precedent. Only one prisoner was typically released. Though it was within his power to pardon who he saw fit, he couldn't bring himself to make a bold decision, even if that decision was in the interests of justice. Second, Pilate yielded to the will of the people. The people, stirred and agitated by those whose power was threatened, called out for the blood of a man who he knew was innocent...and he acquiesced. It was not that Pilate lacked empathy. It was that he lacked the moral integrity to let it drive his decisions. He hid behind the structures of the law, and for that act of cowardice, he has been found wanting by billions across thousands of years.

Given that most of the folks who are dead set against empathy as a judicial virtue claim to be Christian, I do wonder sometimes about the quality of pastors these days.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Are You, or Have You Ever Been, A Follower of Jesus Christ?

Here inside the Beltway, the political classes are humming with anticipation at the upcoming nomination of a new Supreme Court justice. Talking heads and politicos and apparatchiks of every possible persuasion are trying to figure out just who is going to get the nod to replace Justice Souter. What will the criteria be? What peculiar mix of jurisprudential knowhow will the individual bring to the court? Even more importantly, what demographic check-boxes will they fill?

As someone who finds this kind of prognostication entertaining, I think we're going to see a female nominee. I mean, c'mon. 51% of the population...and only 11% of the court? No progressive could possibly resist shifting that imbalance. The question is: what kind of woman? Will she be a Latina? I think the odds are good, and it would make political sense. But why stop there? How about a lesbian Latina? Or maybe a disabled lesbian Latina? Or a disabled lesbian Latina single mom with two biracial kids and a cat with a learning disability? You can get 175-to-1 on that last one at any DC bookie. 200-to-1 if the cat is named "Puddles."

Of course, that OCD progressive tendency to want fairness and balance in all things is not shared by folks on the other side of the aisle. But if the conservative pre-response to the not-yet-announced nominee is any guide, it seems that the GOP has only one criteria for rejecting a nominee:

They cannot under any circumstances be a Christian.

The one criteria that's been repeated by the administration, over and over again, is that the candidate must show "empathy." And so it is against empathy as a judicial virtue that conservatism as a movement is now railing. Anyone in a position to judge must be utterly dispassionate, completely unswayed by feeling and solely motivated by a cool clinical and academic understanding of the history and dynamics of the law. "Personal feelings," which is how conservatism interprets empathy, have no place in the law. This position has been resounding throughout conservative corners of the blogosphere, and was reiterated in an op-ed piece today by Senator Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Unfortunately, Christianity is all about empathy. Yeah, I know, we've been lead to believe Jesus only taught about abortion and gay marriage. But we have all of us, as the breathy lady says at the beginning of the Lord of the Rings, been deceived.

Compassion and an unconditional love of neighbor are the roots-rock-foundation of Christian values. If you've missed this in your readings of the teachings of Jesus, or in the teachings of the Apostle Paul, then you haven't been paying attention. Love is the highest law, and the law that defines and interprets the application of the law. Christian compassion is also not something that exists for us in the abstract. It is a value...a virtue...that must be manifest in every corner of the life of every person that claims to be a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. You can't say he's your Lord and Savior unless that love for others suffuses every part of your life.

Unfortunately for American conservatism, that includes your vocation. You're a Christian if you practice medicine. You're a Christian if you work in a cubicle next to a guy who smells of tobacco and rancid cheese. You're a Christian if you're appointed to serve as final arbiter of the legal framework of a constitutional democracy for the rest of your born days. You never leave that behind. It defines you, in all that you do.

That means that anyone who authentically roots their faith in Christ...well..let's just say that conservatives need to be sure none of those radicals get on the Court. Nominal, surface-level, wink-wink-nudge-nudge Christians are fine. Cultural Christians are fine.

Just no real ones. They can't help but be compassionate. Think of the mess they'd make of the law if they started actually interpreting it through the lens of Christ's teachings!

And we can't have that.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Sweet Lord Me-sus!

For some reason that I can't quite fully fathom, the iTunes App Store is just a hotbed of faith-based folderol lately. The latest 99 cents worth of downloadable God silliness comes not from an app you can get on site, but from an app that was recently rejected by Apple. The failed software was the Me So Holy application, which really involves nothing more complex than slapping your face onto some significant religious figure. Want your face on Jesus? There you go. Want to look like the Blessed Virgin? Hail [your name here] full of grace!

There did not appear to be a Marduk-Me option, but I'm sure they'd have remedied that with add on content.

Some folks are crying censorship, and there may be some truth in that. But as I look at the app I can only see raging, flagrant lameness. Slapping your face onto a religious figure...as a mobile app...just could not be weaker. So you've got some time to kill during a layover at O'Hare, and decide to graft a mugshot of a random traveller onto the body of Shiva? Wow...I can imagine that happening all the time. Sounds. Like. A. Hoot.

Of course, there's no real point to my faux taser app, either.

What this bit of censorship is, of course, is just reflexive corporate lameness, that wheedling profiteer's fear that somewhere, some hypersensitive zealot is going to make a stink about your product. Apple is manifesting the same corporate counsel tushie-covering instinct that Sony showed in delaying the launch of Little Big Planet last year because they were terrified someone might take offense at a song that included verses of the Koran.

I mean, gracious. This program does nothing that Photoshop doesn't already do ten thousand times better. Who's going to be riled by it? Apple would have been better off just letting the marketplace handle it. We'd have taken one look at this bit of tedium, uttered a collective yawn, and then let it get buried with the tens of thousands of other broken, faddish, or weak attempts at applications.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Seminary Clearly Ruined Me

Over at her blog and on a recent web radio broadcast, my colleague Carol has been asking a puzzler of a question...is there any reason for our denomination to continue to expect to have educated clergy?

Seminary education, or so Carol's brain teaser goes, might just be too expensive. It drives those who might be seeking a congregation away from smaller churches, because even otherwise healthy communities just can't pony up the cash that you need to pay back student loans. A denomination in decline...which ours certainly is...can no longer require a Masters of Divinity for those seeking ordination. We'd be better served focusing on developing lay leadership and fast-track certification programs that get folks into the pulpit more rapidly and at lower cost. I have a great deal of sympathy for this argument, and I think there is real value in having the leadership of local congregations arise organically from their community.

That argument against seminary education is a new one, and is reflective of the struggles of the progressive church. It joins up with another argument...the "seminary-ruins-you" argument that typically comes from conservatives and fundamentalists. For them, the problem with seminary is that it can be a hotbed of progressive thought within the church, bent on turning hapless young Christians into lesbian wiccan vampyres, or worse yet, Democrats. Better to stick with a nice little Bible college that doesn't teach anything you couldn't learn in VBS. Gotta keep the kids away from the siren song of ancient Greek or Hebrew or the history of the church. Too confusing.

So...should the church require a seminary education? Having had one, I would say: Abso-freakin'-lutely.

Why? Because you can't be a competent pastor without one. Sure, you can run a church just fine. If you've got any business experience, or have been part of a voluntary organization's leadership structure, you've probably developed the chops to handle the organizational requirements of a congregation. If you've got natural charisma or public speaking experience, you can wow 'em on Sunday with your golden tongued oratory.

But you're not going to be a resource for the community where it counts. You aren't going to bring anything to the table theologically. You're not going to have the tools to give new insight into their study of scripture. Your community might grow in numbers, but it won't grow in understanding. You will not be teaching.

What do I mean by this? Let me illustrate.

This last Sunday in Bible study, I was trying to show the gathered group a connection between John's Gospel and 1 John. We'd read from the lectionary, and as I tried to show the ways that 1 John shared important language and theology with John, we hit a stumbling block. All of the group came out of an evangelical background, and all had New International Versions as their translation of choice. The NIV is a decent and worthy version of the Bible, but the way it rendered the verses totally obscured a connection that was both profound and part of the intent of the author of 1 John.

In 1 John 4:15-16, we're supposed to be reminded deeply of what it means to "abide" or "live within" or "be part of Christ." That understanding is central to how the ancient church understood our Christian identity. The passage intentionally mirrors the teachings of Christ in John 15:1-8, when we are commended to be grafted onto the True Vine, and to abide in Him.

Problem is, the NIV uses two entirely different English verbs in translating the Greek verb meno. In John, the NIV uses "remain." In 1 John, it uses "live in." Technically, that's accurate enough. But it obscures a deep resonance, a vital symbolic connection that was an intentional part of 1 John. No reader of 1 John in the NIV would be struck by the similarity of language, or reminded of the words of Christ, even though that's why those words were written.

Having gone to seminary, I now reflexively look across translations. I observe differences. I look to original contexts and their intents and meanings. Every once in a while, I go back to the original language. In doing so, I bring value...and hopefully, understanding...to a community that is trying to make those connections themselves and come into a deeper understanding of both Christ and the church.

It isn't so much that the church should require seminary. It's that those who are genuinely called by God to serve the church should want it, should hunger for it, should see it as a central and vital part of their service.

That is not at all the way the nondenominational world views it. If you think you have an anointing, then by God, you should preach. On the one hand, that's true. It's the call that's important. On the other, failure to strengthen yourself in preparation for your service to the church is just lazy.

If you..meaning you personally, you as someone who God has whupped upside the head and dragged into service...take your calling to serve as a pastor seriously, it's worth the effort.

The depth of knowledge seminary gives you makes you a better resource. So long as you remember to speak in ways that can be understood outside of academe, it gives you the tools to be a more effective servant.

And one thing we can't afford is to have more ineffective servants, or more folks whose grasp of the Bible doesn't go any further than their political persuasion.

Like, Dude, That Was Totally Uncool

Given that we get out the the theater with rather less frequency than we should, Rache and I tend to get much of our movie watching done at home. This weekend, as we rummaged around for options, we tried to figure what might make for a nice release from what had been a care-heavy week. Nothing art-house. We were too tired. Nothing too stressful. Just a bit of goofy escapism.

We settled on Pineapple Express, a recent Christian independent film starring Kirk Cameron as a truck driver trying to get a load of fruit to a small church revival. Well, that's what it said on the box.

This was a Seth Rogan vehicle, purportedly about the wacky misadventures of a pomo Cheech and Chong on the run from a drug lord. For all of the endless consumption of the devilweed, it was actually pretty entertaining for an hour or so. Classic "bumbling incompetent buddy movie" fare, with a reasonably smart if intensely profane script and some genuinely entertaining characters. It was good escapist entertainment.

At about the hour mark, though, the film suddenly became something entirely different. The endearing slacker doofballs and eccentrics you'd been laughing at suddenly start killing one another. Not in a Wiley Coyote, Kung Fu Hustle sort of way. In a "I'm shot and Dear God it really hurts and please help me" sort of way. It became viscerally, actively, intensely negative, so much so that I began wondering how much financing Rogan had received from the DEA to make the film. Somewhere in film school, Rogan must have been too stoned to show up for the class that taught you that slapstick does not weep. The film fell apart.

While watching it, what most troubled me was this: What if we're supposed to think this is funny? Am we supposed to laugh at the one-liner pitched out at the burned and contorted body of the antagonist who forty minutes ago was having an amusingly awkward moment with his pre-adolescent son? Or chortle as the emotionally vulnerable villain cries out at how much more his first gunshot wound hurts than he'd expected? Or type lollollol into Twitterific as our protagonists goofily muse about how they are, in fact, now all murderers?

Googling the reviews afterwards, I found an interesting split. Many of them note the same intense dissonance between comedy and brutality. But some...well...some just thought it was funny the whole way through. A laugh riot, a festival of gore, hipster brutality, and giggles!

I realize this isn't a particularly pomo thing to say, but I can't help but come to the conclusion that this sort of "entertainment" is just...well...evil. Shocking, visceral unpleasantness is not funny. Not edgy. Not fun, any more than a group of Taliban dragging a man into the street and cutting off his head with a knife is "fun." Like the blighted and amoral torture porn genre, it's just a bit of darkness, that serves no purpose other than to demean and numb us.

This is all Tarantino's fault.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

A Sign of The App-Ocalypse

One of the more peculiar little apps that you can buy for your iPhone these days is something called "Pocket God." It's a tiny little gamelet, in which you have absolute control over the short, brutish lives of a few primitive villager types. By "absolute control," I mean you can kill them in a variety of ways that are intended to be entertaining.

You can pick them up and drop them into the sea, where they promptly drown. You can pick them up and hurl them into a volcano, where they promptly get all nice and crispy. You can smite them with lightning. You can shake your iPhone violently, causing an earthquake. You can tilt your iPhone to one side, which alters gravity and causes them to tumble off the island into the sea, where, once again, they promptly drown. It's like Tamagotchi for the Sith.

Beyond the fact that I'm apparently unable to find amusement in tormenting virtual beings, I can't quite figure out the appeal that has made this little bit of virtual sadism such a seller. Four hundred thousand downloads? Really? I've watched the gameplay, and even with the regular updates that permit new ways to torment your virtual victims, it just seems a bit tedious.

That your only choice is killing the denizens of your world in unusual ways seems...well...a bit limiting for a god. What if you're more benevolently oriented? Or if you tend to prefer games that allow for moral choices, or for actually being moral? Teaching them to swim would seem like a good start.

And where's the challenge? Destroying things is the easiest thing in the world. It's building things that's hard.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

I Have Had Enough

Although things seem to be turning around a tick, I find myself wondering if I am responsible for the recent economic downturn. Not me personally, mind you. But my attitude towards both money and possessions.

It isn't that I don't like stuff. Stuff is cool. I enjoy stuff. But I seem congenitally incapable of wanting things that are somehow better than the things I already have. Take motorcycles, for instance. I ride a 2000 Yamaha YZF600R. It's a bit aged, and looks more and more like a Mad Max ratbike as the years slip by. But when I bought it used a few years back, it was only after very carefully considering everything I was looking for in a bike. Fast? Check. Decent looking? Check. Fuel efficient? Very. Comfortable? Reasonably. It has a touring range that puts big touring Beemers and Gold Wings to shame...I've seen over 300 miles on a single tank. It's exactly the bike I wanted. And it still is. New bikes are appealing in the abstract, but there really is no reason to get one so long as my current ride is still running well.

So I fail an entire industry.

Or take our van. It's a seven year old Honda, again bought used. Though it's starting to show it's age, I still marvel at just how thoroughly it meets our needs. So I fail the struggling automotive industry. Or our house, which is a rumpled little hobbit-hole rambler built back in the early 60s. Sure, things need to be fixed and replaced...but it's not a starter home. It's plenty of space for the four of us. It always will be. We just don't need or want anything more, and so I fail the housing industry.

And I fail at that task willfully. Joyously, even.

Yesterday during my walking meditation, right before things got intense, the Hebrew word dayenu fluttered down and alighted in my consciousness.

It's a part of the Passover celebration, and is typically recited as a way of giving thanks for all of God's blessings. It means, roughly, "it would have been enough." During the Passover meal, that term is said over and over again, as the participants give thanks for each of the ways in which Israel was delivered from slavery. Each of them alone is enough to merit joy and thanksgiving, even if none of the rest of them had occurred. It is an expression of basic satisfaction.

Dayenu is, I think, the greatest enemy of consumer culture. Having that as one's attitude towards the life in which we find ourselves is a liberation the endless grasping acquisitiveness of our society. It is a counterbalance against that gnawing, desperate sense that we are not good enough, or smart enough, or rich enough, or pretty enough, and that we must constantly struggle with one another to prove our worth.

This is a particularly useful thing for a pastor to grasp. So what if my church doesn't seat 4,500 in each of our five Sunday services? So what if I'm flagrantly imperfect? For those ways my church is a joy, and for the ways I am able to make a difference, it is better not to fret and anguish and scheme. It's better to just say, dayenu, and let that attitude of gratefulness define all else.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

I Am Crappy At Prayer

The walk begins with a thought, a lament, a hard realization. I am crappy at prayer.

Not bad at Scriptural Analysis. Slightly better than average at Organizational Dynamics. Halfway decent at Giving Wise Advice. Passable at Preaching In A Way That Doesn't Make You Overly Sleepy.

But as I walk, I own my weakness. Though I can string together words just fine, and speak them clearly and with feeling, in my heart of hearts I'm still a lousy prayer. Spoken prayer too often feels like chicken scratches on the dirt floor of God's creation.

I'd rather call someone who needs a call. Remembering this, I do, and I talk with some dear souls who've been away from the church for a while, putting one foot before another and sharing some time with them.

Walking back, lunch in hand, under a canopy of rain lush trees, damp leaf speckled asphalt beneath my feet, one of those moments of presence comes without my asking. Is it the Requiem that whispers through my earbuds, as the wind seems to rise and fall with the chorus? Or is it the tiny green wriggler descending from an invisible thread as I approach? Is it my involuntary reaching out, feeling the tug of his line on the hairs of the back of my hand?

Is it that we move past one another as if we were dancing? Is it that after turning to watch him serenely fall, the breeze rises up? Is it the moment after, as I close my eyes, and feel the air around me, and a tangle of threads catches across my closed eyes and clings like a tickle on my upraised face?

One never knows. But the endless jabbering in my head stills to nothing, and I am crystal in the sun. It becomes hard to distinguish between myself and the wind on my face. I am both lost and very deeply present. There's an inexplicable certainty, a heart knowledge, that I am moved by something far greater than myself.

The moment passes, as they do. I'm still a lousy prayer.

It helps to own your weakness.

The Onion Sells Out

For the better part of a decade, I've been a fan of the Onion. It has consistently served up the kind of ironic, absurdist snark that is a part of any self-respecting iconoclast's balanced breakfast.

That may be changing. While watching the latest Onion News Network missive, something...well...something didn't smell right. Here. Watch for yourself:




Is the video snarky and ironic? Check and check. But it was also..several days before the release of the film...shilling for Paramount.

The primary subtext of this little bit of faux cynicism isn't insightful social commentary, or an elegantly veiled undercutting of a core absurdity of our culture.

Once you get past the cheap and easy digs at Trekker geek culture, what we're meant to take away is that this is a GREAT MOVIE! ACTION PACKED! BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE! WITH AMAZING SPECIAL EFFECTS! IT'S FUN FOR EVERYONE! PARAMOUNT DID A GREAT JOB! WE SHOULD ALL GO SEE IT!

That may, in fact, be true. I'm not in a position to judge, not having seen the film.

Saying it midway through next week would be social commentary. Saying it prior to the release of the film is just good ol' fashioned marketing. It is, at best, like a hipster version of the star-du-jour showing up on Good Morning America to pitch their upcoming major motion picture.

And when a formerly reliable cynic abandons their ironic detachment and becomes an instrument of a carefully constructed marketing campaign, well, it's the beginning of the end.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Manifold Providence and Omniscience

Last month, I edited and reposted my own peculiar pomo-scholastic "proof" of the existence of God. Manifold Providence, as I like to call it, is a mild little heresy, an experimental jazz fusion of multiverse cosmology and classical theology. But hey, it keeps me entertained. It's nice to have hobbies.

A significant part of this little oddment rests on a theological assumption about the nature of God, and for some reason, I feel like blabbering on about it today. As a card-carrying Calvinist, I understand God to be both omniscient and omnipotent. There is nothing that God does not know, and God's creative power knows no limits or boundaries.

Given that foundation, God by necessity must know not only what is, but also must by definition know what might be. If omniscience is to be asserted in any meaningful way, then God knows not only the results of the choices we will make, but also the results of the choices that we do not make. Arguing otherwise delimits God to creation, which is a Biblical and conceptual nono. And we wouldn't want to do that, would we?

If divine knowledge is complete and not simply conceptual, then the reality of those paths we have not taken stands before God in the same manner of our current reality. That we do not and cannot know all of the different potential ways we might exist before God does not mean that God is not aware of us, in all of the ways that we both are and might have been ourselves.

For God to be God, God would be aware of an infinite array of possibilities, the fullness of all that could conceivably be. The unfathomable divine mystery would include a boundless omniverse of realities, some familiar, some impossibly strange, some with structures of physics and spacetimes that are completely different and antithetical to our own.

Omniscience, then, seems to require an infinite multiverse. An infinite multiverse, as I've argued in the link above, gives solid conceptual purchase to an ancient argument for the existence of God. The two concepts are interwoven and mutually self-supporting.

This may appear to be a delightfully cozy tautology, a line of reasoning that depends on itself for it's own proof. That's kinda the same thing fundamentalists do when they argue for the Bible's authority from the authority of the Bible. Then again, I'm fairly sure that a tautology by definition must be finite. As what is being described incorporates the infinite, it can't be a self-referential feedback loop. The conceptual integrity of the...

Oh. Wait. You're nodding off.

Sorry. I do go on and on.

I guess the broader question in all of this is...well...so what? Even if this is true, what could it possibly have to do with me? That, I think, is something I'll need to deal with another time.

Is It Just Me, Or Does that Look Like Blood?

So I'm standing in front of my congregation, and I'm halfway through.

I take up the humble brown stonefired ceramic jug. I take up the matching cup. With the cup held close to the microphone before me, I utter the same words I've uttered hundreds of times, evoking memory and invoking the Spirit. I speak the words looking out to the flock, the exchange from container to container coming from sense memory alone. As the fruit of the vine cascades from jug to cup, the sound of cascading fluid should fill the room, an electronically augmented pouring out that stirs Him in the ears of His people.

But...there is no sound.

I glance down, still speaking. The "fruit of the vine" pours thick and deep purple-red from ceramic to ceramic, flowing silky silent, the consistency of a low viscosity motor oil. The smell that rises from the cup is very wrong, missing all of its usual jelly-jar Welches overtones. I continue to speak, intoning the words and performing the required actions as a subroutine, while my higher functions go elsewhere, scrabbling for a response to this unexpected event.

My first response is Dear Lord, it looks like thickly congealed blood. This is quickly dismissed, thus saving me from having to reconsider my Reformed position on transubstantiation. The scent that rises from the cup in my hand is sharp and heavy, not salt and meat. It is the pungency of turned fruit. The grape juice for our Lord's Supper is kept in cans, and those cans are kept for a long, long while. Occam's Razor chimes in happily: It has gone bad.

The question is: how bad?

I am now walking and speaking on autopilot, moving towards the station where those gathered for worship will receive bread and cup. Is this dark fluid just a little sour, slightly off, a tich more bitter than it would be normally but otherwise fine? This is acceptable. Or is it riddled through with bacteria who have their hearts set on turning our parlor fellowship into an impromptu vomitorium? This is not acceptable.

Can I bail? Can I hang a hard left and walk suddenly out of the sanctuary, dump the strange stuff, refill the cup, and come bounding back in to continue as if nothing had happened? Problem is, there is no guarantee that any potable fluid remains. Perhaps if I just silently turn and flee.

I decide to stop, and taste it myself. A desperate breach of protocol, to be sure. I'm not quite sure where the Apostle Paul would come down on it, although if we still had the long missing Fifth Letter to the Church at Corinth, I think he'd approve.

It's...well...not utterly foul. Only slightly foul. It tastes like a blend of prune juice, Night Train, and blackberries. As something to serve with a meal, it leaves a great deal to be desired. If it's only a strange flavor blackening the end of a small dunked rectangle of bread, it should be fine. I ask an elder to taste it, and she...utterly baffled at the peculiarity of my request..does so, indicating that it's not so bad. I ask a young congregant, and he shrugs and mumbles that it's fine.

And so we continue, and other than a few puzzled questions during the fellowship hour, all is well.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Don't Give to that Charity...They'll Only Use It To Buy Booze

As the economy has tanked, more and more calls have come to my church for emergency assistance.

We're a small church that exists only because we have a small endowment. We give a fairly solid amount of our budget to support local charities and service organizations. We volunteer our time to help out. But what we don't do a tremendous amount of is direct giving to individuals.

In fact, we pretty much don't do any direct giving at all. I struggle with this a bit.

On the one hand, I tend to think that communities can better serve those in need if they pool their resources. The scattershot, church-by-church approach to giving tends to result in disjointed care. For families who are genuinely struggling, that means an arbitrary hit-or-miss approach to getting help. With the economy hitting parishioners hard, it also means that faith communities are rallying around their own, and may not have the resources or the energy to help those outside of their fold.

It also provides a rich environment for folks whose entire livelihood is a carefully manufactured sob story, like the young woman who comes by our church every year having been "just laid off this week and forced to live in her car." It's a late model Accord, the EX-L, with sunroof and navigation and leather seating. Or the man whose car "runs out of gas" in the church parking lot, and who needs cash...preferably twenty bucks...to get to work.

It's for that reason that a local charity that our church supports recently set up "charity meters" outside of local businesses as a way of reducing giving to professional panhandlers. Why give loose change to someone who's just going to buy a forty with it, when you can drop those quarters with a group that you know will provide housing, food, and sustained support to people in need? It's an interesting idea, but I'm not sure it'll either work or last.

That's because just giving cash or loose change to local charities is not enough. What that does not do is engage you personally with human beings who are struggling. It doesn't develop relationships. It doesn't engage you as anything other than a Sugah Daddy or a Lady Beneficent. If you don't really get to know the humanity of children of God who've fallen on hard times, then it's hard to say you're showing charity. By that, I don't mean charity as a process of financially supporting the disenfranchised. I mean charity as a spiritual gift, as charis, the essential manifestation of God's reconciling love.

Relationships governed by grace are a vital part of the way we are called to help transform the world, and that path includes but goes far beyond the financial.

Friday, May 1, 2009

My Jesus is Bigger than Your Jesus

Is there a place for the competitive spirit in the church?

I find myself wondering that as I enjoy my latest PS3 game, the slightly dated but still highly entertaining multiplayer online game WarHawk. In it, teams of semi-cartoonish warrior-avatars battle it out across an array of expansive maps, playing games of capture the flag, fighting to seize territory, or just doing some good ol' fashioned virtual killin'.

Behind very single one of your opponents is an actual human being located somewhere around the world. It is, truth be told, not necessarily the most pastorly of pastimes. Dropping your Nemesis fighter into hover mode and lobbing missiles at a footsoldier attempting to seize your flag is hardly turning the other cheek. As I get better at the game, and more folks fall at my hands, I imagine that I've probably been responsible for more folks calling out the name of the Lord in game than I do in church.

As much as I enjoy a well earned victory, the intensity of competition makes me wonder if such a thing has any place among Jesus people. Are we permitted to strive with and against one another as we seek to strengthen our churches and our proclamation of Christ's grace?

I particularly wonder this in the context of my own congregation. Much of the growth we have seen in the last several years has come from our partnership with a Korean church that is now in the throes of a deep church conflict. As the two church camps battle it out, I'm amazed to see their worship numbers growing. Members have left, sure. But as the conflict continues, more and more people are being encouraged to come show their support for one team or another. It has the feeling of two small armies marshaling for a battle. I've heard some suggest that this battle is unquestionably the Lord's work, as they work to build a real church and cast out those who stood in their way for so many years. What better than the crucible of conflict to draw people to church?

This is not God at work, of course. Not if either Jesus or Paul knew what they were talking about. This is just human beings having at one another, which we can do just fine without the Lord's help.

But are there good ways to fight within the church? I think, for instance, that the progressive wing of the church is a little too passive when it comes to striving against repressive and idolatrous fundamentalism. We sit back and are "nice," and do nothing. It'd be better to fight...not by shouting or being obnoxious to ultraconservatives...but by making a concerted effort to make our witness to Christ's grace more intensely viral than theirs.