Thursday, September 30, 2010

This Theory is Brought to You By the Letter M

The lynchpin of the book The Grand Design, its purpose and goal, is to present what is being described as M-Theory.  M-Theory isn't just one thing, but is rather the combination of a series of assumptions about quantum mechanics, a latticework of existing subatomic theory.  While there's plenty of complexity to it, perhaps the most striking thing is that neither Hawking nor Mlodinow seem to have any idea what the "M" in "M-Theory" stands for.  They suggest "Master Theory," and a few others...but it's a bit unsatisfying.  Here's your theory of Life, the Universe, and Everything, and you can't even tell us what that letter stands for?  Humph.

Perhaps it stands for Monkey Boy.  Or Mork.  Or Methuselah.  Or Maneschevitz.  Menudo?  Or Auntie Em. 

I asked my father-in-law about this over dinner last night.  He's a plasma physicist, meaning he explores the high energy matter that comprises stars.   His take on the mysterious "M" was that it came from the term "m-brane," with the "brane" being not the thing in your noggin, but a concept from a variant on subatomic string theory.  A "brane" is a bit like a rolled-out or flattened-out string, which would help, if we really knew what "strings" were.  As for the "m?"  Errr.  He wasn't sure quite what that meant.


This is a bit of a bummer, because going into the book, I thought I knew.  I was just working under the assumption that the "M" in "M-Theory"  was a reference to the most revolutionary concept in M-Theory: the idea that our observable universe, the space-time continuum in which we find ourselves, is only one of a functionally infinite array of spacetimes.  It isn't a universe.  It's a capital M Multiverse. 

It's that new framework that theology has to address, because it does have some pretty profound implications, and poses some pretty significant challenges.

Hawking: Reality is Dead

As I've continued to dig my way through The Grand Design, I'm finding it quite readable.  It's thoughtful, witty, and written in a breezy style.  Heck, they even have pictures.  And we love the pretty pictures.  Much of the science presented is familiar territory, as Hawking/Mlodinow talk about the history of scientific thought and cosmology.  It's good meaty stuff, laying out the evolution of physics from Aristotelian to Newtonian to Relativistic to...well...whatever M-Theory is about.

When the book gets to quantum physics, though, it surfaces several interestingly...cough...postmodern reality of the nature of the universe.  Pity that philosophy is dead, though.  Bummer about that.

One interesting observation of quantum physics is that there is no objectively observable reality to the foundational building blocks of the universe.  It's not that quarks and Z particles and the strange schtuff that forms our atoms aren't somehow there.  They simply can't be observed, not in the same way that we observe the larger structures of the universe.  Making a meaningful statement about the position and energy of a subatomic particle is impossible.  This has nothing to do with subjectivism or observer bias.  It's woven into the nature of existence.  To observe something requires that we interact with it, and if we interact with it, then we change it.   Our relationship with the universe by necessity changes the universe.

Where Hawking and Mlodinow take this is interesting.  The Grand Design explicitly rejects both the objectivism and realism of classical science as the most effective ways to describe the nature of our universe.   Yeah, you can make some predictions about the actions of the larger structures through simple observation.  But when push comes to shove, existence is considerably more intricate and complex than can be accounted for by observational or experimental science.  More arcane and esoteric arts are required to understand its true nature.

The faithful, who've know this for pretty much ever, might at this point raise our hands and say, well, yeah.  Welcome to the party.  What kept you?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Hawking: Philosophy is Dead

As I begin my meander through Stephen Hawking's controversial and fascinating new book, the first thing I encounter, right there on the very first page, is an interesting proposition.  Hawking notes that humankind has all sorts of questions about meaning.
"How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves?  How does the universe behave?  What is the nature of reality?  Where did this all come from?  Did the universe need a creator?"
And then, he drops it:
"Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead."
I have two responses to this rather impressively broad assertion.  First, it's completely wrong.  Second, it's totally correct.  How can that be?  Well, there are two different clauses in that sentence.  Let's look at the second one first.

The statement that philosophy is dead is zigzackly precisely right.  Philosophy has clearly and incontrovertibly left the building.

The era in which philosophical thought had anything meaningful or transforming to say about purpose or truth or being began its demise with Descartes.  It was Cartesian thinking that marked the transition from philosophy as ontology (meaning the exploration of being) to philosophy as epistemology (meaning philosophy as the exploration of the means by which we know what we know.)  Once philosophical discourse turned away from questions of cosmology and broader meaning, and turned inward towards an exploration of the rational frameworks upon which it was constructed, it wandered off muttering incoherently to itself, chainsmoking Gauloises until it slowly withered and died.  Are there important things to learn in the fossilized remains of those thoughts?  Sure.  There's still tremendous value in some of those ancient human insights.  But they aren't living

Yeah, I know, there are still departments of philosophy.  There are still people racking up pointless student debt to study postmodern semiotics so they can spend their post-graduate career waiting tables at some funky little vegan place.  But the Western tradition of philosophy, the one that began with the Greek Eliatics in the 300s BCE, that way of approaching the world no longer is a culturally relevant or living tradition.   Hear the angry protestations from the vibrant philosophical community?  Neither did I.  So score one for Hawking et al.

The first part of that statement, though, is waaaay wrong.  Even if you're not a Christian, and not a theist, it's wrong.  Philosophy certainly attempted to answer those questions, but it was joined by...and often intermingled  Human beings explored the nature of reality not just through the rationally constructed systems of philosophy but more notably through the ecstasies of faith.  Human beings came into transforming encounters with the Numinous, and struggled to put words and frameworks around it as they grasped at what can't be grasped.   Across all human cultures, they told from those experiences the defining stories of their mythopoetics.   Faith has always been the primary way humankind has tried to answer that subset of questions.  So saying "traditionally, these are questions for philosophy" is just plain incorrect.

I wonder, honestly, if in some early iteration of this work that sentence didn't make the more provocative statement:  "Traditionally, these are questions for religion, but religion is dead."   Perhaps such a statement was deemed too inflammatory.  Who knows.  But it is clear, particularly from some of the argumentation that follows, that the authors know the case it is making does not have to contend with philosophy as a competing worldview.  It is faith, and the practitioners of faith, who really have to wrestle with this stuff. 

Further up and further in...

The Grand Design

A few weeks ago, the religious interwebs were a-hum with chatter about a proclamation by theoretical cosmologist Stephen Hawking that the universe could easily have blorted itself into being without any help from a creator.  There was much tut-tutting, from both the lumpenproletariat of Christianity and Episcopalians.  Of course you need God, cried Christianity!  Laws may be one thing, but there must causality beyond simple mechanics.  God gives both being and purpose, proclaimed the voice of the church, and Hawking just doesn't get it!

Well, no, actually.

In responding thusly to Hawking, I'm afraid it is the church that has entirely missed the point.  We're having the wrong argument.  We're standing in a room, talking to ourselves, and have failed to engage Hawking in any meaningful way.

What is most notable about what Hawking has to say is not that he doubts that God is necessary as a first cause or Aristotelian Unmoved Mover of our spacetime.  There are plenty of scientists and atheistic folk who've been doing this for years.  What his book is doing is far more radical.  It's challenging the conventional understanding of the universe.

Those of us Jesus People who aren't taking huge brain-choking hits off the Young Earth Creationist Bong typically understand the universe as having come into being with the Big Bang, that inexplicable surge of Something into Nothing.  There are many sentient Christians who have no difficulty adapting their faith to this prevailing cosmology, seeing how easily and elegantly this meshes with our Biblical stories of creation.  We see God at work behind that glorious, impossible event.

In the early days of modern astronomy, though, there were two competing views of the suddenly-very-much larger universe.  A significant group of early scientists held...based on available observations...that the universe was solid-state, permanent, and never-changing.   The universe had never been created.  It had simply always been.  From the standpoint of the narrative of Christian faith, this solid-state cosmology was completely and totally at odds with the idea of God as creator.  It was a major conceptual threat, for had it been proven to be true, the whole narrative of Biblical faith wouldn't even have worked as metaphor.  The two positions were conceptually irreconcilable.

As it happened, though, further and more accurate observations showed that the vast panoply of stars and galaxies had not always been there, and that they instead Banged out Bigly Billions and Billions of years Before.  So...the universe had arisen from nothing, or at least out of a state of being that was inherently not empirically observable and thus beyond the reach of science.

We theists, as the kids say these days, was down wit' dat.

But the proposed unified theory that Hawking is presenting represents a significant shift in cosmology.  The "M-theory" proposed by Hawking and others suggests, from the findings of quantum physics, that our spacetime is but one of a potentially infinite array of spacetimes.  This is a sea change in the way that we understand existence and the nature of being.

Clearly, Hawking and his co-author Cal-Tech physicist Leonard Mlodinow feel that this theory renders God irrelevant.  But they're theoretical physicists.  Theology ain't their thing.  They do not, as my wife's rabbi might say, know from faith.

So for the next few blog posts, I'm going to read through The Grand Design and muse over M-Theory.  Is it, in fact, a threat to Christian faith and/or the belief in God in the same way that a solid-state spacetime would have been?  Or is it a cosmology that believing and sentient Christians can integrate authentically into our faith, in the same way that we've had no trouble integrating Big Bang theory?

Further up and further in...

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

God's Sense of Humor

Humor is odd.  The things that we human beings laugh and snort and giggle at tend to be those that strike us as incongruous, the combination of one thing with another thing to absurd effect.  Laughter in homo sapiens sapiens is typically stirred when something is utterly absurd, when our expectations about causality are shattered, when our social norms are transgressed against, or when someone emits a flatus.

My wife, for instance, simply could not stop laughing when I showed her Russian Rick Roll guy, whose video is above.  I also may have chortled at it a time or two.  It's so utterly absurd, so impossibly jauntily doofy, that I swear she was in peril of passing out.  My boys often accuse me, on the other hand, of being without a sense of humor.  It's true.  It's hard to get me to laugh, particularly at jokes.  I'm too cynical.  I know what to expect.  On the other hand, I find collections of bloopers and videos of people falling down to be insanely funny

This Sunday, on the way to church, I wondered at humor and God.  If we find the unanticipated and the peculiar to be amusing, then it seems impossible that God might have a sense of humor.  How can you ever find anything surprising or unanticipated if you are Alpha and Omega?  It seems unlikely.  And yet I'll often hear, as faithful folk encounter some of the more ironic and bizarrely coincidental events of life, that God must have a sense of humor.

Like, say, this Sunday in my service.  I was reading the passage from 1 Timothy 6 about the dangers of wealth.  My entire sermon challenged the ethic of consumerist aquisitiveness that defines our culture.  Yet as I prepared to read it, I discovered mid-service that my Bible's an old Bible.  It's kinda falling apart.  And at some point over the week prior, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus had just plain old fallen out.  They weren't there. 

So I had to get up in front of the church and read the scripture condemning our idolatrous hunger for possessions from the screen of my shiny new iPhone 4. 

Though I don't for a moment imagine that the Numinous Font of All Being was snickering, for in His Radiant Glory He Snickereth Not, I certainly appreciated the effort.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Boundaries of the Word

As I mulled over a post earlier this week on the dynamic between the Holy Spirit and Holy Scripture, I found myself wrassling with one of the concerns that I've heard from conservatives whenever I suggest that the Spirit has primacy over the texts of the Bible.   When I came before a committee of the Presbytery charged with reviewing my pastoral qualifications,  a conservative member of the group listened to my position, and then asked (and I paraphrase, though he put it well): "Well, then what is it that makes the Bible significant?  If the Holy Spirit has the level of primacy you state, how can you clearly delimit spiritual authority to the texts of canonical Scripture?  That seems to open the door to other texts having the same level of authority, and if you do that, where are the boundaries?"  His point was well taken, and it was offered up not by way of hostility.  He really wanted to talk about it.

In my own personal journey as a Christian, I've experienced just such a blurring.  My introduction to Jesus of Nazareth and the foundational concepts of Christian spiritual and ethical life seem a good representative example.  As a child, I didn't really read the Bible all that much.  I got little snippets of Jesus stuff in Sunday School, sure.  Eventually, I ventured into those texts on my own, but not until I was a tweener.   By then, though, the teachings of Christ and the great narrative of the Gospel had already been imprinted.  Christian faith already felt familiar, because as a voracious reader, I'd already read about it elsewhere, even though the name of Jesus had never been mentioned.

As a child, I learned my Christian faith in the green fields of Narnia. 

Yeah, they're just fantasy, and a bit fusty and oh-so British.  But those stories serve a particular purpose.  They introduce all of the central concepts of the faith, and have woven into them some sophisticated apologetics.  In their own gentle way, they teach about sacrifice and redemption and repentance.  They teach about resisting cynicism.  They teach about the nature of God's justice, and about the distinction between destructive syncretism and the deep universality of God's grace.  Over the years as my adult faith has encountered challenges, I've marveled at how robust a ground was created in those books.  They are remarkably sound.

I know I'm not alone in having been formed by C.S. Lewises writings.  He has appeal across a broad swath of Christianity.  I've heard Aslan invoked by both conservatives and progressives in my denomination.  He's almost universally viewed as articulating what is most essential about Christian faith.  Which gets me to wondering.  If these stories can form faith, providing an intentionally crafted and reliable foundation for understanding Christ's role in the world that echoes and shapes even into our adulthood, does the Holy Spirit work in them?   Surely, surely it must.  And if so, how can those wonderful stories not be a manifestation of the logos

Not canon, of course.  But in a very real way, the Word, just as so many of our small efforts to preach and teach the Gospel each Sunday are the Word. 

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Lady Killers

In just about four hours, my great home state of Virginia will execute Teresa Lewis. She's my age, and a grandmother (yikes), and eight years ago, she conspired with her boyfriend and another man to murder her husband.  In the process of killing him, the two men also killed her stepson.  For that crime, she will be put to death by lethal injection at 9:00 PM tonight.

Many arguments have been made on the part of the defense about her mental capacity.  She's...well...not all that smart.  The defense has also pointed out that neither of her co-conspirators were sentenced to die, even though they were the ones who actually committed the killings.

And, you know, she's a girl, which is why this case has garnered more attention than say, if she'd just been one of those brownish men our society seems to have very little compunction killing.  Virginia hasn't killed a woman in 100 years.  In the US, we haven't executed a woman in five years. 

None of that mattered to Gov. O'Donnell, who showed the depth of Republican commitment to gender equality by indicating that he could see "no compelling reason" to commute her sentence to life imprisonment.  So she is, without question, going to die.

What I find interesting is the root of the "killing a woman" thing.  Though it's an antiquated and regressive thing to think, I suspect much of the distaste comes from the idea of causing harm to someone weaker than you.  Yeah, I know, women can be fierce and ferocious.  But among male human animals, there's a pretty basic assumption in the better natures of most cultures that to harm or abuse someone who is not in a position of power is fundamentally ignoble.  A truly strong man doesn't inflict harm on those who are less powerful.  That's the bailiwick of the world's bullies and sadists.

My grandfather, for instance, once told me that there is no lower form of man than one who would strike a woman.  Though he was a gentle man, he said it with a rare glint in his eye, a glint which told me few things made him angrier.  Yeah, that's a bit patriarchal, but in a beneficent way.  It recognizes that most men are physically stronger than most women.  To use that strength to oppress or hurt those physically weaker than you is a sign that you are socially weak and spiritually stunted.

That same ethic applies in war.  To kill a combatant is one thing.  It's the nature of war.  To kill a helpless enemy, one who is in your power and unable to defend themselves, that's another.  It's the difference between a noble warrior and a butcher.    Even if that person has recently been lobbing shells at your position, and even if they may have killed your comrades in arms in combat, it's still  fundamentally ignoble to slay someone who has been rendered powerless. 

Which, of course, is exactly what American society does every single time it executes a prisoner.   A pity we don't find nobility to be "a compelling reason."

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

John Calvin Says Scripture is not the Word of God

Recently, there was a minor stirring within the shrinking corner of the Reformed Tradition that I inhabit. Landon Whitsitt, the new Vice-Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), is someone whose blog I've been feeding since well before he got that rather long and impressive title. Up until he was selected for that esteemed position, he I am...more or less invisible to the reactionary wing of our denomination.

Now, though, he's gotten their attention. He's done so by offering up this thought: Sola Scriptura may no longer be the rule of the church, and it's something he's moved away from. This pressed the rather large and well-worn panic button at the headquarters of the Layman, the right-wing publication which polices matters of fundamentalist orthodoxy in our neck of the woods. Claxons and red lights and alarms went off. They printed an actually-rather-fair summary of Whitsitt's conversation, attached to the headline: "Vice Moderator: Scripture is Not the Word of God." This was followed by much irate shouting and stomping around on their response page. How can a church leader suggest that Scripture alone is not adequate? We're going to heck in a handbasket! We're abandoning the core principle of the Reformation! Apostasssseeeeeeeeee!

Problem is, Sola Scriptura as a free-standing and defining principle is simply not adequate. Scripture...meaning the sacred texts and narratives of our not sufficient in and of itself. It does not stand alone. It can't. It never has. You can know those texts and stories backwards and forwards, and even the most detailed intellectual knowledge of that data will not make you a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth. Spend even 10 minutes in discussion with a committed and studied atheist with a chip on her shoulder, and the truth of that will become clear.

That's because Scripture derives its meaning from the power of the Holy Spirit working in the heart of a reader. It is the Spirit that guides our interpretation of Scripture. It is the Spirit that opens us to the significance of that narrative for our own existence. Scripture does not stand as an authority for us, and cannot stand as the basis for our salvation, without the Spirit at work. Yeah, I know, this is squishy liberal relativism. It's the sort of thing you get from hopeless pomo leftists like, say, John Calvin, who wrote:
The testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason. For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men's hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit, therefore, who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded. (Institutes, I.vii.4)
If what connects us with Scripture is our personal connection to the Spirit of the living God, and what allows us to recognize its authority is that Spirit, then Sola Scriptura cannot be a foundational axiom without making explicit that rather significant caveat.

That, as I see it, is the fundamental failure of Christian fundamentalism.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Our American political life has always been a little odd, and with the advent of constant-on news cycles, it's gotten even odder. But can it really and possibly be true that here in the United States of America in the first decade of the 21st century, there is conversation about whether a political candidate might at one point have been a witch? Sure, if you're running for mayor of Salem and the year is 1692, I might buy it. But we're supposed to be a post-Enlightenment nation. Modern. Developed. Post-industrial, whatever that means.

Yet here we are, fretting about whether or not GOP senatorial candidate and endearingly chipper wackadoodle Christine O'Donnell might or might not have "dabbled into witchcraft." This gives conservatives the heebie jeebies, particularly that peculiar brand of American Christian that still obsesses about the pernicious influence of the occult. It fills liberal bloggers with delight.

From what I've observed and what I've read, Ms. O'Donnell is not and was never a witch, certainly not in the sense of being a committed Wiccan. The quotes surfaced by the invariably smug and annoying Bill Maher are sparse, and are as follows:
I dabbled into witchcraft -- I never joined a coven. But I did, I did. ... I dabbled into witchcraft. I hung around people who were doing these things. I'm not making this stuff up. I know what they told me they do. . . . One of my first dates with a witch was on a Satanic altar, and I didn't know it. I mean, there's little blood there and stuff like that. ... We went to a movie and then had a midnight picnic on a Satanic altar.
If, in fact, she engaged in "witchcraft," she didn't really engage deeply. The way she's articulating herself shows a lack of depth, and is drawn more out of the realm of Jack Chick than of actual neo-pagan practice.

That she typified an altar as "Satanic" is a perfect example. Wiccans and neopagans don't worship Satan. They are generally polytheists, and tend to worship a big groaning board buffet of different deities, who they see as an expression of the divine nature in the world around them. Some focus on the divine feminine, as personified by "the goddess." Their religious practice is similarly amorphous, tending towards a broad mix of incantations, magick, rituals drawn from a range of indigenous practices, and engagement with nature. But in terms of worshiping the Accuser, no, not really.

Would it even matter if she was an actively practicing Wiccan? Given that the last White House that actively consorted with pagan thought was the Reagan White House, it's clear that Republicans don't mind. But what about the rest of us?

I'll freely admit that I find the idea of magick a bit silly. Divination and spells might be fun to play at, but they really don't seem to be all that efficacious. That's not to say that there aren't runes and signs and potions that can have a powerful effect on the world. That's what the arcane arts of mathematics and chemistry and physics are for. But I'm sure plenty of folks out there probably feel the same way about my belief system. I'm willing to accept that someone know...not be Christian...and still have a right to serve as an elected representative.

Of greater concern is the whole wackadoodle thing. It would seem, to me at least, that it would be helpful to have folks running for office who weren' space cadets. As America wanders further and further off the path of greatness, you'd think that would make a good baseline.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Transitions and Light

Yesterday felt good. It wasn't that the congregation was large. But our contemporary worship was cranking and heartfelt. When I preached, my blending of the Gospel and an indictment of compulsive American indebtedness seemed to catch the attention of my flock. Bible study was stronger than usual, meaning the dozen who gathered asked questions. They struggled with the texts. When things didn't make sense, they were willing to say so, and to engage. It felt good.

But the sands, as they say, are running low in the hourglass. At a recent retreat with my session, I confirmed that I would hold myself to my promise of a year ago. In the absence of growth against the metrics I set for the congregation, my departure is now certain. I can't stay at my church long term, because I'm aware that I've finished what I was called there to do. The community is now wholly and completely changed. The congregation that originally called me no longer exists. With a unique congregational character and a new cadre of members passionately commited to growing it, the church has a fighting chance at viability. To do that, it needs to call its own pastor, one who reflects its new identity. So I need to let go, and let it move onward and upward. The question, of course, is how.

The textbook Presbyterian pastoral transition has always felt very odd to me spiritually. Pastors seeking new churches in my denomination do so behind a veil of secrecy and confidentiality. No one can know you're looking, because that could cause all manner of problems. There would be whispering. There would be issues and hurt feelings and draaahmaaah. It's just like looking for a new job in the secular world, quite frankly. You sneak out for "appointments." You make sure your boss doesn't know, unless the whole process is just a way of leveraging a raise, in which case you make sure they do know. That's just the way that the world works. But still.

A few years back, I considered a call at a really wonderful church. They ultimately called someone else...the right person, honestly...but what was hardest on me about that whole process was not the fact that I didn't get the call. What was hardest was all the tiptoeing around. Here I am, sneaking off to preach to someone else, making sure to cover my tracks with a carefully concocted cover story so that my congregation won't find out. Yeah, it was a neutral pulpit, but it felt like a Motel 6 off on some barely used byway. The whole thing felt furtive and a teensy bit adulterous.

Pastoral Nominating Committees also operate inside a Cone of Silence, communicating only with one another, not even sharing the details with their spouses, under penalty of being forced to serve on the committee again the next time a pastor leaves.

If ending a pastoral relationship is about call and not about career, and if as a follower of Jesus Christ you love the sisters and brothers you've been serving, then this whole approach seems off. It doesn't feel like the way children of light should operate. It doesn't feel spiritually healthy. I see no reason my congregation can't look for another pastor while I intentionally help them with that transition. I see no reason why I can't let them know that I'm listening for a call somewhere else, while I pray for and materially support their search for someone who feels God's call to lead them. So far, this totally nonstandard approach seems to have energized my church. Several members, both of old guard and new, have expressed appreciative bafflement. "We've never had a pastor do this for us before."

It will be interesting to see how my Presbytery's Committee on Ministry responds as I request a formal shift to interim status, and they request permission to begin calling a new pastor, even though their old pastor hasn't actually left.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Supreme Court and The Sound of Elections To Come

Much political press has been given to the recent success of the Republican right wing, as "Tea Party" activists have wrested control of the GOP away from crazy namby pamby liberal RINO apologists like Karl Rove. Seriously. When the right wing's shouting heads are accusing Karl Rove of being inadequately Republican for having the audacity to note that a particular Tea Party candidate isn't well suited to the state she's running in, we've wandered into a very strange place.

While that whole sliding away into madness is certainly fascinating, I've been struck by something else more locally. In DC, Mayor Adrian Fenty has been ousted by DC Council Chair Vincent Gray in the primary. In part, this is Fenty's fault. He comes across as a serious SOB. He's not someone you like. But he's someone you can appreciate. He's a technocrat, a hard charging manager who suffers fools and the incompetent lightly, and he's made things notably and markedly better. He made a point of paring the bloated ranks of DC's governmental bureaucracy. In particular, he and his take-no-prisoners School Chancellor went after the outlandishly wretched DC school system, which spends more than $25,000 per year per pupil and yet still manages to have buildings falling apart.

In doing that, he made enemies, particularly in DC's teacher's union and the unions that represent the swollen ranks of DC's government workers. Vincent Gray has repeatedly and outspokenly spoken in defense of those poor teachers who were fired for the sole reason that they happened to be demonstrably crappy at their jobs. Unsurprisingly, Gray is the serious beneficiary of union support and endorsements.

But the union support for Gray manifested itself in a new way this primary season, and that augurs some interesting stuff in this next election cycle. I listen regularly to WTOP, an all news radio station that's the market leader for ratings here in the DC metro area. If you want to influence someone here, buying ad time on WTOP is the gold standard for broadcast media in Washington.

What I heard on WTOP, for the first time ever, were political ads. Yeah, we've all heard them before, but not like this. These were not ads run by the Gray campaign. They were ad buys funded entirely from the coffers of the unions Gray represents. The cash came not from shady organizations that were created as proxies, but was done openly and explicitly. We are the union. Vote for Gray.

This has not happened in prior elections, not in my lifetime. It's a direct result of a recent Supreme Court decision in which the conservative wing of the court ruled that corporations...and, by extension, unions and any other private interest... had the same right to openly support political candidates as individuals.

I haven't seen it yet on the national stage, but I can't imagine that 2010 will look quite like 2008. We've already seen NewsCorp, the corporate parent of FoxNews, funnel over $1,000,000 to the Republican governors association. As corporations and unions seek to defend their profits and their interests, I can expect that we'll see more and more of this.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Osama Bin Jones

Listening to the fading echoes of Koran-burnin' hum in our cybernetic collective unconscious, I'm wondering what the takeaway is going to be from the whole event. Mostly, folks who jabber for a living seem to have come to the same conclusion I reached. It's as if the Rufinol finally wore off, and we all suddenly came to, and are wondering why in the Sam Hill we were all standing around in our underwear talking about this tiny little butt-hair on the body of Christ.

I can think, to be honest, of three reasons.

First, it was controversial. We Amurricans love controversy. Will he or won't he! Ooooh! And we especially likes us some crazy. And we need something to talk about to get the eyeballs on our blog, so as a culture, we spend an inordinate amount of time consumed by the thoughts and actions of our village idiots. If there's a guy standing in the village square shouting incoherently, we don't ignore him or trank him. We all gather around to listen and egg him on. We are, after all, a nation that seems to have an insatiable appetite for the stunted, self-centered souls and faux dysfunctional drama that populates most reality television. Couple that hunger for the extreeeeme with our constant-on media and tendency for things to go self-generatingly viral, and hey-presto, you've got yourself an "issue" with legs. That we are talking about it because we're talking about it may be a tautology, but that's the way new media works.

Second, it was nonetheless a teachable moment. Yeah, I know, it was heinously overblown, but it tapped down into some interesting conversations that had nothing to do with the specifics of this trivial case. Last week, as I drove my kids and the missus to synagogue for Rosh Hashanah services, the entire drive was consumed with talk of this event, used as a case study for the balance between free speech and civic responsibility in our society. It's not often you can get kids engaged like that, but for twenty minutes, our car was full of ruminations on the boundaries of human liberty. It was kinda cool.

Third, and this one is a wee stretch, I found myself so savoring the irony of this event that I wondered, fleetingly, if the Lord's hand might be in this. In my experience, God has this funny habit of kicking our behinds in the most optimal and creatively appropriate ways when we forget ourselves. American Christians have, of late, been willing to believe some pretty impressively narsty things about Muslims. Because of the events of 9/11, and the actions of a few psychopaths, many folks are quite happy to buy into the idea that Islam is inherently monstrous, and Muslims are all potential Al Quaeda fifth columnists.

And suddenly, here's a Christian who seemed willing to act on his own to do something we really, really didn't want him to do. No sane observer can look at this guy and say that he's a meaningful representative of Christianity. He had no real connections to any other Christian group, and came across as a totally loose cannon both interpersonally and in his approach to the faith. He was perfectly willing to consider actions that violate the central ethical teaching of Jesus about our attitude towards our neighbors.

"He doesn't speak or act for us," we all shouted.

I wonder if we realize how familiar those words are to American Muslims.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Burning the Qur'an

Tomorrow, that inescapable sunbaked walrus-moustached pastor from Florida either will or won't burn a whole bunch of Qur'ans. I marvel at this whole event, for a variety of different reasons. This odd person does, of course, have the absolute right to do what he's doing. We're a free people, and part of that freedom means...outside of threatening direct physical harm...that we can engage in pointless, stupid, and offensive symbolic actions. As much as I find him reprehensible, I can't see how he could be prevented...or should be prevented...from doing what he may or may not do.

Yet listening to this guy talk, I marvel at the ability of humans who claim to follow Jesus to completely fail to grasp the rather basic moral tenets of Christian faith. Yeah, you can be prophetic, and you can fight the power. But under no circumstances are you ever to be intentionally obnoxious to those you don't like, particularly those who are outside of the church. Giving offense for the purpose of giving offense is a violation of the central ethical tenet of Jesus people. It's a non-trivial oversight, and yet another reminder of the value of attending a church where the pastor has to be seriously vetted somewhere, somehow. What he's doing might fly as an American right, but wouldn't pass muster in any significant American Christian movement. In our every-church-an-island non-denominational world, we forget that having those connections helps damp down free-range wackjobs like this.

But more than that, I marvel at the amount of attention this is getting.

It's...well...mindboggling. This pastor leads a church that is smaller than mine, and honey, that's saying something. The group of human beings he speaks for would fit on a single Metrobus with room to spare. Yet this has surfaced in news cycle after news cycle. There are about 150 million self-identified American Christians, give or take. Of those 150 million Jesus-following human beings, this guy represents around fifty. That's, what, 0.00003%?

If the American Body of Christ was a human body, this guy speaks for one barely visible hair protruding from a tiny zit on our left butt-cheek. Really. I've done the calculations. If you figure on a single human hair weighing 0.25 milligrams, and assume a 68 kilo human, well...the proportions work. His actions are functionally meaningless.

And yet, for some reason, this is an international incident. The Vatican has made pronouncements. Christian leaders of every persuasion and the White House have made appeals, most of which have been focused on Insuring The Safety of Our Troops.(tm) As if the Taliban will somehow stop blowing things up or pitching out their delusional and falsely hateful vision of America if this one nutmonkey doesn't do something.

And the ego of this guy, preaching his strange angry stuff to a tiny angry flock! It was probably oddly swelled anyway. That comes when you're isolated from every other church around you, as they appear to have been. But now? Gads. He thinks he's a leader, an opinion maker, a meaningful voice in the national dialogue, the Joe the Plumber of American Christianity.

Why are we choosing to follow this? Across the vast and complex cornucopia of human drama on a planet brimming over with billions of souls, is this really a Top Ten Issue?

Whatever happens tomorrow can hardly be said to matter at all. More Qur'ans will be damaged or destroyed in random house fires. Moderate Muslims and even some highly conservative ones will recognize the utter irrelevance of the Dove World House of Angry Pancakes. The folks who irrationally and mindlessly hate America will not hate us any more or any less.

Strange, strange times.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Joys of Dog Ownership

This morning, I took the mandated twenty-five minute walk with our now almost full-grown pup. She's still a bundle of energy, and it's important to keep her fit and happy, but she also needs the opportunity to go potty just the way she's s'posed to. Every morning when I set out on this walk, I take along with me a plastic bag, usually one that has been used to wrap our morning paper and that is being repurposed as a storage container for her leavings. I always check to see if the bag has structural integrity...meaning no holes...and this one seemed fine.

You don't want leakage, and you don't want stench, even if that means containing the mess in something that will probably still be containing the mess five hundred years from now. Way I figure it, that just increases the odds that alien xenobiologists will find one of the tightly sealed plastic bags on the ruins of our world several millennia hence, and repopulate our world with a giant clone legion of wagging pups. Ahem.

Anyhoo, this morning began more or less according to the pattern of every morning. We walked. She tugged and sniffed and meandered like the puppy she still is. Then, at the farpoint of our journey, she voided her bowels in a more-or-less neat little pile. I cleaned up, and sealed off the bag, and began the walk home. It was a nice morning, and I walked briskly and aerobically, my canine companion trotting by my side-ish. I waved a pleasant hello to several other walkers.

I was in the midst of thinking how pleasant a walk it had been when I picked up a distinct odor coming from the vicinity of me. It had the unmistakable pungency of, well, dog excrement. Huh, thought I, and checked the bag.

All was not well. It hadn't popped, but clearly had a pinpoint hole that had opened up as the bag swayed in my free, swinging arm. It's contents were not contained. The swinging motion of my perhaps overly jaunty walk had brought the bag into repeated contact with the lower portion of my white t-shirt. It was no longer white, but liberally streaked with thick dollops of light brown poo.

I checked my shorts. They had come into far more contact with the bag. "Coated" would probably not be an inaccurate description. The far side of my forearm was similarly smeared.

I wondered how long this had gone on, and realized that this might perhaps be why the last woman I passed had a perturbed look on her face when I greeted her. It's hard enough talking to a stranger, but "Excuse me, sir, you're splattered with feces" never rolls easily off the lips as part of a passing conversation.

I looked down at the dog at my side, sitting patiently, looking up with her big simple black eyes at the strange creature that was now covered in her crap. For some reason, I felt the farthest thing from annoyed. I wasn't even really disgusted. If anything, it lightened my mood.

Particularly after the long, long shower that followed.