Saturday, February 28, 2015

Being a Friend and Being an Ally

In the struggle for justice in our culture, one of the terms that gets bandied about a bunch lately is "ally."  If you support the rights of LGBT folks (which I unreservedly do) you need to be an "ally."   If you support the rights of women, you need to be an "ally."  In the leftist circles where I lurk, it's as prevalent a term as "comrade" once was amongst the fellow-travelers of the communist era.   Is true, tovarisch!

But it sounds oddly in my anarcho-libertarian Jesus-following soul, which quails against it.

Perhaps that's because ally, unlike comrade, does not just assume a common goal or purpose.

The term "ally" assumes a common struggle against a common enemy.  It is, as a term, largely representative of the power dynamics between nation-states.  Allies go to war together.  Allies share common economic goals. That form of relationship is about power and power dynamics, writ into a set of established and negotiated expectations.  Allies have rules and contracts and treaties that establish their alliances, which serve the shared interests of both.

Again, the word has to do with the dynamics of power and self-interest, not organic affinity and appreciation.

Thinking in terms of the United States?  Saudi Arabia is an ally.  So is the current government in Egypt.

Canada, on the other hand, is a friend.  The kind of friend who breaks into your national song when the singer's mike fails at a hockey game.  The kind of friend with whom you don't really worry about boundaries, because you trust each other so much those boundaries really don't matter.  You can be completely yourself and unafraid with a friend.  This is not true with an ally.

Among the wisest of the secular ancients, that's why friendship was considered among the highest of the virtues.  Philia, that natural and volitional affinity, was a relationship of complete, freely given trust between one person and another.  Being an ally is a more sterile, formalistic, and mechanical form of relation, one in which lists of rules and trigger-avoidance-protocols define a carefully negotiated exchange.

And for those who follow the Nazarene as their Teacher in all things, the term "ally" sounds with a peculiar dissonance against the radical command to both love and friendship.   "A greater love has no-one than this," says Jesus, as he swore his life to his friends.  Not his "allies."  The Greek word for "ally" does not appear in any of the teachings of Jesus, nor does it occur in any of the Epistles.

It's also challenging, honestly, to integrate the conflict-assumption of the "ally" concept into the radical agape ethic taught by the Nazarene.  Sure, one can have enemies, those ruled by brokenness and the injustices created by our hunger for power.

But the idea that your calling in existence is to go to war with those who your allies war with?  It stands in tension with the ground of the most fundamental ethic of Christian faith.  It is difficult to be authentically Christian and part of that form of binary relation.  Attacking and tearing down are not the methodology of the Way.

Yeah, I know, there's that one overturned table episode that's everyone's favorite conflict-prooftext, but last time I checked, an overturned table is not the defining symbol of the Christian ethic.    Neither can we create easily demonizable caricatures of those who inflict injustice, even as we oppose injustices.  That reflects neither the complex agape ethos of Jesus nor the justice-orthopraxis of soul-force satyagraha.

It is why, if they approach their commitment to discipleship seriously, Christians make somewhat awkward allies in a conflict.  They cannot be trusted in a fight, because their commitment to grace and mercy is too radical.



Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Strawberry Church

So here, for your amusement, the "children's-book-for-pastors-and-church-leaders" that I made as a complement to my Doctor of Ministry project on small churches and faith communities.  If you want to check that out, the whole text [pre-final-edit, footnotes not present] can be found here.

This bit of collateral whimsy is just a Shutterfly Photo Book, but those are kind of a cool and straightforward way to make a one-off hardback. Enjoy!  Oh, and it's better fullscreen.


 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Stories, Data, and Truth

It was an excellent little article, an exploration of the struggle many Americans have with science.  On the one hand, we say we love it, because science is awesome and nifty and stuff.  On the other, we seem to have trouble processing science as a decision-making framework.

When presented with scientific findings, we are perfectly willing to ignore them, or find reasons to just keep on blundering along.  Science tells us that the universe is 13.9 billion years old, and does so definitively.  But we ignore it.  Science tells us, with charts and graphs and clear deductive reasoning, that homo sapiens sapiens evolved.  But we reject it.  Science coughs and suggests, strongly, that perhaps it might be a mistake to turn our planet into a superheated, carbon-choked Venus.  But we listen to the lies told by the folks who sell us gas instead, because we like our big SUVs.  Science sees us choosing not to vaccinate, and struggles not to punch us in the nose for being such complete morons.

It's a clear dissonance.  The question: why?

Part of it, I think, has to do with the way we human beings understand our world.  We are creatures of story.  Our stories define us, give us a sense of ourselves, and give us a sense of purpose.

And this, as the article describes it, is part of the problem.  For our understanding of what is true, the article laments, we rely on "stories rather than statistics."

We prefer our truths told as tales, not as data points.  So we'll base our decisions on anecdotes, which as we really should know, are not reliable reflections of broader realities.  That story spun out by the mom at your preschool whose sister knew a woman whose kid started showing signs of autism after he got his MMR shots?  That has more value than the reflections of a thousand researchers, God help us.

And that's problematic on a deeper level, not just because anecdotal evidence causes us to make stupid decisions, or to spin out tales that are fundamentally ungrounded in reality.

It is problematic because if we set the storytelling part of our humanity aside, we cease to be human.

None of us understand our lives in terms of statistics and data points.  That is not what gives us our personhood, what establishes who we are.  Narratives create both individual identity and community cohesion.

Deeper still, narrative establishes purpose and moral ground, in a way that science simply cannot.  Storytelling creates meaning, and establishes the valuations that determine how we choose to act on the information we're encountering.  The deepest and most transforming stories don't even need to have actually happened to create moral purpose.  The stories told by my Teacher, or the wisdom fables of Aesop?  They didn't happen, and yet they frame existence in a way that creates identity.

The purpose of science is establishing what is or is not empirically true in our material reality.  That's the point of scientific method.  What it cannot do, and has neither the tools nor the desire to accomplish, is make any meaningful statement about how that information should be used.  Data is simply the ground for gathering more data.  Knowledge serves only knowledge.  And that path, clinically removed from its impact on persons and living systems, is a dangerous one to journey.

So where, in this dialectic tension between these two very different ways of knowing, lies the synthesis?  How do we integrate the data into the tale, and the tale into the data?

It lies, I think, in being willing to listen to the impacts of our stories on reality.  If the purpose of the story we're telling is radical compassion for neighbor and stewardship over creation, the report we'll get back from the data will go one way.  If the purpose of the story we're telling is material power, profit-maximization, or the glazed-eye pursuit of a snarling, fever-dream delusion, the data will report back another way.

Ye shall know them by their fruits, as the Teacher once said, in a pause between stories.


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Worst We Could Do



The images of medieval horror from the Middle East continue to pour our way, as helpless captives are beheaded or burned to death by the score in intentionally gruesome displays.

This is old school stuff, part of the pattern and dynamic of our dark past, and intended to both create fear and generate conflict.  Look at the terrible things we do, and fear us, ISIS seems to be saying.

Problem is, what they're doing is...well...quaint, in its bloodstained way.  Humanity has been through the 20th century and industrialization, and the peculiar retro character of their darkness seems callow.

I was reflecting on this while leafing through a book of the worst/most poorly designed weapons of all time, the sort of thing my adolescent sons seem to enjoy.  In that book was reference to arguably the single most horrific weapon ever designed by the United States of America.

This was the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, and the weapon system in question was the SLAM, a hypersonic nuclear ramjet missile, known alternately as Project Pluto, "The Big Stick," or the Flying Crowbar.  The concept was simple, really.

It was designed to fly at near-treetop altitudes, like a drone or cruise missile.  But it was also a hypersonic ramjet designed to evade Soviet radar.  To do that, it would fly under 1000 feet at speeds in excess of Mach 3.5.  The pressure wave of its passing over was enough to incapacitate or kill.

But wait!  There's more!  It also carried a payload of eight nuclear warheads, which it would scatter over targets as it passed.  It could obliterate every single inhabited area in an entire region, killing tens of millions.

But wait!  There's more!  The ramjet used for its power source an unshielded 500 megawatt nuclear reactor.  As it passed overhead at Mach 3.5, it would lethally irradiate everything beneath it.  And because it was nuclear powered, it could keep flying for thousands of miles.  During that time, it would layer death upon death, deafening and shattering and poisoning, passing over again and again.  It was a mindless automaton, an Angel of Death killing the first, second, and all-born, rendering the world below it uninhabitable for thousands of years.

This system was designed, concept proven, and ready to go.  The engineering was sound.  But it couldn't be tested, because, well, it would kill everyone and lethally irradiate an entire region during the course of the test.

And I look at the ritualistic, primitive butchery of ISIS, and know that it pales in comparison to what mechanized, technologically advanced civilizations can accomplish.  After the Somme and Dresden, Hiroshima and Auschwitz?  And considering what might have been, if we had wandered down that path?

God help us, but we're a mess of a species.


Friday, February 13, 2015

The Most Effective Church Youth Program In the World

There's a common refrain among oldline congregations and evangelical nondenominational types, and it runs like this:

We just can't hold on to our kids.  This is hardest among the oldliners, where college is pretty consistently the place where our progeny go off to vanish forever from the church.  But it's a challenge for the Jesus MegaCenter brand of Christianity, too.

The answer, as we tend to pitch it, is to make ourselves ever more "relevant."  We bring in screens and apps and software.  We hire young hipster youth pastors.  We awkwardly attempt to rap in worship, or do hippity hop, or whatever it is the whippersnappers are listening to these days.  We're extreeeemee, or we were, until that wasn't part of the lingo.  We make ourselves as much like pop culture as we can, scrambling to drop references that keep pace with the choking cornucopia of consumer-culture mythmaking.  And for all of the lipstick we slap on that pig, we still bleed out.

The kids look at the permeable, seemingly irrelevant boundaries of the oldline, or the synthetic corporate falseness of market-driven faith, and they wander away.

I've wondered, of the forms of Christian faith, what church does this the best?  Who holds on to their pups?  Who sustains commitment?  Where do they stick around and remain part of the community?

Lord help us, I think I may have found it. 

I was doing due-diligence research for my novel (postapocalyptic Amish literary fiction, due out next year from Algonquin Books), and there it was.  It was a little stat, buried in Donald Kraybill's excellent, thorough sociological study of the Old Order Amish in Lancaster County, PA.  The willfully irrelevant Amish, with their beards and bonnets, buggies and barnraisings? 

Their retention rate is around 94%.

Ninety four percent.  Register that.  Only six percent of Amish young folk choose to leave the church.  This, in a community that actually encourages its young folks to get out there and sample the world as part of their process of choosing to remain, a peculiar "unconfirmation" process.  There is no less culturally connected, less cutting-edge faith group in the US, and they win the retention race.

The why of this is complex, but seems to revolve around several factors.

First, the Amish live out a radically wholistic, unprogrammed faith.  Their practice bears absolutely no resemblance to the big stadium corporate approach of AmeriChrist, Inc.  They don't divvy folks up into demographics, carefully dividing out their worship and church life by age and preference.  It's just all one thing.  But they also integrate their faith completely into every last aspect of their lives.  Why are we living this way?  Because of what we believe.  Clothing.  Housing.  Work.  All of it, manifest in the dynamics of their every day existence.  It is, as they say, "authentic."  What it is not is corporate, or driven by marketing sparkle.  The Amish are not a business.  They couldn't care less about growth.  And yet they are growing, slowly, surely, in the way that compound interest grows.

Second, the Amish create a powerful community culture. There's a clear, bright, and evident character of Amish faith.  It requires and maintains a deep level of commitment, with boundaries around the dynamics of group culture that are potent.  Their folkways present an entirely different story than the story of the world outside.  The demands on members are intense, sustained, complete.  It is, in the most profound sense of the word, countercultural.  In that sense, the Amish present a clear deliniation between participation and nonparticipation.   There is none of the oldline waffling about other ways being just as good.  This is who we are, they say.  This is not who we are.

Third, the Amish teach their young to be adult members of the community.  That is all they teach them.  If you are raised Amish, that's what you know. Kids learn, early, that they're expected to be a part of it.   Not just expected.  They are a part it.  Amish life, which revolves around faith, assumes that the young participate in every facet of youth life as soon as they are able.   Work, worship, community and home life, all engage the young.  Oh, they have youth groups, sure.  They call them "gangs."  There is no adult in charge, no youth pastor who oversees them.  They're free-ranging, organic subcommunities, self-organizing informal teen fraternities and sororities.  But even in that, they are preparing for their free-will engagement in a small, relational community.

It ain't perfect.  The Amish are quite painfully human.  The expectations they set for community participation, and around the patterns of their lives?  They'd feel oppressive to many of us, like the radical disciplines of a demanding pre-modern monastic order.  And it meshes badly with modernity, the demands of modern life, and pluralistic values.

But it works.

God help us, does it ever work.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Our Strange Books of Lies

It's not real, or so we now know.

The story?  The book entitled The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven.  It was the tale that was recently, publicly, and oddly refuted by the young man--critically and nearly mortally injured in a catastrophic car accident as a child--who claimed to have experienced a glimpse of eternity.  With God, and Jesus, and angels, and demons.  The whole shebang.

"None of this is true.  I made it all up," he said, before going off on an awkward fundamentalist tangent.

So of course, I had to read it.  It's been pulled from the shelves of bookstores and offline, but...hey...that's what libraries are for.

It wasn't exactly what I was expecting.  The author isn't rightly the young man in question.  He's a character in the story, but not the primary voice.  He was a boy at the time of the crash, only six.  The narrator, and the primary voice of the book?  That's his dad, who recounts the horrors of the crash, his desperate guilt as a father at having accidentally harmed his son, and the struggle for the life of a child after a massive spinal cord injury.

It's moving, genuine, and human.  It's also...well...more than a little bizarre.  Here is a family steeped in charismatic fundamentalist Christianity.  Their world is populated by demons and angels and powers, every moment part of an endless spiritual struggle.  It's a magickal worldview, so fraught with supernatural esoterica that it's essentially Wiccan.  Mystic though I am, I  don't really share that approach to the world, but...as with the witchy folk I know...I find I can love those souls nonetheless.

Even more odd was the refutation, placed in the context of the story the book told.  Here, a vision of heaven that was drawn completely and totally from Biblical literalism.   "When I made those claims, I had not read the Bible," the young man said as he recanted.  Yet everything about his now-repudiated vision was formed and shaped by fundamentalist Christianity and its interpretation of Scripture.  The vision of God.  The nature of Jesus.  The forms and shapes of angels.  The character of heaven and the heavenly city.  The devil.  All of it, riffs on a familiar theme.  Most peculiar.

There's something else, though.  There's an interesting twist on it.  It's a telling filled with details, spun with precision and pathos, every moment cast out until that instant of trauma, and then you, right there in the thick of life with them as the aftermath unfolds.  Conversations go back and forth, told word for word, as if you're there as the story is unfolding.  The recounting was surprisingly well done.

But it is also not likely entirely true.  Why?  Because there's such a profound level of detail.  Not of the trauma itself.  Trauma sears time into us, burning in memories with a bright fire.  But little details before the event?  And the precise wording of extended conversations afterwards, paragraph after paragraph, exchanges back and forth?  These things we are not good at recalling, not as they really were.

I recently did several interviews for my doctoral research, and in the absence of an adequate recording device, I transcribed sections of them on this very laptop.  My fingers were flying at certain points, struggling to keep up as folks dropped wisdoms and knowings that I wanted to capture.  Some stuff, I'm pretty sure I got verbatim.  But in other places, for large sections, I wasn't able to quote, because I didn't get it precisely enough.  If I ever publish it formally, I'll run it by the folks in question to insure it represents them fairly, because...even in my best effort to capture both tone and exact language...I know I might have filled in from my own subjectivity.  Not embellished, not intentionally.  But spun or misrepresented as my mind interpreted what they were saying.  It's a danger.

So here I am, reading a story.  It is not, cannot be, exactly true.   Not just about the heaven part.  But about the earth part.

We make lousy recording devices.   But then, that's not really our purpose, now, is it?



Monday, February 9, 2015

And Who Is My Neighbor?

I don't know exactly why I stepped outside.  It was just to see what the temperature was like, I think, and then to look up at the brightness of the night sky on an unusually warm February evening.

The moment I stepped outside, though, I knew something was off.  There was the smell of fire, not of wood, but that acrid sharpness of synthetics and plastics burning.  I stepped from our carport, and the street was filled with smoke, hanging heavy around the streetlights.

I called out my younger son, who agreed that there was something amiss.  We prowled down the street, checking, smelling, observing.  

Three houses down and across the way, the smoke seemed heaviest around a darkened home, and when I went to bang on the door, the muffled tone of a smoke detector's klaxon could be heard from within.

Other neighbors came out, and I called 911.  It took just minutes for the fire department to arrive in force.  They broke in, and thick smoke poured out from both front and rear of the house.  They found the fire, and extinguished it.

The word went around that there'd been a couple of small dogs removed the house, although I didn't see them myself.

But what we didn't know, what no-one I talked to seemed to know, was who actually lived there.  Not their next door neighbors.  Not the folks in the house across the street. 

It was a rental, and some folks knew the owner.  

Not a soul who gathered in the red-brilliant-stuttering light of those fire-engines knew the occupants.  There was no number to call, no urgent text or email to send, no way to say, hey, hey, your house is on fire, get back now.   I may have seen them, I think, now and then.  Getting into and out of their vehicles, a shadowy flutter between home and car, witnessed in passing.

Here, there were human beings who live close enough to my house that I could hit their home with a well placed frisbee throw.  I may have called in the volunteer heroes who saved their house and--God willing--their pets, but I do not know who they are.  I couldn't pick them out of a lineup.  

And I remember, this morning in my reflections, that time a man asked Jesus, so Jesus, who is my neighbor?

Back then, that meant one thing.  It assumed we would know, that the physical, material reality of the human beings who share our place was known to us.  It assumed we would be biased in favor of those souls, and against the stranger.  My Teacher challenged his listeners to expand their thinking about who is and is not a neighbor, about who deserves our compassion and care.

But now?  Now that question has different, stranger resonances.

Jesus.  Who is my neighbor?

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Being Blind to History

The shoutfest about the President's recent comments at a prayer breakfast have me genuinely confused.  In condemning ISIS/IS brutality, he noted, briefly, the dark stain of violence that has colored the past of many faiths, his own included.  He called for people of every faith and tradition to resist violence, and to seek the best in their faith.

For which, of course, he was attacked, through the thoughtful medium of the twitterverse.  What better way to capture subtlety than in a single 140 character blort of blind, thoughtless outrage?

He was critiqued for mentioning the Crusades, and of the use of twisted scriptural interpretation to justify racism.  These things happened, of course.  They were real, historical, actual events.

And honestly, things go deeper still.  Crusades?  Racism?  Pish posh.  Those are just the familiar ones, the easy ones.  We've done plenty more.

There was the Thirty Years war, of course, a sustained period of violence and bloodletting in Europe back during the 17th century.  That involved witch hunts, heretic torturings, and all manner of creative horror putatively in the name of Jesus.  Torture chambers, lined with bible verses?   They were there, and that's taking Sunday school to a whole 'nutha level.  It was right there.

Or the subsequent Marian persecutions in England during the reign of "Bloody" Mary, who publicly burned and drew and quartered Protestants by the score in the 16th century.  Oooh, except for that one guy, who was midway through being burned when someone decided to hurry things along by bashing in his skull.  That'd have made a hell of a Youtube.

Or the unpleasantness of Oliver Cromwell's Protestant roundheads, who executed Catholics, including one whose execution was so badly botched that the victim got up from the chopping block after several tentative strokes and demanded that the headsman just do his **** job already.   Back and forth, bloody and brutish, a horror almost beyond our capacity to grasp.  All Christian, or putatively so.

Even we Presbyterians have pitched in on occasion.  I've read and studied John Calvin, the founder of my wing of the reformed tradition, and I totally appreciate some of the aspects of his theology.  Some.  Others, not so much.  But I also know that he was a significant part of the process that ended when Michael Servetus, a "heretic," was burned alive.  For what?  For being a Baptist and a scientist, basically.  For not believing correctly.  That was it.

Had Jefferson, Washington, and Franklin lived in Geneva at the time and believed what they believed, I'm reasonably sure Calvin would have killed them too.

And that's perhaps most insane about the knee-jerk anti-Obama response on the part of the far right.  It is not that they're riled that he mentioned some of the mess of our past.  It's that their response is also fundamentally not conservative.   Neither is it American, not if the history and purpose of America as a republic has any meaning.  They're so eager to score points that they're happy to score own-goals.  They are so blinded by outrage that they don't see how much they betray the very principles they claim to defend.

I don't buy the hagiographic golden-city vision of America's past, because I'm not an idiot, but neither will I reflexively attack everything about this country.  There were seeds of enlightened goodness there.

One of those seeds of goodness was the flight from religious oppression, from a place where nominally Christian religious violence raged to a place where religious oppression was fundamentally against the law of the land.  We've struggled at times to live into that, but it's right there in our founding.  Where we've failed, acknowledging that failure is the best and only way to ever improve.  Acknowledging you have a problem is step one, eh?  You can't repent and change if you don't recognize your sin, to put it another way.

So here, a president evokes America at her still-striving best, the best hope, the goal towards which we yearn.  He acknowledges where we've been, and affirms our hope as a nation to transcend that blight of violence and oppression.  And he gets flack for it.

Bizarre.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Dark Fire of Reciprocity

As happens so often when I encounter an act of monstrousness, my thoughts turn savage.

The images of that Jordanian pilot being burned alive in a cage?  They were the heart of human brutality and evil.  Here, an act of torturous hate, a mother's son helpless and forced to die in carefully calculated and choreographed agony.

I see it, and...as with the horrors committed by Boko Haram...I feel, briefly, the touch of the fire of that hatred.  The rage of it.  I see an atrocity, and my heart leaps to atrocity.

Burn them.  Burn them all.  Expunge them from existence.  Wipe the planet clean.  I stop short at reviewing the square kilometers of ISIS controlled territory and calculating the megatonnage required.

I step back, and remember who I am.  I give thanks that I am human, and insignificant, and not empowered to act on rash impulse.

Nothing diminishes the evil of this act.  Nothing.

Oh, sure, it's been done before.  Medieval re-enactors may not feature this element of that culture quite so prominently, but Western culture was just as heinous five hundred years ago.  More so, if we study the history of our killing.  That means nothing.  It was a horror then.  It is a horror now.

I anticipated...exactly...the response of ISIS.  I could feel that rationale, the logic behind it.  The burning death of this man, they are arguing, is no different than the burning deaths of our own people when the bombs fall from the planes.  Mumathala, they call it.  "Reciprocity."  We are doing to him what he has done to us.

And which will be and is being done to them in return.

And returned again, payments back and forth, an economy of fire and blood.

I will do to you what I believe you have done to me.

It is not justice, not the justice of God, not the justice that heals and restores.

It is nothing more than the dark fire of our mortal sin, burning, ever burning.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Tribes and Tribal Gods

It's peculiar, of late, the degree to which the idea of tribalism has been surfacing in the world.  With every act of brutality on the part of ISIS, every act of monstrousness from Boko Haram, every dark and unpleasant bit of nastiness out there, it seems tribalism is to blame.

"It's these backwards monsters and their tribal God," or so goes the refrain.

"Tribal" becomes shorthand for insular, stunted, and ignorant, snarling clans of highlanders ever butchering one another, the Hatfields and the McCoys firing potshots.  It is juxtaposed with the deep virtues of modern and "postmodern" thinking.  We are, after all, the ones who make decisions based on reason and enlightened self-interest.

We're not tribal.

Perhaps that's true.  But as much as the concept of the tribe has been getting bad press lately, I think it's not entirely deserved.  I think that, mostly, because of my recent doctoral research into the dynamics of small faith communities.  Sure, little gatherings can be bitter, unpleasant, and toxic.  Tribal relations can be messy.  But not every church-tribe is Westboro Baptist.

Small communities can also be healthy and warm and gracious.  They can be places of learning and mutual support. They are places of belonging, of the interrelationship of persons on a profound level.

Tribes are the intimate communities--by affinity or by kin--that constitute one of the most elemental forms of human relationship.  They're missing, to large degree, in our broader society, where we are fragmented off into demographic silos, or regimented into systems and structures that are resemble industrial production.

These are certainly effective and efficient and convenient.  But they are not organically human.

As Carol Howard Merritt pointed out in her book  (can I call it her "classic book" yet?  hmmm) those alternate systems of organization tend to leave us hungry for ways of being together that resonate more with our essential humanity.  In this shattered, diffuse, scattered age, that's a major problem.

So when I hear "tribal" described as functionally synonymous with "ignorant" or "violent," I rankle a wee bit.

Sure, a "tribal god" is a problem.  But only if the tribe is the god.

It is equally a problem if a nation is the god.  Or an ideology is the god.  Or if we ourselves are the focus of our worship.

Six of one, half dozen of the other.


Tuesday, February 3, 2015

On Being and Not Being a Feminist

I am a feminist.

And I am not a feminist.

Both of these statements are true.

I am a feminist, even though I do not typically choose that language to describe myself.

Female human beings are absolutely and equally human beings.  Their value lies in their inherent personhood.  Oppression of women, be it in the workplace or in education or in relationships?  Unacceptable.  Violence against women is violence, and assaultive/predatory behavior towards women is both monstrous and wrong.

I reject, completely, the idea that women are in any way subordinate to men.  Women have been and will be my teachers, and my mentors, and my spiritual guides.

Women should be compensated equally for equal work, and a just society should be structured in such a way that this is possible.  Women with the gifts for leadership, and there are as many as there are men, should be in leadership.  Women who choose to nurture and raise children as part of a traditional family structure should be honored for that choice.  Women should be lawyers and doctors and artists, counselors and engineers and programmers, legislators and pastors and owners of small businesses.  What matters is that they are pursuing their best vocation.

I reject the idea, in point fact, that any work is inherently "women's work."  Women, being, you know, human and all, are called to do many things.  And work is work.   In the quest for a balanced and sane existence, I have been willing to seek my calling in part-time work, allowing my driven, smart, and highly-capable wife to pursue her career.  So I do laundry, make dinner, do dishes.  I changed diapers, I vacuum, and care for and help nurture our kids.  A task is a task.

I see how women and girls are treated in our culture, objectified and commodified, and I recoil.  I see their basic personhood diminished or delimited, and I will not stand for it, or allow that way of thinking to take root in the boys my wife and I are raising.

In that sense, meaning the practical, material, actual commitment to the rights and personhood of women, I am a feminist.

But I am also not a feminist.

I am not a feminist because I have stood in close encounter with feminism--not as an interpersonal and cultural practice, but as a system of thought arising out of academe--over nearly two decades of engagement with higher education.  Having studied and engaged with academic feminism, I do not share its semiotics or its worldview.

Though I can speak it, the language of academic feminism is not my language.  I do not find it either compelling or transformative.  I do not talk about patriarchy as a way of framing all oppression, or view the entire world through the lens of gendered discourse.  I do not conceptualize the good in gendered terms, with the feminine as proxy language for the good, and the masculine understood as inherently oppressive.  It seems...counterproductive.

And joyless.  And drab.  And devoid of rhythm, power, and poetry.  Having studied faith, such a radicalized and binary view is alien not just to my faith, but also to those indigenous faith traditions that embrace the divine feminine and its lifegiving relation with the divine masculine.

The worldview of academic feminism is also not my worldview.  Academic feminism as I have encountered it manifests as an ethic of radical particularity, of fragmentation, a house endlessly divided.  Part of this is, frankly, a function of academic discourse, in which seeking and creating "new" categories is the only way to get published.  But when that reality is applied to a philosophical and ethical system, that has impacts.  Academic feminism is a fundamentally particularizing ethos, meaning it understands "truth" as residing in the particularity of socially mediated identity.  Men cannot understand women, because they are not women.  Women privileged by education and the absence of oppression cannot understand those who are not, because they do not share their social position.  White women cannot understand women of color, because they are not women of color.  Cisgendered womyn-born-womyn cannot understand gender-variant women.  And so on, and so forth, in an endless fractal splitting.

Then there's the "liberality" of it.  For all the fulminations of the reactionary right wing, feminism isn't liberal.  It may be leftist, but it is also fundamentally and explicitly illiberal, viewing individuals through the lenses of the categories they inhabit and not as who they are as sentient, self-aware, and free beings.  Take, for instance, the manner in which this perspective may be dismissed on the basis of a sequence of labels.   I am a privileged white male, speaking from a hegemonic patriarchal perspective.  I am a contextual node. What I am not is a person.

And yes, I know, this was done to women for millennia.  It's my turn to sit down, shut up, and listen.  But that assumes I have not been listening, and that I, as a human being, am just representative of a category. It returns evil for evil, as my faith tradition puts it, which is sort of a no no.

Contemporary academic feminism speaks the language of othering, explicitly and intentionally devoid of the universals that provide the conceptual bridges for the heart's compassion.  It is a mass of triggers and umbrage, harder to negotiate than a minefield.  I do not find it gracious, welcoming, or useful.  How could I, when the concepts of "utility" and "purpose" are fundamentally antithetical to academic feminist discourse?

So I am, and I am not, a feminist.  In the abstract, academic, philosophical sense?  No.  I am not.

But yes, yes I am, practically and materially and interpersonally, socially and culturally.

Given that doing and being is more important than abstractions and semantics, I think I'm comfortable with that.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Jesus Calling?

It caught my eye because it was the single best selling Christian book this last year, racking up a whopping ten million sales.

Jesus Calling, it's titled, and it's a yearlong journey of daily devotionals written by a Christian missionary.  It's an...interesting book.  The author, having maintained a journal of her daily spiritual reflections, decided to write them out as words from Jesus.  Meaning, the book is intended to be not her words, but the words she has received directly from Jesus, every day.

Like I said, interesting.  Interesting enough that I snagged an ebook version of it...it's checked out of every library in the county.  Or, rather, I snagged a sample, meaning the introduction and the first month of the devotional.  

Enough, I think, to have gotten the flavor of it.

Working my way through the introduction, it felt accessible and straightforward.  I learned the author had attended Wellesley, and gotten her masters from Tufts, which surprised me a wee bit.

Then it began getting odd.  Familiar, but odd.  After her conversion experience, she began working with evangelical and charismatic missions in Australia, and specifically counseling women in a Christian counseling center.  It is at this point that she begins encountering what she describes as spiritual assault, engaging in spiritual warfare with powers that were threatened by her ministry.

And then she starts talking about how important her spirituality was in helping her to work with a client who was recovering from both incest and...satanic ritual abuse.

"This form of Satan worship involves subjecting victims (who are often very young children) to incredibly evil, degrading tortures," she shares, in a matter of fact sort of way.

What and the what?  This, in the bestselling Christian book in America in 2014?  Satanic ritual abuse?  My gracious, we really aren't at Wellesley any more, are we, Toto?

This was a big thing back in the 1980s and 1990s, sure.  Much of charismatic evangelical Christianity was in full panic mode about a vast global conspiracy of Satanists, who did horrific things in secretly monstrous rituals.  Which would have been horrible, sure.  Had it actually happened.  

Which, it, um, didn't.

It was a panic, a collective delusion, born of paranoia and a hyper-spiritual worldview that had folded in on itself and divorced itself from the reality of God's creation.  Victims recounted stories of abuse that, upon actual examination, proved to be what amounted to implanted memories, embedded in damaged souls by "counselors" who were so eager to find abuse that they found it everywhere they looked.

So the book begins with, among other things, an uncritical recounting of a discredited fabrication?  Lord ha' mercy.

I read on, working through that first month with the taste of several grains of salt in my mouth.

And despite that really, really awkward and jarring note at the beginning, it wasn't terrible, or evil.  Sort of pleasant, in an encouraging, uplifting sort of way.  Sure, it didn't sound all that much like the Jesus I know.  There weren't parables, or stories, or complex explications of the interwoven nature of our identities and that our Creator.

Just words of encouragement and support, mingled in with an inspirational passage or three each day.

Was it Jesus talking?  Well, no, not technically, not in the unmediated-direct-line-to-Jesus sense of it.  I just don't buy that, any more than I buy any assertion without critically assessing it.

But was it morally or ethically antithetical to the teachings of Jesus?  No.  No it wasn't.

So, the way I figure it, it sort of is Jesus, in the way that every one of us who follows him is Jesus.  Taken that way, it wasn't half bad.  Not really my cup of tea, but so it goes.