Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Bottom Rocker

I've been riding motorcycles now for most of my life, and as long as my carcass can handle it, I intend to keep doing so.

There are many reasons for it, but primary among them is this:  I like the freedom of it.

I'm not in a cage of steel and systems, not wrapped up in fifteen speaker surround and telematics.  I cannot be reached by text or by email or by phone or by Facebook.  The endless demand of social obligation is on hold, and I am at liberty.

What I know instead is the road and the world around me.  I know the heat or the cold.  If it's raining, I get wet.  I know to be cautious, how to move so that I cause no harm to myself or others.

I am going where I am going.  I am doing my own thing in my own time, as Peter Fonda once said.

Which is why I have never understood pack riding.  I know, I know, it's probably kind of awesome, you and your tribe rumbling across the landscape like a vast herd of iron bison.

But the more human beings there are, the more rules there are.  They begin simply, as all rules do.  You think about lane position and formation.  You think about pace, not your own, but the pace of the group.  There is planning, and more planning, and conversations and negotiation and the next thing you know, there's a committee.

And then the rules and regs pile on, one after another, until suddenly that libertarian vision of open-road freedom looks a heck of a lot like just another bunch of laws.

That was cast into light by the recent deadly explosion of violence between rival gangs in Texas, after an effort to negotiate a truce between the Cossacks and the Bandidos descended into gunplay.

It was such a strange thing.  Outlaw bikers, one would think, would be fighting over something nefarious and dangerous.  A turf war over meth distribution, perhaps.  But knives and guns came out and blood was spilled and hundreds arrested because of...patches.  Patches.

Grown up men died over who could wear a Texas "bottom rocker" on their vest, which seems no less bizarre than had Brownies and Campfire Girls gotten into a brawl over their bicycle merit badges.

The irony is mind bending.  Here, fiercely freedom-talking "outlaws," and yet they shed blood over the minutia of their own rules, the laws of their tribes, the peculiar pride human beings show in the systems and structures of the social dances we create.

We humans are so weird.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Heart of Being Reformed

Funny thing, how a negative comment can be the best thing to get you thinking.

I'd noticed the other day that my rather-less-than-bestselling book on faith and the multiverse had gotten a couple more ratings on Goodreads.  The overall rating: a "3," which was where it had been for a while.  That had been based on a whopping one reader, who evidently felt sort of meh about it.  Now, two new folks had bothered rating it.

One had given it a five out of five.  Yay!

The other, a one out of five.  Boo!

And of course, the one written review on Goodreads?  It's from the person who hated it.  Figures.  Because those negative things are, of course, where we tend fix our attention.  Why don't they like me?  What's wrong with me?  Snif...

But it's still worth listening, to this human being in their particularity, telling you why they hated it.   In this case, they thought the book was going to put multiverse cosmology in the context of the Bible, but it didn't.  There was no science in it!  There was no bible in it!  Evidently, they didn't bother looking at the footnotes.  Or the..um..text.  Maybe I should have bolded the science parts and put the Bible parts in italics.  Or used #hashtags.  I don't know.  Whichever way, it didn't register.  And the whole book was, as far as they were concerned, just standard-issue namby-pamby liberal hoo-hah, in which every faith is the same.

Sigh.  At least they put in the effort to write something, eh?

What was illuminating, though, was a particular one of their other complaints, the one directed at me personally.  Here I am, a pastor from a reformed tradition.  And though I talk about the Bible, the Bible doesn't seem to be my focus in the book.  Oh, sure, I reference the Genesis stories.  And other Torah.  And the Prophets.  And the Writings.  And yeah, I talk about Jesus, and God, and what the Kingdom of God means, and about the Gospel, with extensive footnotes from the Bible.

But I don't quote scripture in every other sentence I write.  I write and tell stories for those who aren't already steeped in the in-group language of my faith.  You know, like Ol' Uncle Paul did, up on the Areopagus, when he wanted to connect to people.  You know that story, right?  Ahem.

Which, as far as my dear reviewer was concerned, meant that I wasn't really Reformed.  My faith has to be entirely based in the Bible and expressed in its terms, or I am not upholding the purpose of the Reformation.

This is a good and valid thing to raise, because it's an issue worth talking about.  The Reformation, as I understand it, was not primarily about replacing ecclesiastical inerrancy with biblical inerrancy.  That was not its purpose, not if it was a God-breathed movement.

Its purpose was to break the grasp of a system that had been corrupted by human power and human grasping.  How?  By getting those who follow Jesus to realize that they can stand in the same relationship to God that Jesus did.  That's the point of the Spirit, that ephemeral third person of our philosophically complex Trinitarian faith.

In point of fact, the only way one can legitimately read scripture is through the lenses of the Spirit.  Otherwise, you can bend it and shape it and mangle it any way you see fit.  You can focus on irrelevant details.  You can justify your own sociopolitical biases, or your own position in the power structure of a culture.

The texts themselves are not sufficient.  John Calvin himself was clear on this in his Institutes.  Without the Spirit at work in the heart of the believer, those texts have no more authority than the church does when it has God's life and breath crushed out from it.

And as I reflected on that, I found myself grateful to the soul that stirred that reflection.  It's a good reminder of what it means to be reformed, and why being Reformed matters so very much.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Debt For College. Debt For Life.

It came in the mail, mixed in with the barrage of college and university flyers that my 17 year old son has been receiving since he first took the PSAT.

It was a brown-black envelope, decorated with a pattern made of positive-thinking words.

On the front, two short declarative statements:

"For College.  For Life."

I thought, at first, it was a marketing offer for a credit card, in this case, the Discover card.  Which it might have been.

Obviously, the good folks at the College Board have not just marketed my son to colleges, but have also sold his information to the credit card companies.  Or to a reseller of information.

I was, at first, a little cheesed.  The absolute last thing you want a young person to start out their life with is debt.  Credit cards in the hands of freshmen are dangerous, dangerous things, and can trap the unwise or the unwary in a cycle of overconsumption and financial insecurity.  They create unrealistic, debt-fueled expectations for what life is like, at precisely the time when they have limited incomes and only the modest capacity to sustain themselves.

But if you can get a young adult hooked on the debt-expectation early, they'll stay hooked.

So I was prepared to be furious with the College Board, but then I thought, wait a minute.  This might be an offer from Discover's student loan branch, as the credit card company has gone into the very lucrative business of making loans to college-bound students.

For most college bound folks, isn't that what college itself is these days?  Debt, driven by social anxieties and expectations?

Here, these huge and bloated institutions, that market the "experience" of college more aggressively than they market the life-knowledge that college is meant to impart.  Higher education is increasingly fueled on the false growth of debt, with endless administrative structures and entertainment complexes springing up even as adjunct professors and teaching assistants are paid dismal salaries to do the actual teaching.

But we need it, must have it, or we will not be successful.  And so of course we go into hock, because what colleges market is success, is winning, is being able to have the good things in life.  We want that.  We want to touch it and hold it and be it.

So we must go into debt, or our culture tells us we cannot have these things.

Was it for college loans, or for a credit card?  I looked at the unopened envelope again.

Really, is there a difference?

It went straight into the recycling.  Unopened.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Church that Fights the Tide

Christianity is in retreat in America, falling back and away, or so says that Pew study that American Jesus people are wringing their hands about lately.

The old liners are continuing to fade, of course.  Declining and talking about decline is just what we do.

But even the Big Box Churches of AmeriChrist, Inc. are waning, despite their evangelical fervor and seeker-hungry marketing savvy.  It's an across the board retrenchment, one that should be troubling for any who think the spread of the Way is a good thing.

But as with every trend, there are outliers, communities that have within themselves alternate dynamics that make them buck against the tide.

For years, I've studied such a community, most recently as part of the research for my last novel, the one with an actual honest-to-God contract with a publisher.  

It's a Christian denomination that has grown ferociously over the last two decades, doubling in size.  The trend-lines, for those who study that community, look really really good.

The sect is, of course, the Amish.

They're bucking the trend, radically so.  There were around 100,000 Amish folk in the late 1980s, when I first studied them as part of my undergraduate Religion program at the University of Virginia. As of three years ago, there were 251,000 Amish folk.  They're on track to have nearly half-a-million within the next two decades.  At which point, given trends, they may outnumber the Presbyterians in my old-line denomination.  Perhaps we'll wave to one another as we pass.

Why? Why are they growing, as all around them more conventional Christianity struggles?  There are many reasons, but I'll highlight three:

Reason One:  The Amish Reproduce.
To our traditional alliterative Amish image of beards and barns, bonnets and buggies, we need to add "babies."  The Amish have lots and lots of babies.  Large families remain a positive asset when you're farming the land using traditional methods.  They don't wring their hands about how to pay for college, because the Amish don't go to college.  They don't  worry about how to coordinate all of that anxiety-parenting soccer and karate and test-prep, because they don't do that, either.  

The Amish do not helicopter, or fret about the ROI on their children.  They just have kids--on average, six or seven--who help out around the farm or business.

This is a real part of their growth, one that isn't "replicable," as they say.  I mean, sure, I could propose that to my church, but somehow I think that'd go over so well.   "My plan for growing this church is that you all start having more babies right now!"  There'd be laughter, right up until they knew I was serious, at which point I'd need to hone my skills in retail.

But there is an irony here that does not escape me.  The Christians who buy into the idea that evolution is just the way God works tend not to procreate.  The Amish, who don't?  Their social structure and set of expectations is more robust, from a strictly Darwinian standpoint.  Go figure.

Babies aren't where that ends, though.  Because babies grow up.

Reason Two:  Amish Kids Become Amish Adults.
One of the most striking features of Amish community is just how little attrition occurs as their children grow to adulthood.   Unlike Catholicism, which produces plenty of ex-Catholics, the Amish have an astoundingly high retention rate.  Depending on the study, between 85 and 95% of Amish children choose to be Amish adults.

This is not because the Amish try to be "relevant" and "young" in their worship services.  They couldn't care less about appealing to kids.  Their worships are long and traditional and unrelenting.  They do not hire hippity-happenin' youth pastors.  And yet there the stat is.  They succeed, wildly, at engaging their young people in community in such a way that they choose to remain.

It is also not because their kids are unaware of the outside world.  Rumspringa, the Amish version of confirmation, actively encourages disengaging from the church for a while and experiencing the world.   And yet a significant majority choose to stay.

Why is this?  Because the entire goal of Amish childhood is to become an Amish adult.  In point of fact, that's the totality of how they orient their children's upbringing.  You're preparing your children to be a farmer or craftsman, a mother or a father.  Period.

And sure, we might cluck at that approach, finding it more than a wee bit claustrophobic and slightly oppressive.  How stifling!  How crushing of the human spirit, to not let our kids be anything they want to be!

But as we do so, we have to ask ourselves: does our culture create paths of life-giving meaning and identity for our children?  Does our economy--meaning the way we structure our life together--give them a sense of belonging, of place, of purpose?

Hah.

More pointedly: does our congregational culture do that?  Really?

And there lies the third strength of Amish identity.

Reason Three:  Clearly Countercultural Economy.
Christians of all flavors like to claim that they stand in tension with the culture.  We leftist oldliners tend to articulate that in terms of our orientation to justice.  The evangelicals assert it as a radical commitment to growth and the spread of the Gospel.  The fundamentalists focus on bible-belief and nation.

But honestly?  The Amish show the lie of our claims.  Can I claim to be countercultural, living in my suburban home, facebooking and tweeting my critiques of culture?  No, I can't.  I depend utterly on culture.  I am embedded in it.

Neither can you, if you're reading this.

Can the evangelicals who grasp at every cultural trend to further the marketing of their message make that claim?  No.  The medium of consumer culture seeps into their message, and when the medium is itself culturally shaped, it makes spreading a countercultural message difficult.

Can the fundamentalists who fuse their rigid literalism with nationalism, wrapping themselves in both the Bible and the flag?  No.  The blending of Christian faith and the state has always been a betrayal of the message of Jesus, and fundamentalism is just modern-era empiricism applied to the texts of Scripture.

Can the progressive Christian left, which so adopts the language of academic leftism that it can't meaningfully distinguish its own voice from whatever #tropes are #trending on #twitter?  No.  No it can't.

But the Amish?  They are counterculture.  They teach and live nonviolent agrarian counterculture in every aspect of their existence.   Theirs is not a perfect society, and I don't view them through rose-colored utopian glasses.  The Amish are very human, with all of the foibles of humankind.

But the model of life they offer is both faithful and radically distinct.

They do not rely on or mimic the oikonomia of the world.  They have created their own economy, intentionally self-sustaining and separate.  In some ways, it is arguably superior and more robust.

It is not a community that creates anxiety within its members, that sets them against one another.  Their economy is not red in tooth and claw, with a handful of victors and a scrambling mass of losers.   Their economy does not shift wildly on the whims of the powerful.  It does no violence, not just in its pacifism, but in its attitude towards those in times of need.

There is a clear choice, for those who are part of their faith and their community.  You can live like the world--like the English.  Or you can can be the Plain Folk.

And for now, the Plain Folk are trending in ways that the rest of us are not.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Unaffiliated

Christianity is ebbing, here in America, as the tides of culture change.

Why this is will be the source of much handwringing over the next decades, both in the old-line world that I inhabit and among the evangelical, independent churches.   Sure, the culture is still majority Christian, but if trendlines continue, that may eventually change.

Part of this, as I read it spun, has to do with the changed expectations of our society.  You no longer *have* to go to church to be a part of your community.  There are no grumbling pew-sitters, eagerly checking their watches/phones and awaiting the end of the freakin' service already.  There are fewer folks who go to church primarily to schmooze and drum up business.

Either you want to be there, or you're not there.  It's pretty simple.  And honestly, that's a good thing.  Whenever the church relies on the outside culture to drive participation, it's a poor reflection of what we were meant to be as the Beloved Community.

Another part, I have come to think, has to do with the increasing fragmentation of our society.  Net-era relationships are different, more tenuous, less rooted.  Ours is an ephemeral society, in which depth of connection--rooted in place and blood-ties--has been replaced with transience, clicks and likes and follows.  We relate broadly and instantly, with nownownow-neural-immediacy but with less depth.

I'm not sure our culture even values that depth any more.  It is too slow, too intimate, too demanding of time and energy.

And that is not a favorable medium for healthy faith community, in which intentional organic relationships and unmediated presence are central.  There are outliers, sure, places in this virtual world where we can find real connection.  But as we grow acclimatized to this way of being together, and it becomes the norm, that we're increasingly "unaffiliated" is unsurprising.

It got me to thinking about that word, and its root.  

Unaffiliated.

It's Latin, of course, and I could see the root word just by looking at it.  My grasp of Latin being as shallow as it is, I looked it up.

To "affiliate" comes from the prefix ad, which means "towards."  And then there's that root word, familiar in my theologian's ear.  Filia.  Son. 

"Not towards sonship," is what "unaffiliated" means.

Which is, from this side of the ebbing tide, an interesting resonance.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Memory of Trees

I stood there, in the courtyard of my seminary, and looked at the trees.

Around me, there were little clusters of souls, talking, taking pictures.  We were graduating, after all, some with their divinity degrees, others with their doctorates.  I was there to pick up my poofy doctoral cap and rented regalia before scampering back across the river to walk the dog, shower, and then return to the city for the commencement ceremony.

In that moment, it seemed worth stopping, and remembering.  The trees were there, quietly marking my time.  I remember starting in seminary, beginning my Master's of Theological Studies, uncertain as yet whether I wanted to fling myself into tha ministreh.

It was 1996.  

The trees were there in 1996, and I remember them from when I first bustled about from class to library to class.  I remember what the light was like, in that courtyard.  It was bright and hot in the yard on a late spring day.  

The trees themselves stood young and new, not even the height of the buildings around them.  They cast little shade, because they were just barely more than saplings.  Their lower branches, barely above the height of my head.

Almost twenty years ago.

Now, they rise on up, well over the rooftops, their branches high.  The courtyard rests fully in shade, cool stone on a hot early spring day.  The place is different.  The trees seem like they must always have been this way, like the brick of the buildings, or the rough stone of the paths.

Yet I know they were not.  The memory of them as saplings remains, like an echo, an image cast into my recollection of both self and place.  

It's like visiting a place from your childhood after a long absence, only it is not the place that seems strange and different, but the memory.

I am the same person, I feel.  Yet I am not, and the trees are not, and in their quiet way they remind me.   

Friday, May 8, 2015

Rev. Chipmunk Serves Communion

Early on in my pastoring, I encountered a conundrum every time I walked with my community through the Lord's Supper.

We'd pray, and we'd bless, and I'd say the words of institution over the bread.  "This is my body, broken for you," I'd intone, and then the little Christ-croutons would be shared.  When all was done, I'd raise my little piece of the shared symbolic meal.  "This is the bread of life," I'd say.  And then, we'd all eat.

But bread, well, bread sometimes makes it hard to talk.  Particularly if it's chewy.  The starch can hang in your throat and stifle the next words you're called to solemnly intone.  

"And after the...gluk...meal...urk...he...urk...excuse me..."

I had this happen a couple of times, and it did not do wonders for my solemn intoning.

I tried waiting, gathering the saliva carefully so that I could swallow, but it felt slow.  Off.  Like it impeded the moment, detracting from my role in the sacred rhythm of the sharing.

And so, years ago, I found a solution.  Not elegant, but functional.  The little sliver of bread enters my mouth, and then...like a chipmunk with a sacred seed, or a good ol' boy with his holy chaw...it's tucked in, right there between the gum and the cheek.

The bread is there, in my mouth, as I speak the words over the cup, invoking our memory of his life and self-sacrifice.  As the elders who are serving the meal with me distribute the little plastic shots of Jesus, I tease it out, slowly chew, and swallow.

When I first started doing this, I wondered about whether my approach messed with the whole "eating this together" thing.  We are meant to be sharing the elements as one, after all.   Communing.  I mean, that's the idea, right?

But then again, I thought, well, I've *started* the process.  The Lord's Supper wasn't meant to be an exercise in synchronized digestion.  It is an experience of the Spirit, feeding the wholeness of who we are, both body and psyche.

The flavor of the bread suffuses my mouth, just as it does with everyone in the room.  The thoughts of what that means and why that's significant are just as present in my soul.

And it works.

Which, for all matters of theology and liturgy, matters more than how silly we might feel on occasion.




Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Shadows of the Now

There's a common thread out there, a thought that gets passed along like a little nugget of meme-profundity.

You must live in the now.  Don't let yourself be entangled by what was or what will be.  Be completely and fully aware of this moment.  It's a...cough...gift.

"That is why they call it the present," says the Zen Turtle Master from Kung Fu Panda.  Geez, what was his name?  Um...[google]...Oogway?  Really?  "Oogway?" Couldn't they at least spell it Ugwei?  Sigh.

Anyhoo, there is deep truth in that saying, a truth that can liberate us from past brokenness.  There is truth in it, because it can turn us away from the grasping, anxious struggle to shape all of existence through the sheer force of our desire.

Being able to live in the timeless now is a potent awareness, as potent as the energies of singularity.  For what is the now but a temporal singularity, an ineffably irreducible point in the flow of being?  It both is infinitely calm and infinitely full of memory and potential.

Sorry.  Getting a little flaky-sounding there, but I roll that way sometimes.  Being in the now can still you, and silence fears, and open you up to new things.  It's a good way to be, a part of the way of the mystic that I live with varying degrees of success.

As with all things, though, there is a shadow cast by this truth.

Because "now" is not all that we are.  We are beings of story, whose existence is wrought of both narrative and potential.
But if our now is just that instant, then we can be in a moment in which we have forgotten our history.  We lose sight of the story that has brought us to where we are.  We can lose sight of our call to bend the story of our little world towards justice and reconciliation.

If our now is pursued shallowly, it can become nothing more than a validation of our immediate reality, of the desires of the instant, of the hungers of the moment, and of the demands of our society.  Why else would "mindfulness" be so present in our corporate culture, pitched out as a tool to increase personal productivity?

Justice and growth require that we see our "now" as stretching back into the "now" that was, seeing our personal and corporate past as it truly existed.
And if we are in the now, we are in a moment where there is no future, nothing but this instant.  Which, if you're sanctified or enlightened, you'll embrace.  It can also *feel* fine when you're well-fed and content, knowing neither pain nor loss, when all can seem well and good.

But "be in the now" can be the worst possible advice to the situationally or clinically depressed.  It is the cruellest dismissal to the starving, or the imprisoned, or the violated.  It can tear away the resilience that hope provides.

I have known those moments.  There were moments, "presents" in my life, that had I not seen life beyond them, I would have rather ceased to be.  I have known souls who have taken their lives, because they could see nothing other than what was, in the ephemera of that instant, their reality.

Because hope requires us to stretch our "now" out towards the "now" that has not yet come to pass.  That is right there, at hand, so close we can almost touch it.

But to walk that Way, we must knock, seek, and ask.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

When Terrible Theology Makes Good Christians

It was the strangest thing.

I was heaving my way through a book by Dr. Creflo A. Dollar, one of the most potent purveyors of prosperity preaching in the United States.  Like Joel Osteen, he's an evangelist for the health-and-wealth Jesus, the Jesus who gets you ahead and gets you rich.  Also like Joel Osteen, he's managed to get rich as Croesus from the many blessings he receives from his teeming throng of congregants and the folks who buy his stuff.

That's multiple Rolls Royce, multiple mansion, private jet rich.  CEO rich.  Oligarch rich.

He's a brilliant, able, wonderfully entertaining public speaker, who can cast out a spell of words and play a crowd like nobody's business.  He's gotten better over the years, too, way better than when I would watch him pitching out magic prosperity prayer napkins on late night tee vee twenty five years ago.  Blessings, yours for a love offering of only a hundred dollars!  What a bargain that was!  Now, he's sharper, tighter, and smarter.  And so very much richer.

Having referenced dear brother Creflo several times recently in my preaching, I felt obligated to delve a little bit more into his public thinking.   I picked out one of his books from the library, 'cause I find thrift lends itself to prospering.

It was a semi-recent tome, one that dated back from the beginning of the Great Recession, and it did not disappoint. Winning in Troubled Times was a wild, bold expression of the values of that peculiar strain of modern Christian expression.  It opens with the confident assertion that we follow Jesus because we want to win.  We want victory.

Faith is all about using supernatural power to win, or so Creflo tells us, again sounding just like Joel going on about one's best life.  Now!

On the one hand, sure.  It's victory.  But "Jesus-winning" is not victory in the rat race, or in our consumer striving to have and to own.  It's victory over those things, and over the will to power, over that fundamentally broken part of our souls that insists on ruling and owning and having.  The warnings against the dangers of wealth that are such a vital part of Christ's teachings are nowhere to be found.

I forced myself to keep reading.

And in the reading, I found myself struck by strangeness.  For all of my eye-rolling about the absurdity of name-it-and-claim-it hucksterism, much of what Creflo writes is actually not so wildly different from the type of moral advice I would give.

There's a tremendous amount of focus on trust, and self-sacrifice, and kindness.  There's encouragement to recognize and strive towards unrealized potential, and to embrace possibility and reject negative sinkholes of self-hate and addiction.  "Don't expect things to just magically happen," he says.  "You've got to work for it.  Push for it.  Believe it."

Over and over again, there is the call to be generous and giving and open-hearted towards all those around you.  It's a clear theme.

And it struck me: if you actually did all of this stuff, and took this gifted huckster's advice, there's a very real chance you might...be a pretty good person.  A faithful person.  You'd pray a whole bunch.  You'd give generously of yourself to charities and to neighbors and to strangers.  You'd view it as your responsibility.  You'd strive to improve yourself, both viewing success as a gift and having the hope-fueled resilience to hold up under adversity.  You'd be helpful, gracious, and giving.

This, of course, is part of the careful calculus of prosperity preaching.  On the one hand, it plays off of the human desire for wealth and power.  It taps our yearning for some selfish magic, something supernatural that gets us ahead and makes us wealthy.

But if you go too deep down that route, suddenly you've created a mystic Ayn Rand, selfish and grasping and as giving as a stone.  Or you've made a Sith Apprentice, who's all primed and ready to slay their master.

Neither of these ethics would build a ministry.

What you want is to teach an ethic that creates people who are hardworking and generous, hopeful and giving, who earnestly believe that they are blessed, and who are willing to trust that their sharing of their blessings with others is a good thing.

Good Christians, in other words.

So. Very. Peculiar.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

They Were Asking For It

I've seen this surface a couple of times now.

First, around the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  And yesterday, following the recent abortive attempt to shoot people attending a "Draw the Prophet" competition, in which two failed terrorists died.

It's an attempt to equivocate around free speech, around what is and is not acceptable language, or legitimate provocation to violence.  If someone engages in a symbolic act that is intended to offend, or so this line of thinking goes, they are asking for it.

"If you insult my belief system intentionally, you have crossed a line," this line of reasoning goes.   "While I am a peaceful person who would not attack you, and I oppose violence in every way, I can completely understand why someone else might feel differently.  You are misusing your freedom, and so it kind of in a way is sort of your fault you were attacked.  So let's talk about that misuse of freedom, and about how shameful it is."

It is a faint shifting of the onus of responsibility, away from the self, and towards the other.

Do I think that "Draw the Prophet" was a good idea?  No.  It was, well, stupid, and more than a little bit nativist.  It's obnoxious in the same way that Westboro Baptist is obnoxious, or that Charlie Hebdo is obnoxious.  What they were doing is a pointlessly selfish exercise in trying to evoke a response.

But that doesn't mean anything.  Offense does not confer any legitimacy to violence.

Take, for noted example, the recent Tony award-winning Broadway smash "The Book of Mormon."  For some reason, the internet thinks I want to go see this, and pitches me ads for performances all the time.  I've seen some of the songs, and, c'mon.  Sure, I don't buy the LDS ancient America story, as outlined in the Book of Mormon, which I've read.  The things described therein just didn't happen in this branch of the multiverse.  Mayhaps in some other timeline.  But not in this one.  Neither do I resonate with many aspects of LDS politics or their theology.

But mocking laughter?  There are dark spiritual resonances to that when it's directed at the Other.  If it was directed at the foibles and absurdities of my own tradition, that'd be different.  Maybe if it was "The Book of Order," I might go, but I'm not sure that'd do as well on Broadway.  Lord have mercy, but that would be dull.

So here, in the face of this very public mockery of a significant faith tradition, has there been violence?  Or equivocation justifying violence?  No.

Nor could there legitimately be such justification.

Any more than shooting at Westboro Baptist members would be justified.

Freedom of speech does bring with it responsibility, sure.   But violence used to suppress obnoxious speech only confers legitimacy on that speech.  It allows the rude and the cruel and the bully to take up the mantle of victim or "defender of liberty," to be the aggrieved rather than the selfish.



Monday, May 4, 2015

Gods of Place and Culture

I rolled up to our local hole-in-the-wall Chinese takeout on my bike, because, well, it was a nice night, and I felt like it.

The place was bustling with the energies of that little family business, just as it's always bustling.  The matriarch came out, chatting amiably with me about the bike as she rang up the order.  It was the same sequence of questions she asked the last time I rode the bike to pick up food, but hey.  Small talk is small talk, and it was pleasant.

Her two granddaughters meandered about in the parking lot out front, noodling in circles on two bright pink bicycles.  Back in the kitchen, her daughter...or daughter-in-law...could be heard shouting out conversation in Mandarin over the sounds of food preparation.  There were a couple of new relatives working, folks I'd not seen before.

"You take a seat," said she.  "It'll be a few minutes."  So I did, and rather than disappear into my pocket-screen, I looked at my surroundings.  We've been going to that little place for years, back even before this family owned the business.  It hasn't changed too much in the last four or five years of this family owning it--shoot, even the menu is the same as it's always been.

The waiting area is filled with luck-totems and Confucianesque-prosperity-posters, which have gathered and increased in number over the years.  There's the inescapable luck-cat with the waggly paw.  There are great fat cherubs and smiling rosy-cheeked elders, beaming from posters lush with gold and fruit.  There's a big luck-Buddha, rotund and beaming and wearing what appeared to be a ton of lipstick, his arms raised to hold a platter/shrine to the well-being of the business.

It's all part of the ambiance.

But next to a poster of a beaming wizened Confucian elder overlaid with an American-flag-freedom-tchotchke, and behind the slightly stoned looking Buddha, something new caught my eye.  Wasn't there last time out.

A calendar.  On the calendar, a scripture.  New Testament.  "I am the resurrection and the life."  John 11.  Under the scripture, a picture of a huge screen in a local Chinese megachurch, under which was a decent-sized choir, looking every bit as shiny and prosperous as the other images.

I suppose I should have felt psyched to see my own faith making an incursion.  Go Team Jesus!  But it felt at first out of place, like encountering a Ganesha statuette in a Tex-Mex place.  Wait...is this supposed to be here?  I just don't associate Jesus with the flavor of American faux-Chinese cuisine.

This was, of course, an absurd reaction, one from some strange lingering categorical honkey-American thinking.  "Hey! I'm here fer mah Chai-neez food!  That ain't no China god!  Y'all s'posed ta just have Buddhas and [stuff]!  Is mah Moo Goo Guy Pan ready yet?"

Which is silly, given how Christianity is notable for its ability to go completely transcultural, adopting the forms and shapes and images of any society it encounters as it expresses the Gospel.  And doubly silly, given that Christianity has been present in China for longer than it's been present on this continent.  And triply silly, given that there are thirty times more Christians in China than there are, oh, say, American Presbyterians.

And so I waited, and reflected, and later thoroughly enjoyed my Home Style Bean Curd.

Mmmm, bean curd.