Friday, February 27, 2009
In its place I want to put this:
To all Christians out there who believe that the church is a fragile institution under assault by a licentious and immoral culture, to those who believe that our faith is in desperate need of a defense from critics and atheists, liberals and heretics... I have good news: you're wrong. That might not sound like good news. Who likes to be wrong? But in this case I hope you'll stick with me long enough to see what I mean.
You're wrong, first of all, about the church being a fragile institution. The church belongs to Jesus Christ and is created by the power of the Holy Spirit. Nothing we do will ever destroy or corrupt it beyond repair. Yes, we get things wrong - alot. Sure there are plenty of times I wonder if the church hasn't gone over a cliff. There are probably lots of places called "churches" around this world which are rarely very similar to the Church of Jesus Christ, but the creation, maintanence and success of the true church does not depend on us. It never has and it never will.
You're wrong, secondly, about the church being under assault. Just from a matter of simple observation we can say that Christianity is the largest religion in the world and growing. Even in places like the US and Europe where churches are often stale and declining, the ubiquity of the religion denies any claims we might make about being a persecuted minority. Furthermore, Christ's victory on the cross forever proves that it is not the holy that is vulnerable to assault, but the profane which defeats itself by assailing the holy. The church cannot become impure by contact with an immoral culture, but the culture certainly can be sanctified by coming into contact with the church.
You're wrong, finally, about faith requiring a defense. Faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It can no more be lost than it can be bought. Any faith which can be shaken or destroyed merely by criticism was not true faith to begin with. Indeed, we should value the critiques of atheists, liberals, and heretics, because they stir us out of childish belief into an adult faith, by requiring of us more than mere intellectual assent. Not only does faith not require a defense, to attempt a defense is a failure of faith. Faith reveals itself in the cross and receives its vindication in the resurrection.
The good news of the gospel is this: God has already won the victory. The war is over. You can put down your weapons now and live into God's peace. You are safe. Be not afraid.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Among their many fascinating articles is this gem. It is a list of 100 Truths About Jesus. Each truth is a pithy saying I'm sure the author wants you to take as "fact" supported by hyperlinked Biblical quotes.
Nothing shocking. But what strikes me as I read it is that these "truths" are anything but self-evident. Rather, they are so impenetrable they are nearly useless.
For example, what does it mean that, "Jesus abides forever - Heb. 7:24"? Where does he "abide?" Can I visit? To abide means to continue or to stay... what is he continuing? If he is staying forever does that mean he is never going? Or maybe they mean abide as in "tolerate". In which case what does Jesus tolerate? This is the kind of lovely koan-esque language that religions love to employ and it is wonderful for meditation and theology, but it is more poetry than apologetics where precise definitions are necessary.
One problem with this list of propositions (and it is true of the entire site) is that it assumes an incredible degree of pre-assimilated context. There is a near cultish use of insider vocabulary used without explanation as if the meaning is plain to any observer. What do these things mean:
- The fruit of righteousness comes through Jesus Christ - Phil. 1:11
- Jesus is the Rock - 1 Cor. 10:4
- Jesus is our only mediator between God and ourselves - 1 Tim. 2:5
For these propositions to have any value the reader would have to be in a conversation where the assertion that Jesus is the Rock had any meaning. The writers on this site are clearly involved in such a conversation. They see themselves countering all sorts of cultural tendencies they deplore, but they don't give any hint of that here. Answers without questions are useless. (Interestingly the reverse is not always true).
Furthermore, the apparent simplicity (even if it is opaque simplicity) of these propositions belies an enormous amount of interpretation that has already gone into them. Consider number 100 on their list:
- Jesus came to proclaim freedom for believers - Luke 4:18
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,"First of all, Jesus is not making a personal announcement here, he is reading scripture aloud in the context of something like a worship service. He does, later in the passage, tell the crowd that "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." So it is not unreasonable to assume that he intends these words from Isaiah as a kind of proclamation, but where does Isaiah mention freedom for "believers"? Freedom could reasonably be applied to two groups in the passage: captives and the oppressed. It mentions nothing at all about whether these groups contain any believers.
So how does the author get to his proposition from the supporting text? Interpretation, duh. The author is assuming that Jesus means something specific by "freedom" and that this "freedom" corresponds with what the author already knows and believes, partly on the basis of other scripture passages, belongs specifically to a group called "believers". I happen to disagree with the author in this case, but I don't think there is anything nefarious about such an interpretive move. I have a feeling, however, that the people at CARM wouldn't want to admit that such debatable interpretation underlies all of their arguments.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Protecting the country's security is "a tough, mean, dirty, nasty business," he said. "These are evil people. And we're not going to win this fight by turning the other cheek."Until we learn to turn the other cheek we will continue to lose everything, most importantly, our souls.
Sunday, February 22, 2009
I would like to cast my vote for an empty Oval Office for four years. Give us all a rest. Let Congress do it's job without line-item vetoes. Let the troops, wherever they happen to be, figure out what the best idea is without some idiot in Washington inventing wars for them to die fighting, pointing at spots on the map full of people for them to kill. No more hypocritical, demoralizing speeches. No more talking heads and flapping lips blathering about his every move and word. No more state dinners. No more photo-ops with Girl Scouts. No more press secretary juggling lies like Barnum and Bailey's best.
Let people tour the White House as a museum of national relics and oddities. "Here is where the President once drank coffee. Here is where he once ate sandwiches. Here is where he plotted the assassination of foreign leaders. Here is where he went to the bathroom. That was back when we had a President. Now, if we want something done, we get together and figure out how to do it ourselves."
I wish I could cast a vote for an empty Oval Office. I would campaign for that. I would work a phone bank for that. I would donate to that.
As it is, I'll grudgingly cast my vote for what looks like a minimal evil, have a nice meal to get the sick feeling out of my stomach, and get on with enduring the vast miasma of lies, hypocrisy, waste and stupidity that we call a government, hoping against hope that it will do nothing, that it will leave it to the rest of us to get done what has to get done, knowing all the while that nowhere, at no time, in no place, do human beings refrain from using every shred of power they are able to wrest from others.
I leave you with a rendition of Jotham's parable from Judges:
Once upon a time, the trees all gathered to elect themselves a politician. They elected the olive, but the olive refused, saying that its job is to produce good oil. They then chose the fig, but the fig refused - shall it give up its sweet fruit in order to be above the other trees? But the trees demanded a politician to have authority over them. They elected the vine, but the vine answered like the first two. Finally, they approached the bramble, which accepted eagerly. Take refuge among my thorns, it said, and if you don't like the thorns, then you'll be burned up.
I love this parable.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
In the words of a comic book mouse no less.
At some point, I became overwhelmed by disgust at the news, and am honestly unable to tolerate more than a minute or two of the fear-mongering moronic tripe spewing from puffed-up nobodies 24 hours a day. So I started wanting to be part of good news. This is one way I do that.
My TV has been a lot quieter ever since I realized this. And now and then I am treated to news which is worth reading, which I was a small part of.
I recommend it.
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
One testimony was recently added by Specialist Brandon Neely, a former guard at the prison. In it he details instances of abuse and torture he participated in and observed. Importantly, I think, he is candid about the effect participation in torture has had on him and his family:
The effect of participation in torture often gets overlooked in our debates. Everyone focuses on the effect upon the victims - which all agree is egregious. The debate tends to focus on whether the cost to the victim is worth the supposed value gained from the intelligence and lives saved thereby. (I feel it important to stress that torture has consistently been shown to be counterproductive to intelligence gathering, but the debate continues nevertheless.) What gets missed in this equation is the incalculable harm done to the guards, medics, interrogators, and families of these individuals. Torture is a festering wound on the fabric of society. It dehumanizes everyone involved, the victim, the practitioner and the witnesses. We have not yet begun to reap the damage done to our nation by these practices.
I came home in March of 2004 from a year tour in Iraq to a wife and three beautiful children I did not even know and who didn't even know the man I came home as. It was--and continues to be--a struggle every day of our lives. I went through many times of deep depression which turned into me turning to alcohol to comfort me. It was easier to do this than to deal with what I was feeling inside. I was destroying not only myself but my family as well. I woke up one morning and realized I needed to get my life back in order not just for myself, but my family as well. I left the Army in August of 2005 and was ready to start my new life; just leave the Army and all the good and bad times I had went through behind me. That is easier said than done. There has not been a day that goes by I have not re-lived what I did or saw in Guantanamo or Iraq. It does not get any easier; it just eats you up inside day by day. I have spoken out against the Iraq war and took a stand when I was recalled in 2007 and refused to go back and I decided that I needed to tell my story about Guantanamo as well. How can I as a father tell my children to tell the truth and stand up for what they believe in if I was not willing to do the same?I often think of the detainees who have been released or continue to be caged there like animals. I don't think people realize these caged individuals' lives have been changed forever. The innocent people who were wrongfully held have lost so much. Some of them have lost family members, jobs, and money. And for what? No matter what happens in their future, they will not be able to get that lost time back that we took from them.
Sunday, February 15, 2009
These are all where I am now, not things I'm trying to lay down for all time.
A story is a recounting of events from a particular point of view. Stories are not singular, are infinitely interconnected, and never end - we only stop telling them at one point or another. Stories also come from a storyteller, and are received by an audience. Both of these things change the story with each telling. Apart from storyteller and recipient, there is no story.
"Fiction" is another word sometimes used as a synonym for lie. This belies what every moderately literate person knows - that one can find truths in fiction, perhaps even more readily than in non-fiction. For me, fiction is story which may not conform to consensual reality but which is told with the consent of the audience. What that means is that fiction may not conform to things we generally agree are real - it might have Elves or monsterse or faster-than-light travel, it always has made-up characters, and so on. I use the term consensual reality because what is fiction in one culture might be truth in another. Sorry objectivists - deal with it. So, to put it more simply, fiction is a lie told with our consent.
A myth is a story through which a group of people make meaning. If no one finds it meaningful, then it cannot be a myth. If only one person finds it meaningful, it cannot be a myth. If it is merely an account of widely agreed-upon events, or a recording of some kind, it cannot be a myth. Included in my list of myths are the Bible, Capitalism, American History, the Enuma Elish, Dianetics, Socialism, etc. These are all stories through which people make meaning, and none of them are mere historical records.
How a myth functions is a topic for another post - or ten.
A lie is a story told which does not conform to consensual reality without the consent of the audience. It is presenting what is not meaningful as meaningful, or presenting what is factually false as what is factually true. Lies are about having power over other people while protecting yourself. The storyteller and the audience are not connected by trust, but are instead engaged in combat, though they may not know it.
Facts are a lot more rare than we think they are. A fact is something that every observer would agree upon given full access to any information they need to make the distinction. It is something that, having every question answered, every person interviewed, every measurement taken, every person would agree is true, short of severe mental illness perhaps. Given this, evolution is not a fact. Consciousness is not a fact. The "law" of supply and demand are not facts. Gravity is a fact. The speed of light is a fact.
The concept of "Fact" necessarily ignores philosophical stances which would make all of our experience a dream or an illusion, or which are entirely deterministic. It presupposes that there is a shared material world which we experience, and that we can make decisions which are not fully determined.
Truth is God's truth alone (did I just accidentally reference Calvin? Maybe I did...). Every statement about truth I take to be in part a statement about hope or trust, because it is a limited human being claiming some kind of knowledge which is not limited. Truth is as knowable as God is knowable. Truth-claims are theological, God-claims in the way that I view the world.
Truth is not just something which conforms to someone's presentation of facts, but it is transformative. Truth changes you and makes you better - or it is not truth. You are the test of your truth, and I am the test of my truth.
Gandhi, to theists, would say "God is Truth", and to atheists, he would say "Truth is God". I remember reading that in his autobiography and really liking it.
Friday, February 13, 2009
Could be. I'm going to give some of my responses to these questions, and because of the kind of person I am they will be equivocal, and qualified. I will say the situation is messy and complex and it will probably be unsatisfying to some of you. My thoughts:
- Is the Canon oppressive? The Canon, repeating what I've said about the Bible, is an inanimate object - or perhaps an idea or way of thinking about an inanimate object. Therefore it cannot be responsible for either good or bad outcomes of our actions. Human interpreters of the Canon are solely responsible for their actions. In this sense we can't lay "oppression" at the foot of the canon. The canon doesn't DO anything much less oppress anyone.
- But can't ideas themselves be powerful or dangerous Aric? Aren't they analogous to weapons? Isn't an unarmed person less dangerous? Ok, I concede the point that ideas can be dangerous and all those crazy oppressive idealogues out there would be less dangerous without tools like the Canon to use. But what choice do we have? It isn't possible to remove an idea that is so widespread. Nationalism is an idea that is FAR more destructive than the Canon ever could be, but there is no hope of getting people to stop being nationalistic. The Canon is here to stay, like it or not.
- So you're saying that the canon is bad but we're stuck with it? Well, no. Anyone who has studied history at all would have to admit the fact that the formation of the canon was messy and involved all sorts of nasty power struggles, and the actual use of the canon has often been exclusionary and manipulative. But I don't think that means we have to write it off as an inherently bad idea. Frankly, every "idea" that humans have been involved in has been used in horrible manipulative ways. Check the use of the word "Freedom" in the last 8 years. I regard the canon as inevitable. Neither good nor bad really. It's what we do with it that matters.
- If it's not really good or bad, but you admit that it has been abused why not jettison it? Other than my aforementioned belief that it is impossible to jettison, my reservation about tossing the canon is this: arrogance. Anyone who thinks they can set up a better canon or standard is fooling themselves. We can't cut out all the objectionable bits of the Bible and the rest assured we've made a book which is free from error or potential for misuse. What now seems clearly sinful to us in the Bible (mysogyny for example) was once normal. Therefore what now seems normal or acceptable to us is almost certainly sinful from another perspective. We are blind to our own failings just as people of other times were blind to theirs. It is impossible to construct a perfect canon, therefore I prefer to stick with the one we have as a means of training ourselves in humility. When we have to accept something as authoritative which we know to be faulty, it reminds us not to be cocky about our own righteousness.
- I don't want to set up a better standard I want to get rid of ANY standards... Call me a skeptic but I just don't buy it. Everyone has standards they judge things by - ways we decide whether or not something is true. If we remove the canon it will be replaced by something else - reason, argument, democratic process, scientific investigation... take your pick. Frankly, all of these are already operative as ways of determining truth and they all have their strengths and weaknesses. In fact, the Canon has an advantage over most of these in that it is literature, which makes it LESS prescriptive than a democratic process (everyone must accept the majority opinion), or scientific investigation (everyone must be persuaded by evidence). In fact, as long as our debates in the church revolve around interpretation of scripture there will be a lot of diversity. It's once the matter gets put to a vote or the authority structure of the church weighs in that diversity gets squashed.
- Is there room for criticism of the Canon within orthodoxy? Eh. I don't worry about it too much. We are not Roman Catholics, so there is no magisterium to decide exactly who is orthodox and who isn't. I get to claim I'm orthodox and so do the people I disagree with. We have different opinions about the canon and that is fine. In fact, there isn't any consensus on what is canonical and what isn't. Catholics have 7 more books than Protestants and most Eastern Orthodox Christians have even more. Prominent heros of the faith like Martin Luther have openly criticized sections of the Bible and argued that we should toss certain books out. So I think it is safe to say that the canon can be criticized.
- Don't we have to take the whole Canon as authoritative? As my professor Ann Wire once put it - the only sections of the Bible that are authoritative are the ones that you take as authoritative. If you never read Habbakuk and never try to apply it to your life then it has no more authority over you than the Nag Hammadi or the Ring of the Nibbelungen. It's all about what actually gets used and how - not what some ancient conference of bishops says has authority. The canon has authority for the church precisely because it has been used that way, and more so than any other books outside the canon. Partly this is because at various times the church has declared the books in the canon authoritative, but it has always done so in response to their actual use in the church.
One of the things that I'm learning in CPE is to work when I am angry. What I mean is, I have two tendencies - want to be aggressive when I'm angry, and in response to that, I've built another tendency, which is to become passive and do nothing. Neither of these is healthy nor tenable.
A couple days ago I got a chance to practice. I was in the middle of quite a tangle - an angry surgeon, an angry charge nurse, an angry unit manager, and a very frightened and angry patient. The situation was going nowhere; it was just getting worse. Everything was cycling around this particular patient, who was, in all honesty, quite a problem in her own right for a number of reasons; I could see that as it kept circling, it was escalating. It was like a textbook case from the conflict resolution curriculum I went through years ago through the American Friends Service Committee.
Except that everyone in the room but the patient had more authority than me. My first response was to be really frightened. I stood there for probably a minute or two, starting sentences and not finishing them, not really being listened to, not knowing what to do. The tipping point came when the surgeon lost the composure he had left and turned to me and called me out. He basically said, angry and sarcastic, "this is your job - if you don't solve it, then you don't love Jesus". He said a few other things and stormed out.
Man, that really pissed me off. So I started doing things. I started intervening. Everyone wanted out of this situation, but they were all caught in it. So I gave them ways out. When the surgeon came back to pick up his loud argument with the patient again, I said, among a few other things "This isn't helping either of you. You're a surgeon - you've got more important things to do. Go do them."
To my surprise, he did. He took the way out.
The whole 'incident' lasted around an hour or so before I could disentangle myself. I came back to the office and unloaded on my colleauges. We went out to lunch, and my blood was still boiling.
Later on that day, my supervisor asked for the story. Apparently the unit manager had come to him and said how well one of the chaplains had handled a situation on the floor she was managing. To my surprise, that was me. (At the time, I had the feeling I was just putting out fires and about one step from screaming at the patient myself).
In talking about this later (believe me, we talk about everything in CPE, over and over again) I realized that I perceived a choice - being angry, or being pastoral. When this was pointed out to me, I realized how tremendously stupid it was, and I also realized how overwhelming the message had been to me from my experience of my denomination and, frankly, of the Church in general.
The image of the pastor is Jesus delicately holding a wayward lamb, or Jesus hugging the children, or Jesus giving soft platitudes by the seaside. I have seen pastors be punished for showing anger, even when it is in healthy, constructive ways. Its ok to be angry at the Iraq war (for some of us) or angry about poverty or angry about abortion - but the message I've received very strongly is that you can only be angry about that outside, general, social stuff.
God help you if you are a pastor angry at your congregation, or your Session, or the Presbytery.
And I think of our 50% burnout rate among Protestant pastors. Which is similar to air traffic controllers or military snipers, by the way. And I think this is part of why. We don't allow pastors to be human beings. Human beings get pissed off. Sometimes they get pissed off and act out of it. And sometimes, as I'm learning, it is the anger, and maybe nothing else, that makes someone move, and claim power so that it can be used to maintain peace and right relations.
I know that this is also my issue - but I'm here working on it and sweating over it and getting all this uncomfortable (and sometimes encouraging) peer and supervisor feedback about it. But as a Church, what are we doing?
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Government is, to put it succinctly, the establishment of order in society by rules backed up by threat of force. Without an army and a police force there is no government.
Since governments are so inextricably bound up with violence it is highly problematic for Christians to be supportive of any government. Even Christians who hold that violence is a necessary evil under extreme circumstances (such as followers of Just War theology), ought to be extremely skeptical of an institution whose existence depends on violence. Paul tells us the Powers are implacably set against God's Kingdom and are doomed for extinction when the fullness of the Kingdom finally arrives. This is because, in the Kingdom 'nation will not lift up sword against nation' - the absence of war means the end of government. It is that simple.
So if I am pushed by my logic toward an anti-government stance (my actual position I'm calling Covenantal Anarchy by Doug's inspiration), then how do I reconcile that with the unavoidable fact that I live in a governed world? Especially since my pacifist beliefs prohibit me from taking up arms against the government. Is there a philosophy of governance available to me that can permit me at least conditional support of certain forms of government with minimum hypocrisy?
Essentially, the question I am asking is - is government necessarily dependent on violence? Is there a way to conceive of government in a nonviolent way? Has anyone attempted it?
I have some thoughts I'll put out in the next few days, but I want to let the question hang for a while to see what you come up with.
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
#1 - There really is no such thing as 'The Bible'. The book we refer to by that name comes in a variety of different editions and translations. Some versions contain entire sections and books that others do not. There is no official canon that everyone can agree on. Instead there are a variety of 'official' canons. Furthermore, there are blatant "canons within the canon" as demonstrated by the inevitably selective use of scripture in different churches. No one has a pure holistic approach to reading scripture which gives equal priority to every text and only uses texts which all can agree are canonical while also excluding no texts that some believe ought to be canonical.
#2 - The Bible is a creation of tradition. Even though there is no indisputable physical artifact we might conclusively call 'the Bible', there is for the purposes of tradition, such a thing as the Bible. The church creates the Bible, both in concrete historical actions such as the council of Nicaea, and in our continuous social reference to it. The interaction is reciprocal. Christians have from a very early time regarded themselves as people of the book, and it is by continuously referring to that "book" that we have slowly created our identities.
#3 - There is no inherent unity to the Bible. What we call the Bible is actually a collection of ancient texts written over a wide span of time by many different authors with divergent purposes. Even within a single book composite authorship is often evident. Furthermore, these voices regularly seem to be working in opposition to one another. The texts themselves are not of one mind on anything.
#4 - The Bible is tightly woven. Despite the chaotic fractured nature of the texts of the Bible, it is frequently self-referential in the extreme. One text dovetails into another, and relies for understanding on the knowledge of five or six others on a nearly constant basis. The complex interaction of texts in scripture means that no part of the Bible is really comprehensible in isolation.
#5 - The Bible is an inanimate object. It has no will and takes no action. The Bible does not 'say' anything. In every interaction with the Bible it is always the interpreter who bears sole responsibility for the result. Neither good nor bad behavior may be justified by recourse to the Bible.
#6 - God has reliably spoken to the faithful through the Bible. We should approach scripture with confidence that the Holy Spirit can and will speak to us through this medium, because of the testimony of countless faithful saints before us. Whatever scripture's historical limitations and contradictions we come to the Bible in order to be addressed. It remains our responsibility as listeners to test what we are hearing according to what we know of God and never to mistake the book for the speaker.
Monday, February 2, 2009
Thankfully, conservative counter-insurgents are willing to point out the many threats facing us as Americans - primary among them is Rachael Ray wearing a scarf in a Dunkin Donuts commercial. You see, its all part of the left-wing conspiracy to...um...I'll have to tune in to Sean Hannity to find out, because I'm not sure why I should be afraid, I just know that I am.
(As an aside, while you're learning from the Hannity why we should be afraid of each other, you can also go looking for love in what are assuredly all the right places.)
Also, did you know that Nintendo is proselytizing for Islam? Listen for yourself. Before you know it, your toaster will be shouting "Allahu Akbar!" five times a day, and it will have to do with activist judges. Just you wait.
Much thanks to Penny Arcade for bringing these threats to my attention. I recommend them as your penultimate source of political commentary. We all know who the ultimate is.