Thursday, December 31, 2009

Doug's Year In Review

This has been a big year for me. I usually don't sit down to look back intentionally on the past year around New Years Eve, but I felt like I should this time around.

Three quarters of this year was spent in Clinical Pastoral Education, pulling periodic 80-hour weeks working at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital. I feel like CPE was a threshold for me. I can measure my preparedness for ministry before and after the experience and see a huge difference. I have a lot more confidence, and have had the chance to have a lot of things brought to my attention (over and over again until I got the message) that I continue to work on. I am more aware of myself and of others, and I have sharpened my skills in a lot of difficult situations. I have also made friends of colleagues and I hope to maintain those relationships for the rest of our lives.

During the course of CPE I started back on an antidepressant, first Prozac and then Celexa, which is what I'm on now. My experience of Prozac was amazingly bad. It was like a daily jittery train-wreck with me in the middle of it saying everything that came to mind like an idiot hyped on meth. I provided a lot of entertainment for my peers, lemme say, as well as some uncomfortably truthful moments. But CPE is all about uncomfortably truthful moments.

This year I also completed work on Parsec which began during the summer of 2007 after meeting a publisher at Origins who asked me for a concept document for an RPG. I have no idea of how much work I've put into the game between then and now - suffice to say that I'm pretty sure that when I'm paid, it'll be pennies per hour if I were to sum everything up. I'm really proud of completing the book. Looking at it now, I can also see a lot of areas where I need to improve, but I have to start somewhere.

After CPE came a difficult time with me unemployed and then underemployed and finally overemployed. For about a month I logged a total of six jobs and basically didn't sleep enough the entire time. For the record, I was a sales associate with Cutco, a barista at Starbucks, an employee at Panera, writing for Jolly Roger Games, writing for and working at the local game store as well.

I do not want to do that again. I think that was one of those times when you learn about a limit in life. I hit my limit, hard, and am still recovering physically from it. (I'm down to four jobs now. Ha!)

On the church front, in January I started circulating my PIF and learned that the world did not take any note of me whatsoever. After years of work, it was a very anticlimactic time for me. Over the summer I had a number of interviews with a church that ended up choosing not to extend an offer. In retrospect it was the right result, but at the time it was pretty depressing, losing what felt like the only real chance at a call I'd had in seven months.

And then, as it tends to happen, a couple of weeks ago I was offered a call at a church in OH and accepted. Everything happened far faster than I'd ever have expected. The COM even essentially fast tracked me and will be enthusiastically endorsing me to the whole Presbytery when I am examined. I came back from this whirlwind having to figure out how to move with three weeks' notice, and I'm in the thick of that right now. I cannot say how thankful I feel right now. I am also the kind of person who doesn't get hit by things until they are upon me. When I start, I will definitely freak out. My head will explode as it were. For now I'm excited but clear-headed about things, planning the details of a cross-continental move.

Looking to the coming year, I want three main things for myself, not counting the things that depend on other people. I want to be a good pastor. I want to write. I want to spend time with my loved ones.

That's about it. Simple enough? We'll see.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Terrorism & Religion

Why are we so ready to see "terrorist" violence in a religious light if the religion in question is Islam? Islamic & Terrorist are colloquially linked like peanut butter & jelly. Sure there have been violent actions taken by Muslims which we have all decided to call terrorism. Some of those Muslims have given religious justifications for their actions, though generally there are far more prominent political justifications. But we fixate on the religious aspect. Osama Bin Laden, according to popular understanding, is trying to kill us because of his radical Islamic beliefs, not because as he has often said America has interfered politically in Saudi Arabia.

This distorted view we have of terrorism is really bizarre when it just outright contradicts the facts. It is not just that we emphasize the "Islamic" character of certain terrorists, but we start to define terrorism as a Muslim phenomenon which flies in the face of all the evidence. Jeffrey Weiss today, said that "100 percent of attempted terrorist attacks on the U.S. (and, with the exception of the Basques in Spain, terrorists attacks on all Western nations) since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing have been committed by people claiming to act in the name of Islam."

Um. No they haven't. Firstly not all terrorist acts committed by Muslims have been done "in the name of Islam". Most terrorist actions, study after study has found, are predominantly politically motivated. Palestinians who blow up buses in Israel cite things like the illegal wall, settlements, and retaliation for violence by the Israeli military as their reasons long before they cite Islam. Secondly, there have been scores of "terrorist" acts committed in the time frame he gives by non-Muslims. Greenwald gives a good sampling:

"1998: Dozens die in Omagh bombing: At least 27 people are feared dead in the worst paramilitary bombing since the start of the Northern Ireland conflict three decades ago The blast in the market town of Omagh, County Tyrone, at around 1500 BST on Saturday, left more than 100 people injured or maimed" -- BBC.

"September 21, 2000: A rocket attack on MI6 headquarters in London is believed to be the work of dissident Irish republicans" -- BBC.

"In a series of court documents that were at turns chilling and bizarre, federal investigators said U.S. Army microbiologist Bruce E. Ivins misled government agents investigating the 2001 anthrax mailings, sent emails with language closely matching the handwritten letters sent to victims and had access to the strain of anthrax used in the crime. The Federal Bureau of Investigation says the evidence, including hundreds of pages of unsealed documents, proves that Dr. Ivins was the sole person responsible for the 2001 anthrax mailings . . . The most compelling evidence points at Dr. Ivins and his laboratory at the U.S. Army biodefense facility at Fort Detrick, Md." -- Wall St. Journal, August 7, 2008.

"Olympic bombing suspect Eric Robert Rudolph -- wanted in attacks that killed two people and injured more than 100 in the Southeast -- was arrested early Saturday in western North Carolina and faces a Monday morning court date. Rudolph has been charged in the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta, Georgia; 1997 bombings at a gay nightclub and a clinic that performed abortions in the Atlanta area; and a bombing at a clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1998" -- CNN, May 31, 2003.

"U.S.-born Jewish terrorist suspected of series of attacks over past 12 years: The authorities have arrested a resident of the West Bank settlement of Shvut Rachel for suspected murder and a role in a string of murder plots, according to details of an investigation revealed Sunday after a gag order was lifted. Yaakov (Jack) Tytell, who was arrested last month, is suspected of involvement in the murder of two Palestinians and the rigging of a bomb that seriously injured a boy from a Messianic Jewish family in Ariel. . . . Some of his actions were allegedly motivated by hatred for gays and lesbians" - Haaretz, November 3, 2009.

"The Jerusalem District Prosecutor's Office on Thursday charged alleged Jewish terrorist Yaakov (Jack) Teitel with two murders, three attempted murders and other acts of violence. "It was a pleasure and an honor to serve my God," said Teitel at the Jerusalem courthouse. "I have no regret and no doubt that God is pleased" -- Haaretz, December 11, 2009.

"Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated at a peace rally Saturday night in Tel Aviv's Kings Square, a top aide confirmed. He was reportedly shot in the arm and back by a Jewish man in his mid-20s who is allegedly affiliated with right-wing extremist groups. . . . Amir confessed to the assassination and reportedly told investigators, 'I acted alone on God's orders and I have no regrets'." -- CNN, November 4, 1995.

"The chairman of the Jewish Defense League and a member of the extremist organization are accused of a bombing scheme aimed at the office of an Arab-American congressman and a prominent Los Angeles mosque. JDL chairman Irv Rubin, 56, and Earl Krugel, 59, were held without bail Wednesday after being charged with the failed bombing plot. Authorities said the two men held a series of meetings in October to plan the bombing of the King Fahd Mosque and the San Clemente office of freshman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif" -- Fox News, December 13, 2001.

"Professor Zeev Sternhell knows as much as anyone about the current threat from Jewish terrorism. His right leg is recovering from shrapnel caused when a bomb, believed to have been the work of right-wing Jewish extremists, exploded outside the front door of his Jerusalem apartment last week. While Arab-Jewish violence is common, the attack on the 73-year-old historian has shocked public opinion in Israel because all the evidence points to it being intra-Jewish. 'I consider it an act of Jewish terrorism,' he said in an interview from the modest apartment where the bomb exploded" -- Telegraph, October 3, 2008.

"A doctor who performed abortions was shot to death by a sniper in his western New York home Friday night in an attack denounced as 'terrorism' by the state's governor. 'It's beyond a tragedy. It's really an act of terrorism and, in my mind, a cold-blooded assassination,' Gov. George Pataki said of the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian.' -- CNN, October 22, 1998.

"A white supremacist suspected of targeting blacks, Jews and Asians in a deadly Independence Day weekend drive-by shooting rampage from Chicago to Bloomington, Indiana, died after a high-speed chase in Salem, Illinois on Sunday night, police said Monday" -- CNN, July 5, 1999.

"Mountaineer Militia leader Floyd Looker, convicted in an alleged plot to blow up an FBI fingerprint complex, was sentenced to 18 years in federal prison Friday" -- Ocala Star-Ledger, October 11, 1996.

This is just a selection. What kind of blinders are we wearing that "Islam" and "Terrorism" have become so closely identified? Why aren't people who bomb abortion clinics in Kansas called "Christian Terrorists"? Is it surprising that some terrorist violence directed against the US comes from Muslims when we are engaged in war in a variety of predominantly Muslim nations? Are we seeing straight at all?

[Repost] Dangerous Love

Continuing my periodic engagement in dangerous theological games withshe-of-the-Holy-Vignettes, I am going to reflect briefly on "What does it mean to say that God is loving?"

What does it mean to say that God is loving? I think I would talk about what I think love is, which is impossible to do definitively, but I think can be done constructively. Then, based on what I say about love, I think what I'd say about God being loving will be readily apparent.

1. Love exists in relationship.
2. Love passionately seeks the best for the beloved.
3. Love creates selfhood through selflessness.
4. Love is both a helpless reaction and a conscious decision.
5. Love is victorious.

Love exists in relationship. You don't love in a vacuum. You can't love something you've never experienced. Love attenuates through separation. Love is fueled by proximity and interaction, by movement back and forth, by mutuality. It is possible to 'love' an object - say, in my case, Thai food or sharks, but this is not the kind of love I'm talking about, because God is not an object and neither are we. So God's love is inextricable from God's relationship, both in the trinitarian sense and in the sense of God's relationship to us. In other words, if God is loving then God cannot love while remaining separated, or wholly other.

Love passionately seeks the best for the beloved. This is a fundamental difference between love and infatuation - infatuation focuses on one's own gratification, on the wonderful feeling that being with the 'beloved' brings. Love, on the other hand, seeks the best for the beloved. The value of the lover is caught up in the beloved. The happiness and contentment and pleasure and fulfillment of the lover is inextricable from that of the beloved. If one suffers, both suffer. If one delights, both delight. This functions on a basic biochemical level in the brain even as it functions in the metaphorical or poetic sense. So God's love is inextricable from our own blessedness, our own fulfillment. God's love is God's desire for what is best for us. Simiarly, God's love is God's connection to us. We reject God through sin and God is wounded. We lash out and God bleeds. One who is impervious cannot love.

Furthermore, love does no harm. I cannot love you and willfully hurt you. I cannot love you and beat you. I cannot love you and abuse you. Violence is an absolute failure of love, and never an expression of it.

Love creates selfhood through selflessness. It is the great paradox of love that in surrendering in the above way to the beloved, we find ourselves at last. The ego is a prison, and love is the key, the way out. In making ourselves last, we find that we are first. In dying, we find that we come truly alive. In emptying ourselves, we find fullness. This paradox is embodied in Christ, at the very core of our witness. It is fundamental to love and I think it is fundamental to God. "I" am truly who I am when the "I" disappears. Love is the thing that puts the I to death, leaving only a vaster Thou. We are made perfect in love.

Love is both a helpless reaction and a conscious decision. This realization came out of talking to friends who were getting married and through my thinking about my own decision to get married. I realized that a lot of love, especially early on, is just a helpless reaction. You are smitten. You are attracted, with almost no control over who will attract you. You are chosen out, overcome, overwhelmed and overthrown. The chemical cascade is launched and inexorably leads to the experience of attraction. This reaction fades, however, over time. It fades in intensity and changes in nature - this is necessary. Can you imagine feeling the way you feel when you first fall in love all the time? So then comes the second part of what love is - the part where you choose love.

This is best represented by marriage vows. You do not promise to always be smitten - you have no control over that, and so it would be dishonest to do so. You promise, in essence, to choose love. To return to love again and again. I think that theologically, the first kind of love can be likened to "calling", and the second kind of love can be likened to "covenant", and both are part of what true love is. With only the first kind, the intensity never lasts, and you move from love to love promiscuously, never finding fulfillment. With only the second kind, it becomes a drudgery of merely fulfilling requirements, something you force yourself to do because it is right in a kind of Kantian martyrdom. True love is both.

And yes, I think God is smitten with us. Not because of our moral greatness or any perfection, but for the same unreasonable reasons that we love anyone, especially our children, despite profound flaws. I also think that God's love is expressed through commitment to love us even when we're entirely unloveable. I'd say that in its obsession with the second kind of love and blindness to the first kind, Calvinism is handicapped in this area, but that's another blog post.

Love is victorious. This is a faith statement. I say it because that is the world I want to live in, and because I cannot be certain it is not true. It is possible to overcome hatred with love, and I therefore take it as imperative that I seek to do so. That is the arc of salvation history, of which I am a small part - the final victory of love. I also say it because this is my experience. I have not experienced anything more powerful than love - including deep hatred, including agony, including loneliness. Sometimes, you know, its a close call, but I'm willing to say it nontheless - love is victorious. And in God's ultimate love, God is ultimately victorious. God's victory is the victory of God's love, that the love and goodness in which creation was born is still the end to which it moves.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

[Repost] Tolkien and Theology: The Power and Limits of Evil

I'm exhausted, recovering from working a couple weeks of regular 19-hour days on very little sleep. I'm also working on moving across the country and starting a new job. Suffice to say, my muse is a starved little thing in the corner. As a result, I thought I'd repost some blog posts from the past on my now-defunct previous blog. Enjoy!


To present the conflict between Good and Evil as a war in which the good side is ultimately victorious is a ticklish business. Our historical experience tells us that physical power and, to a large extent, mental power are morally neutral and effectively real: wars are won by the stronger side, just or unjust. At the same time most of us believe that the essence of the Good is love and freedom so that Good cannot impose itself by force without ceasing to be good.

The battles in the Apocalypse and "Paradise Lost," for example, are hard to stomach because of the conjunction of two incompatible notions of Deity, of a God of Love who creates free beings who can reject his love and of a God of absolute Power whom none can withstand. Mr. Tolkien is not as great a writer as Milton, but in this matter he has succeeded where Milton failed. As readers of the preceding volumes will remember, the situation n the War of the Ring is as follows: Chance, or Providence, has put the Ring in the hands of the representatives of Good, Elrond, Gandalf, Aragorn. By using it they could destroy Sauron, the incarnation of evil, but at the cost of becoming his successor. If Sauron recovers the Ring, his victory will be immediate and complete, but even without it his power is greater than any his enemies can bring against him, so that, unless Frodo succeeds in destroying the Ring, Sauron must win.

Evil, that is, has every advantage but one-it is inferior in imagination. Good can imagine the possibility of becoming evil-hence the refusal of Gandalf and Aragorn to use the Ring-but Evil, defiantly chosen, can no longer imagine anything but itself. Sauron cannot imagine any motives except lust for domination and fear so that, when he has learned that his enemies have the Ring, the thought that they might try to destroy it never enters his head..

Taken from WH Auden's review of The Return of the King, "At the End of the Quest, Victory"

I was going to write some of my own thoughts, but I realized that it has already said better than I probably could. "Evil...has every advantage but one - it is inferior in imagination."

I have observed that the failure to find nonviolent solutions to problems is almost universally a failure of imagination. It is as if, given that we must not fail to resist evil, and that we must not become evil by doing violence against our enemies, there were nothing in between.

As if the Bible is absolutely true in what it says about sex, or gender, or the "end times", but completely idealistic and foolish in what it says about violence, or love, or justice, or mercy, or enemies, or neighbors.

I find that view impossible to abide without a great deal of frustration.

Tolkien wasn't a practicing pacifist by any means, and even he could imagine a great deal more. Even more than that, he could imagine a core difference between good and evil - that evil is such because it imagines only evil means - power, domination, violence, force.

A light shone into the darkness, but the darkness didn't understand it.

And still doesn't.

Karen Armstrong > New Atheists

...which should surprise no one.

I thought this article on religion was well-thought-out, and worth far more than it's weight in alcoholic blather from Christopher Hitchens.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Parental Preoccupation

I don't understand other parents. Now that my elder son, Avery, is in Kindergarten we have more cause to come into contact with other parents. Since Stacia and I had kids younger than many in our peer group most of my friends have not had children. Interacting with other parents of a variety of ages I am frequently confounded. It seems that I just don't think like them. Here are some examples:

Many parents appear to believe their own children are innately good. While I am extremely proud of my boys and tentatively think they are growing into fine human beings, I definitely don't regard them as little bundles of innocence. They are often selfish and sometimes violent. If an adult behaved as they do I would be horrified. Clearly they deserve extra license for being children, but that is just my point - why should we regard children as little angels when they're not? They require more tolerance than adults.

Many parents appear to center their lives around their children. The most important relationship I have with a human being is with my wife. I love my kids very much, but I also want them to grow up and leave my house and lead lives of their own and form bonds to people they love that supercede their relationship with me. They will hopefully outlive me and not be devastated by that fact, because though they love me I am not the most important person in their life. While they are young, of course, the parental relationship is paramount, but even at this age it is good, in my opinion, for them to know that the world doesn't revolve around them.

Many parents experience anxiety about their children suffering. I just take it as a given that my children will suffer. I don't see my primary role as a "protector". Yes, I want them to survive in good health and sound mind into adulthood. I'm not saying I don't care if they get hurt. I'm just saying I don't have any illusions that I'm going to be able to protect them from most pain and I don't have any guilt or worry about that fact. More than anything, actually, I want my children to be able to empathize with people who are suffering and how can they do that if they never suffer themselves?

Many parents say what they want most for their children is for them to be happy. What I want most for my children is for them to be good people who make the world a better place. I suppose you could say that true happiness comes from virtue and so these two things are the same, but I think the first one often gets expressed in ways I disagree with. For example, "I want my children to be better off than me financially," or "I want my children to have a better education than I had," or "I want my children to not experience the pains I have experienced (divorce, alcoholism, depression etc...)." I think it is possible to conceive of a person who is "blissfully ignorant" - someone who feels emotionally content, but is blind to their own complicity in evil. I want my children to grow up into adults who are both happy and good, but if I were forced to choose between the two, I would rather they were good than happy.

Perhaps more parents than I realize feel the way I do, but they just don't say so. Or maybe I am very deficient in parental affection. I don't bring it up to criticize other parents. Most of them are probably better than me. I guess I bring it up because it bothers me a bit to feel so out of sync with what a majority of parents seem to believe.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Conservatives Finally Declare Victory of Subjectivism

I'm not sure if you're heard of Conservapedia yet - it is the conservative encyclopedia created in contrast to Wikipedia, which, like the reality it seeks to describe, has a well-documented liberal bias. What I find most interesting about Conservapedia is that it flies in the face of every argument for objectivism I've ever heard.

It turns out that the best ideas don't in fact win out if you are a conservative. Consensual reality, as described by a community of mutually-critiquing peers, just isn't conservative enough. What you have to have are some ground rules to make sure that everyone experiences the right reality, describes it in the right way, and comes to the right conclusions.

This is a reality where Joseph McCarthy is a hero; where atheism is the result of moral depravity and all but guarantees mental health issues - not to mention a necessary tie to mass murder. It is a reality where Osama bin Laden is a prominent example of definitive Islam; where truly hilarious debates take place, like "How should Conservapedia avoid a conservative bias?" It is also where, in one paragraph, Reagan is described as the paragon of shrinking government as well as the progenitor of massive government dept and defense spending.

I wish any of this surprised me, but of course this worldview isn't hard to find. It is convenient, though, to have it all spelled out in one easy place.

Actually, as a side, I encourage you to play a game on Conservapedia called "Spot Osama bin Laden". He comes up in an amazing number of articles, speaking as an authority for the Muslim point of view. So far, I've found him mentioned prominently on Islam, the Crusades, and in Saudi Arabia as one of only two "notable Saudi Arabians".

See, what the victory of conservative ideas requires, apparently, is conservative control of how those ideas are investigated and expressed. It isn't enough to just sit down and talk it out, or have a huge, open wiki that can be edited by anyone and is subject to peer review at all times. That kind of thing is like the Bible - way too liberal for this crowd.

Maybe this is a first baby step, though, toward a wider world for some conservatives. It is clear that Conservapedia is a radical abandonment of objectivism of any kind. It is a total capitulation to subjectivism and a calculated attempt to control the type of subjectivity that will be allowed. It is a narrowing of reality and at the same time an admission of an infinitely broad one.

Reality isn't good enough, apparently. What we need is some conserveality.

Anyway, I encourage you to read some Conservapedia. It is like visiting an alien planet, both interesting and disturbing at the same time. Just remember, at any time, you can return to Earth for a breath of fresh air.

No Kingdom of Hell at Hand

h/t David Congdon

“By identifying the coming judgment as the coming of Jesus Christ, Christian confession entails the refusal to believe that what is ultimately defeated and rejected is ever other than the opposition, in whatever personal and corporate form of denial, betrayal, and crucifixion it takes, to being loved into freedom. . . . The eternally ‘rejected,’ the ‘unsaved,’ and the ‘lost’ is all that is within us and within the world which denies, betrays, and crucifies the love that comes to set us free. . . . Christian faith refuses to believe that the grace of being loved into freedom ultimately stops coming or ceases to be. . . . When such grace is confessed to have ‘descended into hell,’ then hell is acknowledged to have no dominion that can prevail. There is in the proclamation of the gospel no basileia of hell that is at hand, but only a basileia of heaven. Hell has no eternal dominion. If what God eternally rejects throughout all creation, with the fire of a love that remains unquenchable, is every opposition to our being loved into freedom, including our own, then the hellfire and damnation of Judgment Day is precisely the one true hope of all the earth. The old question of whether or not grace is ‘irresistible’ only becomes a problem when theology forgets Who it is whose judgment is confessed to be coming. What else is the Crucifixion if not the resistance to grace? What finally does a Resurrection faith refuse to believe, if not that the resistance to grace is ever its cessation?”

—Christopher Morse, Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press, 1994; 2nd ed., 2008), 340-41.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Two-Faced Monster

Conservative Christians in America say they condemn homosexuality because the Bible tells them to. They will be quick to tell you though that they love homosexuals and only want to see them led to a better way of life. Opposing Gay marriage, ordination, adoption, participation in the military, and all of that stuff is just loving behavior. They would not, for example, advocate the literal adherence to scriptural sentences of death. Would they?

The writers and signers of the Manhattan Declaration want you to believe that their anti-gay speech, anti-gay political stances, and anti-gay behavior is all innocuous "freedom of religion" stuff. The problem is that some of the same people who are presenting the dovish face of homophobia in the US are supporting the hawkish face of it elsewhere in the world.

The African nation of Uganda is on the verge of passing draconian new legislation that makes homosexuality punishable by life imprisonment. Something called "aggravated homosexuality", defined as any sexual contact between gays or lesbians where one or more of the parties has HIV, is punishable by death. Never mind that HIV in Africa is virtually exclusively a heterosexual problem.

This law is backed by a group calling itself "the Family". Major supporters of "the Family" include Anglican bishops Orombi and Akinola. Rev. Peter Akinola who is one of the primary signers of the Manhattan Declaration. Furthermore, a lot of money has been pouring into "the Family" from American evangelical churches - money which is being used to help get this law signed.

Some prominent members of the right in America have distanced themselves from their former allies in the African church over this. Rev. Rick Warren deserves some credit for saying he opposed the legislation and had cut off ties to friends of his who are behind it. Exodus International also wrote a letter saying mildly that the law is "unhelpful". Clearly there are some who see how the coincidence of these two movements is potentially detrimental to their cause in the US.

Here is the problem from my perspective - it appears that for some (I don't say all or even most), the "love the sinner/hate the sin" line is a facade. Some conservatives, among them prominent signers of the Manhattan Declaration, would probably support outright persecution of homosexuals if they thought it was politically viable in this country. I say this because they ARE supporting persecution of homosexuals in other countries where it is politically viable.

This is my question to conservatives who really believe this "love the sinner/hate the sin" stuff: is this what christianity looks like to you? Bishop Orombi believes all the things you say are fundamentals of the faith - virgin birth, Jesus' miracles, biblical inerrancy, bodily resurrection, substitutionary atonement, homosexuality is sin etc... Is he the kind of Christian you want to be? If so, count me out. I can't stomach the hypocrisy and hatred.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Sappho, Prudery & Sexism

History hasn't given us very many female voices to speak for themselves. Usually we have to hear about women from a male contemporary. We ought to pay special attention to the exceptions, therefore. Few voices are more exceptional than Sappho.

Sappho was a poet of the lyric age from the Isle of Lesbos. We know almost nothing about her biographically. There were no contemporaries who wrote about her. Most biographical information derived from later sources is very suspect as it relies mostly on the comedies who freely made up legends about her for entertainment. It would be like learning Scottish history from Shakespeare's Macbeth.

Here's what we do know. She was a great poet. She composed hundreds and hundreds of poems, inventing her own style, and musical forms - even instruments to match her compositions. Later grammarians sorted her work into 9 volumes, each a different form of poetry. She was praised and revered by countless male poets who are better preserved. Plato called her the 10th muse. She was that good.

She was also a homosexual - or so it appears from her poems, many of which are very personal love poems written to women. From her name we get the adjective "sapphic" and from her example we have come to use the word "lesbian," meaning a person from the Isle of Lesbos, to mean a female homosexual. No one really knows the truth about her sexual activities, but it doesn't matter - her reputation is established.

And it is this reputation which led to her being trashed (or in later centuries - whitewashed) by prudish Christians. As early as 180 AD it was said of her that, "Sappho was a whorish woman, love-crazy, who sang about her own licentiousness." In 380 AD her writings were ordered burned in Constantinople, and at various times through history after that. From Savonarola to Pope Gregory VII Christians never got tired of pointing out how lewd her poetry was and tossing it into fires. Worse than the book-burnings though, was the slander which led to her being so unpopular that her works were passed over by monks transcribing ancient manuscripts until most of the copies of her poems simply disintegrated.

Because of this, of all of her work only fragments remain - about 70 lines of verse and only one complete poem. Most of this is reconstructed from where she is quoted by other writers. We have all but lost her voice.

Here is a really ugly truth about Christianity - for most of our history we have been deeply misogynist. The censoring of Sappho is a perfect example of how sex has been a tool used for the benefit of men and the subjugation of women. The problem with homosexuality is that it undermines the narrative men of authority have written which is that women are designed for submission and men for domination. When a man has sex with a man, or a woman with a woman, this power structure is destabilized. Sexual prudery serves these interests by reinforcing the status quo in which only heterosexual men have genuine sexual agency.

Sappho is disturbing because she has such potent sexual agency:
O Gongyla, my darling rose,
put on your milk-white gown. I want
you to come back quickly. For my
desire feeds on

your beauty. Each time I see your gown
I am made weak and happy. I too
blamed the Kyprian. Now I pray
she will not seek

revenge, but may she soon allow
you, Gongyla, to come to me
again: you whom of all women
I most desire.
So self assured is she, that she warmly celebrates the sexuality of others:
Bride, warm with rose-
colored love, brightest
ornament of the Paphian,
come to the bedroom now,
enter the bed and play
tenderly with your man.
May the Evening Star
lead you eagerly
to that instant when you
will gaze in wonder
before the silver throne
of Hera, queen of marriage.
It is my intuition that what the Church needs, in order to escape our morass of patriarchalism, is a hefty infusion of sapphic love - a love which breaks apart this infernal game of dominance and submission that we've been playing, and demonstrates confident sexual agency. Love which isn't either prudish or pornographic, but celebratory and frank.