Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Politics in Avatar

I am perhaps that last person in the country to see James Cameron's Avatar in 3D. I enjoyed it immensely. It was, in my opinion, a very good movie. No it was not as profound or subtle as Up In The Air, which I saw the same day, but it was a very different kind of movie. I went to be entertained, and boy was I, but I was also amazed, and transported. Avatar accomplishes exactly what it sets out to and that is high praise.

Some critics complained about the script. They're wrong. A movie like Avatar needs a simple workmanlike script. It wasn't dazzling dialogue, but dazzling dialogue would have gotten in the way of the immersive experience. Some critics complained about the acting. They're wrong. Like the script, the acting was serviceable. The actors needed to disappear behind the drama and the effects for this movie and they did that well without being wooden.

But more than these complaints I heard a bunch of complaints about the politics of the movie. Criticism hit Avatar from both the Left and the Right. The left didn't like the depiction of the Na'vi or the fact that they were 'saved' by a white man. The right didn't like the fact that humans were depicted as immoral colonialists. Both sides were straining out gnats to swallow camels in my opinion. There is something I would criticize about the movie, much bigger than either of those complaints. I'll deal with them in order.

Liberal Criticisms
I've heard Avatar compared to Pocahontas and Dances with Wolves every 30 seconds since the film came out. According to many liberals out there James Cameron is rehashing a tired Hollywood cliche about a white guy who "goes native" and then fights with the natives against his own people (see The Last Samurai). This cliche is insulting to indigenous peoples who are often portrayed stereotypically (even if the stereotype is a good one) and who, furthermore, don't need more white saviors - they've had quite enough thank you very much.

Basically this criticism is true. This is a Hollywood cliche and it is racist and demeaning. James Cameron does indulge in it to a certain extent as well.

But the criticism is way overblown in the case of Avatar. First, the movie is science fiction. These are not any historical indigenous people. They are similar to several cultures superficially, but also substantially different. There just isn't enough real substance here to make a clear and damning comparison. Secondly, the white savior in this case actually becomes a native, and saves the natives using their tools, their culture, their God. Third, and most importantly, James Cameron is a white guy. He can only make movies as a white guy, and I think this represents a pretty decent effort at moral imagination from a white perspective on issues of colonization and indigenous peoples. What we need are more filmmakers from indigenous cultures to tell their own story.

Conservative Criticisms
Avatar is full of hippy-environmentalist, anti-American, anti-military bullshit. The badguys in the movie are all military and corporate people. The good guys are scientists and naked blue people who are "in-touch with nature". They even use the phrase "shock and awe". It is just a bunch of your usual Hollywood liberal crap.

Again, I'll concede there is a level of basic truth here. Cameron does play into some stereotypes - the macho violent colonel, the calculating indifferent corporate executive, the awe-struck scientist. The overall message of the movie is in fact environmentalist and anti-violent hegemony.

But this criticism falls flat since in the context of the basic story Cameron is telling (a powerful colonial people fighting with a weaker indigenous people over a natural resource) real world analogies are abundant and overwhelmingly justify Cameron's portrayal. In fact, Cameron went easy on us colonialists. Besides the main character he puts a variety of sympathetic characters on the colonial side, not just the scientists either. There is the pilot who defects, and even the corporate executive is shown having moments of doubt. Frankly, if we were to just give a historical portrayal of similar situations like the Trail of Tears, we would have to search long and hard for any redeeming qualities in white-man.

The Real Problem With Avatar
If Conservatives are angry that Avatar portrays the violence of the humans as unjust, and Liberals are angry that Avatar portrays the Na'vi as needing a human to lead their just defense, both sides have missed the forest for the trees. The problem is that James Cameron couldn't imagine anything but a violent resolution to his story. The third act was always going to be a big guns and explosions set piece. We knew that from the beginning and the only thing conservatives and liberals are arguing about is whether one side or the other was portrayed fairly. Both agree that the violence was necessary and inevitable, they just want to see more nuance in the portrayal of their favored side.

This is the eternal myth of redemptive violence told in 3/4 of movies and books produced. In Avatar it is extremely explicit. The Goddess of the Na'vi "blesses" and even assists in the final military victory of the Na'vi. Salvation takes the form of a battle waged between good and evil. When the humans are shooting Na'vi we cringe. When the Na'vi shoot humans with javelin-sized arrows we cheer. It's that simple. Reverse this description and nothing of substance has changed, we merely tell the same story with a different protagonist and antagonist.

I can't wait for an epic science-fiction or fantasy movie where the possibility of peace is held out as a viable alternative. I suspect I'll be waiting a long time.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

No D&D In Jail, Says Judge

The 7th Circuit Court upheld a prison rule banning D&D today. That's right. In at least one Wisconsin prison it is forbidden to play D&D.

Why? Because it supposedly leads to gang behavior and might encourage escapism. The catch is that there is absolutely no evidence that it leads to gang behavior in this prison or in any other prison, or anywhere in the world. The judgment is based on the lowest level of justification possible which is that the rule be "rationally related" to a legitimate goal of prison administration. Basically all the prison warden had to do was give a reason, any reason, whether that reason was remotely connected to, you know, reality doesn't matter.

The best thing is that the second reason "it encourages escapism" directly contradicts the first. So basically these prisoners are simultaneously getting more organized and aggressive while also retreating into an intellectual cocoon. Makes a lot of sense. Don't novels and movies also encourage escapism? Doesn't being locked in a cell with four gray walls day and night for months on end encourage escapism?

The ONLY evidence the prison officials submitted for their rationale on the gang connection was the affidavit of a Captain Muraski:
Muraski explained that the policy was intended to promote prison security because cooperative games can mimic the organization of gangs and lead to the actual development thereof. Muraski elaborated that during D&D games, one player is denoted the “Dungeon Master.” The Dungeon Master is tasked with giving directions to other players, which Muraski testified mimics the organization of a gang.
This is just so asinine that I am actually foaming at the mouth. My computer screen has given me rabies.

This whole thing makes me want to go found a prison ministry in Wisconsin where we teach inmates to play GURPS, World of Darkness, Burning Wheel, Spirit of the Century, Call of Cthulhu and so on forcing them to ban each one in succession. And THEN I will teach the inmates to play a completely diceless improvisational RPG they don't need books or materials for and watch the prison officials eyes pop out of their skulls in frustration.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Shooting People For Jesus

US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are shooting people with rifles that have verses of scripture inscribed on the scope. This isn't the first I've heard of such things. Soldiers often name their guns, their trucks and their tanks after characters or elements in the Bible. I've seen photos of tank shells with biblical quotes painted on the outside.

I shouldn't be surprised, but this stuff just hits me like a kick to the ribs. It sends me spinning off into depression to realize how many people calling themselves Christians are full of violence and proud of it. We are never going to be satisfied that Christ has been crucified enough. We keep putting him up there over and over and it is disgusting.

The verse on the rifle pictured above?
When Jesus spoke again to the people he said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life."

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Not How Satan Rolls

Dear Pat Robertson,

I know that you know that all press is good press, so I appreciate the shout-out. And you make God look like a big mean bully who kicks people when they are down, so I'm all over that action. But when you say that Haiti has made a pact with me, it is totally humiliating. I may be evil incarnate, but I'm no welcher.

The way you put it, making a deal with me leaves folks desperate and impoverished. Sure, in the afterlife, but when I strike bargains with people, they first get something here on earth -- glamour, beauty, talent, wealth, fame, glory, a golden fiddle. Those Haitians have nothing, and I mean nothing. And that was before the earthquake. Haven't you seen "Crossroads"? Or "Damn Yankees"? If I had a thing going with Haiti, there'd be lots of banks, skyscrapers, SUVs, exclusive night clubs, Botox -- that kind of thing. An 80 percent poverty rate is so not my style. Nothing against it -- I'm just saying: Not how I roll.

You're doing great work, Pat, and I don't want to clip your wings -- just, come on, you're making me look bad. And not the good kind of bad. Keep blaming God. That's working. But leave me out of it, please. Or we may need to renegotiate your own contract. Best, Satan

Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Thursday, January 14, 2010

[Repost] Swarm Church

There is an interesting paradox in the natural world, and it has to do with intelligence.

In the case of swarming animals, primarily insects such as ants and bees, large groups demonstrate more intelligence than individuals. There is what is sometimes called "swarm intelligence" that they exhibit. (I was turned on to this idea again when I read
this in National Geographic recently)

A single ant is lost in the world, completely unable to function. But a colony of ants, even though no one is actually "in charge", giving orders as it were, functions with amazing integration and precision, successfully functioning in complex and adaptive ways.

Human beings, on the other hand, are pretty intelligent by themselves, and not too bad in small groups, but in large groups, we are almost universally stupid. Even
a large group of highly intelligent and educated human beings is pretty darn stupid.

This is odd to me, that relatively simple (for living things anyway) creatures exhibit emergent intelligence, whereas more complex creatures (ourselves) exhibit emergent stupidity.

Perhaps the problem is that we don't swarm. Swarming is by its nature an only somewhat directed activity. That is, there is no one "in charge" of a swarm. Swarms do not have assistant managers or chief financial officers. They have members, and each of the members have very simple parameters in which they will act, and when those parameters are met, the swarm occurs. This swarming behavior enables thousands, or millions, of creatures to do incredible things that they could not do working as a set of individual units.

I think the key to a swarm, and to swarm intelligence, is the lack of leadership. Or let me say it this way - the lack of authority. The two examples of intelligent people doing stupid things were drawn from political bodies for a reason. When human beings form groups, we quickly become obsessed with hierarchy. How you dress, how you act, your conscious and unconscious body language, how you walk and speak, are all partially determined by how you view yourself in the social hierarchies you are part of. This is an evolutionary adaptation that seems to come up in all intelligent, social mammals - no, we can't just get along.

Many posts ago, I talked about what I call
Covenantal Anarchy, which is what I think the political structure of every Christian group should be. Here's another way to say what I'm trying to say, working from the standpoint of swarm theory.

Let's imagine that Christianity is a swarm. There is absolutely no authority whatsoever, apart from what we perceive to be the leading of the Holy Spirit, which applies to all of us equally, or the call to live as Christ lived, which applies to all of us equally as well. There is no social hierarchy, no ecclesiastical assistant principals or CEOs.

Like any good swarm, we have a few simple rules which guide our emergent behavior. The first is this:

That we love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength,

And the second is kinda like it:

That we love other people as we love our selves.

Then, we see what emergent intelligence those simple rules coupled with our commitment to swarming (rather than arming or bickering or bludgeoning or browbeating) engenders within us.

I think we might find we're a bit smarter than a swarm of bees. And certainly smarter than Congress. I think that it is hierarchy which short-circuits us when we're in groups, and I think that hierarchy has no place whatsoever among human beings living in the reign of God.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Another Hurdle

COM voted to approve me after our meeting over Skype. Another hurdle out of the way, and things continue to look positive.

As for moving in five days...not so great. We're not ready, but we'll pull it out in the end. It'll just be a lot of work in a short period of time. Then a road-trip! Which I'm excited about.

Thanks to those who are reading this and who have supported me - I continue to need it! And though I've been mostly reposting lately, I will continue to contribute to this blog once I'm settled in. Things have just been crazy with the holiday and then the move, so blogging has fallen by the wayside. That won't be the case forever though.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

[Repost] Tolkien and Theology: Eternal Life

I have what is likely too many ideas for this particular series, so I thought I'd start with what I'm thinking about at the moment. I'd also like to offer a disclaimer - if you aren't interested in Tolkien, Middle-Earth, etc. at all, skip this. If you have not read The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion at least by Tolkien, some of this will not make a lot of sense. I'm assuming some familiarity, but will try to explain things clearly so everyone will get something out of this series. Also, always know that I am simplifying what I talk about a great deal. Always assume that hundreds of pages are being condensed into a few paragraphs when I talk about Tolkien.


Life and death are central themes of all of Tolkien's works. The very nature of the world as it is created presents deep questions about life and death. The Elves, the First Children of Illuvatar (read: God) are immortal. They can only die by violence or by grief. Otherwise, they will live on forever at the peak of their power and vitality. Galadriel, for example, is over ten thousand years old when she appears in The Fellowship of the Ring - she was alive when there wasn't even a sun and moon yet, but the world was lit by the shining fruit of two sacred trees, and before by the stars alone.

Men, on the other hand, the Second Children of Illuvatar, die. They are fragile in every familliar way. In fact, death is described as Illuvatar's gift to Men - they alone of the conscious creatures inhabiting Middle-Earth are able to, through death, leave the confines of the world and travel...elsewhere. It is never said where they go, or how they arrive there, or what happens next. Tolkien leaves mortality a great mystery, which is one of the things I appreciate about
mythopoetical work.

In the portion of the Silmarillion called the
Akallabeth, this question of death and immortality is brought to a head. There has arisen a race of Men called the Numenoreans. They are the peak of human capacity in every way - in warfare, in craft, in exploration, in intelligence, etc. They are granted an island to live upon, and continue to develop their advanced civilization there.

Over time, however, they come to love their lives too much. They seek ways to live longer and longer, and they begin to fear death and nothing else. They build massive tombs and learn to preserve bodies and are always motivated by the fear of their own mortality.

This fear becomes so acute that the Numenoreans come under the influence of Sauron (yes, the Dark Lord from the Lord of the Rings). Sauron knows he can't overcome them openly - they're too powerful - so he corrupts them from within. He plays on their fear of their own mortality, and in the space of a few generations he is able to convince them to sail West to the Undying Lands and wrest eternal life from the Valar (who are essentially powerful angels or servant-gods of Illuvatar).

So a few faithful Numenoreans sail East to Middle-Earth (Aragorn is a distant desecendent of these) and many sail West to challenge the gods and escape their mortality. The result is the downfall of Numenor. For their hubris, the Numenoreans are thrown down and their island is devoured by the earth and covered by the sea, their civilization wiped out forever.

Now, what does this say to me theologically? That eternal life should be something other than the understandable, but selfish and unnatural, desire to prolong my own life as I know it now. That grasping is rooted in a fear of death, and death is part of life, as trite as that sounds. It is rooted in the desire to be strong, to be young, forever, rather than to succumb to time and age, to nature and mortality.

It also says a great deal about trust. What happens when mortals die is not dealt with in Tolkien's writing - it is only said that they depart, and that no one, not even the Elves or the Valar, know where they go. This is Illuvatar's design from the beginning - that death be a final mystery.

Could we say that death was part of God's design from the beginning? Scripturally, I think it is justifiable. Death is depicted as entering creation through the Garden of Eden, but a creation that remains in Eden is hardly a creation at all. When God allows choice, then drama arises on a cosmic scale. When God makes creation free, even in part, then there is jeopardy and triumph, gain and loss, sin and repentance. When God allows the chance of death, then I think God allows a chance at meaningful life as well.

Is death then an evil? In faith we affirm that it is not an ending, but like the Numenoreans, like every being conscious of its own mortality, we can't be sure what comes after. Like Tolkien, I'm not motivated to get into the details of what I think comes next. For me, the challenge is in coming to see it as a gift rather than a curse, as something to be accepted rather than feared and hated. It is hard to learn to let go.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

[Repost] Sovereignty

Once again, Heather entices us to play a dangerous game. This time, the question is as follows:

What does the sovereignty of God mean to you?

I'll only be brief because I'm still cranking out a book.

The sovereignty of God is something that I think the majority of Reformed theologies speak too blithely about. For me, to say that God is sovereign is to make a statement of faith and hope, a statement which flies in the face of the evidence of my own experience and of what I perceive about the world. It is a radical statement because it seems so clearly untrue.

The basic questions of the problem of evil essentially preclude a God who is both good and sovereign in the way that we usually use the word. (Look into the eyes of a child dying of leukemia and tell them "God is good, and God controls everything, but God chooses not to save you from this". If you can. I certainly can't.) I think that in most cases, Reformed theology is willing to tone down God's goodness while preserving God's sovereignty, whereas, for example, process theology will hold to God's goodness and redefine God's sovereignty to the point where the term falls away.

Now, if God is
not good, then I'm not sure there is any good reason to worship God except for perhaps the desire to placate God so that we won't be struck down. I think the term sovereign gets in our way, because for us it is still a political term which means overt control.

If God's sovereignty was overt control, then
there would be no crucifixion. In fact, if you were brave enough, you might even be inclined to say that the cross is God's absolute "no" to our ideas of sovereignty as domination or control. It is a very extreme no that seems to leave no room whatsoever for our alliance with the powers of domination in this world. You might say that, at least.

We forget that it was
sovereign power that tortured and killed Christ, who seems to have rejected political power at every turn.

So, for me, if God is indeed sovereign, then the term needs to be radically overhauled. For the time being, when I do make that claim, it is as I said above a statement of hope.

I think that if we are to learn what it means that God is sovereign, we must depart our ivory towers forever, and go live among those who are being crucified in this world, right now, by the
sovereignpowers of domination. We need to go to them and learn the meaning of the word as it applies to the God who is known in Christ.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

To My Mother

A poem by Wendell Berry.

I was your rebellious son,
do you remember? Sometimes
I wonder if you do remember,
so complete has your forgiveness been.

So complete has your forgiveness been
I wonder sometimes if it did not
precede my wrong, and I erred,
safe found, within your love,

prepared ahead of me, the way home,
or my bed at night, so that almost
I should forgive you, who perhaps
foresaw the worst that I might do,

and forgave before I could act,
causing me to smile now, looking back,
to see how paltry was my worst,
compared to your forgiveness of it

already given. And this, then,
is the vision of that Heaven of which
we have heard, where those who love
each other have forgiven each other,

where, for that, the leaves are green,
the light a music in the air,
and all is unentangled,
and all is undismayed.

[Repost] Christology 11-15

And it continues...these are answers to the question "Who is Jesus Christ to you?"

11) The first Human Being – but we hope not the last; a paragon

I've said this in other ways above, but this time I touch on the idea that I have that the path toward God through Christ, the path of becoming more and more Christ-like, is also the path of becoming more genuine human beings. I don't think that Christ was/is a special case, necessarily. He spoke too much about his disciples doing greater things than he did because God will be in them as God was in Christ. He trained them, not just to believe in him, but to believe God, and to do what he did in the world, while he was with them and after he was gone. Jesus preached about the kingdom of God, but we preach about Jesus. I wish we spent more time preaching about what Jesus preached about, what he told his disciples to preach about.

12) The Word; that is, the communication or transmission of God's self

My idea here was really supported by some reading we did for Theology I. Sally McFague argues that Jesus is the parable of God, and I think this is very true. Jesus is the expression of God through a medium - that medium is parable, embodied in Jesus' self. Jesus is the Word in the sense that words are symbols - they do not only exist in themselves as ink on a page or vibrations in the air but they also represent something which cannot be expressed without them. I can't transmit who I am to you - I can only talk about myself, and you can only listen, and what passes between us has to take the form of words, or other forms of communication that are sub-verbal (limbic resonance, etc.) But I can't communicate me. There's always something between us. A Mediator, if you will.

13) The power by which our concepts of God are put to death - the death of God, as it were

I think its incredibly important that Jesus was crucified - not because I believe that he was an atoning sacrifice for the debt of sin, because I reject that theology entirely and vigorously - but because it matters how the story progresses. It matters that the king of kings had no throne, no army, no stronghold, no real authority except over evil spirits and over those who believed in him. It matters that in Christ God was killed. So I ask myself the question, in the crucifixion, what died? What had to die? One answer I have to that is that our concepts of God had to die. Our concept of God as avenging warrior, or as king in the way we have kings, as one who comes to punish the unjust and raise up the just. Is it that God is vulnerable? Is it that God will not save militarily or politically, or that God cannot? But if nothing else, when we say "I am safe because God makes me safe", there has to be a twinge - God didn't even make Jesus safe. Not at the end. There has to be something else going on here. Regardless, it seems like triumphalism isn't really an option anymore, and certainly not killing or oppressing in God's name.

14) The instrument by which the demonic activity of the Powers is laid bare and shown to be demonstrably evil and destructive and the radical demonstration of God's rejection of those Powers

This one's not very well-worded, and it shows that I love Walter Wink's theology. It comes, for me, in part from the question "who killed Jesus?" The answer of course is us. But then again, there are lots of good people we don't kill, and not everyone acts that way all the time. There is
something, though, that makes the world the unjust place it is. Call it sin, call it fallen-ness, call it the Powers, call it patriarchy - there is some force that bends us toward evil. Wink talks about corporate spirituality (in terms of a community or society, not necessarily a corporation per se) and how this spirituality can bend toward God and the kingdom (which Wink partially associates with the common good) or toward the demonic (which Wink partially associates with violence and exploitation). In a post-crucifixion theology, we just can't say that the authorities of this world are good, that they have our best interests at heart, that they are redemptive. Nor can we say that we are good, that we have everyone's best interests at heart, that we are redemptive. We can't because there is this force for evil, that moves through violence, and we embody that force. We are the enemy. At the same time, we are the siblings of Christ, the children of God. Maybe God rejects the enemy in us but embraces the child in us. Maybe the enemy has to die so that the child can live.

15) The demonstration of the Third Way in his time and place as the only means by which violence can be overcome and evil resisted without resorting to violence and evil

Yeah, I'm a pacifist, though not a particularly good one. And yeah, I think the arguments in favor of Christians engaging in violence are feeble at best. The Third Way is another term Wink uses, though it may not be his originally, and it is now in wider use. Essentially it is resisting evil with good. Rather than fleeing from evil, or hiding from it, or withdrawing from the world to avoid it, and rather than turning to fight evil by the means that evil chooses (namely, violence), it is the path of resistance-in-love. See Gandhi. You can espouse this for a number of reasons - or for all of them!
First, Jesus very clearly commands us to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, turn the other cheek, etc. Second, Jesus embodies this principle in gaining what we say in faith is his victory by being crucified and not fighting back even to save his own life. Third, only through nonviolence can you resist evil and violence without becoming what you resist. Fourth, your means and your ends are identical. Through violence, you end is violence. Through nonviolence, your end is not-violent. Fifth, by resisting nonviolently, you leave the door open for the system or person you are resisting, at any time, to turn and become your ally and friend. Not the case if you're attacking them.Sixth, you can use the Third Way even when you are apparently helpless or unarmed. I can come up with a lot more reasons, but I'll stop there. You get the idea.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

[Repost] Christology 6-10

Continued reflections on my brief answers to the question "who is Jesus Christ to you?"

6) The gateway through which the Holy Spirit enters the world

This assertion is biblically based, and less so in personal experience, in the sense that Christ is the Word which existed before creation and by which the world was created. You might say that I see Jesus Christ as the vehicle by which God enters the world, for Christians at least, and that what God does in the world is through the Holy Spirit. In this sense, the Holy Spirit manifests outward from Christ, perhaps.

In another sense, I think that after the crucifixion and resurrection, something
new entered the world, or perhaps something was reiterated in a new way vis our experience of it. That new thing was manifested at Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit came, not arbitrarily, but into a community which was committed to following and emulating Christ.

7) The idea of being to which we are to aspire as Christians and

On reflection, this is just a reiteration of (2)

8) into which we are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit over the course of eternity

This is in reference to the impossibility (I would say apparent impossibility) of actually transforming ourselves into Christ and is part of my concept of salvation history and the eschaton. A world of Christs is a world of humanity fully reconciled to God, and I believe part of this is human effort (I know, not Reformed) and the rest of this is God's effort.

To put it another way, Christ is absolutely, or infinitely, reconciled to God (who is, for lack of a better term, infinite). Like an infinite limit in mathematics, we can add to our own reconciliation, but only in finite terms. That is, we can increase and increase in Christ-like-ness by our own effort, and these increases are meaningful, but no matter how far we increase, we are still infinitely far from the infinite limit. We cannot reach it by our own finite means. This means that our efforts are in fact meaningful, but not necessary, in the sense that either way God has an infinite job to do in reaching out to us.

This is what occurs over the course of eternity, or the whole of salvation history. We are lifted up the infinite distance to God.

9) The source of hope and life for the oppressed, the weak, the sick, the outcast, the unclean, the pariah, etc.

If you are reading this, that means you have access to a computer and the internet, which means that, to a certain degree, Christ is not on your side. We are the beneficiaries of a system of oppression and evil that is so massive and deeply entrenched that it appears unassailable. We have the privilige of doing things like blogging because while I am writing this a few dozen people starved to death in some place I'll never see.

It lends a weight to our words, I think, and also issues a judgment over them. They are so minuscule - our best ideas are absolutely garbage if they do nothing to change what is.

If Christ is with those who suffer the most, as I believe he is, then Christ is sometimes against me. Maybe often, or mostly against me. That's just how it is if Christ is Christ. This makes me supremely uncomfortable about almost everything I do, deep down, but I also accept it and think furthermore that it is right. I need to preach Christ against me at least as much as I preach Christ for me, and live the same way. Like Christ, I need to be present for and with those who suffer, and always put their concerns at the forefront as much as I can.

Among other things, in the Cross, Christ says
"This is where I choose to be."

10) The source of judgement for the rich, the strong, the comfortable, the confident, the popular, the accepted, the righteous, the healthy, particularly when they assume their gifts are earned and they do not use them in the service of others.

See above. We cannot serve two masters. Where our treasure is, our heart is there also. What does it profit us to gain the whole world but lose ourselves? To find your life, you have to lose it.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

RIP Mary Daly

We need more women who scare the shit out of our male dominated society. One such heroine was Mary Daly, who died yesterday.

Thanks for having the courage to sin big sister.

[Repost] Christology 1-5

This is what my Christology looked like a few years ago.

On Aric's advice, I thought I would take some time to parse out what I mean by my various statements in Symptomatic Theology III: More Christology. I'll look at them in order and expand on each of them, and perhaps combine some or come up with new ones. I'm not going to be particularly scholarly about this, so don't expect citations, except where I'm actually using someone else's idea.

1) The manifestation/incarnation of God in the limitations of materiality

Where I don't agree that God is necessarily immaterial, I do very much agree that God is unlike other sense-objects that we can experience directly in their entirety. I can't, through perceptions, understand the fundamental reality of even a chair or table (example: who would guess that they were almost entirely empty space and energy?) but I can see them as distinct objects, pick them up, put them together and take them apart, etc.

Whatever God actually is, God certainly is not like a chair or table. Therefore, part of what I see as the miracle of Christ is that in this particular person, who is limited in the ways that we are limited as persons (in time and space, etc.), we see God. In Christ, God is made manifest, present, perhaps I could say
comprehensible, in that we can encounter Christ and read Christ's teachings as handed down by tradition. I believe that this happens in every human relationship - we see the Image of God in each other - but that this is true in a particular way with Christ, and that this special perception/experience is available to us in the present.

2) The demonstration of how a human being is truly to be and live and act

In that in Christ God and human-being are made into a whole, the kind of human being that God would be is very instructive. It makes sense that in looking at Christ (as much as we can across the chasm of time or through the imperfect lens of faith) we see what God intends for us as human beings. This is the exemplary sense of Christ, that he is a moral exemplar for the human race and for human interaction.

This should go with the caveat that this expemplar is necessarily limited. Because Jesus Christ was a person in the sense that we are people, he was limited as we are limited. He was limited by time and place and social location, upbringing and education and knowledge about the world. Here I am talking about the Jesus Christ of historicity, because I'm not sure we can talk about the Christ of faith, as such, as a person, at least not in the way that we are people. But in Jesus God was a person, and what that person said and did tell us a lot of what God wants us to say and do.

3) The vehicle through which God expresses the primordial aspect of the divine – the reversal of the expected status of things

I think that God is all about reversals. God loves unresolved paradoxes. Conquer a city with some trumpets and marching. Foil Pharaoh's plans with slave-midwives. Rain quails on you when you complain about mana.

To be, Christ is the huge reversal which sheds light on all of the others. The powerful becomes powerless. The source of life subjects itself to torture and death. The giver of the Law contradicts the letter of the Law. The vanquishing God sends a savior with no army. This, to me, expresses something about the heart of God, something that can be pointed to, but like the Tao, as soon as you think you understand it, you don't understand it, because that is its nature. It is a reversal, a surprise, something not looked for, a spiritual Judo throw that flips you end over end right when you felt most rooted and stable. I think that if it stops surprising you, what you're dealing with probably isn't God.

4) The force and power by which divisions between human beings and each other and human beings and God are shattered

In Christ there is no male/female, Jew/Gentile, slave/free. I see these as not an exhaustive list, but as an expression of one of the functions or powers of Christ - the power to shatter boundaries.

We, as human beings, are one people. Whether we look at evolutionary biology and our shared genetic heritage, or look at history and our shared intellectual and social development, or theological look at the affirmation that we are all created in the image of God and we are all descended from Eden, the essential message is the same. The things that separate us are things that we create.

Some separations are appropriate. There should be distinct cultures and languages and religions and ideas and worldviews - because none of the above are exhaustive or objective correct for all times and places. There must always be things outside our own groups to challenge us. These distinctions are appropriate because, and insofar as, they are consensual. They are manifestations of the limitedness of human knowledge and the fundamental freedom to disagree.

Distinctions become unjust when they are forced, or enforced, by some kind of violence. Forcing you to agree to something or forcing a religion on you or forcing you to swallow your ideas or take on another culture - these are the kinds of distinctions that Christ breaks down. These distinctions, these separations, arise from our own egotism, the belief that our limited understandings are right for everyone and must be forced on others if they are not freely accepted. They also arise from good, old-fashioned evil and sin, with the example of the concept of race as a way to oppress certain people because of the amount of melanin in their skin.

In Christ, I think, there is a potential for unitive experience of ourselves as God intends, whole and genuine and reflective of God's glory, to refer to my sermon last Sunday. It is in this experience, and in meditation on and study of Christ, that we can come find these barriers broken down - or, in many cases, we are given the courage to work to break them down ourselves.

5) The eternal being of God of which we comprise the body

Here's where I talk about one of the ways I understand the resurrection. I believe that we are the body of Christ in the literal sense that we, as inheritors of Christ's Way (we hope), participate in Christ's being, and comprise the resurrection body of Christ. In Christ we are all crucified and in Christ we are all raised, right?

I take this to mean not that Jesus, after death, magically transmuted into some kind of ectoplasm, briefly interacted with the physical world, and then floated up into the sky. I take it to mean something more paradoxical and, to me, interesting - that after crucifixion death did not claim Christ because, somehow, Christ's life was transferred to us. Now, I can talk about this in concrete terms - that his death evoked a powerful unitive experience in the early disciples who then decided to continue on with his ministry despite its apparent failure because of their commitment to its profound value and power - or in non concrete ones - that in death Christ's limited-ness died, and that Christ came to live mystically in the body of any who believe his teaching and commit themselves to live out and spread his Gospel of the Kingdom of God on earth.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

[Repost] Covenantal Anarchy

This is the original, from three years ago.


This is the term that I came up with, with Aric's help, that I think describes the political outcome of Jesus' teachings. We were discussing whether no government is better than bad government, and disagreeing on some things. I didn't think that Jesus was pointing toward anarchy as the best political alternative, but we both definitely disagreed with the traditional Reformed love-affair with government as such. I mean, come on. The Westminster Confession was written at musket-point. What did you expect them to say about authority figures? And then its easy for the culture with all of the money and the power (that is, ours) to perpetuate this uncritical affection for government because it mostly isn't used against us. Ask people in the DRC or Iraq or Sudan what they think of government, and you might get a different answer.

So I though of covenantal anarchy - Christ seemed to be a fan of peacefully resisting the Powers That Were, of taking their claims of authority over mind and person to an absurd extreme in order to subvert them, or of simply pointing out that rules are made for people and not the other way around. It wasn't just bare anarchy, though, because clearly there were other expectations as to how we are to act toward each other and what sort of relationship we are to seek with God.

Now, bear in mind that I am in a denomination (PCUSA) that seems to think that nothing is more important than arguing over rules. It seems eager to use rules as a weapon far more than they are used to restore relationships. The focus is on "decently and in order" - but something can be decent in the usual sense, and orderly, and
wrong. You can dress up a blunt instrument however you like - beneath the thin veneer of decent and orderly you still have a weapon. I honestly don't think you can follow Christ until you disarm.

Like I said after one of our Polity classes - these rules are for when you fail at Christianity and you feel like you need to try something else. I can't imagine a world without rules, but at least acknowledging this, instead of pretending that the rules are somehow
good rather than a regrettable necessity (Denominational Nomism?) would be a breath of fresh air.

I'm really lost as to how I can tell my Comittee on Preparation for Ministry things like this. I wonder how'd they respond to a statement of faith that read "Christ came, in part, to demonstrate the monstrous idolatry of confusing temporal authority with God's desire or design"?

I mean, one way or another, wasn't Christ killed because of

Friday, January 1, 2010

[Repost] Tolkien and Theology: Gandalf

Gandalf arrived in Middle Earth as Olorin, one of at least five Maia sent by the Valar during the Third Age to help resist Sauron as the Elves were departing into the West in increasing numbers and in the wake of the fall of Numenor.

As a Maia, Olorin was in the same class of beings that included Saruman, Radaghast, and the Balrogs of Morgoth. If we think of the Valar as essentially demi-gods, then the Maiar are similar to angels and demons. (Though angels don't show up in Middle Earth named as such, Gandalf does refer to the Balrog of Moria as a "demon of the ancient world" in the Fellowship of the Ring.)

When Olorin arrived at the Grey Havens, the westernmost outpost of the Elves in Middle Earth, he met Cirdan the Shipwright, an ancient Noldor Elf who was in charge of building the swanlike vessels that took the Elves into the Uttermost West. Since the breaking of the world, these vessels needed to be able to travel through the emptiness of space that now separated Middle Earth from the the Undying Lands - once accessible by water, they were now sundered from the world (essentially, an Upper-Earth or Asgard in the Northern European scheme that Tolkien adopted for the structure of the world - where Middle Earth ~ Midgard).

Cirdan at the time was the bearer of Narya, the Elven Ring of Fire, one of the "three Rings for Elven Kings under sky". When he met Olorin, Cirdan gave him Narya, to wear in secret, seeing that Olorin would be called upon to ignite the courage and spirit of many in resistance to Sauron. It wasn't revealed that Olorin/Gandalf had the Ring of Fire until the end of the Return of the King and the destruction of the One Ring.

Olorin, obviously, wasn't the name that this Maia went by for the most part - he allowed those he met to give him names in their own languages that usually translated as something like "wanderer" or "grey pilgrim". He was known as Gandalf Greyhame in Westron, the language of humans and Hobbits, and as Mithrandir in Sindarin, the language of the Grey Elves; as Tharkun to the Dwarves and Incanus in the South - and so on. Wormtongue named him Lathspell, but that one didn't stick.

If you're familliar with the stories of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, I don't have to rehash all that Gandalf accomplished. It is clear that the defeat of Sauron and the destruction of the One Ring is primarily the work of Gandalf.

But long before Gandalf ever came to Middle-Earth, he was living among the Valar, and studying under a particular one named Nienna. Nienna is the Vala associated with grief and mourning, as well as the color grey (the reason Gandalf was "the Grey"). She took part in the creation of the Two Trees of Valinor, which first joined the stars in lighting the world, and when Ungoliant poisoned the trees and destroyed them, her tears were able to coax the final fruit from them that became the Sun and the Moon.

What Nienna teaches is pity and endurance, and it can be said that it is pity and endurance which enabled the defeat of Sauron. Pity which stayed Bilbo's hand when he could have killed Gollum when they parted ways, pity that later stayed Frodo's hand, enabling Gollum to fulfill his destiny in the destruction of the Ring. And endurance, even beyond hope, is at the center of the story of the Lord of the Rings.

It is very, very interesting to me that the greatest hero, the moral compass, and perhaps the most powerful archetypal character of Tolkien's most popular stories is Gandalf, and that Gandalf is associated with grief of all things. Gandalf is also the one who is resurrected as the White - a rather Christlike event. Behind almost everything accomplished in the Third Age, there is Gandalf. And he was taught by the goddess of tears. Not authority. Not power. Not craft, or beauty, or dreams, or fate. The goddess who weeps for the world, and whose tears can heal the most terrible injury.

In a religion where we worship a God who was killed, I think we have a lot of thinking to do about grief. There is the grief of God, and there is the grief that we have for God. What is Holy Week if not a week of grief? What are Good Friday services if not services of grieving?

Do we dare face our grief? I think if we do, it can be powerful. I think we have no idea how powerful our grief can be. When faced with pain, it is common to become afraid, or to become angry - to seek vengeance and restitution. These things, I think, are in some ways attempts to escape our raw, naked grief. Can grief heal? We think in terms of healing grief, but is it the grief itself which heals?

I think Gandalf, and Tolkien, would say yes. And that's one of the most powerful things, for me, about the whole mythopoetic enterprise that Tolkien underwent. I think he is saying that grief is central to salvation from evil, central to healing and redemption. For me, this is worth a lot of thought.